Long Reads

How creative collaborations are fighting climate change

Drawing for Pollinator Pathmaker, 2020
Drawing for Pollinator Pathmaker, 2020

Ahead of the UN climate talks in Glasgow in November, Paul McQueen visits an exhibition exploring carbon capture and storage, and looks at five projects in which art, science and ecology are working together against climate disaster.

‘Human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos,’ UN Secretary-General António Guterres told an audience in New York last December. This chaos includes record-high temperatures, melting ice caps and rising sea levels; desertification, acidification and ecosystem collapse; plastic in our oceans, landfills and bodies; the nine million dying every year from pollution and the 20 million displaced by fires, floods and tropical storms that cost economies hundreds of billions of dollars. ‘But,’ he reasoned, ‘that means human action can help solve it.’

Protest sign used at the youth strike against climate change in London on Friday 15 March 2019. It has the slogan ‘Grown ups grow up and help save earth’ on one side and on the other: ‘It is getting 2 hot’ and ‘Hey human, give me back my ice!’. The latter slogan is part of an artwork by illustrator MilkDoNg Comics.
Protest sign used at the youth strike against climate change, London, 2019 (detail)
© Science Museum Group

From 31 October to 12 November, world leaders will meet in Glasgow to discuss coordinated climate action. Scheduled for 2020 but delayed by Covid-19, COP26, or the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, is the most urgent yet. In 2015, at COP21, in Paris, 196 countries agreed to limit global temperature rise to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels by setting their own emission-reduction targets and ambitiously revising them every five years. Progress on this will be revealed in Glasgow.

Twice in 2021, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change, reached a record high. While reducing emissions is essential, scientists are also exploring technological and nature-based solutions for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is the focus of the ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition at the Science Museum in London.

The show opens with three youth-climate-strike posters. Their slogans, such as ‘Grown ups grow up and help save Earth’, remind visitors whose future is at stake. The ongoing protests – perhaps by those same youth-climate activists, among others – to the sponsorship of the exhibition by oil and gas company Shell, is a reminder that, on the subject of the climate, every organisation runs the risk of its actions being scrutinised, questioned and held to account.

The exhibition goes on to explore the role of natural systems, such as forests and oceans, in absorbing carbon and also how technologies are both removing carbon dioxide from the air and also preventing it from entering the atmosphere.

An animation shows the 3D-laser-scanning technology used to calculate the carbon stored in individual trees and entire forests. Also on show is equipment used by scientists simulating rising carbon dioxide levels at a Staffordshire woodland, including tools used to monitor its impact on soil, roots and fungi and trunk growth.

Group shot of 2021-0151 Tank, part of mechanical tree prototype for direct capture of carbon dioxide from the air, designed and built by Klaus Lackner’s team at the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA, 2017 and 2021-152 Gantry / frame, part of mechanical tree prototype for direct capture of carbon dioxide from the air, designed and built by Klaus Lackner’s team at the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA, 2017.
Prototype of Klaus Lackner’s Mechanical Tree, 2017, Image: © Science Museum Group
© Science Museum Group

The prototype of engineer Klaus Lackner’s Mechanical Tree connects the natural and the technological. It functions in the same way as a tree, in that chemicals on its papery leaf-substitutes absorb carbon dioxide as air passes over them; unlike a tree, the machine folds in on itself and rinses it off them.

In Iceland, a company called Carbfix is using direct-air-capture units developed in Switzerland by Climeworks. After dissolving the captured carbon in water, it injects it deep underground, where it reacts with metals to form stable minerals in basalt rock. Companies also use captured carbon to make consumer goods, such as crayons, toothpaste, vodka and bracelets.

In the UK, C-Capture has devised a reusable solvent that removes carbon dioxide from emissions at source, which is already in use at Drax, the UK’s largest power station, near Selby, and Carbon8 Systems is using captured gas to transform industrial residues (dust) into aggregates to be used in concrete, reducing both emissions and waste otherwise bound for landfill.

How big a part any of these new technologies, innovative as they are, can play in slowing the pace of climate change remains to be seen.

Five projects combining art, science and ecology to fight climate change

‘Cloud Studies’, Forensic Architecture

Forensic Architecture, the Turner Prize-nominated research agency founded in 2010 at Goldsmiths, University of London, works with civil-society groups to investigate suspected human-rights violations by states and corporations. Its teams of architects, software developers, filmmakers, journalists, artists, scientists and lawyers analyse video footage, photographs, audio recordings and testimonies relating to these violent events –urban bombings, for example, or environmental destruction affecting indigenous communities – and reconstruct them using digital and physical models. The evidence they uncover in the process is used to build legal cases. Forensic Architecture also presents its findings in the form of exhibitions, typically as moving-image works and installations.

Forensic Architecture, ‘Cloud Studies’, 2012-ongoing, installation view at the Whitworth, 2021

‘Cloud Studies’ is an ongoing collection of investigations into how air is weaponised in the pursuit of profit and power. Each investigation is categorised by the chemical compound that makes up the particular ‘contemporary cloud’ that is under analysis. These include carbon monoxide, released by the illegal burning of the Indonesian rainforest to make way for corporate plantations, and tear gas, used by militaries and police forces to disperse protesters in territories that include Turkey, Hong Kong and also the US.

Findings from the latest ‘Cloud Studies’ investigation (including a film acquired with support from a Moving Image Fund grant from Art Fund) can be seen at the Whitworth, in Manchester. The focus is on a region of Louisiana in the US once known as Plantation Country and now known as both America’s Petrochemical Corridor – due to the high density of industry – and Cancer Alley – due to the high incidence of the disease, linked to carcinogens contained in its industrial emissions. As an area that has been home to majority-Black communities for more than 300 years, what is being investigated here is environmental racism.

As well as analysing toxic emissions, Forensic Architecture is mapping burial sites containing the remains of historically enslaved people – potential bulwarks in local activists’ fight for a moratorium on industrial expansion in the region. ‘Environmental racism is a planetary crisis,’ writes Imani Jacqueline Brown, a Forensic Architecture researcher, an artist, and also a native of Louisiana. ‘Climate change, cancer and coastal erosion are the end products of colonialism and slavery.’

‘Walking Forest’, Ruth Ben-Tovim, Anne-Marie Culhane, Lucy Neal and Shelley Castle

Mycelial networks, the fungal webs that link and nourish trees, and the actions of the suffragettes and suffragists inspire ‘Walking Forest’, a 10-year project, begun in 2018, that connects the historical fight for women’s right to vote with 21st-century grassroots movements attempting to shift how the natural world is viewed in political, legal and economic systems. The artist-collaborators leading it – Ruth Ben-Tovim, Anne-Marie Culhane, Lucy Neal and Shelley Castle – have worked together and as individuals to create events, performances and long-running projects that engage communities with concerns about nature and climate change.

Women at a Walking Forest camp near Coventry, 2021

‘Walking Forest’ is built around a single specific black pine tree, the only tree remaining from an arboretum in Batheaston, near Bath, planted between 1909 and 1912 by 60 suffragettes and suffragists, as a testament to their actions and as an act of hope for the change they sought. In the 1960s, all the trees, except the black pine, were bulldozed to make way for housing. For the project’s first public event, Neal and Castle travelled to COP24 in Katowice, Poland, in 2018, to gift seeds gathered from this tree to delegates.

The following year, the project became part of both Season for Change, a nationwide programme of cultural responses to the climate emergency, and also Green Futures, part of this year’s Coventry City of Culture. Since then, the artists have staged a series of woodland-based camps around the UK, where local women share stories and ideas for environmental action, learn about propagation and forest ecosystems from experts, explore the role of craft in activism and connect with women activists around the world. Participants will join a mass public performance during COP26.

‘Walking Forest’ will culminate in 2028 with the planting of an ‘intentional woodland’ somewhere in the UK. The aim is that the trees, grown from seeds propagated throughout the project, will serve as a reminder of the regenerative powers of nature and the power of collective action to hasten change.

‘Forecast’, Invisible Dust

When Alice Sharp founded Invisible Dust in 2009, to raise awareness of environmental issues by bringing artists and scientists together to create works of art, she faced scepticism on both sides: scientists were doubtful of what art could do for science, and the art world generally saw the environment as a niche subject. Some even accused Invisible Dust of instrumentalising the arts. ‘There is now mainstream recognition of the role art plays with climate change,’ Sharp says.

Air pollution was an early focus in its mission to ‘make the invisible visible’. In 2012 artist Dryden Goodwin turned more than 1,000 drawings of his five-year-old son, inhaling and exhaling, into an animation that was projected on the roof of St Thomas’ Hospital, opposite the Houses of Parliament. In 2016 Kasia Molga used the latest wearable technology to create the performance Human Sensor, in which six dancers moved through Manchester’s streets, their costumes changing colour according to the pollutants they encountered.

Recently, nature has become a top priority. Earlier in 2021, the exhibition ‘UnNatural History’ at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry explored how art contributes to the understanding of natural history with work by more than 20 international artists.

Graeme Atkins, Natalie Robertson and Alex Monteith, Buried house – Barton’s Gully (Mangarārā stream flowing into Waiorongomai river), 2018
Courtesy the artists

Launched in March, the ‘Forecast’ project is framed around the simple question: ‘What is shaping how you think about the planet’s future?’ Throughout autumn, against the backdrop of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) biodiversity conference being held in September and COP26, its focus will be on indigenous perspectives of nature. ‘The Western view says: “This is nature; this is me”,’ Sharp explains. ‘Most indigenous people tend to see themselves as part of nature.’ How these perspectives might inform climate action will be debated by artists, scientists, technologists and also indigenous speakers during events online and, on 28 October, at the British Library.

A new film commission by Maori artist Natalie Robertson and Northern Ireland-born, New Zealand-based artist Alex Monteith in collaboration with biologist Graeme Atkins, who is also of Maori origin, will premiere. The film focuses on the destructive impact of colonialism, particularly farming practices, on the eastern side of New Zealand’s North Island, where both Robertson and Atkins own ancestral lands. Sharp calls it a ‘poem to the land itself’.

‘General Ecology’, the Serpentine Galleries

Inspired by its collaborations with the late artist Gustav Metzger, who believed artists should create works that address the most urgent threats facing society – in his view, the extinction of other forms of life on Earth – the Serpentine Galleries, in London, has chosen to embed ecological principles in everything it does, from its programming and publications to its underpinning systems and structures. Since 2018 this has been put into practice, drawing on research into complex systems, non-human-centric views of the world, climate justice and environmental balance, under the title ‘General Ecology’. The General Ecology Network brings together more than 100 multidisciplinary individuals and organisations working in this area.

Tomás Saraceno, Maratus speciosus, 2021, part of the ‘Webs of Life’ Augmented Reality (AR) experience (detail)

The project ‘Back to Earth’ is the public face of ‘General Ecology’ between 2020 and 2022, marking the Serpentine’s 50th anniversary. It is made up of environmental campaigns devised by more than 60 artists, architects, filmmakers, poets, scientists, thinkers and designers. Artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg has created Pollinator Pathmaker, which uses an algorithm to optimise the selection and placement of plants for pollinators – what she calls an ‘artwork for pollinators, not about them’. It will be realised as a garden at Cornwall's Eden Project, which commissioned the project, and later at Kensington Gardens, London, and as a website, allowing people to plant their own gardens. Tomás Saraceno, meanwhile, has devised an app that conjures two giant augmented-reality spiders outside the Serpentine Galleries. Learnings from ‘Back to Earth’ are shared through the gallery’s own website and podcasts as blueprints for other organisations.

A related ‘Back to Earth’ book, 140 Artists’ Ideas for Planet Earth, reflects the belief that such a complex problem as climate change requires diverse, interconnected responses. Writer Alexis Pauline Gumbs forms her idea as a spell, using words from an Audre Lorde poem; film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul suggests readers impersonate an animal for two minutes; economist Kate Raworth, in three sentences, outlines a new socioeconomic system; and artist Olafur Eliasson tells us to look down, look up and stay put, which speaks to the project’s central tenet – why leave this planet to find a better one, when together we can build a better world here on Earth?

‘Climates of Listening’, AM Kanngieser

Political geographer and sound artist AM Kanngieser has a ready-made response for when asked how their two disciplines relate: go outside, close your eyes, listen. Spaces have sounds. And those sounds, whether birdsong, footsteps, car engines or wind moving between buildings, are shaped by geography.

Cyclone Josie, Suva, Fiji, 2018

Since 2015, AM Kanngieser has been working across the Pacific region with women, queer and transgender artists, activists and academics for the project ‘Climates of Listening’. They collaborate with these indigenous communities to record their responses to the climate change happening around them and the effects of exploitative mining and other forms of resource extraction on their ways of life. The auditory picture that emerges in the project’s sound works, which combine spoken testimony, field recordings and data converted into sound, highlights the normality of life on the frontlines of climate change. Children play in the surf while the ocean inundates their village and parents calmly fish their belongings out of the water. What is clearly communicated is that it is these communities who need to be listened to when determining climate action.

And Then the Sea Came Back (2016), the first sound work from ‘Climates of Listening’, will feature in the Art Fund-supported show ‘Listening to the Anthropocene’ at Coventry Cathedral, as part of the Coventry Biennial 2021, along with commissioned and adapted sound and moving-image works by eight other artists with connections to locations affected by climate change. The 18-minute narrative work recounts the moments before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit the Indonesian province of Aceh, relayed from the point of view of a fictional geolinguist, who perceives the long history of exploitation that preceded this extreme event.

Other ‘Climates of Listening’ works include In the Eye of the Storm (2018), featuring reflections from local poets, artists and scientists on the 2016 cyclone that battered Fiji, and Mining the Deep (2019), a soundscape documentary about resistance to deep-seabed mining in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. These, and other works, can be found on AM Kanngieser’s website.

A version of this article first appeared in the autumn 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

Our Future Planet’ is on at the Science Museum, London, until 4 September 2022. Free to all.

‘Cloud Studies’ is on at The Whitworth, Manchester, until 17 October. Free to all, 10% off in shop with National Art Pass.

‘Listening to the Anthropocene’, part of the Coventry Biennial 2021, is on at Coventry Cathedral until 23 January 2022. Free to all.

140 Artists’ Ideas for Planet Earth (2021) is published by Penguin.

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