Culture Club

1 March 2008

Climate change, previously the domain of scientists and politicians, is increasingly catching the attention of the arts world. Benjamin Morris and Bradon Smith, the co-organisers of the research group “The Cultures of Climate Change”, outline some of the most recent developments


In this day and age of ice caps, polar bears and hockey stick graphs, you might well think that the phrase “climate change” has worn out its welcome, or at least lost its lustre. Right, you say, we get it: carbon bad, Knut good. Or that the problem is the province only of scientists, politicians, and economists, who have sliced, diced, and spliced the phenomenon of anthropogenic global warming into all its various charts, graphs, policy briefs, and dollar signs. And you would mostly be right. Mostly.

For a surprising thing is happening: over the past few years a new generation of artists, writers, filmmakers and journalists have taken up the challenge to document, interpret, and communicate the changes that are happening to the world around us–changes that are not so much global warming, writes Hunter Lovins, but global weirding. And their work has been phenomenal: new collectives and consortia around the globe, art exhibitions at the Tate, even an iPod-based opera envisioning a post-apocalyptic London (cheerfully entitled And While London Burns). Much of this activity has been catalysed by David Buckland and his celebrated Cape Farewell project, which has taken artists such as Antony Gormley and Ian McEwan deep into the Greenland ice cap to experience what is happening in a region Buckland calls “the bleeding edge of climate change”, and to be inspired in their own practice upon their return.

Thankfully, it doesn’t require a voyage on a Dutch schooner to nurture one’s interest in the cultural responses to climate change. A new research group at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH) was formed last year to explore just these issues. “The Cultures of Climate Change”, which meets on alternate Monday afternoons in term, has thus far brought academics, activists and artists of all shapes and colours to Cambridge to explore the connections between the arts and climate change.

Some of its guests thus far, like the journalist Caspar Henderson and the photographer Nick Cobbing, are veterans of the Cape Farewell project and have spoken powerfully about their experiences there and their subsequent activist work. Others, such as the scholars Deborah Staines and Kathryn Yusoff, have brought a critical lens to bear on aspects such as environmental refugees (sometimes more tamely called mass ecomigration) and the formation of a global, and politicized, aesthetic discourse of climate change. Heady stuff, to be sure, but balancing the scales are the artists themselves: December saw Bettina Furnee, a Cambridge-based artist whose previous work on coastal erosion paved the way for an upcoming installation in the University Library, and the end of Lent Term sees both the novelist and environmental activist Gregory Norminton and the poet Melanie Challenger, now finishing her tenure as the artist-in-residence at the British Antarctic Survey.

The CCC group has also joined forces with other climate activist groups to form the Cambridge Climate Coalition; the Coalition’s first event, a conference in February entitled “Climate Changes—What Next?” drew 150 people from the UK and Europe to discuss research, policy, activism, and the arts. With all this activity, you might well be persuaded to pick up your paintbrush and paint your own polar bear. And if you needed a soundtrack for your magnum ursus, look no further than the work of Katie Peterson, an artist who placed a microphone in the heart of a melting iceberg and linked it to a telephone exchange so people round the world could ring up and listen to a weeping glacier. Weeping Glaciers: sounds like an emo band from Spitsbergen. Although at this rate, there’s probably one of those, too.