Visual Arts Advancing Dialog on Climate; Artists ‘Can Scream … Scientists Can’t’

From various media outlets’ efforts to try to clarify and make relevant the climate change story, two points stand out. One involves the challenge of adequately addressing the nuances of science, making the story both scientifically rigorous and yet accessible. The other involves how to make climate change issues tangible to a public which, studies show, often thinks the issue is remote from them in time and space.

Now, artists have begun to address both. And, increasingly, they are getting their inspiration from scientists and researchers.

For example, New York City-based Mary Miss created a public art installation in Boulder, CO, in fall of 2007. It was a three-dimensional map of high-water hazards along Boulder Creek.

“I knew flash flooding is expected to worsen with climate change,” said Miss, a Boulder native, in a telephone interview. “I also knew that all these hydrologists and geologists were trying to explain the dangers of flash floods, but they were not taken seriously. How can you make it apparent to people?”

With the collaboration of U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Sheila Murphy and University of Colorado geologist Peter Birkeland, Miss presented the flash flood dangers by documenting its depth and extent throughout downtown Boulder. (Although a connection between climate change and flash flooding is uncertain in western states, Murphy stated that climate change might alter seasonality and that more extreme weather events are predicted. That combination, she cautioned, could lead to heavier flash floods.)

A Key to Success – Accessibility

Using a FEMA flood map as a guide, Miss marked the flood level by attaching six-inch diameter blue discs to trees in public parks, doors of the high school, and other municipal buildings. Some were affixed waist-high, some at eye level, and others at 18 feet.

The success of Miss’s “Connect the Dots” installation was its accessibility, said Murphy in a telephone interview. It was smack in the middle of the city. Plus, the scientists conducted tours of the site for the general public and also for scientists attending the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, held that year in Denver.

Murphy said she initially had been concerned about how much science would be conveyed in the art. In the end, she was impressed by Miss’s commitment to accuracy. The dots were placed in the landscape at their exact survey points through use of a laser range finder. “It was a whole different way of presenting science,” Murphy said. “As scientists, we are always trying to reach a different audience. This opened us up to a whole new group.”

“Connect the Dots” was one of 51 artworks that comprised the exhibition Weather Report: Art and Climate Change, presented jointly by the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and Eco-Arts and curated by Lucy Lippard. Each piece of art was the result of collaborations between climate scientists or environmentalists and artists.

Artists Can Scream … Scientists Can’t

“What made the whole event so good was that the artists were so innovative. They were making the public so much more aware of the ideas than any scientist could,” said Birkeland in a telephone interview. “I could go out there and hold up a sign that said, the glaciers are melting and people would say, So what? But artists have an innovative way of saying it. One of them cut a one-meter chunk of glacier from the Rocky Mountains and displayed it outside on a refrigerated table that was powered by solar energy. That said a lot more.”

Eco-Arts executive director Marda Kirn puts it another way. “Artists can scream. Scientists can’t,” she said in a phone interview. “Many scientists realize that pie charts and graphs don’t tell the whole climate change story. There need to be other ways to reach people.” (Yale Forum regular contributor Julie Halpert recently detailed how a number of museums across the country have also begun to tell the climate story from many angles.)

Miss, whose work over four decades has won multiple awards and exhibitions, has now developed a new initiative with Kirn called City as Living Lab. It is based on Miss’s 2006 – 2007 project in a 1,300-acre park in Irvine, CA, in which she collaborated with landscape architects, environmental ecologists, and others. The new initiative will connect scientists with artists to help cities make their sustainability goals tangible to citizens.

Artists’ Interest in Climate Increasing


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Seattle-based artist used lightbulbs to represent electricity wasted in U.S.

Overall, the number of artists tackling the subject of climate change has grown in the past four years. One of the more widely exhibited is Seattle-based Chris Jordan, a former corporate lawyer turned photographic artist whose large scale digital collages have been the subject of solo exhibitions in five museums already this year. Jordan is among several artists highlighted in a recent special series by Grist that describes the range of artistic exploration on climate change.

Jordan’s photographic imagery exhibited this year at the Portland Art Museum from March through July, entitled “Running the Numbers.” The exhibit was a commentary on the immense scale of America’s disposable culture and knack for mass consumption. In one image, Jordan used 320,000 light bulbs to represent the number of kilowatt hours of electricity wasted in the U.S. each minute. (See related story posted September 15 by Bruce Lieberman on America’s “addiction” to electricity consumption.)

This month, Jordan is in the North Pacific on Midway Atoll with a small group of artists including a feature film maker, cinematographer, poet, and journalist. His goal is to bring attention to the disastrous effects of garbage on thousands of albatrosses. In a video from his blog, Jordan says the group will film, photograph, and write about “the environmental and cultural crisis of our time.”

This December, the Royal Academy of Arts will present a GSK Contemporary exhibit entitled “Earth: Art in a Changing World,” featuring new works by 30 artists. The show is curated in part by David Buckland, a leader in developing a scientifically-based artistic response to climate change. Buckland is the director of Cape Farewell, which organizes educational expeditions to Greenland and helps form collaborations between artists and scientists.

The utter scope and power of the arts to communicate can undoubtedly continue to advance the public awareness and understanding of global climate change. With profound changes under way in traditional “legacy” news media and how the public accesses substantive news, artists and scientists working together may provide new and innovative outlets for authoritative climate science and policy education.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a Public Policy Scholar at The Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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3 Responses to Visual Arts Advancing Dialog on Climate; Artists ‘Can Scream … Scientists Can’t’

  1. Bud Ward, Editor says:

    Richard: Thanks for sharing this video poem. Lovely indeed, and I hope many will take the four minutes to enjoy it.

  2. Lisa Palmer says:

    Hi, Richard. Thank you for posting the link. The video is absolutely relevant and another example of the potential for artists to continue the climate discussion.