Art that provokes emotions can complement climate science

Artists Strive to Make Climate Impacts "Visceral"

A new art installation by British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah that focuses on climate change will open in the Boston Harbor next spring.

“Purple” is an immersive six-channel video installation that sheds light on climate change’s effects on human communities, biodiversity and the wilderness, according to a news release. The film will be shown from May 26 through Sept. 2, 2019, at the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina in East Boston.

Akomfrah, who was recently named next year’s resident artist by the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston Watershed, is among a growing movement of artists around the world who are using art to bring a sense of awareness and urgency to the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Although climate art is a relatively new concept, it’s starting to change the conversation people have about climate change, said Miranda Massie, the director of the Climate Museum, a nonprofit that’s aiming to build a physical museum dedicated to climate change in New York City.

“There’s now a burgeoning body of work in the climate art field across the artistic disciplines and media,” Massie said.

However, she added that it is premature to say that climate-focused artists have had any robust impact on policy discussion. But she sees it growing in the near future.

“As climate art starts to move the cultural shift on climate, we will see it have a policy impact,” Massie said.

The movement has also shown that artists and scientists can effectively collaborate and often share their respective skill sets to better communicate about climate change.

Julia Levine, artistic producer at the Arctic Cycle, said the scientists she knows have often collaborated with artists as a way to translate and make the immediacy of climate change more tangible and visual.

She added that although hard data can be understood by some, it is also important to reach the masses by other means — whether that’s through images or storytelling.

Massie said that one of the reasons communicating the risks presents such a huge challenge is that even in the middle of a hurricane, climate change still feels abstract to some.

“For people who are not scientifically trained, the data points on a graph don’t have real emotional visceral meaning,” Massie said. “Artists make things visceral and make us feel things emotionally and physically, and that’s critically important for climate change.”

In “Purple,” Akomfrah used archival footage and newly shot films from 10 countries. The video installation is divided into five interwoven movements, which feature various disappearing ecological landscapes, including the hinterlands of Alaska, the desolate environments of Greenland, the Tahitian peninsula and the volcanic Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific.

“I’m an artist. I make work for a gallery. I’m not attempting to make a science documentary. I’m coming at it from a different perspective by asking the question: What is philosophically, ethically and morally at stake here if we continue on this course?” Akomfrah told the London Guardian in October 2017.

Akomfrah was born in Ghana but lives and works in London. He is a founding member of the film and television production company Smoking Dogs Films. His work has been shown in museums and exhibitions around the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.

“What astounds me about the art of John Akomfrah is that the beauty, power, and grace of his work conveys a sense of the sublime and the possible, despite its depiction of the powerful impacts of climate change, rising sea levels, and the increase of severe weather,” Jill Medvedow, director of the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, said in the news release.

“‘Purple’ embodies the belief that inward reflection must be paired with active engagement,” Medvedow added.

George Mason University professor Edward Maibach, who focuses on climate change communication, said in an email that art and popular culture can have a big impact on the way people perceive and engage in climate change.

“Artists typically strive to make people feel, while scientists typically strive to make people think,” Maibach said.

However, he said, artists shouldn’t be solely responsible for bringing up the issue.

“Artists won’t solve this problem for us,” he said, “but we may not be able to solve it without them either.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.

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