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A massive stump of an old tree is pictured with a saw draped overtop
A piece called ‘The Last Stand’ by David Ellingsen. (David Ellingsen), Author provided

Artists organize to offer new visions for tackling climate change

In April 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued another report on the dire situation of the planet. The climate crisis is becoming hard to ignore as extreme weather events become commonplace across the globe.

Recently, the Pew Research Center found that over 66 per cent of Canadians are not only concerned about the climate crisis, but willing to alter how they live to help fight it.

In the face of sluggish, nonexistent or even deliberately obstructive action by both corporate and political entities, people are stepping up to ensure we meet critical climate targets.

A number of these people are from the creative sector. Increasingly concerned about the crisis, artists around the world — including well-known names like Ai Weiwei, Banksy and Edward Burtynsky, not to mention a swathe of celebrities — have been joining global initiatives and protest movements to accelerate a just energy transition and attend to the ecological emergency.

The same is happening in Canada, where art-based initiatives are emerging not only to sound the alarm bell, but to imagine, research and develop new behaviours and activities essential to this cultural shift.

A whale skeleton made of plastic is displayed hanging in a room with images projected around it
‘The Song of the Whale’ by Joyce Majiski. Installation shot at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery in Whitehorse. (Joyce Majiski), Author provided

Arts-based climate initiatives

Recently, as a member of the climate art collective TRAction and alongside Cree/Métis artist Chantal Stormsong Chagnon, I have been working on the launch of the Climate Art Web/Web d’Art Climatique (CAW-WAC). This grassroots initiative is created by artists for artists, with support from the Canada Council for the Arts and Calgary Arts Development.

CAW-WAC attempts to link artists across the country who are making work in relation to environmental justice, Indigenous knowledge, climate change, sustainability and place-based care and relationship.

We are currently preparing for our first official online gathering on May 23, 2022, where artists like Monique Mojica, Joyce Majiski, Jacky Qrunnut (ArtCirq), Hitoko Okada, Yolanda Weeks, Beau Wagner, Lou Sheppard, Starr Muranko and Audrey Lane Cockett will share presentations about their environmentally focused work.

The gathering will also feature the launch of a newly designed Climate Art Map — an online mapping resource of artists, projects and organizations across the country. In an effort to decolonize mapping practices, the map uses ecozones and Indigenous land rather than colonial borders.

Some of the artwork highlighted on the map interrogates people’s relationship to the species they’re endangering through human-induced global heating. For instance, my recent site-based performance work, The Coming Silence, uses the idea of a natural history museum display to consider the notion of extinction.

Trailer for ‘The Coming Silence’ by Melanie Kloetzel/kloetzel&co., with cinematography by Linnea Swan.

And we aren’t the only ones doing this type of work. The Sectoral Climate Arts Leadership for the Emergency (SCALE/LeSAUT) is another recent initiative that works to connect concerned artists and organizations. SCALE acts as a national hub for developing effective strategies, aligning activities and fostering leadership in the creative sector to tackle the climate crisis.

In fact, climate art practices are emerging across the country. From disciplinary declarations of emergency and podcasts discussing climate art initiatives, to efforts to green the theatre and develop sustainable curatorial practices — non-profit organizations, university-based centres and artist-led initiatives have been stepping up to contemplate and model prototypes for a cultural shift.

Climate artists can provide a vision

These efforts demonstrate the ways artists are functioning as visionaries in a moment of crisis. They’re finding ways to highlight detrimental behaviours, collectively organize and act and investigate concepts from the more-than-human world that do not damage, but rather heal the planet and our connection to it.

Montreal-based artist Yolanda Weeks offers an example of how artists can borrow from the natural world to shift our thinking. In her project, Nomadic Nests, she creates human-sized habitations that resemble giant bird’s nests. Using materials found on site, Weeks’ nests help people imagine — and also physically inhabit — a different way of living on the land.

A life-sized birds nest is depicted
‘Nomadic Nest’ by Yolanda Weeks. Photo taken in Abenaki Territory, Cookshire-Eaton. (Joanna Bateman), Author provided

Educators, scientists, journalists and concerned citizens are desperately seeking such models as scientific warnings have had little impact on policy so far. And it is hard to imagine humans embracing a cultural shift to tackle climate change without a vision of what that shift would entail.

This vision is precisely what concerned climate artists can offer. A vision of tangible networks, activities, behaviours and lifestyles that, rather than damaging the planet, support planetary — and personal — health and well-being.

In light of the environmental disasters that populate both the news and our lives with increasing regularity, such a vision cannot come too soon.

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