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The climate crisis is complicated and interconnected. Art about it should be, too

Lucia Pietroiusti and Helen Turner met the way many friends do: someone was looking for a pool. But Pietroiusti had a much less typical use in mind. As the founding curator of Serpentine Galleries’ General Ecology project, she was scouting new locations for the Golden Lion-winning Sun & Sea (Marina) that had wowed crowds at the last Venice Biennale. 

“When we were thinking about the piece for Venice, we looked for a while for an empty swimming pool,” Pietroiusti says, “partly out of conversations with the artists about suitable spaces and partly because of how apocalyptic the feeling of doing this piece inside an empty swimming pool would have been.”

Though the pool idea didn’t work for Venice, the piece will soon appear this way at E-WERK Luckenwalde, a former East German coal plant converted into a renewable energy plant, where Turner lives and programmes art installations and performances. The pool next door was built to make use of the excess heat energy from burning coal; in May, with help from a live Kickstarter campaign, it will host an internationally acclaimed opera about the climate crisis.

The climate crisis is complicated and interconnected. Art about it should be, too

The origins of E-WERK

Turner’s partner, artist Pablo Wendel, started creating his own electricity for artworks after struggling  to pay his utility bills, Turner says, “and then it kind of snowballed.”

He started experimenting with electricity-generating art, established Performance Electrics gGmbH as a not-for-profit energy provider, converted an abandoned coal plant to renewable energy, and started selling his unconventional electricity into the national grid, funding art residencies and exhibitions with the proceeds of neighbours’ utility bills.

At the time, Turner was a curator based in London. “Pablo said, ‘Just come and have a look at this building and this project.’” A few months later, she was living there, with a new dog, a baby on the way, and an international, ambitious contemporary art programme.

The climate crisis is complicated and interconnected. Art about it should be, too

Mothers are a necessity of environmentalism

Turner is the kind of person who has a tendency to dive in with both feet. “I’m a really big believer in subversion from within, to actually insert yourself within these systems that you’re critical of,” she says. “Pablo and I had always been quietly frustrated by the art world chatting the chat and talking about climate change and ecological justice but never actually taking any direct action. And I think that’s what we were so determined to do with E-WERK, was just to do something, even if it would fail, even if it was this huge-scale experiment that wasn’t 100 per cent green or 100 per cent foolproof.”

Being a mother, she says, has been part of that. “They’re such amazing teachers, children. Having children opens up so many more doors than it closes, in terms of thinking about the future. And the feeling of wanting to do something that’s bigger than yourself, I think is just so important.”

Motherhood also brought Pietroiusti into her environmental work. Before leaving for maternity leave in 2017, she was Serpentine’s curator of public programmes; upon her return, she proposed General Ecology, a project dedicating the London gallery to environmentalist curation as well as change from within. “It happens to a lot of people,” she says, “when they have children, they start to feel accountable for time in the future beyond their own life. And even just that tiny change in perspective allows you to find accountability or responsibility over even longer periods of time.”

The climate crisis is complicated and interconnected. Art about it should be, too

Why ecology needs art

Art ties naturally into this longer time horizon that Turner and Pietroiusti are both attracted to. Symbols and artifacts speak fluently across generations and civilisations.

“Once you start to dig into the endurance of art through deep time and across all cultures,” Pietroiusti says, “once you start to look at what those forms, whether it’s art proper, or ritual, or forms of myth, or poetry, you actually find that there wasn’t that big a gap between art and planetary knowledge—what we now refer to through the prism of science. Knowledge about agriculture, about the environment, about the weather, these forms encoded knowledge about how to live on the planet and how to live in a mutually supportive and regenerative way. And so art may be one of the very rare and enduring forms of that kind of deep time memory that is left in this present time, which is otherwise so much a product of enlightenment and its ‘understory,’ that is, colonial expansion and violence, extraction, and land dispossession.”

This is part of what drives her interest in ecology not just as subject matter, but as a way of working. “I often describe it as a tree in a forest network,” she says, “growing outwards with the presentation of programmes that are consistently and obsessively about ecology in the widest possible sense.” Under the surface are the roots of mission statements, ways of working, and institutional commitments, and all around and sideways are the mycelium networks of cross-disciplinary and cross-organisational collaborations.

The primacy of interconnected collaborations in this model is important because it positions the environmental crisis as a complex one that requires us all to come together with equally complex responses, Pietroiusti says. And it might explain why the Sun & Sea (Marina) opera is so powerful.

An environmental turning point at the Venice Biennale

When Pietroiusti brought Sun & Sea (Marina) to the 2019 Venice Biennale, the team was very intentional about ecology as a method. They translated it to English and readapted it as a continuous loop so more viewers could interact with it. They considered the future life of all the sand they carted in, ultimately converting it to play areas for children in an otherwise pretty kid-unfriendly city.

The warm reception of the piece didn’t happen all at once. For the first several days, just a trickle of visitors came in—and then suddenly a flood. Queues of visitors snaked through the neighbourhood to see it, and emerged visibly distraught. “I mean weeping,” Pietroiusti says. “I remember half-jokingly saying the art world might be having a nervous breakdown. Because I couldn’t quite get my head around what it was. I mean I did feel that it was a masterpiece. But all of a sudden the art world was ready to talk about the climate emergency, and did, so the piece must have struck a chord.”

The climate crisis is complicated and interconnected. Art about it should be, too

In a certain sense, Pietroiusti knows it was the wider cultural moment—Donald Trump had removed America from the Paris Climate Agreement, Bolsonaro was destroying the Amazon rainforest. “All of those things had grown a sense of dread,” Pietroiusti says, “of course, a part of the world felt dread at a distance while another part was right in front of emergency. The environmental emergency is unequally distributed.”

And maybe that is the true power of the piece. By being so expansive and inclusive but also in some ways banal—it’s the musical musings of mostly spoiled people at a beach—it puts the art world’s mostly non-confrontational relationship with the climate crisis in sharp relief. “The piece reflected back to the audience certainly the sense of being both right in front of a disaster and incredibly far away from it at the same time,” she says, “and brought with it what I interpreted as being some kind of ‘oceanic feeling’ of a very complex, very big, and momentous object that was right there the whole time, and we just weren’t looking at it.”

Bringing it all to E-WERK

Turner remembers being delighted by the wave of environmental interest and accountability following Sun & Sea (Marina)’s splashy international debut. “It was so refreshing for the art world, which can be this very stiff and arrogant landscape to say, ‘Yeah, okay, we don’t know how to do it. So, let’s try and do it collectively.’ And there was this motion of working more collectively,” she says.

Her original plan for curation at E-WERK was to bring all kinds of art programming into the sustainable space, but the dynamic dialogue unfolding around sustainability in the past few years has proved irresistible. “I can’t help it,” she says, “I keep falling back into it, because it’s just such a rich, interesting terrain.”

As she’s done that, she’s been extremely mindful of inviting the local community into these sustainability conversations. The local football club, for instance, hosts their annual after-party there.

Her wider community is already excited about Sun & Sea in particular: local press is streaming in; neighbours ask if they can bring their dog to “the beach” (in the decrepit industrial swimming pool). “I think that’s because of, like Lucia is saying, its interdisciplinary nature,” Turner says. “It’s opera, it’s the beach, it’s art, and also the energy here. I think all this smashing together of diverse disciplines just creates so many more open doors.”

It’s also part of why they’re bringing the piece to Kickstarter. “The crowdfunding campaign is kind of in keeping with these ideas of autonomy that we’re trying to establish with E-WERK,” she says. “The reason we feed electricity into the national grid is so that we’re not completely reliant on state funding, or patrons, or philanthropy, or corporate sponsorships. It was this real endeavour to be independent and programme without artistic compromise. I think the crowdfunding campaign is part of that.”

BRING THE SUN TO LUCKENWALDE is live on Kickstarter through 5 April, 2021.


Climate change therapy: how to heal our climate disassociation

By Eleanor Flowers

Climate change

Feb 6, 2019

How does a climate scientist get up in the morning? I’m going to tell you how to face your worst climate fears. Since you have clicked on this article, I know that you are afraid and that you are ready to admit it. I have one thousand words this month to help you through this. Today could be a day during which you think about something bigger than yourself. Perhaps such thoughts will fill you with a surprising sense of calm and connectivity.

I’ve been speaking to climate scientists all month, in search of hope. I’m going to show you where the hope is hidden, but first I’m going to write to you about the bad news, because you have to read it, again. What good would a therapist be if they didn’t sit you down with your greatest anxieties and hold them up to the light, for a proper examination?

Asking a climate scientist if it is all going to be OK is like locking eyes with an air host aboard a plane about to plummet into the ocean. Indeed, sixteen-year-old climate hero Greta Thunberg wants you to panic. Climate scientists and activists wake up every day and know it is too late to mitigate climate change entirely. We are going to have to adapt and nobody knows what this will look like, but that’s what makes a climate scientist tick. It might make you tick too.

Jeffrey Kiehl is a climate scientist and a Jungian analyst living near San Francisco. Kiehl, who has been in the climate biz for four decades, has studied warm climates in the deep past. Earth had a warmer climate before, tens of millions of years ago, but obviously humans weren’t around for that. Here is what Kiehl told me, ten minutes into our Skype call:

“If we do not stop our dependence on fossil fuels we’re going to push the climate system into an extremely dangerous state—one that the human species has never experienced in its entire evolutionary history…when you look at the rate at which the climate system has gone into and out of warm states [in the deep past], it’s been the timescale of tens of millions of years, we are pushing Earth’s climate system into a state like that on a timescale of a century.”

Your first instinct might be to reject this information. “It can’t be that bad. That’s not the whole story.” All those defence mechanisms which protect us from unpleasant feelings of uncertainty will kick back against this trigger with which I am presenting you. You are not a climate denier, but you might be experiencing climate disassociation or disavowal.

Kiehl points out that back in the late seventies, when the scientific community realised what would happen if we did not get off fossil fuels, everyone just assumed people were rational enough to wake up and change. What Kiehl finds interesting is that we, the human species, are not acting nearly as quickly as we need to.

Kiehl is interested in the polarising discourse of climate change in the U.S. He believes the modern American myth of “the rugged individual” who ruthlessly pursues their own success, renders it hard for some folks to accept the science of climate change and the government intervention which will be necessary in order to overcome the perils of the Anthropocene. Basically, if a culture values individuality too much, it is difficult to promote the sense of teamwork and altruism needed to overcome the issue.

Certainly, when speaking to those on the front lines of climate action advocacy, the toxic relationship between unchecked individualism and climate disassociation, or the emotional inability to wholly accept the reality of climate change, comes up repeatedly. Remember that last month I spoke to Liam Geary Baulch, a British activist and member of Extinction Rebellion. I asked Geary Baulch why we were so unable to connect with the horror of environmental catastrophe and he replied with the following wisdom:

“[The U.K.] is the country where the industrial revolution happened, this is the country where […] we decimated our forests to build warships to spread colonialism around the world, and then we decimated other people’s natural resources. I think you have to disconnect people from each other and from the environment to allow that much exploitation to happen…”

I wonder if climate disassociation, like individualism, is scalable. Katie Hayes, who is writing up her PhD in mental health and climate change in Canada, thinks most of us experience something like “climate disavowal”, where we move through the world with “one eye open and one closed…which is sometimes worse than climate denial.” In London, for instance, where we are only marginally less polarised than in the U.S., many accept that climate change is happening, but have the dangerous privilege of postponing action.

Now you have read the bad news you might be stomaching the heavy weight of despair; your skin might feel alive with fear or flightiness; perhaps you are frozen, numb or angry. This is exactly where you need to be.

You should message a friend, forward this article, tell them how you feel, ask them how they feel. This is the only way to heal our fear of climate catastrophe. We have to let this environmental shit-show wash over us. Kiehl recommends focus groups in which small communities can talk through their feelings about the topic, although he acknowledges that many societies will feel extremely uncomfortable with this. But we do have to ritually reconnect with each other and with the natural world we are so close to losing. Hayes and Geary Baulch both agree too, that treasuring a sense of community is an important part of healing the disassociation many of us are trapped by.

It is not only the stories of doom we should communally exchange, but tales of how we are making a difference. It starts with recycling a yoghurt pot. Hayes, who trained in climate leadership under Al Gore, tells me that we should write down these small actions, perhaps in a tweet or a diary, and share these amongst ourselves. In this way we can see how momentum adds up, and we are able to reconceptualise the problem beyond our individual actions and our isolated feelings of hopelessness.

“You are a messenger now”, Kiehl tells me. And so now are you. This is how to face each warming day. Go tell it in the office, at the supermarket, on the tube.