In 2009, I attended the inaugural international conference of Culture|Futures, that brought many cultural practitioners and cultural organisations from around the world who are involved in highlighting the role the arts will have in helping humanity envision moving to an ecological age. It was held alongside the 2009 United Nations Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, and I had the good fortune to meet two of the editors and contributors of this new publication Culture and Climate Change: recordings (2011). The editors of this new small blue book have drawn together their own observations and hosted a series of public seminars and invited contributions from other leading commentators, building a substantial critical framework for the area:
‘It has been fascinating to watch the subject develop, but we also shared feelings of frustration. We’ve noted some confusion about how to ‘place’ the (cultural) work and about how it relates to science, policy, and the creative arts. We’ve sometimes found ourselves taking part in unproductive debates about whether particular responses to climate change should be defined as communication, activism or artistic experiment. And yet, looking beyond labels, we were aware that there was already a rich history of cultural response to changing physical environments, and that contemporary work might connect to that tradition in many different ways’ Culture and Climate Change: recordings (2011) p. 7-8
This week, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 17) and Culture|Futures meet again in Durban, South Africa so this publication is a timely and thought-provoking series of in-depth discussions to encourage critical awareness of the value of cultural responses to our much changed biosphere.
‘These discussions consider how humanity is making sense of an extraordinary new body of knowledge. Knowledge of climate change raises huge philosophical and cultural questions about who and what counts—now and in the future. We want these recordings to help artists, writers, filmmakers and others to understand the context in which they are working and to place their own work in relation to that of others.‘ Joe Smith, Senior Lecturer at the Open University
For newcomers to this area, the new Culture and Climate Change: recordings book and down-loadable pdf draw from the excellent podcast series of the seminars held in late 2010. The podcasts are available on ITunes U here. The new book, however, has additional essays, collated resources and a ‘Timeline’ of ‘cultural climate’ works over the centuries. This ‘Timeline’, beginning in 12th century, seeks to acknowledge that significant cultural works and projects have always appeared that have reflected or responded to our earth’s changes and which have also contributed meaningfully to wider society’s understanding of its environment. Looking back at such cultural works also helps reveal the changing relationships or limited perspectives we have had to our environments too; they often highlight humanity’s naive and incomplete understanding of the earth’s limits and its interconnected and fragile complexity. On the ‘Timeline’ for 2011, I see listed Herzog’s recent film, ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ , an absorbing documentary that looked at cave paintings created 30,000 years ago of animals that roamed across southern Europe. To those that have seen the film, the cave paintings show how early man presented a remarkable glimpse of large numbers of wildlife in Europe unaffected by our species, a rich biodiversity that in our almost exhausted industralised world seems hard to imagine.
The Culture and Climate Change: recordings were organised by the UK Open University Open Space Research Centre and supported by the UK Ashden Trust which has a leading Internet resource site for performance and the environment. The recorded discussions brought together artists, writers, film-makers, scientists, academics and journalists with a comedian, a choreographer, a campaigner, an entrepreneur, and an architect. The discussions, each in front of a live audience, were chaired by Quentin Cooper, presenter of BBC Radio 4′s ‘Material World’ programme.
These were four areas covered in the Seminars:
A History : What is the history of cultural responses to climate change?
Publics: Culture, Democracy and Climate Change: How has popular culture approached climate change?
Anatomy: An Anatomy of Cultural Responses to Climate Change: How do we analyse and categorise the responses of artists?
Futures: Climate Change, Culture and Time: How do cultural contributions shape our thinking about the future?
In the additional essays in the book version, there are convincing arguments, many echoed in the growing international Culture|Futures programme (again bringing key cultural practitioners and cultural policymakers together again in Durban), that put forward that the arts have a significant role, often overlooked in all the political negotiations, the workings of science and in much of contemporary arts practice itself, of offering a mental ‘openness’, a crucial means to help wider society engage and imagine possible new futures. Renata Tyszczuk, in writing one of the key essays in the Culture and Climate Change: recordings – a Senior Lecturer in Architecture at the University of Sheffield, calls for much more improvised creative thinking. She argues that ‘climate change opens up compelling new questions and invites ambitious and imaginative approaches to rethinking the world’—a call to those in the arts to engage and envision new possibilities ‘for living on a fragile—and for humans— dynamic earth’.
note: I first published this post on HerCircleEzine here