Abstract

The uncertainties concerning climate change debated daily in the media polarize political leaders and the general public alike. While daily weather is something that can be experienced by everyone and changes in the weather can be accounted for within the timeframe of a human lifetime, climate change is more difficult to comprehend or connect with in an appreciable way because of its remoteness in time and unpredictability. General populations can be alienated by the overwhelming proliferation of scientific data and statistics and, in the face of potentially cataclysmic events, feel paralyzed and incapable of action. Scientific evidence alone may not be working to encourage or initiate changes in behaviors with the potential to curtail the perceived changes to life as we know it.

This paper sets out to explicate alternative ways of comprehending and addressing some of the complex problems of climate change through art by focusing on the ways people perceive and sense the changing world around them. It contends that artists have the potential to engage society in emotional and experiential ways to promote behavioral and cognitive change. Drawing on the work of certain artists and art commentators, this paper argues that, far from being a purely imaginative or aesthetic activity, art is integral to meaningful communication between humans and the changing world.

1. Introduction

Weather, a phenomenon that is understood universally, is a topic that appears to be interesting to everyone, although its vagaries are difficult to comprehend. From an eighteenth-century subject of banal conversation1 to a contemporary issue that now grips the world as climate change, the weather is a powerful topic that we not only know through the graphs, data, and statistics of scientists but also personally through our bodies and our phenomenological interactions in the world. Although the words “weather” and “climate” are often interchangeable, they do connote a distinction in the ways that we comprehend them. Weather usually refers to a temporary state of the atmosphere, whereas climate refers to meteorological conditions over a longer time span or series of years (Knebusch 2008). Weather is what we engage with on a daily basis through weather forecasts, bulletins in the media, and each time we step out into the external environment. We can recall weather as a past event, and we plan future aspects of our lives depending on the weather. Climate, on the other hand, covers larger periods of time that may or may not be comprehended depending on the individual. Weather also relates to resilience and wearing down, whereas climate refers to mood or feelings, the ambience of a place; these two words for atmospheric conditions have long been associated with human emotions and attitudes.

The topic of climate change evokes a variety of emotive responses, from skeptical to urgent, as it is addressed by all sectors of the community—social, political, environmental, and business. In the main, it is scientists who are called upon by world leaders to advise and predict the future, fully knowing the impossibility of the task given the variability and uncertainty of the subject. The meteorologist, Edward N. Lorenz (Lorenz 1999), asks why we should even expect to be able to make forecasts about the weather given the infinite number of variables associated with what he calls, the global weather system. Climate change discussions that produce vast quantities of sometimes contradictory, abstract statistics and data have the potential to alienate the general public and render them helpless in the face of such overwhelming problems. However, engaging populations on a personal level to address the ways we perceive our surroundings opens up the possibility that individuals are capable of contributing to the changes required to stem the rapid deterioration of the climate.

The consequences of climate change remain uncertain, but there is much existing evidence to suggest that they will be considerable for life-as-we-know-it. For individuals to be motivated and not discouraged, or affectively engaged rather than perplexed, then understanding the issues is key to producing affective mitigation policies. Affective engagement (Slovic et al. 2004) or how an individual understands the issues through an emotional connection especially in relation to risk is most pertinent when considering the risks of climate change, as the risk of doing nothing is quite considerable. In a different way to scientific rationality and analyses, an “experiential system” is fast and intuitive, a natural way to respond to risk, relying on images and associations linked by experience to emotion. At this time when there is a need to engage individuals more meaningfully with climate change to bring about attitudinal and cognitive change (O’Neill and Hulme 2009), the nonexpert’s conceptualizations, values, and experiences may be of significant value, and artists whose fields of expertise are the conceptualization of experiences and emotions have an opportunity to come to the fore.

2. External and internal climates

The weather has long been associated with the way we feel; breathing in and breathing out are taken for granted, and yet this same air is from the atmosphere that surrounds us containing all the extremes of the climate and inevitably becomes a part of us all. Feeling climate, or atmosphere, is feeling (our) life or a greater reality as it affectively envelops us and colors our perception of the world (Knebusch 2008). Not only are our moods affected by, in simple terms, whether the day is sunny or rainy, the weather also influences the way things are seen and the ways in which we perceive them. We are inseparable from weather and climate; we create it and participate in it. Terms borrowed from descriptions of the weather are commonly used metaphorically to represent how we feel or how we perceive others: “a black cloud hung over him,” “he sounds as much fun as a wet weekend,” or “she has a sunny disposition” graphically convey mood and states of mind.

The weather is integral to our sense of being-in-the-world, but climate change may cause us to perceive our surroundings differently and shift thinking about our place in the world. Given that most of our understanding of climate change is based on information broadcast through the mass media, which is extrapolated from scientific or political information, are there ways that we can comprehend these issues differently? And can we individually contribute to solutions? In what ways, other than analytic, can we perceive, sense, and record changes in our environment? Shadbolt (1977) refers to the weather as being the substance of human wonder, and artists, whose interests are in the representation and articulation of our relationship with the world, have the potential to frame climate change issues in powerful and moving ways and link atmospheric conditions to psychological, social, and environmental concerns, comprehendible across national, cultural, and ethnic divides.

Over the years, Western cultures have become more and more dependent on knowing what to expect, weather wise, of the day ahead to equip themselves for all it might bring, including beyond simply the temperature or precipitation; the weather may actually have an impact on our mood and sense of well being. We rely on text and diagrams, images, moving or still, in newspapers, computers, and on television to find out what the day ahead might hold. We constantly try to improve descriptions both verbal and visual to make sense of phenomena, which are of so much importance in many ways to millions of people worldwide. Satellite images supplement simple words, and computer generated animations of clouds, rain, and sunshine sweeping across the globe give us an astronaut’s view of what we should expect in the ensuing three to four days. We long to know what lies ahead to plan our lives (L. Duxbury 2004, unpublished manuscript). The weather is variously our friend or our enemy; however, our relationship with it is never static and, like weather forecasts, it is an unpredictable and fickle one. Art, as mediator, may provide ways of addressing mutability and change at both global and local levels in ways that science may not. It can transcend language barriers through nonverbal communication and unite cultures through focusing on how we sense and perceive the changing world around us.

Images in general can be powerful, and photographs such as the first one of the earth taken from outer space shifted our understanding of the world from a national to a global perspective. The photograph itself was not transformative, but it was revelatory. The whole earth image enabled us to perceive the limits of the planet—a small orb in endless space—and made us aware that we are part of an enclosed ecological system (Ridgeway 2009). From this external vantage point we could see that we are participants in the shaping of the earth; we engage and affect systems whether we intend to or not. The photograph captured the imagination to envisage our environment as something beyond the local to one that we affected and that affected us on a global scale, and it outlined the curious relationship between the real world and our imaginative capacity (Boia 2005).

3. Unsettling weather

The weather is an element of nature that even in the most built up and sophisticated of locations—climate-controlled buildings and air-conditioned transport systems—we are unable to avoid. Daily, in our twenty-first-century lives with its sophisticated trappings, we are obliged to prepare ourselves for an often unpredictable encounter with nature within the comforts of our culture. According to Bate (1996), sailors and peasants knew the power of the weather in ways that present-day politicians and scientists do not, and we may have much to glean from such alternative ways of knowing. As creative people, artists have the capacity to eschew art-for-art’s-sake and engage with art as a participatory practice where ideas can be exchanged and place transformed through their interactions and manifestations. According to the British sculptor Anthony Gormley, there are artists who are using their lives to make a balance between thought, matter, and feeling in ways that have never existed before (Gormley 2010). However, we cannot expect the propositional work of artists to come up with answers to the great problems of climate change, but their contributions could be tools for reflection, discussion, and awareness. By engaging a viewer, an artist can evoke a physical, bodily way of perception, and through an artwork they turn the beholder of it into a neighbor, a direct interlocutor through an activity that produces relationships with the world by signs, objects, and actions (Bourriaud 2002).

Some scientists are already realizing that a different kind of engagement is required to motivate and galvanize the public to take action and that nonexperts’ conceptualizations, values, and experiences should be explored (O’Neill and Hulme 2009). The scale of climate change is almost beyond human grasp, and the prospect of global warming causing sea levels to rise to such an extent that there may be mass migration, as just one consequence, is almost unimaginable; our brains and senses are hardly capable of confronting us with the reality of climate change (Malina 2009). In their study of the use of icons to engage the public in the concerns of climate change, O’Neill and Hulme (2009) found that local icons were more meaningful than global ones especially if the participants in the study had an emotional connection to them. The participants were less inclined to relate to “expert icon images,” which they perceived to be too scientific and complicated and in some instances actively disengaged individuals. If the icons were too remote the public may consider climate change to be such a distant threat that they perceive no risk to themselves as it is of limited personal importance. A scientific study of the ways that objects, ideas, or mental images influence the individuals, especially on a local scale, ability to process information and make decisions (Lorenzoni et al. 2006) found that there was more scope for research, especially in the ways that individuals come to make climate change personally relevant and effectively assess its risks and benefits through the role of affect and imagery. Images in this study are defined as mental representations that refer to both the perceptual (pictures, sounds, and smells) and symbolic (words, numbers, and symbols), and in general these fall into the domain of both artists and scientists. There appears to be much potential for artists and scientists to learn from each other, and the work of artists in promoting art–science collaboration is in a very real sense part of the tool kit for survival (Malina 2009). There have been periods in time when artists and scientists followed the same pursuits to probe a reality beyond immediate appearances (Miller 1995). In the nineteenth century especially, artists and scientists were barely distinguishable as both carried out similar empirical investigations into the natural world as a way of getting to know it (Randerson 2007).

An artistic representation of a scientific concept is one way to open up the possibility for alternative understandings through translations of scientists’ accumulated knowledge, data, and statistics into something that can be understood by the public. Australians, Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark, for example, translate scientific rhetoric and the public paranoia that it evokes into artworks. But they are not the only artists translating scientific data or using other material to create works of art, and in recent years several large-scale projects and exhibitions have taken place with more in the offing. The “Cape Farewell Project,” (available online at http://www.capefarewell.com/) begun in 2003 and continuing, comprises an international mix of artists and scientists who have worked together in the Spitzbergen archipelago in the Arctic Ocean on projects to visualize and comment on climate change, declaring it to be a cultural responsibility. In Ottawa, Canada, “Weathervane: L’air du temps” took place in 2006 and brought together international artists to “look at how contemporary artists think about the weather”2 using phenomenological and visual and textual strategies to link atmospheric conditions to psychological and environmental concerns. Lucy Lippard, the curator of “Weather Report: Art and Climate Change” which was exhibited in Boulder, Colorado, in 2007, invited 51 artists to work with scientists—a process she says was “both fruitful and delicate”3 and produced a show that was beautiful, accessible, and alarming but not alarmist. In Sydney, Australia, in 2007, “The Trouble with the Weather: A Southern Response” (available online at http://www.weathertrouble.net/curators.html) addressed the weather and climate change as an unpredictable and unstoppable force. There is no shortage of artists engaging with such subjects and ideas. In 2010, the exhibition “ReThink” (available online at http://www.rethinkclimate.org/exhibition) opens in several Danish museums and galleries. Not only has this series of exhibitions engaged a significant number of international artists but also scientists such as Roger Malina, the astronomer and editor of the art–science publication “Leonardo” at MIT Press; Mike Hulme, the professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia; and Emma Ridgeway, who is the curator at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Arts and Ecology Centre.

4. The place of the imagination and the role of the artist

Contemporary art, especially art that overtly engages publicly with sustainability and activism, appeals to its viewers to think for themselves and is premised on critical and creative thinking as ends in themselves (unlike applied art such as fashion, design, and advertising). Art in this particular context is not complete until it involves someone to experience it, and one of the main concerns of contemporary artists is to include the viewer as an active participant in the work rather than a passive observer. Works of art can offer ways of imagining and encountering the world without conclusion, and the role of contemporary Western art is not to represent utopian or imaginary realities, as in the art of previous centuries, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing reality (Bourriaud 2002). In this context, contemporary art involves political projects and is based in theoretical terrain, taking the realm of human interactions and their social context as its theoretical horizon. Art, especially in exhibitions that represent social interstices, enables the possibility of immediate discussion. However, without being didactic, how can artists address serious issues such as climate change in accessible ways that can alert and reach out to audiences? Artists cannot change the world … alone, but when working in the public domain, between other disciplines and audiences, they may provide jolts and subtle nudges to conventional knowledge (Lippard 2007). If the challenge of artists is to alert populations to our desperately urgent circumstances without alienating them completely, how can this be achieved without eliciting similar responses to the ones provoked by scientific data (Weschler 2007)?

The work of two prominent contemporary artists, Olafur Eliasson and Roni Horn, is especially relevant to the ways that artists can illuminate and record the changing world that surrounds us, with the aim of immersing viewers in physiological as well as psychological experiences to rethink our relationships with the weather and climate to produce insights and elicit change. Coincidentally, both artists spend much of their lives in Iceland and create work that relates to the island’s location on the edge of the Arctic Circle, its unique physical features, and its varied climate.

Through large-scale, ingenious installations and sculptural works, Danish artist Olafur Eliasson explores our perception of the world, especially the natural world, and he makes his viewers aware of themselves sensing and feeling—the moment of perception when the viewer stops to consider what it is they are experiencing. In many of his works, he engages with the basic elements of the weather such as water, light, and temperature and appropriates elements from nature such as steam and fog. He views the weather as one of the few fundamental encounters with nature that can still be experienced in the city. His aim is to encourage his viewers to reflect upon their understanding and perception of the physical world around them through works that capture fleeting aspects of the natural world, evoking the spiritual and emotional. An example of this is an installation he was commissioned to make in the cavernous Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, which he created literally out of smoke and mirrors. “The Weather Project” (available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/eliasson/default.htm) was a semicircular 18 000-W bank of sodium yellow streetlights, which produced a huge artificial indoor sun in the darkness of the hall that engulfed viewers in a sickly, misty gloom, aided by sugar smoke to create the hazy atmosphere (May 2003). Throughout the duration of this installation, viewers lay on the floor for hours on end, drawn to the powerful yet ominous experience of the work. It is important here to mention that the Turbine Hall once generated electricity for Central London using oil following the introduction of the “Clean Air Act” in the early 1950s. Previously, the burning of coal had turned the turbines, the source of greenhouse gasses that have led to global warming and climate change. The combination of the perceived industrial haze and the lurid yellow sun and the history of the environment in which they are enclosed is a potent mix that evokes memories and feelings of awe and smallness in the face of such disturbing and powerful work. The exhibition reputedly attracted over 2 million visitors. But the installation was only one part of his project with the Tate. Alongside the artwork, Eliasson conducted a survey among staff at the museum about the weather and the ways that they thought it might impact on their lives. Questions—such as “has a weather phenomenon ever changed the course of your life dramatically?” and “do you think that the idea of the weather in our society is based on nature or culture?” and “do you think that the weather or climate in any way impacts on your salary?”—generated statistics in the way of a scientific experiment that were used to promote the exhibition, in taxis, on billboards around London, and in magazines. In this way, Eliasson created a network of interconnecting responses and engagement in the public domain.

The American artist Roni Horn makes art in and about Iceland that reflects her experiences with the atmosphere and its effects on the island’s inhabitants. During 1994–95, she created a book of 61 almost identical photographs that she titled, “You are the Weather.” This book represents the weather of Iceland through a close up of one woman’s face staring into the artist’s camera. Over six weeks, Horn photographed the woman standing in the outdoor hot-water pools that are dispersed all over the island. Submerged up to her neck in the mineral baths, with tiny water droplets caressing her face, the woman looks calmly and implacably into the lens, meeting the gaze of the artist. If the sun is in her eyes she squints; if the air is foggy, a slow mist settles round her head; the differences between the photographs are this nuanced (Neri et al. 2000). The images engage with a fascination for changing atmospheric conditions and how they can be “captured” and represented. Horn attempts, not only to make the viewer aware of the airy world around them, but also to give the sense that the viewer is a part of the process, and this is translated in the mood and expression of the woman (Spector 1999). The woman’s face is a collection of expressions telling the weather. In a more recent project, “Vatnasafn/Library of Water” (available online at http://www.libraryofwater.is/), Horn collected significant quantities of water produced by the rapidly melting glaciers around Iceland and permanently installed the water in wide, floor-to-ceiling cylindrical columns in an existing library in Stykkisholmur, the place where Iceland’s meteorological conditions were first monitored and recorded in 1845. Into the rubber floor of the gallery she embedded words that describe the weather that are also words for moods or emotions, gathered from local inhabitants. In this very public way, Horn poetically connects the receding glaciers to what is happening with the quotidian weather and the way that we feel about it.

One further art project that relates to this paper and the ways that artists can engage with and bring awareness to climate change issues is that of British artist Katie Paterson, who for a month in 2007 installed a microphone into Vatnajòkull, another of Iceland’s receding glaciers and broadcast a mobile phone number via the media. Anyone ringing the number was connected to a live phone link and could hear the glacier slowly dripping into oblivion.

5. Conclusions

In the context of climate change research, works of art may offer ways of imagining and encountering the environment in ways other than the scientific yet no less relevant. Art is able to traverse a realm of uncertainty and present ambiguities and possibilities to engage viewers in a process of speculation and interpretation. Artist–researchers draw upon a vast array of information from scientific data and reports to private reveries and reflections that allow the artwork to operate in many diverse ways and offer the viewer alternative means of imagining and knowing the world; however, reflection is not the only domain of the artist. In an encounter with an artwork, the viewer is invited to engage in their own reflections and recall their own experiences to evaluate and interpret the work in a process of reflective thinking, to engage with private reverie to make sense of a public global reality.

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Footnotes

Corresponding author address: Lesley Duxbury, RMIT University, GPO Box 2476, Melbourne, VIC 3001, Australia. Email: lesley.duxbury@rmit.edu.au

1

Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted, pithy comment that, “it is commonly observed that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what we already must know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm” (S. Johnson, Idler No. 11, 1758).

2

Written by Karen Love, the curator, from the introduction to the catalogue.

3

“Fruitful” in that all artists found the collaboration with scientists rewarding but “delicate” because of the secrecy and neutrality of the scientists.