Climatology

If there is an urgent matter that must dominate government decisions from now on all over the world, but more precisely those of the industrialized countries such as Canada, it is certainly the one linked to climate. Regardless of efforts to create a balance between the economy and ecology, it is hard to believe that in the “Capitalocene” we misuse our resources while fostering an environment that favours healthy living environments, all the more so because this economy is also part of a democratic regime relying on individual freedom and free enterprise. In a context in which decisions about protecting the biosphere are important, it is worth asking if it is not necessary to rethink democracy in a new light: a democracy that values collective well-being, the fate of future generations, all the while caring about climate justice. But, it must be said: it’s all happening so fast.

It’s All Happening So Fast is actually the title of an exhibition presented in 2016-2017 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). Mirko Zardini curated the exhibition that had the subtitle: “A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment.” Often associated with wilderness landscapes of forests, lakes and rivers, the vast territory of North America does not always match the country that the tourist industry likes to depict in images. With supporting archival documents, photographs and sculptures referencing various themes—nuclear power, tar sands, GMOs, electricity and overfishing—the exhibition questioned the myth of a country with unlimited resources. It reminded us that since the 1950s, government policies have favoured the exploitation of natural resources and, by the same token, it called attention to the flip side of the notion of progress.

In the exhibition’s catalogue,[1] in addition to the many texts examining the measures taken to respond to a polluting industry, interviews with environmentalist David Suzuki and writer and essayist John Ralston Saul underline the difficulties of combining the spirit of capitalism with the imperatives regarding the conservation of nature and biodiversity. And as Suzuki pointed out, this demand should take into account our vital dependency on clean air, drinkable water and fertile soil. Now, this understanding of the political, imbued with ecological thought, supposes a transformation of our relation to what surrounds us and connects us to the Earth. To this end, we must alter our attachment to the land, which, since modernity, has been expressed too often in terms of a “technical rationalism” that exploits nature as a commodity.

To minimize this technical relation to the world, we must reconsider the place of the human being in the living world. After having been master and owner of nature, isn’t homo economicus now obliged to become a “steward of the Earth”? No economy without ecology, no resource management without awareness of the fragility of the world in which we live. In this era of a new climate regime, artists, along with other people, can in a small way breathe life into this new spirit. Through their works they have the opportunity to convey a particular awareness about the state of the world. From this perspective, photographer Andreas Rutkauskas, with a series of images produced in the summer of 2017 in British Columbia, endeavours to bear witness to a forest after a devastating wildfire. These multiplying and intensifying forest fires are now part of the landscape and remind us like never before of the urgency to act against global warming. In his work, artist Hua Jin transposes photographs of cities, battling against air pollution, into abstract images grouped together under the title The Colour of the Air (2018). In learning of the origin of these images and the public health context from which they emerge, our pleasure in viewing them is necessarily disturbed. Finally, Mia Feuer’s sculpture Totems of the Anthropocene (2018) recalls the exploitation of the Earth’s underground mineral and petroleum resources. Made in part of found objects, the work symbolizes the destruction of our environment and the impact of human activity on the landscape.

Succumbing neither to catastrophism, nor to estheticizing the disaster, several artists invite us to develop, if not solutions, at least a greater sensitivity to what lies ahead. Instead of informing us and transmitting knowledge based on scientific data, they take the opportunity to stimulate our imagination, while encouraging reflection, even debate. The texts brought together for this “Climatology” issue follow this route. The author of Weather as Medium. Toward a Meteorological Art (The MIT Press, 2018), Janine Randerson analyzes works such as John Akomfrah’s The Elephant in the Room – Four Nocturnes (2019) and Alicia Frankovich’s AQI2020 in which the atmosphere’s deterioration, caused by fire or desertification, undermines the living conditions of humans and non-humans alike. Heidi Hart, in her essay, recalls how some immersive works, those of Allison Janae Hamilton, Diana Thater and Tomás Saraceno, can, despite the aesthetic experience they give rise to, awaken the viewer’s critical sense, which is necessary for an ecological awareness. Moreover, this form of awareness is, without a doubt, stimulated in Amy Balkin’s practice, which encourages citizen participation, notably when the disastrous effects of climate change call for environmental justice.

The air that we breathe is undoubtedly vital for our well-being, but the future of humanity also involves the existence of glaciers. In her text, Raphaelle Occhietti views them as “precious allies,” but also as “obvious markers of global warming.” She reminds us of this in her references to the works of Julian Charrière, Claudia Comte and Angelika Markul. For their part, Elyse Boivin and Joëlle Dubé analyse the phenomenon of ice, drawing on Inuvialuk artist Maureen Gruben’s Moving with Joy (2019). According to the authors, this work, which embodies a specific material reality, takes part in “a re-inscription of northern Indigenous peoples in their environment.” Unfortunately, this environment is missing in artist Ólafur Elíasson’s work Ice Watch (2014, 2015, 2018) created in collaboration with geologist Minik Rosing. Linn Burchert analyzes this grandiose project, supported among others by Bloomberg Philanthropies, and which presented dozens of ice blocks in public spaces during various Climate Summits. The author also draws a parallel with Gustav Metzger’s project titled Stockholm, Project June (1972) in which 120 cars with running engines were to emit their exhaust fumes in a confined space. In an equally critical tone, Didier Morelli devotes his text to the “hydroelectric myth” that Hydro-Québec promotes, as one of the country’s most important patrons. He examines Caroline Monnet and Ludovic Boney’s work Hydro (2019) and Nadia Myre’s Journey of the Seventh Fire (2008), among others. Faced with these diverse situations that require a major shift in awareness, we must somehow change our lifestyles. In an interview with artists Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens, the focus is precisely on the issue of an “ethics of cohabitation” between human and non-human life forms. To complete the thematic essay section, architect Philippe Rahm, author of several texts, among which Écrits climatiques (Éditions B2, 2020), candidly proposes a manifesto dedicated to his vision of a “meteorological architecture.”

This summer edition also contains a “Public art and urban practices” section in which Laurent Vernet tells us about the challenges of integrating artworks into a public transportation context. Following this is, as usual, the “Review” section, which presents ten reports on recent exhibitions, and also the one where we review publications such as catalogues and monographs devoted to the practices of artists from here and elsewhere.

Translated by Bernard Schütze


[1] Lev Bratishenko and Mirko Zardini (eds.), It’s All Happening So Fast: A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment, CCA and Jap Sam Books, 2016, 366 p.