Category Archives: Climate

Climate Surprise, a temperature-sensitive exhibition

If ever you happen to be in or near the city of Mechelen in Belgium this Spring (Spring starting in February courtesy of global warming of course), don’t miss a small but incredibly fascinating show at WINDOWBOX #, an artist-run space a short walk away from the splendid Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral.

Kaat Van Doren, MIROIR NOIR, 2017

The exhibition was curated by Sue Spaid and changes according to temperature. As for the title, “Climate Surprise”, it subtly echoes the rise of extreme and unpredictable climate events that have brought about scientific studies of how “climate surprise” impacts human behavior and health but also environmental policymaking.

I was particularly fascinated by the use that Kaat Van Doren, one of the two artists in the show, has made of bitumen, a material most of us would normally overlook. Because it is used for road surfacing and roofing, bitumen appears mundane and unsophisticated. And because the majority of the bitumen used commercially is a residue from petroleum distillation, we might view it as an inert and nasty material.

Van Doren, however, saw the artistic potential of the material. When the weather is cold, it becomes hard and brittle, its surface appears shiny and glass-like. When sun rays hit bitumen however, it gets more pliable and spreads a golden glow. The wonders of bitumen don’t end there. While visiting the show, i was told about the pitch drop experiment, an excruciating long-term experiment that aims to demonstrate the high viscosity or low fluidity of bitumen (which is a form of pitch, hence the name of the scientific exercise.) The material appears to be solid at room temperature, but is in fact flowing extremely slowly, taking several years to form a single drop.

The Pitch Drop Experiment – University of Queensland, Pitch Drop Time Lapse 2 years to date

The artist thus experimented with the various material dimensions of bitumen in photos and sculptures.

The most spectacular one is the giant Mirror Noir she made by spraying with bitumen an abandoned gas station in Campus Coppens, a former military site near Antwerp in Belgium. She covered both the inside and the outside the disused building, creating a striking contrast with the vegetation that had started to regain ground after human activities left the area.

Kaat Van Doren, MIROIR NOIR. In situ installation at Campus Coppens site, 2017

Kaat Van Doren, Miroir Noir inside 17092017 / 11.18 h

I was amazed by the poetry of the result. Bitumen, after all, is a sticky form of crude oil, a liquid i had come to associate with all the ills and evils of this world. As the artist explains on the page of the project:

Thanks to the special properties of bitumen the gas station Miroir Noir is not a finished product but a constantly evolving work, as the material remains susceptible to the impact of climatic aspects. Miroir Noir is both a reflection of and witness to the (in)visible processes of change in which we are all entangled: political, economic, climatological and ecological waves propelled by history.

Kaat Van Doren, From the Bitumina series, 2017

Kaat Van Doren, From the Bitumina series, 2017

Kaat Van Doren, From Bitumena series, Fig.1 to 24 (of 32), 2017

Kaat Van Doren, From the Bitumina series, 2017

The title of Van Doren’s series alludes to a painter’s tool called Mirror Noir. Also named Claude glass (or black mirror), this portable mirror was slightly convex and its surface tinted a dark colour. Picturesque artists in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries used it as a frame for drawing landscapes. They would turn their back on the scene to observe the reflection of the scenery in the mirror. The tinted surface reduced the colour range and precision, evoking the paintings of 17th Century landscape painter Claude Lorrain.

The black mirrors of our times are of course the black screens of our tablets and phones. The reflection of reality they produce is much sharper than the black mirrors of 19th century landscape painters but they nevertheless provide us with an experience that is more mediated (and sometimes even manipulated) than real.

Isabel Fredeus, Under the Weather #1 and #2, 2018

The other artist in the show is Isabel Fredeus. She explored another tool from the 19th century: the storm glass. This instrument was invented to help ship captains predict weather and thus the storms much dreaded by sailors. Her hand-blown storm glass sculptures also visibly react to weather, becoming more animated as temperatures rise.

Climate Surprise is curated by Sue Spaid. The show runs until 05 May 2019 at WINDOWBOX #, an artist-run space in Mechelen, Belgium. You can experience the changing exhibition through the gallery window as you walk by or take an appointment to enter and visit the show. There will be an event on Sunday 05 May 2019 to mark the closing of the changing exhibition.

Palm oil, peatfires, Nutella and the anthropocene

Armin Linke, Fighting fire in the peatland, Kecematan Bataian Kabupaten Rokan Hilir (Sumatra) Indonesia, 2017. Photo: © Armin Linke

Although Charles Darwin is usually the only name that springs to mind when mentioning the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace was actually a co-discoverer of the theory. Wallace developed some of his most important ideas about natural selection during research trips to South America and Southeast Asia.

Anthony Smith, Bronze statue of Alfred Russel Wallace. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2014. Courtesy Linnean Society London

150 years later, the tropical habitats that the British naturalist explored have been radically transformed. The rainforests have been ravaged, ruined and flattened to make space for monoculture and other human pursuits of profit.

Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald / Disappearing Legacies: The World as a Forest, an exhibition currently open at the Zoological Museum in Hamburg, “confronts the destruction of these tropical habitats in the context of the Anthropocene and mass extinction.”

If Wallace were to visit these rainforests today, would he still be able to formulate the principles of evolution by natural selection? Or has the biodiversity of those regions dropped so significantly that he would come back from his journey with little more than a few notebooks filled with drawings?

Both the premise and the works selected for the exhibition are worth a trip to Hamburg. I’ll come back with a full review of the show on Friday but in the meantime, i’d like to share a video i found so eye-opening and powerful that it deserves to be singled out in a post.

The video was produced by (an organization offering a free web-based platform that combines crowd-sourced reporting and government agency validations to visualize disasters in real time) for the Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest exhibition. It explains the devastating impact that palm tree monocultures in Indonesia are having on the local landscape as well as on the whole the Earth System and its climate. I thought i knew about the havoc that palm oil plantations are wreaking on the environment, i had no idea it was this bad (burning an area the size of my country in only 5 months!!):, Peat Fires & Palm Oil: An Introduction

Indonesia is the world’s biggest exporter of palm oil and its production, a highly lucrative one, is seen as essential to its economic growth. The oil is everywhere around us: in our soap, cereals, biodiesel, washing powder, instant noodles, lipstick, etc. And of course it’s a key ingredient in France’s favourite sugary spread.

The industry, however, is extremely damaging for the environment. Vast swathes of rainforest are destroyed to make space for the monocultures of oil palms, threatening biodiversity, destroying the habitat of endangered species (Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran elephants, Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinoceroses, the orangutan, etc), pushing indigenous people off their lands and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. Indonesia is the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly due to the conversion of its forests and carbon-rich peatlands, a type of wetlands which are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth because they act as natural terrestrial carbon store and are thus essential in the fight against climate change.

Palm Oil plantation in Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2016

As for the images i’m using to illustrate the topic, they have been made by photographer Armin Linke, his colleague Giulia Bruno and exhibition curators Anna-Sophie Springer and Dr. Etienne Turpin. They traveled to Borneo, Java and Sumatra, met with local residents, plantation workers, smallholders, environmentalists, government officials and scientists to document the problem and reflect on the speed with which Indonesia is currently transforming into a palm-oil nation amid giant peat fires.

But as i wrote above: more soon…

Harvested fruits of palm oil in Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2016

Armin Linke, Palm oil plantation, Kecematan Bataian Kabupaten Rokan Hilir (Sumatra) Indonesia, 2017. Photo: © Armin Linke

Trucks bring oil palm fruits to the pressing plants in Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Anna-Sophie Springer, 2016

A motorcycle loaded with palm oil fruits in Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2016

Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest / Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald is curated by Anna-Sophie Springer and Dr. Etienne Turpin. The exhibition remains open until 29 March 2018 at the Zoological Museum in Hamburg.
Entrance is free.

The Edge of the Earth. Climate Change in Photography and Video

The Edge of the Earth. Climate Change in Photography and Video. Critical essays by author and historian TJ Demos and curator Bénédicte Ramade. Introduction by Director of Ryerson Image Centre Paul Roth.

On Amazon USA and UK.

Black Dog Publishing writes: Increasingly and forebodingly, contemporary artists are turning their attention to the subject of climate change, in poignant and often confrontational ways. The Edge of the Earth: Climate Change in Photography and Video explores recent and historic work in the context of present-day environmental concerns, considering the future consequences of the age of the anthropocene, and humanity’s harsh imprint on our planet.

The Edge of the Earth accompanies a major exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, and includes works by pioneering and renowned artists such as Edward Burtynsky, Naoya Hatakeyama, Richard Misrach and Robert Rauschenberg; critical propositions on present situations by Chris Jordan, Gideon Mendel and Brandi Merolla; plus visionary works by Jean-Pierre Aube, Adrien Missika, Evariste Richer and Andreas Rutkauskas. Photojournalism from the RIC’s Black Star Collection is also included, contextualising artistic reflections within half a century of historical reportage on the environment.

Paola Pivi, Untitled (Ostriches), 2003

Paul Walde recording sounds on BC’s Farnham Glacier. Photo: Pat Morrow

The Edge of the Earth is the most poignant, upsetting and stunning book i’ve read (so far) this year. The catalogue of an exhibition that closed recently at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, it builds a visual iconography of climate change and of environmental repercussions so complex that they probably surpass our comprehension and control.

In her text, curator Bénédicte Ramade explains how the images selected for the show and the book offer far more than mere depiction of landscapes, natural (or rather man-made) events and hyperobjects. They add urgency and a more tangible dimension to phenomena that would otherwise be little more than headlines in newspapers and tragedies that happen to other people, they remodel our definition of environmentalism in the light of climate change, and force us to reassess our individual and societal responsibilities.

TJ Demos wrote a thoughtful essay on the visuality of the anthropocene. His concluding lines are particularly moving. He believes that it might not be the spectacular accidents caused by the fossil-fuel economy that should worry us the most but the silent, accident-free and uninterrupted march of the industry. This new normal background is the one that we should resist politically, civically, morally and economically.

Hicham Berrada, Celeste (video still), 2014. Photo courtesy Kamel Mennour, Paris

Whether they are of the documentary or the speculative type, the photos in the book often made me feel uncomfortable. How do you deal with the ambiguous emotions prompted by beautiful photos depicting ecological disasters in the making? What do you do with the anxiety and the feeling of being powerless that these images inevitably trigger? Should we put our fate into the hands of geo-engineers? Or should we take a step back and re-evaluate our understanding of innovation, progress and survival?

I’m going to let you weep over these questions and list below some of the most remarkable artworks i discovered in the book:

Andreas Rutkauskas, Oil!, 2013

Taking its title from a 1927 Upton Sinclair novel, the video Oil! introduces us to the early days of oil extraction in North America. The video follows the mechanism of a rusty jerker line system, developed in the 1860s and still used today to draw crude oil from the wells. The tranquil and trusty mechanism runs day and night, throughout the year.

Jean-Pierre Aubé, Electrosmog World Tour 2012, Mumbai (video still), 2012

Jean Pierre Aubé makes visible the electromagnetic fields that envelop a city. During his performances around the world, the artist uses radios, antennas and network computers to collect and record radiofrequencies, revealing the invisible presence of thousands of emissions from personal communications systems, security, commercial beacons and satellites.

Isabelle Hayeur, Chemical Coast 02, 2011,

Isabelle Hayeur‘s Underworlds series exposes the transformations of rivers, lakes and other aquatic environments. She dives into polluted waters with her waterproof equipment and reveals dying ecosystems and other man-made disturbances.

Paul Walde, Requiem for a Glacier (trailer), 2012-2014

Requiem for a Glacier honours British Colombia’s Jumbo Glacier area, a landscape leftover from the last ice age, under threat from global warming and resort development. The center piece of the project is a four movement oratorio scored for orchestra and choir that converts information such as temperature records for the area into music notation. It seems that the project of the resort has since been abandoned.

Julian Charrière Panorama

Julian Charrière Panorama Behind the Scene. Photo via Bugada and Cargnel

Julian Charrière Panorama consists of photographs seemingly depicting majestic alpine landscapes under various weather conditions. However, the images are the result of ephemeral interventions in various construction sites in Berlin. Using extracted soil that was covered by flour and fire extinguisher foam, the artist fabricated miniature, model Alps inspired by his native Switzerland in the middle of the city. The series questions not only how perception works, but also our fantasized relation to “Nature” and the sublime.

Benoit Aquin, Equestrian Statue of Genghis Khan, Inner Mongolia, 2006. From the series Chinese Dust Bowl

Chinese Dust Bowl documents one of the largest conversions of productive land into sand anywhere in the world. Today, 22% of the deserts located in China have been caused by human activities such as over-exploitation of arable land, overgrazing and increasingly deep drilling for water. The resulting dust is picked up by the wind and transported, in the form of giant sandstorms, all over China and into Japan, Korea and even North America.

Amy Balkin, The Atmosphere: A Guide, 2013-2016. Image via zkm

The Atmosphere, A Guide is a poster-essay depicting human influences on the sky and their accumulated traces, whether chemical, narrative, spatial, or political.

Visually referencing the Cloud Code Chart, another interpretive aid for looking up, the Guide visualizes some ways humans occupy present, past, and future atmospheres, from sea level to the exosphere.

Nicolas Baier, Réminiscence 2, 2013

Conceived using a 3D model based on climatological data, Réminiscence is a speculative photo that imagines the gas formation at the early ages of our planet.

Sharon Stewart, Outfall Drainage Ditch at the Union Carbide Plant. From the series Toxic Tour of Texas, 1988-1992

Texas has the largest concentration of oil refineries and chemical plants in the U.S. It also ranks first in the country in the amount of known or suspected carcinogens released by the industry into the environment.

Sharon Stewart‘s Toxic Tour of Texas is guided by farmers, priests, mothers, ranchers, engineers, nurses, teachers and other grassroots activists who are intent on protecting their homes and their communities from exposure to hazardous waste. Some of their actions reversed governmental decisions and halted harmful industrial practices.

Joel Sternfel, Robert Kofi Bamfo, Corporate Manager, Forestry Commission, Ghana. From the series When It Changed

In 2005, Joel Sternfeld attended the 11th United Nations Conference on Climate Change, in Montreal. Almost all the participants agreed that not only was climate change occurring, it was also about to reach a tipping point and become irreversible. His photos portray the delegates at the moment when the horror of what they were hearing was visible on their faces.

Gideon Mendel, João Pereira de Araúj, Rio Branco, Brazil, 14 March 2015. From the series Drowning World

Gideon Mendel has spent 8 years traveling the world, photographing people whose lives have suddenly been devastated by floods.

Peter Goin, Accelerated Erosion, July 1987, from the series Nuclear Landscapes. This canyon is in the South Silent Canyon area on the grounds of the Nevada Test Site. Although the area is not used for testing it demonstrates the accelerated erosion caused by nuclear testing nearby. Vibrations from underground testing fracture the rock cliffs, breaking loose huge boulders

Brandi Merolla, What the Frack!, 2013. From the series Fracking Photographs

Photo on the homepage: Paola Pivi, Untitled (Zebras), 2003. Photography by Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of Galerie Perrotin.

Albedo Dreams. Experiments in DIY climate manipulation

Mari Keski-Korsu, Albedo Logger (part of Albedo Dreams)

Albedo is the measure of the “whiteness” of a surface and its ability to reflect the sunlight. When applied to the Earth, the albedo effect is a measure of how much of the Sun’s energy can be reflected back into space. Sophisticated, large-scale goeengineering research projects are looking into ways to efficiently do that and thus manipulate climate and put the brake on global warming.

Mari Keski-Korsu, Albedo Dreams Rock Bed, part of Albedo Dreams in Reykjavik, Iceland, 2013. Photo

Since 2012, artist Mari Keski-Korsu has been looking into the DIY strategies that citizens could deploy in order to manipulate climate. She discovered a research paper from engineers at Concordia University who estimated that if cities all over the world increased their surface albedos by adopting white rooftops and light-colored pavements, the global cooling effect generated would be the equivalent of reducing CO2 emissions by 25–150 billion tonnes.

What if citizens joined forces and geoengineered climate on a small scale, both in forests and urban areas? Could they have an impact on the climate without ever needing to resort to costly innovations? Just by using kites, suits for men and semi-domestic forest animals, car covers and other low/no tech guerrilla interventions?

Mari Keski-Korsu, Reindeer in albedo suit (Stuffed reindeer, recycled textile and mosaics.) At Prima Materia exhibition, 2012

Mari Keski-Korsu, Albedo Dreams Kites flying in Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo: Asgerdur G. Gunnarsdottir, 2013

Mari Keski-Korsu, Albedo Logger (part of Albedo Dreams)

Mari Keski-Korsu, Albedo Logger (part of Albedo Dreams)

Keski-Korsu was showing one of her DIY strategies in climate change at the HYBRID MATTERs exhibition which closed a few days ago at Forum Box in Helsinki. This one was a video work showing a suit prototype for forest loggers (i could not embed the video but you can watch it here.) The albedo suit is designed to increase the sunlight reflectivity and thus the albedo value of the forests, cooling the climate in the process while allowing the logger to work as usual. The suit even features a stunning white cape that can be spread out during work breaks and rolled up on the back afterwards.

Of course covering the surface of the Earth in whiteness is all a bit absurd (even though i’m sure Trump would think that a whiter world is the way to go) but that’s why the project echoes with so much sharpness and irony the current research in climate manipulation. Ongoing geoengineering projects often display the typical human hubris that assumes that the best way to save the world is by deploying more technology, more innovation, more energy-devouring ‘solutions.’ And not by taking the problem at its roots: by reflecting on our unruly use and abuse of the planet, by trying to show more respect to all the living entities that populate it.

Albedo Dreams started as a collaboration, organised with the help of Bioart Society and HENVI – Helsinki University Centre for Environment, with forest researchers Frank Berninger and Nea Kuusinen.

Mari Keski-Korsu is collecting all her research and findings in do-it-yourself climate manipulation on her Albedo Dreams website.

Albedo hut village after a children workshop at the Children Cultural Centre Lastu in Lapinlahti, Finland, 2013

Albedo Dreams “whitening actions” in Reykjavik, Iceland in February 2013. Photo

The Albedo Logger video was screened at the HYBRID MATTERs exhibition at Forum Box in Helsinki. The show was part of the HYBRID MATTERs Nordic art&science network program which investigates the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The program took the form of a series of researches, encounters, art commissions, exhibitions and a symposium. I got the chance to attend the symposium and to visit the final exhibition. More episodes about the whole event coming soon!

Previously: HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet and The Christmas tree, your typical postnatural organism.