The Marfa Dialogues: Blog 1. Art & Climate

Cape Farewell brings together artists and climate scientists. The hope is to affect the zeitgeist of our times, to somehow engender in the broader public consciousness an awareness of how urgent the climate crisis has become. Scientists haven’t been able to snap us awake with facts – that’s clear – so maybe artists will move us in different ways. Boats to the Arctic to see the changing environment first-hand is classic Cape Farewell fare. Ian McEwan’s novel Solar emerged from one of these trips.

David Buckland, ever-present founder and visionary behind Cape Farewell, drives forward with art installations in Paris (Carbon12), Marfa (Carbon13) and soon Toronto (Carbon14) – among many others. The Marfa Dialogues, which took place in the middle of the Texas desert, brought together the likes of author Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma), visual artists Amy Balkin and Adriane Colburn, Texas climatologist John Nielson-Gammon, muck-raker and publisher (Washington Spectator) Hamilton Fish (among others). Discussions on and off-stage were multi-layered, unblinking and – reflecting what’s clear to anyone who’s looked into the carbon kitchen – often quite bleak.

My role was to bat cleanup, paint a picture of how we might rebuild our energy systems; a story of capital, technology, policy and psychology. How we might kick our fossil fuel habit.

The panel on art and climate change addressed the central question head-on: what the hell can art do about it? After a lot of too-and-fro, an audience member asked the simple question: “where’s the iconic image?” Isn’t it from the art community that we’ll get that single, striking idea/image/icon that can pierce the armour of our collective denial? A good question, but art isn’t marketing. And climate change inaction is way too tough to fall on a single icon.

Adriane Colburn’s answer: it won’t be any one image, but perhaps we can weave into all our stories, all our work, a continued and many-formed presence of climate change. Perhaps by touching broad cultural streams, and by making many points of contact, we can shift our collective consciousness to – at the very least- acknowledge what’s happening. I think Adriane’s got it exactly right.

A cornerstone of my next book – Hot Water – is the siren song of climate denial, how seductive it is to ignore, dither or deny the cliff to which our economy is headed. It’s an analysis of just why it’s so hard to take in this impending, slow-motion catastrophe. When climate change comes knocking at our mind’s door, our minds play any number of tricks to avoid answering. It’s so much easier to lock that door than embrace the bleak truth this unwelcome guest brings.

There are many reasons this happens, and I’ll give an overview of The Siren Song of Denial (Chapter 2 of Hot Water) another time. But the short answer is this: unless we have repeated encounters with the idea of climate change, presented in many different contexts, from many different directions, we will simply walk away from the uncomfortable beliefs it brings. We’ll sleepwalk our way off the climate cliff. Adriane’s answer – to permeate culture with insights on climate – is precisely how we get through our cognitive biases, re-write the hard-wired worldview that blocks acknowledgement of this new reality.

That’s what Cape Farewell does. That’s what we were tying to do in Marfa Texas. The work Cape Farewell does is essential, difficult, long-term. And yes, it’s a bleak truth we seek to show. But something else came from the Texas desert: Texans are pragmatic, have a can-do attitude and don’t shy away from scale. Maybe we can channel some of that Texas spirit as we contemplate the work ahead.

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