Sensing, Sensitizing, and Speculating: The Work of Artworks in the Climate Crisis Era

T. J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott, and Subhankar Banerjee, eds. The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change. New York: Routledge, 2021. 492 pp., 23 color ills., 84 b/w. $200.00

The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, edited by T. J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott, and Subhankar Banerjee, is a stunning achievement. It brings together fifty-five contributors from diverse backgrounds—including the Cherokee Nation, Lebanon, and South Africa—to think through climate-change-themed art and visual culture from regions ranging from Chiapas to Hong Kong. No comparable volume exists; as the editors point out, “within the environmental humanities . . . the visual arts are seldom foregrounded and sometimes sidelined,” while “art history as a discipline has . . . been slow in considering ecology and related environmental studies” (2).

This achievement emerges at a curious impasse: climate change has advanced so as to become palpable to even the most privileged, while public responses—where they exist—often seem crushingly inadequate. Art and visual culture seem both necessary and dubious in this moment. To begin with, “climate change . . . presents profound representational dilemmas” (2) because of its lifetime-exceeding timescales but also because evidence of its violence regularly gets hidden, manipulated, or managed. As Caroline A. Jones points out in her chapter, “Atmospheres and the Anthropogenic Image-Bind,” “idealistic images (the volunteer helping the oil-covered shore bird) were actively produced” by BP in the period after its Deepwater Horizon disaster, “as the corporation tripled its advertising budget” (247). In such a context, art and visual culture can function to reveal or counter-represent—though usually on much smaller budgets, if any. And yet such functions may prove to be a trap; images of climate disaster, particularly the more spectacular, can, as Birgit Schneider points out, “immobilize observers and put them in a state of sublime amazement” (271) rather than fomenting action. Further, those “representational dilemmas” may in fact be moot, given the aforementioned palpability of climate change: as contributor Sarah Kanouse narrates, “A few years ago, artists spoke of global warming primarily as a problem of representation—how to . . . make its ‘slow violence’ perceptible. The emerging question seems to be less about perceiving and more about feeling and acting” (153).

The Companion tackles these questions about representing, feeling, and acting across forty short chapters organized into six sections: “Extractivism,” “Climate Violence,” “Sensing Climates,” “In/Visibilities,” “Multispecies Justice,” and “Ruptures/Insurgencies/Worldings,” plus a general introduction and section introductions from the editors. The diversity of contributors is matched by the diversity of media and genres discussed, which range from virtual reality to photo collages, taxidermy to underwater sculpture, performance art and protest actions to paintings and short films. Some authors are practitioners, writing about their own art and activism, while others are academics. A few are both.

The chapters prioritize works that are noncommercial and non- or anti-institutional, though some are certainly better known than others. This prioritization chimes with the Companion’s mission of centering “the perspectives, experiences, and voices of underrepresented and under-resourced frontline communities” (6) as well as its efforts to “foregroun[d] a decolonial and climate-justice-based approach”1. This means that, except for a few brief references (often critical), giants of political/environmental art such as Ai Weiwei, Edward Burtynsky, and Olafur Eliasson are largely absent. Likewise, discussions of climate and energy in the mainstream museum—such as the need for temperature regulation to preserve delicate artworks—are not to be found here. (But interested readers might turn to Fernando Domínguez Rubio’s 2020 book Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum [University of Chicago Press].) Nor do we delve deeply into the bourgeois arts, such as landscape painting, that emerged from colonial centers. Such arts, along with conservation discourse, have tended to invisibilize the humans “who have cultivated biodiversity for centuries” (11), the humans that these chapters seek to center.

Insights and Common Threads

The Companion offers several galvanizing insights and common threads. To offer an example of the first: the contributors understand, vis-à-vis art, that “extraction also entails labor,” not just natural resources. As the editors explain, “in the art world, this is detectable . . . in the prevalence of literal uncompensated labor (e.g., the notorious gallery internship . . .)” (11), and in more egregious cases like that of “the migrant workers building the infrastructure for the Guggenheim franchise in Abu Dhabi” under “horrific labour conditions” (410). Emma Mahony’s standout chapter sees hope in the possibility for solidarity between these different types of art laborers and the many artist-activist collectives that have been pressuring mainstream museums to divest themselves from fossil fuels.

As for common threads, two conceptual touchstones reappear throughout the collection. The first is the work of philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte (Potawatomi), especially his critique of the notion that climate change constitutes an unprecedented crisis, given how settler colonialism forced Indigenous peoples into new climates, severing their traditional relations with plants and animals.1 The second is literary scholar Rob Nixon’s question of how to represent “‘slow,’ ‘attritional,’ and, especially, ‘invisible’ violence” (113). Sintia Issa writes that, for Beirut-born artist Jessika Khazrik, known for works such as the poetry/sound installation Mount Mound Refuse, “sound emerges as a way out of this representational impasse . . . to make perceptible what is buried in subterranean grounds and cannot be seen” (113)—like the toxic waste dumped in Lebanon by militia forces during the country’s civil war in 1987.

And, in fact, sound itself becomes a surprising common thread throughout the collection. For example, Renata Ryan Burchfield (Cherokee) theorizes the juxtaposition of traditional and electronic music in the multimedia work of Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂) (182–84), while, in another chapter, we learn how Anishinabe artist Rebecca Belmore creates “giant ear trumpe[t]” sculptures that “invite passers-by to get close to the ground and listen” (210). Heather Davis sees in this work, Wave Sound, an “implicit argument that . . . try as the government might to shut its ears, the waves of Indigenous resistance will persist.” As she concludes, “The land, in this work, is the authority. It is the land to which we must answer” (200).

Not surprisingly for a collection focused on art and visual culture, the essays in the Companion attend to the roles of specific media and methods, showcasing lively and provocative examples. Berlin-based Dierk Schmidt and Nigerian-born Jelili Atiku, discussed in separate chapters by Jones and Nomusa Makhubu, respectively, employ crude oil as their medium in order to offer critiques of deadly petropower. The latter artist, as Makhubu reports, actually puts his life at risk through skin contact with crude oil (291). Meanwhile, as Virginia MacKenny and Lesley Green describe, Congolese artist Maurice Mbikayi “fabricates computer waste into clothing that references the fashionable dandyism of nineteenth-century Europe in the heyday of colonial power” (21). This “TechnoDandy” persona thus draws links between that past and the present of so-called “waste colonialism,” in which e-waste and other detritus are dumped in poorer countries.

Also, the essays trace more positive intimacies between artists and their media. For example, Rose B. Simpson, a mixed-media Indigenous artist from Santa Clara Pueblo, tells scholar Jessica L. Horton in another noteworthy chapter that “clay is material that is the direct flesh of our mother, what grows our food, becomes the dishes that nourish us, becomes the walls of the houses that protect us. It is personified, and when I use it, I ask it what it wants to become” (318). Such intimacies redress the severing of relations mentioned above.

Several chapters describe how artists repurpose dominant technologies, such that their methods serve as metacommentaries. For example, Paulo Tavares recalls how, for the collaborative project Memory of Earth, “we re-appropriated several visual instruments utilized by the [Brazilian] state to displace the Xavante people, chiefly maps and satellite images produced [by] secret military surveillance missions, to extract evidence of gross human rights violations” (32). Similarly, Jessica Mulvogue theorizes the glitches and poor image quality in Christina Battle’s video Chemical Valley, which employs street-view renderings of an industrial site from Google Earth: “Such illegibility suggests the breakdown of the Western-based military-state-corporate apparatus and the all-encompassing and seamless representations of the planet commonly attributed to” cartographic technologies (60).

Critiques and Limitations

Given the innovations of the works they showcase, I wished for greater formal diversity and experimentation in the contributions to this collection. Indeed, these contributions take fairly standard essay form—with a handful of exceptions, such as three transcribed “conversations.” Another exception, Ravi Agarwal’s chapter, draws on the author’s own photographs and diary entries to document changes in India’s Yamuna River and Tamil Nadu coast (365–75). This local, personal perspective is particularly moving and made me wish for more like it.

I also wanted more engagement with artistic-affective modes such as humor and playfulness, especially given the grim injustices cataloged throughout the collection, as well as Diné scholar-activist Melanie K. Yazzie’s comment that “humor [is] essential to art” (443). (Full disclosure: my own research focuses on the role of humor in environmental movements, so this desire may be idiosyncratic!) Only one chapter, Julie Sze’s “Climate Justice, Satire, and Hothouse Earth,” centers such modes. And other chapters seem to gloss over their possibilities—such as when Mahony reports without comment that the Reclaim Shakespeare Company protested BP’s sponsorship of the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival “by commandeering the stage as the plays were about to start and performing their guerrilla interventions in iambic pentameter, while dressed in Shakespearian costumes” (413). (I’m still laughing about that, and about the name of a related initiative, “BP-or-Not-BP.”) What risks and rewards come with such tactics? Beyond being taught, politicized, or even horrified, what pleasures can be taken in contemporary environmental artworks and activism? Perhaps other readers who share these questions can look forward to “Unserious Ecocriticism in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture,” the collection-in-progress from US art historian Jessica Landau and US artist Maria Lux.

Some readers might complain that several Companion chapters spend more time establishing the complex political and economic histories of a given region than discussing “actual art.” But such choices, to use the words of Rodrigo Guimarães Nunes and Alyne Costa, “contribut[e] to the intelligibility not only of the consequences of the environmental crisis, but of the economic and political dynamics that underpin and sustain it, so as to enhance the collective capacity to identify weak spots, chokepoints, leverages and possibilities for . . . action” (42). And, indeed, one of this collection’s major achievements is bringing to light injustices that many readers might not have been familiar with previously—such as the Indonesian government’s proposed construction of a 4,300-kilometer (2,600-mile) Trans Papua Highway, which, as Nabil Ahmed and Esther Cann tell us, “poses major threats to the rainforest and to local livelihoods” (65).

What Art Is/Does

To the age-old debates over what art is and does, the Companion makes many timely contributions. First, it actively seeks to expand what gets counted as art, especially in its impulse to include “inter- and post-disciplinary practices—such as forensic and cartographical studies, remote sensing data analysis, embodied social movement activism, [and] climate sensing techniques” (8). This expansion reverberates with other recent scholarship such as Heather Houser’s Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data (Columbia University Press, 2020), which frames data visualizations and climate predictions as matters of aesthetics and speculation—that is, as humanistic, not just technoscientific, endeavors.

Further, contributors to the Companion insist that art and visual cultures have a unique role to play in an era of climate crisis. For one thing, while “nobody can feel average temperatures,” Schneider argues that art “can make this and other ways of perceiving the climate crisis possible” (264, emphasis in original)—given its general capacities to “sensitize[e] us, or mak[e] us more sensitive, to the world around us” (149). Sara Mameni agrees, calling the “aesthetic act” “a configuration of experience that can create new modes of sensory perception, induce new forms of political subjectivity, and anticipate futures, that is, build other possible worlds” (93). Many others echo the latter part of that sentiment; the editors offer the premise that “the world-altering emergency of climate breakdown demands the emergence of new imaginaries, social formations, and societal organizing principles” (385, emphasis in original) and Issa concludes that “art and visual culture are where questions of futurity are best imagined and explored” (102).

Beyond art’s capacities to sense, sensitize, and speculate, this collection articulates more specific functions. “I want to build the capacity to handle complex environmental, internal, and spiritual situations,” artist Simpson declares to Horton—to make humans feel “empower[ed]” and capable of “adapt[ing]” (317). Kanouse reflects on her performance art practice as “a process of trying one thing, and then another, evaluating the result, and then trying again”; such “practices of experimentation, iteration, and improvisation,” she asserts, are “necessary to move through the impasse of climate change” (162).

Such takes are optimistic, even instrumentalist. But at least one contributor is concerned about the opposite: that much contemporary art and visual culture in the era of climate crisis entails the proverbial fiddling while the world (literally) burns. “Why make an installation about refugees being stuck at the border when you could design tools to cut through the fences?” John Jordan demands in another memorable, controversy-stoking chapter (390). I therefore wondered at first why he bothered to write this essay instead of designing such tools, but the answer soon becomes clear. Living in an autonomous “Zone to Defend” outside Nantes, France, which has been occupied for several years by activists opposing the construction of a new airport, Jordan sees himself as answering Michel Foucault’s call for an “art of living”: “When you no longer outsource your problems and needs, everyday life goes from being unthinking automatic behavior, to being a question of technique, of skill and grace: of art,” Jordan insists (395). Thus, his polemic-turned-personal-reportage is itself, arguably, a work of art.

Beyond what art is or does—or could or should do—another question emerges from the collection: Who is it for? The obvious, general answer would be “humans,” but Inez Blanca van der Scheer’s chapter offers another answer in considering Jason deCaires Taylor’s statue series Vicissitudes, installed underwater in Grenada’s Molinere Bay. Van der Scheer explains how the work serves nonhumans figuratively as well as literally: the statues’ “immersion is performed as the inversion of the plunder of overfishing or the contamination of pollution,” while the statues themselves serve as “artificial reefs to assuage the threat to natural coral reefs from environmental distress, climate change, and tourism” (377). On the statues today, van der Scheer reports, sponges, algae, and other life-forms thrive, in bright and brilliant shades.

Nicole Seymour is associate professor of English at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) and Glitter (Bloomsbury, 2022).

  1. See, for example, Kyle Powys Whyte, “Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crisis,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 1, nos. 1–2 (2018): 224–42.