Event Report: “Ways of Seeing Climate Change”

MCFly reader Ann Onymous tells us what she thought of a recent exercise in Science Communication.

It’s taken me a while to think about how best to write up the recent ‘Ways of Seeing Climate Change Event’ that was held as part of the Manchester Science Festival. I hope this shows just how thought-provoking it was.

A collaboration between Invisible Dust, an arts commissioning organisation, and The University of Manchester, the event promised to bring together artists and scientists to explore climate change.

Dame Nancy Rothwell’s opening talk called it “an experimental event”. Whilst no established scientist would dare to assert that climate change isn’t happening, Rothwell used her vantage point as President and Vice-chancellor of The University of Manchester to wonder how on earth our universities can take fairly normal people and train them up to speak “gobbledy-gook”. The implication being that the reason that the climate change message is not getting through is because of the inability of scientists to clearly communicate what is going on in a way that the average member of Joe Public can understand. The purpose of this event was to encourage greater collaborations with the artistic community who are much more skilled in communication.

On the whole the structure of the day went beyond an average symposium. Short talks were interspersed with a range of activities that were designed to encourage artists and scientists to talk to one another, through speed-dating for example.

There were a number of evocative performances. Notably, Ellie Harrison’s “Anti-Capitalist Aerobics” livened up the normal post-lunch snooze through having a keep-fit class that had the wider message of the constant need to burn more energy in order to consume; a not-so-subtle, but nevertheless a well-observed critique of capitalism.

But there should be some notes of caution sounded. Many of those representing the artistic community took issue with this new role as the hand maiden of science. The art world is not necessarily well-equipped with the tools to communicate science: artists have their own independence and critical stance which they want to maintain.

Some pointed out that the art world similarly has its own language which does not always resonate with the public. Others critically drew attention to the Siemens Group’s sponsoring of the event. Reflecting on Grayson Perry’s observations during his Reith lectures on BBC Radio 4, it was asked whether art can be construed as a tool for capitalism and whether it has to look at its own practices – namely, the carbon footprint involved in the making of certain art works – before it can be used to communicate climate change to the public.

So, what’s the conclusion here? I’ve been musing long and hard on what the nature of the relationship between the arts and sciences should be. Clearly, there is something in the ability of art to communicate and inspire: the Arts Council England estimates that 51 per cent of adults visited a museum and art gallery in 2011/12: figures that are at their highest level since records began

Yet, perhaps what this event should signal is the beginnings of a discussion on how artists and climate change scientists should work together and perhaps forge new practices through collaboration and conversations between two disparate communities. Moreover, one body of people were glaringly conspicuous in their absence: the policy makers. So perhaps the next discussion is how new art and science practices can make the decision makers face up to the uncomfortable truths raised by people like Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, Ellie Harrison and Adam Chodzko.

See more at: http://invisibledust.com/project/ways-of-seeing-climate-change/#sthash.N8MTRrF8.dpuf
Arts Council England. 2010. Achieving Great Art for Everyone: A Strategic Framework for the Arts. www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/achieving_great_art_for_everyone.pdf
Ellie Harrison. 2013. ‘Anti-Capitalist Aerobics’. Video soon to be available at: http://www.ellieharrison.com/index.php?pagecolor=6&pageId=menu-exhibitions
Adam Chodzko. 2013. Rising. Description available at: http://www.greatnorthrunculture.org/aboutcommission?commid=65

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About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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One Response to Event Report: “Ways of Seeing Climate Change”

  1. Dave Bishop says:

    Maybe it’s just me but, I’m afraid, the contemporary visual arts communicate very little to me at all. I saw a progamme on TV the other night in which a contemporary artist discussed the works of another contemporary artist – hailing her as a “genius”. All I could see was some faintly alarming ‘squiggles’! I felt as though I, as an outsider, was deliberately being mystified by some ‘in jokes’ (which I doubt were all that funny once deciphered). I certainly didn’t learn anything. On the other hand, climate scientists are communicating a very clear message. All of their conclusions are, in a scientific sense, ‘provisional’ – but that’s how science works. Could it be that it is artists who don’t understand the message?

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