Making Things Visible
Biodiversity's dangerous decline, the 3.5% rule, and the role of artists in connecting with people
The UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), a once in a decade event, is currently underway in Montreal where governments from around the world have convened to agree on a new set of goals for the preservation of biodiversity over the next ten years. The ultimate goal is to agree a plan that transforms society’s relationship with the natural world so that by 2050 humans will be living in harmony with nature.
It’s certainly an ambitious idea. The Earth is currently experiencing the largest loss of life since the extinction of the dinosaurs, according to scientists. This loss is being driven by human behaviour, and governments are split on how to respond. One of the world’s biggest polluters, the USA, isn’t even at the negotiating table.
I have a constant low-level sense of anxiety about the decline in biodiversity and climate change. And a feeling that I’m trapped in a destructive system I cannot live outside of. The fossil fuel industry is a sort of nebulous villain that I’m reliant on in every aspect of my life, for food, warmth, clothing, getting around, working. And our cultural way of life, certainly in developed countries, is all about consumption. It’s a predicament, but what can we do about it? Even when we put our faith in politicians to negotiate international agreements, there doesn’t seem to be much actual commitment to follow through. Collectively we failed to meet a single target from the last COP biodiversity meeting in Japan in 2010.
This week I listened to the artist Alexis Rockman speak about this issue in a podcast. Rockman has been making work about natural history and climate change since the 1980s. He talked about how we are programmed to think relatively short term and so we can’t conceive of the trauma coming down the road in the future. What will happen to humans in the coming years with the effects of climate change is too big a concept for us to comprehend. It’s inconceivable for us to imagine the reality of it. And few people are prepared to sacrifice their daily comforts to do anything about it.
Rockman reminded me of the 3.5% rule, the idea that it takes just 3.5% of us to create policy change through non-violent civil resistance. No government can withstand a challenge of this size from its population without accommodating the movement. This idea is grounded in historical research. Erica Chenoweth, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, has catalogued the impressive record of civil resistance and change over the past 100 years. In a Ted Talk about her research from 2013 Chenoweth said, ‘the visibility of civil resistance actions allow them to attract more active and diverse participation from the ambivalent people’. It’s safety in numbers.
So how do we inspire enough people to join in and demand urgent policy change on this issue? I don’t know the answer to that. But my instinctive response is that nothing will change if the issue isn’t constantly visible to us in a way that makes sense and connects with us emotionally. The amazing Irish photographer Richard Mosse, who has documented some of the most significant humanitarian and environmental crises of recent times, believes that artists whose work explores this issue have to try and find a way to make visible what most of us don’t see.
Mosse, who represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2014, uses surveillance technologies to push the limits of his camera. He has made work in Serbia, in the Congo, in the Amazon rainforest, and more recently on the frontline of the refugee crisis in Europe where he used heat-detecting technology to capture the lifeblood of individuals caught up in the struggle for survival:
Mosse argues for the importance of implicating the viewer by showing the effects of climate change at a human scale, because otherwise it’s too remote and abstract. He says, ‘Climate change exists outside of human perception. It’s bigger than us. We can see local expressions of it but we can’t see the climate changing and that’s really the inherent problem. It’s on a scale beyond what we can perceive.’
This idea of making things visible on a human level is the premise of this short film Voice Above Water (2021) by Dana Frankoff. It's about plastic in the ocean and its devastating effects on a fishing community in Indonesia, but it’s about so much more besides. For me it speaks of the passing of time, traditions, relationships, spirituality, beauty. And the importance of our human connection to nature:
Many people question whether art can make change happen. Maybe not directly, no. But as the performance artist Marina Abramovic once said, ‘Art is about planting ideas and allowing those ideas to grow into trees. Trees create forests and those forests give oxygen, which supports an entire ecosystem.’ Mosse, Rockman, Frankoff, and many other artists and filmmakers are contributing to the expanding forest of voices speaking about the necessity to tackle the problem of climate change and biodiversity decline in a way that reaches people’s hearts and stays in their memories.
I listened to a fascinating podcast episode from BBC Earth yesterday which blew my mind. It made me think about the long view of our planet and how no species lasts forever. Nature will be fine without us, carbon will start being reabsorbed into the right place under our feet when we’re gone, and millions of years from now our plastic waste will be squashed into the Earth’s strata. Our plastic pens will become fossils with a line through the middle where the coloured ink was.
This week’s announcement of the breakthrough in nuclear fusion science which could one day produce near-limitless clean energy is a big deal for the future of humans on this planet. It has the potential to change the dial on our carbon emissions. But that doesn’t solve our immediate problem of stemming the tide of biodiversity loss. And my hope is that the growing chorus of voices highlighting the issues around the climate will be enough to persuade 3.5% of us to make change happen before it’s too late.
Who Writes The Gallery Companion?
Hello and welcome if you are one of the thousand new subscribers who have signed up to receive my emails in the last few days. I’m Dr Victoria Powell, I’m a writer and lecturer on art, history and culture. This is where you’ll find discussion of thought-provoking ideas that come from looking at art, thinking about its meanings and the role it plays in our world.
I’m writing from a very cold office in Bristol, a city in the UK, where my dog Peggy is helping to keep my hands warm. I send out emails every Wednesday to all subscribers, but if you like what I write you can upgrade your subscription to receive my Sunday emails too. They are a combo of audio, videos and writing on ideas about art and artists (contemporary and historical), and stuff I’ve been thinking about that I’d love to hear your thoughts on.
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Last Sunday’s post was about the Turner Prize winner Veronica Ryan. As one art critic put it, Ryan makes ‘the kind of objects you want to explore with your fingers’. One of the many things I find interesting about this year’s winner is that Ryan has spent decades as an unrecognised artist. I talk about the exclusive Art World bubble, and the value of art that never gets seen. Read it here.
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