Climate Engineering, Art, and Public Engagement

Can art bridge scientific and public understandings in complex issues?

By Holly Jean Buck

"What does any of this have to do with the heart?" This was the first time I'd received this question after giving a climate engineering lecture.  It was a tough one.  "I don't see where the heart is in this," the speaker explained.

She was a delegate in the "People's United Nations" (pUN), an inaugural event and exhibition for the Queens Museum in Queens, New York, which was re-opening after a $69 million renovation. The building had housed the United Nations General Assembly from 1946-1950, and in homage, Mexican artist Pedro Reyes brought together 195 New Yorkers who are immigrants or have family ties to the UN's 195 member states. The idea: diplomacy hasn't yet solved the world's complex global problems, so techniques of conflict resolution proven in other fields should be explored.  In the museum-turned-experimental lab, these delegates had spent two days open-heartedly and energetically discussing whether drone attacks should be considered acts of terrorism, whether women should be paid more than men, and whether the human genome should be proprietary knowledge.  A final topic that Reyes wanted to bring to the floor was geoengineering.

This is what I told the delegate: in my opinion, geoengineering seems to come from the head, not the heart; it tries to offer a rational, designed solution to a staggering problem.  But that doesn't mean the heart isn't in there somewhere.  Many of the scientists and researchers I know are motivated by their hearts; they feel pain about what's going on with the climate.  After all, they're in a position to really see and understand what might happen.  But they go about addressing the problem with the language and tools and methods they know: those of science and engineering.  The social structure we're in doesn't allow us to speak of matters of the heart.  If they got up at a scientific meeting and started talking about the heart, they would be pushed to the fringes of the debate.

That, anyway, was the answer that came into my head when I was standing at the podium; I don't know how right or wrong it was.

The delegate had a follow-up: "So are you saying that artists can do more about this than scientists can?"  I said something like: yes, I think they can.  Artists have the tools and experience and techniques to express what's going on with the climate, on a whole other level.  Climate change is fundamentally a social problem, and it's going to take all of us working together to really deal with it.

This was a heartfelt answer: I really do see "public engagement" around something like geoengineering happening in artistic and cultural spaces.  Firstly, "art" (broadly) employs a variety of symbolic languages— image, gesture, music, etc.— which can reveal surprising and deep understandings of what it means to engineer the climate, or to live in the Anthropocene. In these encounters, "engagement" moves away from old-fashioned ideas of "reaching out" to an amorphous "public" and feeding this public some information, towards being an authentic, intimate encounter that both parties come away changed by.  Secondly, climate engineering and art have a meeting ground in the realm of design: both are somehow about the human making an intervention into their environs, and this is a place of conversation.  Thirdly, any good "solution" to the climate change dilemma will require some radical societal shifts, which art and cultural production are central to.  I have been fortunate in the past few months to experience some of the art being created in relationship to geoengineering and climate change— such as Karolina Sobecka's work, or the Marfa Dialogues / NY, which held speculative roundtables, artist/scientist speed dating, and more.   I hope that CEC14 can be a forum for some of these creative discussions and collaborations.

If you are interested in participating in CEC14, please check back regularly to this blog for updates in conference planning, including opportunities to apply for travel funding. The current timeline for conference planning can be found here.