‘It’s our job to take risks’: Artists reflect on the climate crisis

NAVA asked several Members and visual artists to share their thoughts on making art in the context of a climate emergency.

Image: Judy Watson with Tor Maclean and Aunty Helen Gulash, in between a ‘k’ and a ‘g’ 2021, canvas, cotton, calico, synthetic fabric, acrylic, Maleny mud, eco dyes (Carabeen Bloodwood, Moreton Bay Ash, She Oak, Eucalyptus leaves) iron fillings, nails, graphite, earth pigments, binder. Final Call, Horizon Festival. Photo by Timothy Birch Studio.

A report released in August by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a clear warning that there is a narrow path to avoiding catastrophic warming, but only through immediate, deep and sustained emissions reductions. Among fires and dust storms, floods and water shortages, the arts community has consistently remained at the forefront of the climate movement. In the midst of last year’s bushfire season, artists and arts workers looked out for one another and raised millions to support bushfire relief, even while losing a great deal themselves. 

With the UN Climate Change Conference 2021 in Scotland around the corner (31 October - 12 November), NAVA asked several Members and visual artists to share their thoughts on making art in the context of a climate emergency, and how individual and collective action can have local impact to tackle the environmental problems we face. As artist Tor Maclean observes, ‘the arts have an important role for galvanising and inspiring change and maintaining hope. Artists have the unique ability to communicate and cut through the noise and rhetoric of an issue and get to the heart of it.’

Artists from a diverse range of backgrounds and artistic practices have responded to the impacts of climate change with persistence and a shared sense of unity. Ceramic artist and co-founder of the group Clay Matters, Jane Sawyer, says that ‘climate change is the biggest threat to humanity and the most urgent to solve’. Clay Matters has actively lobbied the Prime Minister on climate change issues, but as a group, they understand their own responsibilities in reducing their contribution to emissions: ‘we are committed to raising awareness of our responsibility as artists whose practice necessarily involves mining and carbon emissions.’

Multi-media artist Judy Watson, whose Aboriginal matrilineal family is from Waanyi Country in northwest Queensland, recently worked with artist Tor Maclean and Kabi Kabi elder Aunty Helena Gulash on an artwork for the Final Call exhibition as part of the Horizon Festival. She says she knew she wanted to work with both scientific data and local Kabi Kabi (Gubbi Gubbi) language on the project. The artwork, in between a ‘k’ and a ‘g’, asks us to consider how First Nations’ knowledge systems founded on listening to and caring for Country can inform our collective response to climate change. In addition to her practice, Judy considers sustainability in the way she lives, with a ‘veggie garden, chooks...compost and recycling…solar power, rainwater tanks and I drive a hybrid vehicle’. She advises that artists and arts organisations can incorporate environmental sustainability into their work by ‘reusing materials where possible, being aware of our water table and run-off into drains that flow out to oceans, rivers and creeks. Taking your own water bottle and cup to work on projects so that you are not contributing to the glut of plastic water bottles and disposable coffee cups contributing to landfill.’  

Tor Maclean adds that ‘the climate emergency is the defining narrative of our generation’. When it comes to action, Tor says ‘there are the everyday things of reducing, reusing and recycling but I think on a broader scale the arts sector has a responsibility to be accountable for how it delivers its cultural currency. Addressing the funding model that has for years provided certain big business with cultural capital in exchange for exhibition sponsorship needs to be addressed with a code of ethics from the arts sector.’

This sentiment is shared by CLIMARTE, an organisation established to ‘harness the creative power of the arts to engage, inform and inspire action to address the most urgent common threat in human history - the Climate Emergency’. Speaking directly to artists and arts organisations, Chair Deborah Hart shared her thoughts on behalf of CLIMARTE: ‘Make the most sustainable choices based on the best available information. Please refuse to play a role in artwashing industries that are dangerously degrading our local environments, global climate and democratic systems.’ Like many others in the sector, Deborah understands the powerful role artists can play in transforming the conversation around climate change into action, recognising that ‘artists can creatively communicate—in extraordinary, even magical, ways—the terrifying scientific data as well as powerfully articulate hopeful solutions to mobilise Australia to transition from a global carbon pariah to a leading force effectively addressing the Climate Emergency.’

Similarly, artist and curator Jill Sampson speaks to art’s unique capacity to communicate creatively: ‘Art can reach in under the scepticism radar to elicit connection, emotion and empathy then bring out the truth of what climate change means.’ For almost 10 years Jill has been working on the Bimblebox Art Project, instigated by the threat of a thermal coal mine to the Bimblebox Nature Refuge. Her advice to artists and arts workers is ‘develop art projects/festivals, workshops, events that connect with place and engage with communities. Talk, listen, learn and work together, build exhibitions around this.’ 

Artist Nicole Barakat’s practice has been deeply collaborative, engaging with the community in a way that reflects the shared collectivity of the climate movement. She says, ‘we cannot speak about the climate crisis without interrogating capitalism and colonisation, land theft and resource exploitation and the on-going dispossession of First Nations Peoples.’ Nicole was involved in the exhibition 10 Degrees Hotter at Pari, an artist-run initiative in Parramatta, where all of the works engaged with heat in some way ‘whether it be climate, cooking, smoking or burning’. She stresses the necessity of moving beyond conversations and socially acceptable action that has been exhausted: ‘As artists it’s our job to take risks and push the boundaries...It is time to refuse. To stand still, to sit down, to stop. To refuse to continue on this trajectory towards extinction and global annihilation.’

Climate action groups and resources

‘It’s our job to take risks’: Artists reflect on the climate crisis