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Who Makes Art About Climate Change?

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"Wow, I wish I knew someone dealing with climate change. How is it that no artists are working with the most compelling issue that affects all of us?" Jane Tsong said this to me when I asked her if she would direct me to an L.A. based artist addressing the topic. She was among a dozen or so folks I figured could recommend someone. Her head scratching response was typical. Tsong is a landscape architect and artist -- she thinks about ecological systems but is very skeptical of "green design" and what she describes as plastic aesthetic. She tells me of her ability as a garden and landscape designer to address the profundity of man made climate change:

"The fact is that the topic of climate change can be really paralyzing to think about. For example the first day I visited the Landscape Architecture program at Cal Poly, plant guru Bob Perry gave a presentation about how designing landscapes to have a low carbon footprint is trickier than one thinks. For example, if your garden requires maintenance and if a gardener has to drive there two times a week with a truck, think about all the greenhouse gasses involved. Then once you've graded your site with heavy equipment, there is no way on earth your design will ever be carbon neutral."

Aurora Tang emits carbon driving herself between her work sights at both Culver City's Center for Land Use Interpretation and Joshua Tree's High Desert Test Sites.She suggested I speak with Erik Knutzen. Knutzen said he's open to talking but, "climate change is not something I think about much." He says "I feel like a part of the problem, I am a white American living in a single family home." Looking at that home from the outside you too might be deceived. Knutzen's single family home is very different.

Along with his partner Kelly Coyne, Knutzen lives in an "urban homestead" in the Siverlake district of Los Angeles. Picking up where back-to-the-landers left off at the edge of the 70's counter-culture, Knutzen and Coyne have made their home a contemporary laboratory for living simple. They maintain a blog called Root Simple about "DIY living, encompassing homegrown vegetables, chickens, herbs, hooch, bicycles, cultural alchemy, and common sense." They have published two books on sustainable living.

Backyard of the house of Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne | Photo: Root Simple.
Backyard of the house of Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne | Photo: Root Simple.   
Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne in their backyard garden. | Photo: Root Simple.
Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne in their backyard garden. | Photo: Root Simple.   

Knutzen tells me he's just lost his car, this he feels absolves him of his worst climate related "sin." But despite the fact that he and Coyne bike and use public transport, recycle urine, make their bed of straw, explore alternative energy tools and sources, and grow their food, he feels living here in America makes him a part of the global 1 percent. He tells me of an evolutionary biologist he met; how that biologist spoke about how if an entire planetary system whose central ethic is consume and pollute is set into motion, than it's almost impossible to stop that destructive system. That is unless there's somehow a radical change of consciousness. Knutzen reminds me the USDA recently shifted its maps and calculations of agricultural planting zones. It is getting hotter. He talks stoically as if he expects more climate related effects to arise before any great changes of consciousness occurs.

Knutzen doesn't identify as an artist -- perhaps engaging with and then shifting societies consciousness is something beyond his job description. But changing consciousness' is intrinsic to the identity of San Diego artist Ruth Wallen. She makes visual artworks that directly address the issue of climate change. She tells me how years ago she was working for the Oak Ridge Laboratory doing cost/benefit analysis for nuclear power plants. She'd review studies quantifying the loss of fish due to water-based plant cooling systems, versus the benefit of energy produced. Faced with these qualifiables -- electricity and fish deaths -- she recognized the issue not as scientific, but of consciousness. She came to address this dilemma with her art.

Her project "Preserving Paradise; A Conversation About Suburbia, Sustainability and Climate Change" was a part of Lucy Lippard's 2007 Colorado exhibition "Weather Report." Preserving Paradise uses the format of the postcard to frame a conversation about changing landscapes in rapidly urbanizing San Diego County, plus development's effects on habitat loss and climate change. They display an image of San Diego's human and natural ecology accompanied by quotes from the counties politicians, activists, naturalists, planners, and scientists. The postcards deploy an element of audience response replicated in her 2012 exhibition at the La Jolla Athenaeum, Cascading Memorials. In both exhibitions audiences are encouraged to respond in shared writing to changes that have impacted San Diego's ecology. This moment of stopping and thinking and then writing and acting for Wallen is the moment where change of consciousness happens.

Postcard from "Preserving Paradise," featured in "Weather Report: Art and Climate Change," curated by Lucy Lippard at the Boulder Museum in Colorado, 2007. | Courtesy of Ruth Wallen.
Postcard from "Preserving Paradise," featured in "Weather Report: Art and Climate Change," curated by Lucy Lippard at the Boulder Museum in Colorado, 2007. | Courtesy of Ruth Wallen.

According to Wallen, endemic to San Diego County is the largest concentration of endangered species of any county in the country. In "Preserving Paradise" a postcard shows the endangered San Diego Fairy Shrimp. This endangered fresh water shrimp lives in San Diego's back country, existing in vernal pools -- basically puddles that form in Socal's rainy season. Some of the text on the card reads: "Last year there was so little rain that very few of the vernal pools on Carmel Mountain remained full long enough for the fairy shrimp to reach sexual maturity." Wallen's research based work reminds us of poorly planned development encouraging single family air conditioned homes connected by CO2 producing auto routes: thus the fate of the San Diego Fairy Shrimp -- dry and paved over.

Wallen's Cascading Memorials uses photomontages and wall text to generate similar awareness and cause for concern. The unique element here is the human touch of the "Memorials." Two moments of the installation offer viewers sites to reflect on the situation confronting our time here on the planet. There is "A Place to Grieve" offering space to share "memories of the places that have disappeared or the plants and animals that have vanished," and "A Place to Envision a Future Where All Species May Flourish."

When I first visited the Dawson-Los Monos Canyon Reserve, long before I dreamed that I would become its manager, I used to drive across the agricultural fields to the south, and down a little canyon in the landscape to reach the main meadow of the reserve. Along the way I passed through an open valley with grand oaks and chaparral, as well as wet meadows and seeps, very different from the Los Monos Canyon just over the ridge to the north. When they started to bulldoze the area for commercial development I had to stop the car because the tears made it impossible to see to drive. I finally got out of the car and screamed and screamed and screamed.

The information in Wallen's research-based practice presents the broad political and social ecology of environmental collapse. In "Preserving Paradise" she uncovers a history of San Diego urban planning, which began with the best of intentions and was slowly made irrelevant as the county's population exploded in the 20th century; "death by a thousand cuts." The productive responses to this work, as represented in some audience comments to both projects, are reflective of personal responsibilities to be taken in a speculative field of stakeholders.

We must redefine prosperity so that it is not dependant on continuous growth and explains
Stop and contemplate the trees.

Mel Evans reminds me that "the phrase 'the personal is political' comes from the women's rights movement, where it effectively points to the political war on women's bodies as a site of vital feminist struggle." Mel adds:

When applied to climate politics it loses power, because it gets interpreted as limiting climate activism to using clothe bags and changing light bulbs. While those and many other activities are necessary, useful, and might make practical starting points, they're not an end point. Climate change is still happening. We have to look to the bigger structures of power that are at play in heating up the planet. And that's why, with diverse networks of groups and communities, we're trying to address oil companies as a significant part of those larger, infrastructural concentrations of power shaping the future.

Evans is a part of UK artist collective called Liberate Tate. They work creatively and strategically to challenge big oil's inevitable place in society, and specifically drive them out of the museum sponsorship business, like how people shamed tobacco giants in previous decades. Liberate Tate targets London's Tate museum's financial sponsor British Petroleum (BP). Evans sees a time when oil companies are viewed universally as pariahs and a "culture beyond oil" develops. Liberate Tate organized a guerrilla performance, called "The Gift," where they carried a blade from an electricity producing wind-turbine into the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall and left it there as a work of contemporary sculpture. Similarly in 2012 with "Floe Piece," a chunk of Arctic Ice was moved from Occupy London's encampment to the floor of the Tate where it was left to melt. These evocative and intelligent artworks, whose documentations were spread far through the internet, put the responsibility of climate action on the wealthy and powerful institutions of society which hold us in the status quo.

Evans also works with the UK group Platform whom make works that address the entire "carbon web," "the network of groups and institutions that uphold the operations of international oil companies such as BP and Shell. This would include anything from transport to legal, to academics and PR professionals, to the financial sector, the government and arts sponsorship." Their work aims to "engage a wider public in mobilizing concern around the issue, holding institutions accountable, and pushing for a cultural shift away from tacit, unquestioned support for Big Oil."

Jimmy Lizama lives here in Los Angeles. He does not support big oil. He supports bicycles. He loves L.A. He hates cars and all they represent. Climate change, war, inequality, car accidents. Gazing upon the ocean of 150,000 people biking both directions of Venice Boulevard during the April Ciclivia ride, he saw nothing but smiles. He says the positivity he witnessed that day was a "taste" of what the city will be like when cars are no longer a part of the equation. Ciclivia perhaps is helping Angeleno's imagine this city without oil and cars.

CicLAvia/Flickr/Creative Commons License


While Lizama was a member of the LA County Bicycle Coalition and working as a bike messenger, in 2002 he co-founded the Los Angeles Bicycle Kitchen. It was then located in an inactive kitchen of Eco-Village, an environmentally-oriented intentional community near the border of Koreatown. Pragmatically he wanted a space to fix up his bike and to help others fix up bikes. They'd teach you how to repair your bike and use their tools, and the space was free, and you'd pay with beer if you had any, and their capital was only "love." You could ride with them all night and end up at a taqueria at 3:00 in the morning drunk and in love with the city and cycling and the possibility of moving through it car-free. Within two years the Kitchen was out of the Eco-Village and opened a storefront on Heliotrope over by L.A. City College. Meanwhile Lizama and his crew worked to promote bicycle culture in Los Angeles by having loving fun -- in playful group rides like Midnight Ridazz, and diverse festivals like Bike Summer.

In 1984, Missing Persons famously sang "Nobody walks in L.A.," but they could have been singing "Nobody bikes in L.A." because next to nobody used to bike here. But people like Jimmy Lizama changed that. "CicLAvia wouldn't have been possible without making the bike seem cool." By beginning to make accessible the practical tools for all diverse Angeleno's to access the bicycle, and doing so in a manner that was generously cool, Lizama changed consciousness. He believes in the politics of personal choice, and believes by withdrawing himself from the car culture, and getting others to believe that they can do without the car, he's making a difference. 150,000 people going car free a few weeks back would probably agree too.

"I live in the epicenter of what I hate the most," Lizama says. This reminds me of the dream factory of Hollywood, that we both inhabit, which for about a hundred years has been selling to the world an image of benign consumption and waste -- with the personal automobile as its central engine. Arguably L.A. artists have been providing counter-spectacles to these isolating American fantasies for some time. Currently photographer Connie Samaras has a retrospective at The Armory Center For the Arts. Her images capture the banal nightmares of manmade landscapes -- air conditioned palace lakes in the desert heat. Samaras' work doesn't address climate change explicitly, it doesn't perform the consciousness raising of Ruth Wallen, it doesn't enact other paths like Erik Knutzen and Jimmy Lizama's passionate life practices do. Nor does it enact and encourage dialectics of power like Liberate Tate and Platform. Samaras' images among other things present the depressing hubris of the human species. If scientist's predictions are correct we'll be feeling the effects of that hubris for centuries to come. We'll see it in our changed environments, in species decline and extinctions, and in the rise of global instability as many old ways of living are drowned or toasted. Perhaps in the future too, when somebody asks "who's making art about climate change in Los Angeles," the response won't be a head-scratch and a "geez, I dunno."

"After the American Century: Workers Checking Fountain Nozzles, 1," 2009, archival inkjet print from film, 40 x 48 inches.
"After the American Century: Workers Checking Fountain Nozzles, 1," 2009, archival inkjet print from film, 40 x 48 inches.   

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Top Image: Liberate Tate, "Human Cost," Tate Britain Performance (87 minutes), charcoal and sunflower oil 20 April 2011 -- First anniversary of the Gulf of Mexico disaster. | Photo: Immo Klink.

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