Carbon 14: Climate is Culture

Reviewed by: Grace Johnstone
Margaret Clegg, Toll Bar Village near Doncaster, UK  (from Drowning World series Margaret Clegg, Toll Bar Village near Doncaster, UK (from Drowning World series), Gideon Mendel, 2007
The Cape Farewell Foundation has an ambitious mission: to bring artists and scientists together to explore the impact and future of climate change. Just as ambitious is the wide-ranging exhibition curated by David Buckland and Claire L. Sykes and headquartered at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Centre for Contemporary Culture until groundhog day 2014.

Carbon 14 features 14 projects by 21 collaborators, a diverse group that includes filmmakers, poets, musicians, economists, policy makers and ecotheologians. The main exhibition at the ROM is complemented by a performing arts festival at The Theatre Centre in Toronto; a live performance of Laurie Brown’s “The Trial of David Suzuki”; video installations in subway stations; lectures; concerts; and satellite programming at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener, Ontario. No wonder that it took almost two years to bring the exhibition to fruition.

Since the fall of November 2011, when Cape Farewell initiated a two-day workshop on the shores of Lake Ontario, it’s been a “rollercoaster ride of ups and downs,” says photographer Donald Weber, one of the exhibiting artists, “but always [anchored by] dedication and commitment.” The group of collaborators met in Toronto at Cape Farewell’s invitation to discuss the latest climate change research and craft proposals related to how artists and scientists could use their skills to change the climate debate. Curators Buckland, the director of Cape Farewell, and Sykes, co-director of Toronto’s Circuit Gallery, then nurtured the germinating partnerships into full-blown artworks and immersive projects that could be presented to the public in a cohesive exhibition.

The results are nothing short of remarkable. Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak created The Unsolicited Reply, a light and sound installation inside the ROM’s Spirit House that explores our attraction to “magic” displays while emphasizing the energy they consume. Mel Chin offers The Saharan Sand Dollar Exchange Machine, part of a larger project to build a sustainable community in the Western Sahara by developing a solar-backed currency. Visitors can exchange Canadian dollars for coins dispensed by the machine that are made out of solar-fused desert sand and are backed by solar power (as opposed to a standard currency). Other projects address ocean ecology, urban beekeeping, climate knowledge in Indigenous Arctic populations and the price of carbon.

Two of the most striking contributions to the project are also the most simple. Donald Weber’s photographs of the residents of Igloolik, Nunavut, depict men, women and children sitting in the dark of a local high school, their faces illuminated only by the glow of their mobile devices. The portraits recall Rembrandt in their stark juxtaposition of light and shadow, but their expressions reflect the world changing at a pace that would be unrecognizable to every previous century.

The second striking project is Sharon Switzer’s #crazyweather, a 10-minute video loop of a spinning globe. The image frequently zooms in on different geographic areas, revealing locals’ tweets about the “crazy weather” they’ve experienced over the past two years. The video is succinct but powerful, suggesting how the latent force of social media could be harnessed to address climate change. Instead, we simply remark on it.

Despite the exhibition’s scope and its potential to draw tourists, Cape Farewell has struggled to secure funding. Buckland speculates that many foundations were nervous about supporting the project because they questioned the efficacy of artists to affect real change on the front lines of climate change policy. Likewise, the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund denied Cape Farewell a grant because of the focus of Carbon 14. “This is somewhat shocking to me,” says Buckland. “[We have] staged climate exhibitions in Moscow and Beijing, so to be refused support in Canada indicates just how contentious the subject matter is in political circles.” Ultimately, the province of Ontario, private donors and small companies provided the necessary support. 

Over the next few months, Carbon 14 will have plenty of opportunity to sway public opinion. However, the exhibition faces a second hurdle. With so many projects, venues, artists and competing visions, is the core message – climate is culture – at risk of being lost? Buckland hopes that visitors will walk away with the conviction that climate change is the most pressing issue of our time and energized by possibilities of sustainable change as envisioned by the participating artists.

Donald Weber hopes for a more nebulous and emotional response. “[I want to] try and connect with a mainstream audience that perhaps would not read a scientific journal, maybe doesn’t know too much about climate change. But by engaging in a work of art – in my case, photography – they are allowed to drift and find their own connection to a subject. For me, it’s not about blunt documentation, but allowing a viewer to find their voice through art.”

Carbon 14: Climate is Culture, Cape Farewell Foundation. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario, October 19, 2013 to February 2, 2014

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