Art, Science and Climate Change

I keep trying to write this story and I don’t know where to begin or how to proceed. Maybe, certainly, I should have taken better notes. But all the notes in the world would still have left me struggling for words to describe the past two days. What happened? I was fortunate enough to be invited to a two-day convening administered by the British organization Tipping Point exploring the boundary between artistic and cultural life and the extraordinary challenge of global climate change. The event was sponsored by the British Council along with the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the Institute for Sustainable Cities at CUNY.

Have you ever heard of Wally Broecker? He’s the scientist who literally coined the phrase “global warming” and he opened up the event with an impassioned speech on his life’s work. It really hit home when he said he wished he could live another 50 years or more into the future to see how all this was going to play out. That’s how immediate these changes are and how personal it is – many of us will see the impact of this man’s work in our lifetimes, we will see his predictions come to pass.

Because the meeting was conducted under the Chatham House Rule I can’t attribute specific statements to specific people – but I think I can name-drop, so I’m going to name-drop a little – since this is an arts and culture blog I’m going to focus on the arts people – imagine being in a room with artists like DJ Spooky, Ann Carlson, Cynthia Hopkins and Mary Miss; with arts administrators like Joe Melillo, Mark Russell, Sandra Gibson and Cathy Zimmerman as well as a passel of leading scientists, researchers, cultural and thought leaders from around the country – nay, the world – to brainstorm at the intersection of arts and science. You can start to imagine what it was like.

Let me put it this way – when I opened up the New York Times this morning, the first article I read was about Global Warming, and for the first time I felt like this was the most important story in the paper. I mean, when you’ve got a situation where 97% of all scientists agree that climate change is real and a huge swath of the public doesn’t believe them, you’ve got a problem.

Sunday morning we all gathered on Columbia’s Manhattan campus where we boarded buses taking us to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) campus where we would listen to scientists and artists make presentations on their work around climate change, participate in workshops and Open Space dialogue and collectively try to identify some actions we could implement to raise awareness of this monumental issue.

On the bus I sat next to Susannah Sayler, co-founder of The Canary Project, which produces visual media, events, and artwork to build public understanding of human-induced climate change. We jumped right into a conversation on climate change which continued unabated for the next 48 hours.

Upon arrival at LDEO we got reports from “Scientists on the Front Line” where Wally Broecker made his speech followed by a presentation from Joanie Kleypas, who is doing groundbreaking work with coral reefs’ response to global warming.

Speeches were followed by some group exercises and then we broke for lunch where I sat with Jessica Grindstaff of Phantom Limb Company and learned about her impending trip to Antarctica in preparation for a new piece she’s working on. (I also learned a lot about Phantom Limb’s upcoming collaboration with Ping Chong at LaMama and will be doing a more in-depth interview with them soon).

And then we returned for Open Space dialogue. If you’ve never done Open Space it is this unique way of putting together meetings where the process is self-directed by the participants. You can learn more about it here. My group was exploring parallels between the artistic and the scientific processes and ways that they could work together. (NB: if you want to check out Open Space in action, be sure to participate in “Devoted and Disgruntled” in NYC on January 16th and 17th)

The Open Space discussion was followed by a conversation among “artists on the front line” which was followed by the most important part – dinner and drink. In no time at all the room was buzzing with “show and tell” of projects and ideas, paleogeologists were explaining their findings to choreographers and visual artists, arts administrators were listening to scientists talk about carbon capture – it sounds kind of wonky but it was incredibly fascinating.

Hovering over and weaving through the conversation was the delight in discovering how much artists and scientists really have in common – these obsessive people who set out with a theory or hypothesis, try and prove it, fail and try again. They’re out on the edge of the known, making discoveries, re-imagining the found world, reinterpreting it and showing it to us again. It was a dynamic dinner of great discussions and high spirits.

The next morning began with a “provocation” from Jeffrey Sachs. Jeffrey Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute and he gave a thoughtful presentation about the importance of raising awareness about climate change and the battles we face. He made a number of salient points but, sensationalist that I am, the thing that really stuck was that the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page STILL refuses to acknowledge that man-made climate change is real and a problem. Not only that but they are actively engaged in trying to debunk it. That means that all the CEOs and business leaders and entrepreneurs who read the WSJ and take it seriously could be among the people who think it is bunk, despite years of research and overwhelming evidence.  As they say, “I mean, really!?”

I’m afraid of getting bogged down in a “then we did this, then we did that” narrative re-telling of a conference, which I imagine is pretty boring.  And I could name-drop ‘til the cows come home but I’m not going to – Chatham House Rule and all that – but it is like this: prior to these two days the most I knew about climate change was from the Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth. So this was an amazing opportunity to meet with scientists working and learn from them. Not only was this a learning opportunity but it opened the door for action – a chance to devise ways for artists and scientists to collaborate and raise awareness of this extraordinarily important and complex problem.

Let me conclude by saying that I’m hopeful that the conversations we began will continue and, most likely, in a public forum. Stay tuned to Culturebot for more information.

And finally, let me suggest that this is an area where arts funders could really take the lead. Because developing dialogue between art and science – and funding projects at that intersection – is not just about expanding the purview of art. It is about bringing two arguably marginal disciplines into the center of public discourse. And it is about building new communities. This is an extraordinary moment and an extraordinary opportunity for visionary funders to take the lead and change the national conversation in a meaningful way that is bound to have significant impact.

My kudos to the organizers of Tipping Point, my thanks to the British Council, the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the Institute for Sustainable Cities at CUNY for making this possible, and my undying admiration to my artist and scientist colleagues who made this such an extraordinary experience. I wish I was a better writer and could truly capture the spirit of vision, innovation, passion and possibility that was generated during two days at the Tipping Point.

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