Illustration by Renee Li for ArtAsiaPacific.

Remember when contemporary art solved the climate crisis?

Also available in:  Arabic

Climate as Content

Not every artwork needs to be about the climate crisis. Nor should it be. That being said, with a recent, sharp increase in climate-change as a topic for artworks and exhibitions, it is necessary to address a sizable gap in the typical perceptions of what a climate-crisis-themed artwork “does” or “accomplishes” and what it is physically and chemically—and, as a result, its actual material effects on the atmosphere. Climate change is, after all, a large-scale physicochemical problem. It is an accumulating flow of gaseous carbon that is immune to our individually held thoughts, beliefs, hopes, and fears. It is responsive to (and constituted by) the emergent phenomena of humans’ collective material activities at a planetary scale.

At the root of the gap between an artwork’s imagined and actual effects is, perhaps, a more general tendency to confuse artworks and cultural endeavors that are about something for being the thing itself. For example, a painting that is about a historically effective political protest movement may become rhetorically confused with being an effective political protest, despite its present-day context, format, and reception. In many ways this disjuncture ultimately arises from contemporary art’s tendency to imagine itself as separate from the mode of production of society at large—often to the point of being unable to see its own position within that system.

Slippery and imprecise language, such as in statements about how a project “tackles,” “confronts,” “addresses,” or “combats” climate change, can further obfuscate the divide between the perception-of and the actual exigency of a work. This tendency to imbue an artwork with meaning far beyond its material exigency or audience reception is a defining blind spot of much contemporary art and discourse that is currently being produced about this topic. It’s a confusion between figure and ground. It imagines the climate crisis as a graspable, personifiable figure that can be “addressed,” rather than understanding it as, in fact, the large-scale, ineffable backdrop arising from our society’s activities: literally the air we breathe.

Artworks are products and features of our present-day, carbon-emitting mode of production. Our “fossil capitalism” production system and economic organization of society is the source of the climate crisis, and any effective climate-related endeavor—artwork or otherwise—must act upon and affect this site. The tendency for disavowal of the material-economic-chemical conditions of an artwork in favor of its stated message allows for the art world equivalent of greenwashing. Similar to corporate or political greenwashing, this stifles and obfuscates paths toward actually significant systemic change and points of productive intervention into material conditions (as well as paths toward more interesting art). We should be honest with ourselves that under the current art system, and the present-day mode of production, most artworks are net emitters by a large margin. The more “heroic” in scale or “immersive” an artwork is, generally the larger the source of emissions it is, and this fact cannot be “offset” by an encoded climate-related message.

Much has been written of the inherent contradictions of Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch (2014), and while I’m not aiming to pile on, the work is an instructive example of the perceptual gaps of our present moment. The project entailed the transportation of several heavy ice fragments from the Greenland ice sheet to three cities in Europe, where the public could watch them melt. In the process, it produced a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions—largely due to the refrigerated shipping of the heavy fragments across large distances. Probably anticipating some criticism regarding the project’s resource footprint, Eliasson commissioned a carbon-accounting analysis from the London-based organization Julie’s Bicycle for the project’s Paris iteration. This version produced an estimated 30 metric tons of CO2 equivalent: small in comparison to the world’s total carbon emissions, but as a single artwork, it may have been one of the most heavily carbon-emitting projects made during that decade, especially when counting the impact of all three of its presentations.

Workers loading ice at Nuuk Port and Harbour, Greenland, for OLAFUR ELIASSON’s Ice Watch (2014). Photo by Studio Olafur Eliasson. Copyright and courtesy the artist.
Workers loading ice at Nuuk Port and Harbour, Greenland, for OLAFUR ELIASSON’s Ice Watch (2014). Photo by Studio Olafur Eliasson. Copyright and courtesy the artist.

Ironically, I would argue that the work’s primary positive contribution is in this use of carbon accounting—a concrete step that allowed for the registration of the physical and ecological costs that came with the conceptual gesture’s realization—something that very few artworks and exhibitions have done. However, the issue of whether the work may have effectively raised awareness of the climate crisis, reaching a public and changing minds­­—thus presumably also leading to actual, material action—remains debatable. The question of the material effectiveness of the work is further complicated by the project’s apparent participation in corporate greenwashing. All three iterations of the project were underwritten by Bloomberg Philanthropies, a charity founded by and closely linked to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has been a vocal proponent of and likely investor in fracking and various oil-and-gas-related projects in the United States. As one of the wealthiest individuals in the country, he has an obvious interest in maintaining the material-economic status quo and his brief entry into the US presidential race as a 2020 Democratic candidate can most appropriately be understood through this lens. (Early in his candidacy he attempted to position himself as “the climate change candidate” through a flood of self-funded Google ads for search terms related to the climate crisis, despite the fact that he opposes significant climate initiatives such as the Green New Deal.)

There may have been a historical window where “raising awareness” on the issue of climate change via artworks was a relevant and materially effective endeavor. Some of Eliasson’s earlier work may well have occurred in that window, and it is still debatable as to whether Ice Watch can be considered under the same light. However, it’s highly unlikely that an artwork created today will reach a person that is unaware of the general problem of climate change, much less change their mind about the issue (to say nothing of their material actions). The public is well aware of the existence of climate change and the need for it to urgently “be addressed” (or is likely otherwise in denial and generally not amenable to statements coded in the format of contemporary artworks). The media already thoroughly discusses the topic on a daily basis. And indeed, the climate itself does a far better job at producing climate-related “content” and “raising awareness.” Despite the multitude of climate-related artworks at the 2019 Venice Biennale, for example, it’s undeniable that the floods in the city did far more to make tangible the perils of climate change than any contemporary art display.

Venice flooded in November 2019. Photo by GodeNehler.

Offsetting a Culture Industry

Of course, the material footprint of the art world is not limited to the physical forms of artworks but also includes the multitude of activities centered on viewing art and producing discourse. Clearly, one of the most significant areas of emissions in the art economy is the transportation of people and artworks to various places around the globe each year for art fairs, biennials, conferences, and other assemblies.

In 2019, at the behest of one of his artists, the dealer David Zwirner purchased a “carbon offset” meant to account for his entire year’s carbon emissions, “203,823 lbs,” the certificate for which was then promptly displayed on social media. For the 2019 edition of Art Basel Miami, likely aware of the potential for bad press on the art fairs’ considerable emissions footprint (and the possible future threat to their business model), the fair organizers announced that it would “offset” the carbon emissions of its staff, VIP guests, and invited speakers, along with other select attendees. Aside from the fact that it’s likely that Art Basel’s “offset” accounted for less than one percent of the fair’s overall emissions footprint, there is another, larger problem with this announcement: carbon offsets themselves.

While many have already raised the critique that such carbon offsets can function along the lines of a medieval Catholic “indulgence”—creating perverse incentives and allowing one to continue to pollute while feeling absolved of further responsibility—a deeper issue is with the methodological assumptions and questionable material effectiveness of the nascent industry of carbon offsetting. There is much debate regarding what carbon offsets are, but one thing that they generally are not is a direct, immediate removal of carbon from the atmosphere. The typical premise of offsets is that by doing something that reduces carbon emissions elsewhere in the world, offsets will negate the effects of already-emitted carbon. Predictably, this “elsewhere in the world” is often in the “developing world.” For example, some carbon-offset products or companies plant trees in “developing” countries where land is typically far cheaper than in more industrialized nations.

While sometimes beneficial, this also has the potential to put pressure on local agricultural systems by reducing available land and raising the cost of arable plots. But an additional problem is the simple fact that trees grow slowly in time. While an acre of mature forest (about 60–100 years old depending on the variety of trees) can generally remove between 200 and 300 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere over an extended period of time, the amount that it could remove in a smaller window of five or ten years would be a minor fraction by comparison. Carbon offset companies can take advantage of this ambiguity and quote a quantity of carbon that will be removed from the atmosphere in 100 years as if it would be removed from the atmosphere today. Given our current point on the trajectory of climate change, any quoted quantity of carbon should be fully removed from the atmosphere by the crucial date of 2030. This, however, is uncommon practice and would make carbon “offsets” far more expensive.

Workers planting trees in China’s Horqin Desert. Image via Timberland.

Other carbon-offset products operate by a similarly nebulous logic, for example by funding NGO organizations that “encourage locals” to use more carbon-efficient cooking methods or energy-efficient light bulbs. In addition to the issue with timeframe calculation with these endeavors, there is a more fundamental problem in the assumption that these changes would not have happened anyway through other means. To add to all of this, there are many documented scams and instances of fraud in the carbon-offset industry, which has several voluntary standards but very little regulation.

Ultimately, the logic of offsets is the equivalent of dumping one barrel of trash into the ocean, but rather than cleaning it up, finding someone in another city who is also planning to dump some trash into the ocean and then paying that person to encourage them to dump less trash at a future point in time—and then believing that as a result the trash you dumped no longer exists. Like much of the cultural logic around climate change “solutions,” it violates the laws of physics several times over. At their worst, carbon offsets can potentially become a neocolonial endeavor where the “clean up” of the industrialized world’s mess is outsourced to those less industrialized regions that had very little part in producing it.

This is not to say that the effectiveness of all offsets is zero, or that it is better not to offset carbon emissions than to offset them, everything else being equal. The important point is to ensure the effectiveness of any offsets, even though this can be exceedingly difficult. To mitigate some of the issues inherent in the concept of and effectiveness of offsets, some environmental experts recommend purchasing an offset that is ten times the amount of carbon one actually produced in the present—a far cry from Art Basel’s marginal gesture. 

Beyond these attempts to reverse the entropic arrow of the art world’s already emitted carbon, there are even more paradoxical practices, such as climate-related art conferences that promote an “intellectual exchange” through in-person conversations at a global “destination.” An almost cartoonish example of the art system’s present mindset vis-à-vis the climate crisis was a planned three-day “experiential” sustainability summit event in Abu Dhabi organized by Art Basel. The summit was canceled before it could proceed. However, there are certainly many other events along these lines.

Taken together, carbon offsetting and the artworks, exhibitions, and conferences predicated on the value of “raising awareness” are symptoms of a present-day failure to connect the dots between the art system and our “fossil capitalist” mode of production—the material-chemical basis from which the art system arises. They speak to a desperate desire to continue as normal and for art to remain relevant in a time of rapidly shifting frameworks and an increasing likelihood of near-future social and ecological collapse.

We can’t solve the climate crisis through the same economic system that produced it.  Art as it is currently practiced is thoroughly embedded in that system. To the extent that it could have an active role in the social and material transformation that is required, art would need to shift its frame of reference away from traditional object and exhibition-based formats, towards endeavors that are situated within and act upon the material-economic system itself and society more broadly. We don’t need an additional quantity of art objects and exhibitions produced by the existing system. Rather we need artists (and everyone) to help create entirely new systems.

Factories near Beijing. Photo by Andy Enero

The Sackler Wing of the Atmosphere

The idea that “we are all responsible” for the climate crisis has become a truism, but a more useful observation is that some of us are far more responsible than others. From one perspective, the climate crisis can be seen as the outcome of extremely poor resource management by the classes that control the economy and benefit from its current structure. While it is these classes as a whole that are primarily responsible for the crisis, within these classes, there are individuals who have a greater or lesser degree of culpability based on their actions of supporting and benefiting from the present system (or on the other hand, though rarely, a track record of staging and funding significant, effective solutions to the crisis).

One area that is largely missing from climate-related discourse is the mapping of the responsibilities of the people most heavily invested in the present-day “fossil capital” system. What could form the basis for future climate reparations, among other things, is research-based work along the lines of Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971) that focuses, for example, on wealthy individuals’ associated lobbying efforts in oil, gas, aviation, and automotive sectors, as well as holdings in conventional food production, fast fashion, concrete manufacturing, financial services, and media outlets and political campaigns that support climate denial, and other areas of intense greenhouse gas emissions. As a direct means of holding accountable those at the top—where the most immediate action needs to occur—this is likely to be a form of “raising awareness” that could actually engender systemic change. 

Given the connection to and overlap between the individuals most heavily invested in “fossil capital” and those who are patrons of the arts, recent research such as Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics (2018) could offer a good starting point. Granted, with the enormity and degree of interconnected complexity of the “fossil capitalist” system, parsing its intricacies is a far greater challenge than mapping the real-estate holdings of one individual. To that end, more recent tools related to machine-learning could offer a way forward. Mapping this individual responsibility for and benefit from the current economic system across multiple dimensions and with multiple degrees of culpability could be a valuable tool for future generations, and could potentially act as a form of motivation in the present for those individuals with the most resources at their disposal to make changes to the current system.

There are many other potential modes of actually effective responses to the climate crisis, and this essay is not meant to be proscriptive. Projects functioning in areas related to reforestation, species or ecosystem conservation and adaptation, renewable energy systems, certain geoengineering applications and research, interventions into food production or the financial system, and synthetic genetic diversity (for example through gene editing or induced mutation) to produce more resilient species and ecosystems, are just some of the potential areas to consider. (All, of course, with the appropriate care.)

ANDREA FRASER, 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, 2018, print installation detail, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

Given the immense scale of the problem, for projects to have maximum effectiveness, ideally, they would either be implemented on a large scale or designed as a kind of scalable mechanism that can later be rapidly scaled up given the appropriate resources (as we know, artists’ resources are often limited under the present system). Crucially, these initiatives should be a functioning component of or intervention into the systems of the world at large­—not a representation of an idea or a speculative proposal, but the direct implementation of that idea itself. Instead of the prevailing mode of art that comments “about” a state of the world from within an exhibition, it should be an art that is materially and functionally of the world and actively situated in the world. 

The fact that these kinds of climate-relevant interventions and alternative frameworks are, by and large, not being deployed today in the field of art does not indicate a failing of artists themselves. Rather it is the outcome of the overall art system in which they function and on which they are dependent (obviously, myself included). On the one hand, art discourse, in an apparent need to “justify” the value or relevance of the channels it is most familiar with at a time of social and environmental crises, finds itself making claims for an artwork’s function far beyond—or in direct contradiction of—an artwork’s actual material exigency. But, on the other hand—and ultimately the primary obstacle—is the fact that under the present system artists, writers, curators, administrators, and other agents in the art field are financially tethered to an economic base of a wealthy patron class that has increasingly strict and reactionary requirements for the format of an artwork (hence the rise of paintings, sculptural objects, and occasional immersive installations or spectacles as the formats du jour). As this donor class is also among the group that has most benefited from the “fossil capitalist” system, for them, collecting contemporary art that “tackles” or “addresses” the climate crisis is the cultural equivalent of sending “thoughts and prayers” to future generations.

To be clear, the purpose of this essay is not to propose a kind of universal moralist bean-counting of the carbon emissions of the contemporary art system, artwork by artwork. Again, it’s perfectly fine for an artwork to not be about the climate crisis—or to not be about anything. It’s even okay for an artwork under the present system to emit a certain amount of carbon through its production and reception. (Though, at the same time, the tendency towards mass overproduction of art objects and events should clearly be curbed.) Instead, the problem is with a false moralism or “climate crisis value” and imagined effectiveness placed on artworks that are in fact situated smoothly within the carbon-emitting channels of conventional art production and that do nothing to address the underlying material cause of the climate crisis itself. This form of greenwashing produces climate-related art as a stylistic tendency or convention du jour while distracting from actually effective interventions and formats. It’s often said that the field of art helps society to envision alternative futures. But how can art envision an alternative future as it relates to the climate crisis when it doesn’t fully conceive of its own present?

SUBSCRIBE NOW to receive ArtAsiaPacific’s print editions, including the current issue with this article, for only USD 95 a year or USD 180 for two years.  

ORDER the print edition of the March/April 2020 issue, in which this article is printed, for USD 20.