How do we start to do things differently? I have just returned to London after a month on the road, which has taken me to Toronto, New York and Washington. I gave a keynote speech at the SXSW eco-conference in Austin, Texas and finally visited the extraordinary art town of Marfa on the Mexican border. In Texas I saw places that hadn’t had any rain for 18 months; most of the ranches had lost all of their longhorns and the landscape was parched, barren and windblown.
In July, the NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) website concluded that over 59% of the land mass of the US was experiencing ‘extreme weather’ conditions: drought, flood, storms, tornadoes. Over 20% of Texas’ energy needs are supplied by wind turbines and solar, a figure much of Europe aspires to.
I am curating a new exhibition for Ballroom Marfa, a non-profit contemporary arts space, entitled CARBON 13 (CARBON 12 will open in Paris in April 2012). Six artists are invited to make aggressive interventionist artworks that address the (climate) state we are in.
Artist Erika Blumenfeld has been collecting the carbonised burned wood left behind from the huge forest fires that have raged through the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. While collecting these burnt offerings, she was endlessly stopped by police and parks wardens and told to replace the ‘evidence’ as it was taken from private land (96% of Texas is privately owned). Erika’s artworks will be stolen objects, witnesses to human folly and the weather events that have struck the Land of the Free.
I swam in the Rio Grande, if it is possible to ‘swim’ in 40cm of water. The river is barely a stream, a symbol of the divide challenging the US between Americans committed to addressing the climate events that have reduced this once great river, and those still demanding the excesses of a lifestyle that is an illusion of the American Dream. The Rio Grande also divides Mexico from the US: even Mexican drug lords cross over each evening to escape the lawlessness and violence of the Mexican border towns, where desperate economic refugees try to enter the US and drugs are the local currency.
In New York, we opened the Cape Farewell U-N-F-O-L-D exhibition at Parsons University on 5th Avenue and 13th Street. Five hundred people turned up for the opening, which launched the exhibition’s ten-week run. Twenty-five artists from the 2007, 2008 and 2009 High Arctic and Andes Cape Farewell expeditions are showing work inspired by the science and the human stories behind climate change. In one artwork by Ackroyd & Harvey, there is a diamond made from the carbonised bones of a polar bear; there are texts projected onto glaciers; an 8mm film by musician Feist; semaphore and song by Robyn Hitchcock, K. T. Tunstall and Chris Wainwright – ‘Here Comes the Sun; There Goes the Ice’. A programme of events, lectures and performances runs at the gallery until 15 December.
Odd as it may seem, we at Cape Farewell are intrigued by what is happening in North America. If climate issues and our warming planet aren’t addressed there, then we will truly hit the buffers of doom. But if the continent does engage with the challenge of change and new technology, then progress could sweep forward like a wave, a great big surfing Pacific wave.
In Toronto, the Cape Farewell Foundation put on a concert with musicians Patrick Watson and Amy Millan of The Stars. It was a handover celebration of the hundredth birthday of Toronto’s media genius Marshall McLuhan to the birth of the new Cape Farewell Foundation. It witnessed a unique gathering of 40 ‘informers’ and creators for a two-day urban retreat to interrogate the present and create the new. Informers included climate and social scientists, economists, technologists and even eco-theologians – all very Marshall McLuhan. Creators included artists, writers, architects and musicians from Mexico, the US and Canada.