Thursday, 5 February 2009

Cape Farewell and the role of the artist

A voyage to the frontline of climate change

Artists and creative practitioners have something special - the opportunity to connect with people through their work. When economies crash, when war torn images are all we’re faced with on our screens and when environmental catastrophe strikes, it is art that speaks to many. British designer, artist and film-maker David Buckland saw how artists and communicators could take an active part in spotlighting climate change.

Since 2003 Buckland, as founder and director of Cape Farewell, has organised six expeditions to the Arctic, taking artists, scientists, educators and communicators to experience the effects of global warming firsthand, get inspired and alert public attention to it through their resulting work.

From September 26th to October 5ththis year, over thirty artists including musicians Laurie Anderson, Jarvis Cocker, Feist, Ryuichi Sakamoto, KT Tunstall and Martha Wainwright plus composers, a comedian, theatre makers, artists, architects, poets, photographers and filmmakers, accompanied two science crews from the National Oceanography Centre and British Geological Survey.

“Artists are the cultural pioneers- the adventurers.” Buckland declared on his return from the latest voyage, “Being on the edge of possibility drives the art process forward. These nature machines, which take the Gulf Stream from the equator up to the Arctic - there’s no way anything we could do as human beings could replicate this power.”

Journeying to Disko Bay, Greenland then across the front of the Jakobshavn Glacier, one of Greenland's largest glaciers moving at a faster rate than ever before, and losing 20 million tons of ice every day, the artists took part in daily research with the scientists, as well as group discussions, presentations and debates focused around the topic of climate change.

“It was crucial that artists were engaged with the scientists. The scientists are always producing material in an isolated environment,” Said Chris Wainwright, artist and Head of Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Colleges, “This is an opportunity to externalise it through the artists, who then take the message to a wider audience.”

“It was an incredibly intensive.” He continued, “Days started at 8am and ended at 12pm.”

No stranger to environmentally focused art projects, in the early 90s Wainwright undertook a similar, albeit more solitary, expedition up the Amazon River in a dug out canoe, gathering evidence of deforestation. “Watching this gave me the proof of what is happening. I now have a political and emotional engagement with climate change, so I can make my art, as now I can back it up.”

Wainwright kept busy on board, collaborating with musician Robyn Hitchcock, “I asked him if he knew the words to Here Comes The Sun, he did, so Robyn, who’s an amazing musician, performed it at 5am with the sun coming up behind him, and I documented it.”

Also teaming up with architect Sunand Prasad, he and Wainwright attached helium balloons to cameras on a piece of ice flow, forming a 6.25m cube – equal to the mass of 1 tonne of CO2.

Not all work, Jarvis Cocker had the idea that it would be fun to have a disco at Disko Bay, so brought his turntables with him. A proper knee’s up was had, with impromptu all-star band featuring Feist, KT, Martha, Ryuichi, Jarvis and Robyn, performing for locals at a smoky pub in Ilulissat.

While many of the musicians said they wouldn’t write a song about climate change, because that would be a bit naff, instead Martha Wainwright stopped midway through a recent Roundhouse performance to explain her experiences on the boat, while KT Tunstall has since reschedule her entire tour around energy efficiency.

Next, Buckland says, a walking journey in the Peruvian Amazon- a smaller pilot programme as usual lead by the scientists’ research, while in 2010 Cape farewell will go to the Russian Arctic.

“People have already got climate change fatigue without having done anything to respond to the scientists.” Comedian Marcus Brigstocke surmises neatly. “If CO2 emissions were visible, this would never have happened. In the same way that, if someone with a nice house had a crisp packet shoved into their hedge, they would be furious because they can see it, without realising that the big 4 x 4 parked in their drive way is doing so much more to their hedge and everything else, they just can’t see it. This is about getting people to see climate change.”

Images -
Balloon Installation Sunand Prasad and Chris Wainwright
Robyn Hitchcock performing semaphore version of Here Comes The Sun. Chris Wainwright
Jarvis Cocker with Martha Wainwright and Feist
Red Ice 01 Chris Wainwright
Red Ice 02 Chris Wainwright
Matt Wainwright, Chris Wainwright and Martha Wainwright

See blogs and podcasts from the artists and crew here

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