Expressions of the Climate Emergency

By Ilana A. Cohen

Sounding the Alarm: Turning Science into Symphony

It is at once overwhelming, heart-wrenching, and empowering. It is the feeling of being thrown into battle and of transcending the status quo of climate inaction. It is the crescendo of humanity itself. The piece ends on an alarming note: There is a world to save and it is up to you to save it. That was what I first felt when I heard COPUS’s performance of “What If We…?” — a jazz-spoken word hybrid composed by the ClimateMusic Project based on climate data — at the WorldBank’s Art of Resilience exhibition last October. This work does not stand alone; rather, it complements a growing number of pieces composed from interpretations of the sounds of rising sea levels and soaring temperatures. In this way, music provides an innovative medium to bridge the conventional communication gap between the public and the often inaccessible world of research science. By turning science into symphony, they convey the statistics behind the stark reality of climate change with an evocative and uniquely human experience to galvanize climate action.

“What if We…?” is one among many pieces produced by the ClimateMusic Project founded by San Francisco-based artist Stephan Crawford, which aims to “harness this universal language [of music] to tell the urgent story of climate change to broad and diverse audiences in a way that resonates, educates, and motivates.” The works implore listeners to imagine the potential for a transformed future, a what-if scenario in which we achieve a more sustainable system. At other times, they strike a more somber tone, suggesting a what-if scenario in which the intransigence to serious climate action seen today persists, dooming us to a planet of depleted natural wonders and destroyed communities. They do so through overlaying techno beats and instrumental blends with audio snippets of startling facts about the stark reality of climate change.

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The Artistic Battle for the Amazon

“The lungs of the earth are on fire.” Newspaper headlines have inflamed people around the world with coverage of the climate-linked forest fires devastating the Amazon. The flames alight the largest tropical rainforest have drifted almost two thousand miles and blackened the skies of Sao Paulo since August. Amidst this unprecedented deforestation and burning threatening the planet’s biodiversity and oxygen supply, artists like ArtFashion Daria Kurtumulus refuse to remain silent. With massive deforestation and wildfires threatening the planet’s biodiversity and critical oxygen supply, they seek to awaken public consciousness to the existential threat of climate change by transforming business as usual in their respective mediums. Through innovative forms of public engagement from clothing-based performance art to botanical exhibitions, these artists occupy new spaces in public view, making clear the message sent by the Amazon forest fires in a time of climate emergency. Even as they approach the task using different mediums,they all work to bring these fires so near to people that complacency becomes a painfully active choice.

Making fashion a form of protest, Kurtumulus employs her design skills in Amazon-themed performance art. In one YouTube video, she represents the Amazon on a T-shirt by painting a pair of lungs — one half of which teems with life while its fire-consumed complement forebodes unparalleled destruction. For the first half of her video, Kurtumulus paints the life-affirming lung, which she comprises of mossy green tree leaves and surrounds with a hummingbird and butterflies. Its pastel colors induce mysticism in the vast and still much undiscovered biodiversity of the Amazon. The second half of the video, however, exposes the fragility of this beauty when after intersplicing her work with footage of the Amazon’s destruction, Kurtumulus’ second lung combusts into flames that leap across her chest. The work portrays the sharp contrast between the Amazon that viewers, present and future, may know — one of life or death — and challenges them to pick a side in the battle for its conservation. From a tranquil tone overlaid with peaceful bird chirps, the music in the second half of the video quickens in pace and strikes a tone of alarm, fomenting a palpable sense of anxiety in viewers that matches Kurtumulus’s race to finish the T-shirt design. Wearing her shirt, Kurtumulus coughs against her arm as if unable to stop herself and puts on a gas mask, staring straight into the camera. The moment issues a far more direct challenge to her audience — with the planet’s lungs at risk, so are her viewers’.

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Reimagining Our Relationship to Nature

Amidst unearthly destruction, Rockman’s vividly colored works convey an electric sense of life. From the evolution of humankind to the extinction of its most precious creatures, Rockman’s nature-centric paintings employ a Romanticism, if not also a Dali-esque surrealism, in their allusion to ecological tragedy and loss amidst the existential threat of climate change. In a New York Times piece last year, Rockman was listed among 12 artists focusing on climate change. He described his projects not only as a means of coping with the climate crisis but of spurring the public to action. “I believed that if one could render moments of extinction, genocide, population explosion and political discord visible, then we might learn to confront and change the conditions leading to civilization’s collapse,” he said in the article.

This urge to awaken public consciousness is not unique to Rockman. Increasingly, artists are cutting across mediums to disrupt artistic convention; it is not only the visceral imagery, but also the symbolic weight of their work that captures viewers’ attention, forcing them to face the climate emergency. Increasingly, artists are using their work to recultivate a sense of curiosity and wonder in the natural world, while also using themes of endangerment and extinction to convey the unparalleled threat posed by humans to this world's existence.

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