A lot of us get it. We accept that human-driven climate change is occurring at potentially catastrophic rates and that we have to take action. But some folks don’t.
And I’m not even talking about extreme deniers. Recent studies have shown that even when people accept the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change, they may not feel personally affected. It’s hard to fathom such an enormous situation.
And that’s where art steps in.
Art can reach us emotionally, intellectually and even physiologically. Highly personal, sensory experiences with art can serve as portals into abstract or difficult topics.
Not surprisingly, given Seattle’s longstanding reputation for environmental awareness, local artists have increasingly deployed a variety of media to engage people in the urgent topic of climate change. Here are four of them, all of whom have art currently on view in the region.
Campbell, who creates gorgeously filmed and manipulated video art, says that his work probes “how we emotionally grapple with these issues, not just with the facts and figures.”
His process involves a lot of research — on sustainability, predatory capitalism, psychology — but his work is far from didactic or heavy-handed. He says, “The invitation that I’m trying to provide, to myself first, is: How can we change the approach to learning about these issues so it doesn’t feel like a chore?”
Campbell’s invitation results in lush, high-resolution imagery and intriguingly ambiguous narratives. “If people are going to be brought on board, it’s going to have to be through beauty. It’s going to have to be through something we can all relate to.”
Campbell’s large video installation that is currently on view at Bellevue’s City Hall (as part of the big Bellwether arts festival) is full of beauty — a decaying Italian villa, a medieval cathedral, a flowering field. Robe-cloaked people inhabit these settings, encountering twisting sci-fi objects, ghostly figures, or old books. We feel their sense of desperate wonderment but there is no clear explanation of the story.
Campbell named the piece “Solastalgia,” a relatively new term (coined in 2005 by Glenn Albrecht, a sustainability scholar) for the profound feeling of loss caused by negative changes in our environment.
Campbell shares the underlying premise: The characters in the video are of a future generation, living with the devastating effects of climate change and interacting with mysterious digital footage that’s been excavated from the early 21st century. They are mourning something they never knew and can’t quite grasp.
Campbell merges the realities of time and space (the actors were filmed and digitally added to settings he shot earlier), setting up a metaphor for how we interact with the world. Layers of information and experience are always present at the same time. By acknowledging the complexity of how we comprehend things, we just might be able sort through vast topics like climate change.
“Solastalgia,” four-channel synchronized video by Robert Campbell. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays through Sept. 27; Bellevue City Hall, 450 110th Ave. N.E., Bellevue; free; robertcampbellstudio.com
Noah is also interested in “hyper-real” images but hers lure us in with humor. Her digitally altered photographs might feature a balloon animal floating in space. Or marbles — looking like planets — that scatter across the Milky Way. Earth transforms into a bowling ball, or maybe a shocked emoji.
Noah infuses her art with irony but says, “Humor isn’t the point, it’s a byproduct. It’s both a coping mechanism and something that attracts someone into the work. And then they realize it’s about more.”
Her titles are wordplays that point to our dire situation. The piece titled “Toss & Turn” — which is also the name of her current solo exhibition at Davidson Gallery — features two colorful hats, which, Noah states, have been “tossed into the ring (Earth’s orbit), bearing witness to climate change on Earth and the Earth’s rotation, as well as the idiomatic expression for fitful sleep.”
Noah finds satellite images for the settings into which she digitally inserts photographs she has made of toys or other objects. She spends hours creating a seamless fit, including matching the lighting of the background of her photographs with the satellite images.
“I am creating photographs that lie, but for good reason. I’m interested in the idea that there’s truth and there’s fallacy. This isn’t a real situation that you’re looking at. It’s a metaphor for an actual truth that’s happening.”
When Noah asks scientists for permission to use their satellite photographs, the answer is always “yes” (their projects are taxpayer-funded, after all). And some are curious about how Noah manipulates their images to express shared concerns about climate change.
“I don’t think any individual artist can change the world,” she says, “but the more collective voices there are, the more chance there is that people will pay attention and want to do something.”
“Toss & Turn,” solo exhibition of altered photographs by Barbara Noah. 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through Sept. 28; Davidson Gallery, 313 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle; free; davidsongalleries.com
Petric also gathers preexisting imagery for her work but through very different means. Petric has designed an artificial intelligence (AI) program that searches the internet for images of whichever environmental terms she plugs in: sky, forest, pollution, water.
The program sorts through thousands of images out of which it generates an intricately montaged single picture based on Petric’s color schemes, compositional choices and other aesthetic parameters built into the algorithm.
Petric thinks of the algorithm like a paintbrush and, indeed, the overall pieces are very satisfying, seeming at first like an abstract landscape or a fluid blend of large pictures. But getting closer, we can see myriad smaller images embedded throughout. These are not, however, simple photo-mosaics, in which a single, easily identifiable picture is made up of thumbnails of smaller images. Petric’s images are unique, often abstracted configurations that are generated from the algorithm. These pictorial wonders can be seen in her storefront studio in Redmond, where she is the city’s artist in residence.
Fascinated by the concept of “the gaze” — how looking reveals value, identity, or power — Petric says, “The internet is like a magnifier of the archetypes of our time. I’m not telling what air pollution is; I’m learning from the internet what it is. And with the algorithm, you get a stereotype, an epitome of a view of air pollution on the internet.”
For Petric, AI is a tool for understanding. “Art and science are both about trying to answer profound questions, they’re just using different methods. Things that could be done in art are not so much allowed in science because it’s a rigorous discipline that has many more rules. The absence of rules in art, and the use of a different side of the brain, allows you to use your emotion, imagination, and intuition so you can try to answer those big questions.
“The combination can’t give a total answer,” she says. “But it allows a more encompassing view of people’s relationships with nature.”
“Lost Skies,” computer-generated visualizations by Maja Petric. 3-8 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays and by appointment through 2019; Maja Petric Studio, 16528 Cleveland St., Suite D, Redmond; free; majapetric.com
Carol Rashawnna Williams
Interdisciplinary artist Williams also considers the big picture in her explorations of how race and climate justice intersect.
As an environmental educator, she is immersed in research that filters its way into her monoprints, mixed-media works and immersive installations. Williams conscientiously uses upcycled materials and monoprints because they use resources sparingly and do not suggest industrial production.
Williams points out that recent art exhibitions have focused on race or the environment, but rarely on how the two are coupled together.
“The linchpin to both of those topics is resource extraction,” she says. “It’s easy for Americans to forget that African Americans were resource-extracted. We were extracted and so our story around climate is very unique. I would hope that African Americans who see my work walk away with a sense of, ‘I’ve been seen.’”
Her recent installation at Seattle University’s Hedreen Gallery featured dozens of monoprints hanging from the ceiling. On the thinly printed black surfaces were facts about climate science, demographics and economies. The printed fabric panels were attached to each other and the structure of the gallery, and they gently swayed as people moved around them, hinting at interconnected cause and effect relationships.
The second part of Williams’ show — currently in progress at Seattle University’s Vachon Gallery — will feature a similar installation, but this time, members of the public will create prints of their own as they explore the topics of race and environmentalism.
“Stories have to be told and people need a place for healing and for gathering,” Williams says, “because if we are going to solve this problem, it’s in relationship to each other.”
“For the record,” art installation by Carol Rashawnna Williams. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, Sept. 23-Oct. 11; Seattle University Fine Arts Building, 901 12th Ave., Seattle; free; seattleu.edu