The end of climate art
The term may have made sense at the turn of the century, but it's meaningless now
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I used to work in a video store in the early 2000s, in the dying days of video stores. One of my favourite parts of the job was organising our collection of films into genres. I spent hours debating with other staff about where to categorise certain films. Should a romantic comedy be placed in 'Comedy' or 'Drama'? How old does a film have to be before it gets moved to 'Classic'? Does Jean-Claude Van Damme's Death Warrant belong in 'Action' or 'Martial Arts'?
I always defended the genre categories against the staff who thought they were ridiculous oversimplifications. Sure, the categories were a little arbitrary (what is a 'Drama'?), and they were always messy around the edges - they were still useful guides to help audiences understand what they were seeing and make sense of different kinds of art.
But when a genre label ceases to tell you anything meaningful about the work, it's time to retire it.
'Climate art' (and later 'cli fi') emerged as labels in the 1990s and 2000s for art and storytelling engaged with climate change, either by visualising research data or by depicting future scenarios impacted by climate. The genre had a familiar set of tropes: melting ice sculptures, apocalyptic future wastelands, scientists arguing with politicians, familiar landmarks half-underwater due to sea level rise.
In that era, the label made some sense. Around the turn of the century, people tended to describe climate change as a scientific issue, a matter for researchers and governments. But the 21st century has seen a growing awareness that climate change is not a scientific issue: it's the backdrop against which all other issues take place. Climate has ceased to be a niche field of research, and extended to touch every aspect of society and how we live. It's no longer a subject matter, it's the paradigm within which every artist and writer on the planet is working.
'Climate art' offered the threat or promise of a changed planet. That change has now arrived. We see it in the increasingly frequent heatwaves, bushfires and storms, in the annual 'hottest year on record' news story, in the disappearance of insects and extinction of wild species, in the presence of brightly coloured microplastics wherever we travel on the planet. The crisis is not a distant future possibility - it's visible everywhere. It's always in the corner of our eye, always hovering in the background. Although the speed and scale of change will keep accelerating, there's nothing climate change has promised that it hasn't already delivered.
Climate is an era, not an issue. We are living today in the early years of the climate era. At this moment, climate change has moved from being a story to being an all-encompassing setting. In that light, trying to make work 'about' the climate is like being a medieval artist trying to make work about 'medieval'.
One consequence of this is that today, even artists who don't mention the climate in their work are still producing 'climate art'. As Mckenzie Wark put it, 'All fiction is Anthropocene fiction, some of it just doesn't realise it yet.' Just as modern scholars read the novels of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen through the lens of the Industrial Revolution, so scholars centuries from now will examine all the art of this era through the lens of the planetary transformation. Even the most lightweight escapist artworks can be viewed in the context of the crisis, in the way that 1930s screwball comedies are often seen as a reaction to the grim realities of the Great Depression.
In the 2020s, audiences for art bring the planetary crisis with them. Sleepless in Seattle: The Musical might not appear to be an obvious climate parable, but the image of masked audiences having their temperatures scanned in response to a zoonotic viral epidemic unleashed by human encroachment into bat ecosystems brings the issue into the room regardless. The readers of the most popular novels in 2020 have more microplastics caught in their bodies than any readers before them in human history - a record which will be broken by the readers of the top novels in 2025, and so on.
This is not a critique of the artworks that have been labelled as 'climate art'. As in any genre, the best works will survive on their own terms, most will be forgotten. But the 'climate art' label, and the tropes it refers to, are increasingly irrelevant in the climate era.
At its worst, climate art and cli-fi tends to rehash the same stale post-apocalyptic tropes. Alex Steffen argues that this kind of apocalyptic thinking is a refusal to see past the end of our old worldview and into the realities of our new existence. 'The need to present a before-and-after narrative landscape obscures the most difficult part of the planetary crisis, which is that it will grow more chaotic, and we will never in our lifetimes have a "new normal".'
Humans have told apocalypse stories for thousands of years, and we'll continue to do so. We are drawn to stories of collapse and transformation, the more spectacular the better. But in order to give us a thrill and buzz, a good apocalypse narrative needs to be a little bit fantastical and removed from our everyday life. An apocalypse story about an actual disaster that's happening right now is a little banal. For that, we can just turn on the news, read a history book or an autobiography.
Climate change is not an apocalypse. It is a period in history, a chaotic, bruising ride for the human species (and the entire biosphere) - not an event with a before and after. For the generations living through it - us, our parents, our children, and many generations to come - it's the backdrop of our entire lives. It's the world, and we've never known any other.
At its best, climate art tried to depict how it might feel to experience climate change. But in the 2020s, we know what it feels like: it feels like this. Whatever you're feeling now, that's how climate change feels. Complex, contradictory, frightening, painful, glorious, frustrating, funny, mournful, exhilarating and absurd. Like no other moment in human history and like every other moment in human history.
The only term I know of for a creative endeavour that tries to capture the whole scope of that experience is not climate art, but just art.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
A quiet month for projects so far, but I would like to share this Sydney Morning Herald review from the production of 44 Sex Acts In One Week last month:
44 Sex Acts in One Week feels both like a fantasy (remember touching people?) and also far too real. Luckily for us, that’s playwright David Finnigan’s (Kill Climate Deniers) sweet spot. ... You’ve probably been waiting all year for something to make you laugh this hard. What a treat.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.