The first week of January often involves finding
things that went amiss over the holidays. But even
after rediscovering missing keys (dog bowl), missing
socks (cutlery drawer) and missing luggage (Florida),
it seems something's still nagging. Is it the datebook?
The stereo? The children?
Oh yes, that's it – we seem to be missing
After the warmest December ever recorded, climate
change seems to be well upon us. And along with
losing farmland, tundra and endangered species,
we may be losing something more nebulous but even
more important: national self-image. "The Great
White North," the winter-scene paintings of
the Group of Seven, the continuing (if false) self-identification
with wilderness – climate change puts all
of these things at risk too.
In response to the impending loss, artists from
sea to (growing) sea are working on themes of climate
change and what it means for us.
Other nations have actually been on the vanguard
in this respect. U.K. artist David Buckland organized
an Arctic artist tour and associated exhibition
at London's Natural History Museum last year. The
climate change expedition and show grew out of the
Cape Farewell project co-ordinated by Buckland (more
information can be found at http://www.capefarewell.com).
U.S. artist Jane Marsching launched a live Arctic
audio feed at Boston Institute of Contemporary Art
last month. And photographer Stuart Franklin (who
snapped the iconic Tiananmen Square image) plans
to publish a book of photographs on the topic in
An emerging figure in our melting cultural landscape
is the "polar artist" who travels far
north to record effects of climate change. Canada's
Artists Group (PAG) is a recently formed nonprofit
society "dedicated to promoting awareness of
the polar regions ... and effects of climate change
on the environment and people through art, education,
and special projects." Members have taken several
trips to the Far North already, and the group itself
is planning more for the International Polar Year,
which kicks off in March.
Scarborough's Valerie Russell
is a polar artist who has visited the north twice
on expeditions. Though her paintings seem benign
in content and style, Russell's
message is anything but. Take a painting of a polar
bear on a picturesque arctic shoreline, innocuous
but for its title: Waiting for the Ice to
Form. Russell explains,
"The sightings of polar bears waiting at the
shoreline for the ice to form is now commonplace
... there has been so much written regarding global
warming and disastrous results will compound if
no action is taken."
Though the statistics Russell
cites are bleak – for example, that it's possible
all ocean ice will be gone by 2080 – she gains
hope by working with like-minded artists. "One
person alone can do very little," she says,
"but with the Polar Artists project, its mandate
being one of bringing together art, science and
education, we will make more people aware of the
impacts of global warming."
Tania Kitchell and Germaine Koh apply much heralded
artistic power of observation to minute climatic
changes, acts that gently encourage others to do
For five years, Kitchell would write down the date,
time and temperature every few hours. Then, on the
first day of different seasons, she would spend
time recording very small changes in temperature,
"watching the thermometer go from 5.5 degrees
to 5.6 to 5.7 and down again in one hour."
But Kitchell's connection to winter isn't just
one of scientific quantification; she also creates
poignant self-portraits of her interaction with
frigid weather, including photographs of herself
embracing massive snowballs, and pictures of her
own foggy breath in cold night air.
Koh's interactive works bring second-by-second
climate observations inside the architectures designed
to shield us from them. In Fair Weather Forces,
an indoor turnstile is rigged to spin at the same
speed as the wind outside, and the lights in a windowless
room are synchronized to brighten or dim depending
on the local cloud cover.
As with our broader weather problems, Koh's "artifice"
offers no real escape.
"A principle in my work is to pay attention
to things we might not always take notice of, including
incremental changes related to human behaviour,"
Koh says. "It's not polemical – more
a gentle prodding to pay attention to stuff around
"Snow power" is what inspires artists
Hannah Jickling and Shannon Cochrane, who honour
pristine snowfalls in their humorous, absurd performances.
Born and raised in the Yukon, Jickling has, for
the past three years, been using the humble action
of snow shovelling to make outdoor art with fellow
Yukoner Valerie Salez.
Initially, Jickling and Salez started the work
as a means of connecting to their homes in the Far
North while living far away. As neighbours, they
often saw each other shovelling snow, and started
to play pranks on friends and public alike with
unconventional pilings and patternings. "We
were going through hard times," Jickling says.
"It was kind of therapy, kind of like home
– snow and dealing with snow."
Shannon Cochrane's Winter Performance also originates
in humour. During these occasional events (most
recently at Nuit Blanche), Cochrane and collaborator
Thom Selvarud throw fake snow off buildings to beat
Mother Nature to "First Snowfall of the Year."
"Winter Performance is joyous," says
Cochrane. "No matter how much we complain about
the weather as Canadians, the first snowfall is
always pretty and just a bit magical. It brings
out the kid in us, and it is a real gas to be on
the roof and see people look up and yelp, `It's
Cochrane, in Winter Performance character, says,
"Mother Nature and I have an understanding,
a playful one-up sort of relationship," but
climate change means her snow art could one day
merely commemorate snow rather than celebrate its
pending arrival, rendering the piece as something
less playful and more elegaic – snow as memory
and artifice, rather than the real thing.
The most difficult question, for scientists, citizens
and artists alike, is, what comes next?
Tony Romano sketches alternative futures that combine
climate change and hope in a "gentle post-apocalypse."
These drawings, created in collaboration with Saskatchewan-based
Tony Brett, show gasoline-free car bodies transformed
into apartment blocks and community residents equipped
to hunt solar energy, not consumer goods.
"Our drawings are kind of about living in
this pseudo-medieval world where nature is mysterious
and has a certain power," Romano says. "A
return to a respect and a fear for Mother Earth."
And what about art for those who've already abandoned
the carbon-spewing, car-based lifestyle? Enter Martin
Reis, a.k.a. Tino, a filmmaker, photographer and
cyclist who blogs on cycling issues and also makes
films about bike culture, including one in which
a bicycle runs away from its owner because it's
"It all relates really deeply [to climate
change] because it's something I experience every
day while cycling – constantly being affected
by cars and pollution," Reis says.
Reis's next film takes his ideals a step further,
representing a (perhaps future) world where only
bicycles exist, not polluting automobiles.
The time-lapse film will document a ride along
all the bike lanes in Toronto, excluding views of
those "obsolete" vehicles in the "car
While Reis makes films, Streets Are For People
member Yvonne Bambrick uses performance art techniques.
She has served tea parties in parking spaces, converted
abandoned cars into community gardens, delivered
an anti-smog, signature-laden "petition car"
to city hall, and co-ordinated Pedestrian Sundays
in Kensington Market. She explains that all these
urban interventions are "related to the automobile,
the number one offender in climate change."
"It's not quite art [in a traditional sense],"
Bambrick says. "Pedestrian Sundays doesn't
permanently change the street [with paintings or
sculptures], but it might permanently change how
people see the streets – that's one of the
most powerful things that can happen."
This principle also influences recent actions by
Newmindspace. Best known for organizing subway parties
and pillow fights, Newmindspace collaborated with
World Wildlife Fund last fall to turn attention
to a more serious issue – skyrocketing carbon
emissions. On Nov. 2, they installed 3,000 black
balloons at Metro Hall Plaza. "Those balloons
represent the carbon dioxide produced by one person
in a day," says Newmindspace co-founder Kevin
Bracken. "We wanted to show that if everyone
had those balloons attached to them in Toronto,
it would literally block out the sun."
Whether viewers agree with these artists or not,
there's one quality they model that we all need
in order to deal with climate change – creativity.
Whether it's scientists saving endangered species,
inventors creating emissions-free cars, or everyday
homeowners reducing their ecological footprint,
successful pragmatic and psychological answers will
harness not just wind and light but also the lateral,
unexpected thinking our artists exhibit.
Perhaps that, for now, provides hope that cooler
heads – and planets – can be made ...
if not found.
Leah Sandals is the public art editor of Spacing
Magazine. She has written on environmental issues
for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, The Globe and
Mail and rabble.ca.
To read on-line article
from the Toronto Star, click