The ALL ARTS website and app have plenty of arts-related shows and films to stream, including original productions and archival content.
This week, as the West Coast continues to battle raging wildfires, we are looking at how art and the environment intersect.
Jenny Offill didn’t set out to write a novel about climate when she began “Weather,” the most recent release from the “Dept. of Speculation” author. The book centers on a librarian named Lizzie who, over time, becomes a climate change doomer after taking on a side gig answering questions for her friend’s podcast “Hell and High Water.”
Concerns about the changing climate (and how to survive it) cast an ambient wave of unease over Lizzie as she goes about the other anxiety-inducing aspects of her life (there’s the presidential election, her mother, her brother, strangers).
In the interview above, Offill describes a shift in rising dread regarding climate change she noticed while writing the book.
“Younger people have been afraid and obsessed with this for some time,” she says. “But for people my age and people who are not working in the specific field, I think it seemed somewhat abstract until more recently — if you live in the West and are lucky enough to not have it quite at your doorstep yet.”
And what has helped with this climate-spurred dread felt by the author?
“Hope cannot exist in and of itself; I can’t just be hopeful for the sake of it,” she says. “I find that I have to figure out actions that feel like they create a less precarious life for the future.”
“So, for me, that’s meant that I wrote this novel, which I was never intending to write about the climate when I first began it,” she continues. “And also that I’ve pushed myself a little bit to do more activism, and that’s been an antidote to the dread.”
This episode of “The Art Assignment” looks at how climate affects both art creation and conservation.
“The world we live in and the objects we make to put into it are fragile,” host Sarah Urist Green says. “Art can help us appreciate our planet and its climate, reveal to us its workings and visualize imminent futures.”
We begin this exploration into how art and climate intersect (fittingly) with navigational charts — beautifully delicate appearing objects, crafted out of bamboo, palm leaf sticks and twine, with shells tied on in various places to represent islands. The charts are from the Marshall Islands, which face a dual-threat of continued contamination from nuclear testing and rising sea levels due to global warming.
Next, Green looks at how art captures “the tremendous beauty of Earth and its climate, as well as its variability and our powerlessness to it.” Here, she cites Katsushika Hokusai’s polychrome woodblock print “Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” which she says “embodies our struggle both to harness the natural forces of Earth, and protect ourselves from their ravages.”
The episode surveys the dangers that humans present to conserving delicate structures, such as the cave paintings of Lascaux, while also taking stock of art forms that provide a record of shifting climates, like Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and Robert Smithson’s land art project “Spiral Jetty” in Utah.
In 2013, artist Lauren Bon staged a 240-mile performance that connected Los Angeles to the Owens Valley by walking 100 mules along the length of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The action looped a thread over time, pulling tight the connection between the aqueduct’s 100th anniversary and the ongoing effects of the structure on the Owens Valley landscape.
“I wanted to draw the line for people between the source of our water and the city that benefits,” Bon says in the film. “To actually be that line, not metaphorically, but to literally choose 100 mules, moving continuously for a month like an animated drawing, and in that process, to learn ourselves how to live off the grid.”
The structure routed water from the verdant Owens Valley to feed the growing metropolis of Los Angeles, transforming the West into the vision we see today.
By 1926, Owens Lake was dry, and the environment has since been characterized by toxic dust storms — an inherited result of the aqueduct that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has taken action to mitigate over the past two decades.
Bon’s performance and the resulting film draws attention to the land and community surrounding the aqueduct in an act of commemoration.
“One of the things that the Owens Valley has paid dearly for as a result of our lifestyle is the agri-potential of the Owens Valley has consistently shrunk over time because it requires a lot of water to have an agricultural livelihood,” Bon says. “So, how do we say that those people in the Owens Valley deserve some of the benefits of urbanity since they are paying a lot of the cost? And one of the ways we can do that is to make sure we pay attention to what their needs are.”
While the mules connect the art project to the past, Bon speaks in the film about how the project allowed her to think about the future and the role of the artist in social and environmental action.
“I can’t personally figure out what the next 100 years are going to look like,” she says, “But I can use that round number of 100 to draw a line in the sand and say: I, as a private citizen and as an artist, need to create a paradigm shift.”