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Features / September 26, 2017

A Few Lessons on Making Art for the End of the World

“What might the world look like in 50 years and what can we do to shape it?” Artists and researchers gathered in Banff this summer to discuss
Smoke from BC forest fires blows into Banff township, obscuring the park's famed mountains, in late July 2017. Photo: Leah Sandals. Smoke from BC forest fires blows into Banff township, obscuring the park's famed mountains, in late July 2017. Photo: Leah Sandals.

The climate is changing. Nuclear tensions are rising. Forest fires are burning. Lakes are flooding. Neo-Nazis are gathering. The government is failing.

And Imre Szeman wants to talk about how art and ideas can help.

Szeman is one of the driving forces behind a recent art-and-research residency called “Banff Research in Culture: Year 2067.”

“What might the world look like in fifty years and what can we do to shape it?” the description for the residency asks. (“Will there be a world to shape in fifty years?” might be an equally valid question.)

In late July, I end up talking to Szeman, in his residency office overlooking the forest-fire-smoky Alberta mountains, in order to find out what art and ideas can do about facing these questions, at the very least.

“We are in a stage where we are faced with apocalyptic scenarios of what is on the horizon as a result of climate change and the types of political consequences that might emerge out of that,” Szeman says, pointing to Alberta’s record-highs summer. Yet “all of this knowledge seems not to activate the type of social response that we might expect,” he admits.

What can artists do about it? And why mix them with academics, like BRiC does?

“I think that artists are risk takers. And they are risk takers with form in a way that’s a little bit harder and slower with research,” Szeman says. Also: “Artists and researchers and writers and poets are all looking at [similar issues] from their own unique perspectives….but have often no chance to speak with one another.”

And so Szeman (who, in his day job, is Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta) is committed to bringing art and academic research to bear on “Year 2067” and other heavy concepts—past iterations of BRiC have taken on similarly weighty topics including “On Energy,” “On the Commons” and “Distributed Intimacies.”

“This residency wouldn’t exist if we didn’t believe in the fundamental capacity and importance of [producing art and ideas] to try and figure out what we are all about,” Szeman says.

Accordingly, an impressive faculty was assembled at the Banff Centre for the four-week “Year 2067” residency this summer. It included award-winning poet, Yale professor and MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine, Columbia University professor Elizabeth Povinelli, political philosopher Jodi Dean, and Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal as guest faculty. These joined Szeman himself and recurring BRiC faculty member Eva-Lynn Jagoe, who is a University of Toronto associate professor and writer.

Here are some of the lessons that emerged during a brief four-day tour through the constellations and complications of “Year 2067.”

Stunning #Karrabing installation at @contourbiennale8 curated by #natashaginwala @thevisibleproject

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1. Just in case anyone needs a reminder: The future, in an apocalyptic sense, is already here for many humans.

In her July 25 lecture, Columbia University anthropology professor Elizabeth Povinelli (currently a Northrop Frye professor at the University of Toronto) began by stating that for some, the notion of 2067 evoked a “nightmare scenario” of extinction, heat and “too much rain or not enough.”

But she quickly shot down the idea that that scenario is a “future” one.

“In reality, these hot zones [meterological, chemical and otherwise] will form like weather clouds over specific places and people,” Povinelli said. “If you are black, poor or Indigenous, you are not waiting for 2067—you are living it.”

In her own work with the Karrabing Film Collective, Povinelli helps to support creation of media works that are a form of survivance for Indigenous people in Australia.

“There are all kinds of presents depending on who you are and who are you are perceived to be,” Povinelli says, and the films also convey some of those different presents.

#citizen #claudiarankine

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2. It’s high time to look more closely at whiteness, both inside and outside of art and visual culture.

The theme of the disastrous present (among others) was also taken up by award-winning poet and MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine in films she screened in a Banff Centre project space on July 25: specifically, the disaster of white supremacy in the United States and its deadly implications for Black people.

Made with her partner John Lucas, some of these films, called Situations, combine widely distributed footage of black bodies being attacked by police—including Philando Castile, Walter Scott and others—with audio readings of poems and other texts.

Looking at how white supremacy expresses itself specifically in art and other cultural products is of crucial interest to Rankine. So is making art around these situations—a fact she emphasized in a course she led last year at Yale, where she is professor of poetry.

“The intent of the [Yale] class was how do you take this material and make a cultural object?” Rankine explained in a public lecture in Banff on July 26. So her Yale students made films and accordion books and other media, and the class term ended in an art show.

“Trump’s rise to power had to do with wilful ignorance of white supremacy,” Rankine elucidated in her talk, both in speech and in image. And this supremacy, she demonstrated, permeates visual culture now just as it did before Trump was even elected.

A few examples: Google Image Search results that only turn up white children when the phrase “boys will be boys” is searched. Or the fact that snapshot photography was originally designed for white markets, so that film for photographic use was developed to best represent white skin tones rather than darker ones.

My temporary #studiodog for 36 hours #Billie the bringer of joy! ???? @mosherhall @shelleysawatsky

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3. The way the colour is measured and standardized in science and art is also a matter of privilege.

Artist Elise Rasmussen, who was in residence at the Banff Centre as a Barbara Spohr Memorial Award recipient, wasn’t formally part of the “Year 2067” residency, but she attended many of its programs and lectures, noting that it was a big reason for the timing of her visit.

Her studio revealed other ways in which hue is far from neutral in art.

Elise Rasmussen’s art is highly research-based, and in her studio research this summer, Rasmussen was looking at the colour blue—from its history in art to its connotations in culture to the way it intersects with privilege.

On one of her studio walls during my visit were posted images of Yves Klein artworks, a lapis lazuli and a cyanometer, the latter being an instrument for measuring blueness. The inventor of the cyanometer, Rasmussen explained to me, was a privileged scientist from a wealthy family—and the tool was eventually used by Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt in his own colonial mappings of South America.

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4. Artists in the West have hoped for better futures before—and they shouldn’t make the same mistakes again.

Historian and BRiC alumnus Eddy Kent’s current project is on “William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites who thought their art could make a manifest difference in the world.”

Sound familiar? Morris and his 19th-century contemporaries thought the world was ending too, and they also thought great art and design could do something about it.

Morris’ News from Nowhere is a kind of Rip van Winkle tale that has an artist from the 1890s fall asleep and wake up in London in 2017—a dramatically different garden city driven by artisan labour “after capitalism, after coal, after smoke and after empire.”

News flash: That future imagined by Morris hasn’t happened yet, some 120 years later. And it’s likely not going to happen, ever, if artists and creatives just keep dreaming about it.

“One of the things that the 19th century has taught me,” Kent says, “is that you can’t dream for justice, you can’t dream for reconciliation, you can’t dream for any kind of resolution in the future. That kind of teleological view towards the future is not a very helpful one. It’s much more useful to think about it in terms of present-day energies.”

According to Kent, who is an associate professor of English and film studies at the University of Alberta, the displacement of activism onto a “better future” has been happening “as long capitalism has been happening.” And it threatens present-day action.

5. What’s important is not hope, but stubbornness.

A few years ago, artist Tristram Lansdowne became known for intricate, dreamy watercolours of fantastical, almost utopian architectures.

While visiting in his Banff studio for “Year 2067,” I saw that Lansdowne is still working on watercolours of fantastical architectures—but the utopianism seems to have deflated out of them.

“If all paintings are mostly designed for a wealthy patron’s living room, why not paint that living room?” Lansdowne wondered aloud.

Lansdowne’s in-progress works, accordingly, still play with depictions of architecture—but rather than seeming to grow organically and in harmony with nature, the new watercolours invert, flip and mirror high-end design objects, like the fireplaces and pools found in Architectural Digest spreads.

Interestingly, Lansdowne told me that one of his favourite takeaways from the public lectures and private seminars of “Year 2067” had been the insight that hope is useless—it’s stubbornness that matters.

“Worrying about the future is a luxury,” Lansdowne says. And he’s putting his efforts, it seems, into laying some of that luxury bare.

6. Language matters. To become more sustainable, consider alternate definitions of happiness and learn other words for success.

Amid the general melancholy tone haunting “Year 2067,” researcher Matthew Schneider-Mayerson was focusing on a strange thing: happiness, language and climate change.

“Of course, happiness and climate change seem diametrically opposed,” says Schneider-Mayerson, who is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College. “Some people tend to think that it [happiness] is the ultimate goal in life—the ultimate good—and that other things are good only to the extent that they increase happiness.”

And if our current conceptions of happiness are not adequate to dealing with climate change, Schneider-Mayerson says, “I propose that happiness should mean something really different.”

For one of his current book projects, Schneider-Mayerson is interviewing people “on the psychological frontlines of climate change, people who are by choice or profession or circumstance thinking a lot about climate change, and trying to get a sense of what makes them happy.”

With the book, he hopes to move the needle from happiness as a “positive psychological state” to something more to do with satisfaction and contentment”—“some better forms of happiness for the next thousand years.”

His other current book project, Lone Words to Live By, offers real and imagined words for describing “the natural world and our embeddedness in it, and the ways we can act to preserve what’s left.”


A post shared by Lou (@lauriekang) on Jul 23, 2017 at 2:36pm PDT

7. Revisit the question of heroic materials and tools.

Some people imagine that the first human tools were arrows and axes.

But artist Laurie Kang—a resident at “Year 2067”—hews more to the notion that the first important tool was a bag.

“Before—once you think about it, surely long before—the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and ax; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger…we made the tool that brings energy home,” says Ursula K. LeGuin, who is one of Kang’s influences, and a popularizer of “Carrier Bag Theory.”

In Banff, then, Kang was spending part of her time casting, in sculpture, the interior of plastic-net produce bags, resulting in what she called “an interior space of care and holding.”

Kang was also casting small, beautiful, seemingly unheroic objects—like slices of lotus root and leaves of kelp. In her research files: delicate wax-paper envelopes enclosing beautiful, flat-pressed butterflies.

Kang says one way to look at her work is as “a collision of natural and unnatural that can be beautiful and also scary”—an apt analogue, perhaps, to the situation parts of the world are in today.

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8. Inspiration can still come from overlooked personal sources—and link those to wider models for change.

When I walk into artist Ella Dawn McGeough’s Banff studio, I smell something sweet, sweet almost as honey.

I can’t identify what the source of this smell is, exactly; it could be the grasses and flowers McGeough collected in her mother’s birthplace in nearby Nordegg and piled in the corner, or the lawn clippings she has gathered from the Banff Centre’s own landscaping crew, and that she scattered on the floor.

In the studio, McGeough has mixed this biomatter with flour and other materials—“undoing the discrete object” is one way that McGeough describes this practice and process. Ultimately, these works will only exist as JPEGs and GIFs on McGeough’s laptop, while the rest will decay into landfill.

“I grew up in a very female-oriented society—almost neopagan,” McGeough says. Her research of late has looked at “matriarchal societies and how they might be models for change.”

One woman in particular—McGeough’s mother—also affects this series of work. When she suddenly became sole head of the household, McGeough’s mother started creating dough-art sculptures, shipping them around the globe and using the sales income to sustain her family.

Against one wall of McGough’s studio is a 10-kilogram bag of flour, a material that no doubt permeated her childhood.

“I’m interested in how women congregate and orient themselves,” McGeough says. Material and action, threaded through generations, might be one of these ways.

9. Bearing witness to change is necessary, perhaps now more than ever.

While in Banff, I also visited with artist Lou Sheppard, who had won the Emerging Atlantic Canadian Artist Residency.

Though they were not formally part of “Year 2067,” Sheppard was attending many of the formal and informal group events of the residency, and they were in discussion with several of its artists and researchers.

In addition to working on Requiem for the Polar Regions—a sprawling project which translates shifts in Arctic and Antarctic ice masses into a musical score—Sheppard was, on the day of our visit, experimenting with ways to visually represent the sounds of threatened and extinct birds. One such experiment involved excising, with an X-acto knife, spectrograms for songs of threatened bird species.

“It’s an act of bearing witness,” Sheppard said of these projects, and I appreciate Sheppard’s willingness to engage that change (rather than, like many, succumb to avoidance).

10. Skepticism about corporate hype is vital.

Researcher and BRiC alum Jordan Kinder came out to Banff around the same time I did to hear the public lecture by guest faculty Jodi Dean.

“The tendency for capitalist-owned systems to reproduce capitalism” is something that Kinder identifies as one of his interests, and that he wanted to learn more about from Dean, as is the fact that “the internet is a capitalist technology and there is no way around that despite claims to democracy.”

Kinder is well familiar with the latter point, having spent the last few years studying how pro-oil lobbies use social media.

“They [the pro-oil lobby] are basically reproducing the same form as environmental activists in their campaigns, but with totally antithetical content,” he says.

Even as global outcry against the oilsands has risen on social media, he noted, actual oilsands production has increased more than 50 per cent since 2006.

11. There is no escaping it: We are petrobeings, through and through.

In addition to running BRiC every year, Imre Szeman is co-director of the Petrocultures Research Cluster at the University of Alberta.

“What petrocultures is about is trying to add a level of complexity to the discussions that are unfolding about energy in this century that is currently missing,” Szeman says.

“There is now a narrative of energy transition we will have to move from fossil fuels to something else if we are to avoid future damage to the world…but by focusing only on the input into society, what is underdiscussed is that, as moderns, we are petrobeings through and through.”

For instance, Szeman says, our concepts of time have changed dramatically after oil. Before, a trip from Banff to Calgary would have taken days. Today, it takes two hours.

“In 1800, most of our work was still done by animals or by human labour,” Szeman says. “By 1950, 95 per cent of the work output was through fossil fuels…. So we have had this incredible shift in what human beings are like as a result of the specific kind of energy we use, and all the capacities it has given us. We kind of reshaped ourselves to expect those capacities and those abilities, and to be the kinds of people that use a lot of energy.”

Szeman thinks art can be a tool for understanding that. That’s why he brought artists Ackroyd & Harvey in for BRiC’s “On Energy” residency last year. Among other works, Ackroyd & Harvey make portraits out of grass sod that change over time, so that “you encounter something living that has been made over into something by us,” Szeman says. “They want you to reflect on the degree to which we are doing that all the time.”

There are applications to the idea of future here, too.

“If we have solar and wind powered societies and if we still expect nothing else to change socially or culturally, we will still destroy the world,” Szeman says.

12. But it’s also possible that there are also no too-lates.

“There are people that are actively planning the future. So to resign ourselves and throw up our hands is essentially to leave it up to them,” researcher Matthew Schneider-Mayerson says.

“Those people are corporations and Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and, in the US, the Koch Brothers and Exxon Mobil….they engage in a huge amount of scenario planning for what the future should be, and they are putting tons of money and lots of power into constructing it.”

The bottom line: keep going.

“For me, everything that we do matters, and there are not really any too-lates, because there is no cutoff point,” Schneider-Mayerson said.

“Everything that we say, everything that we wear, everything that we buy, every political choice we make, every political choice we don’t make is constructing a particular future. We are voting with our hands and our feet and our mouths and our minds at all times.”

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via