The last of our Spirited Discussions asking, ‘Can Art Change the Climate? was entitled Going Beyond the Material: Environment and Invisible Forces in the Literary, Performing and Visual Arts. This in some ways reminded me of Wallace Heim’s reference in Spirited Discussion part 2 to Alan Badiou’s idea that the four critical kinds of event which change people are love, science, art and politics. In the performing arts particularly there is arguably no ‘thing’ that is the work of art – that event is found in the ether between the player and the audience, and the growth of digital publishing has emphasised that the same is true of the written work – the format is at least sometimes less important than the content and the work of art is an event taking place in the reader’s head that is brought about by the words in whatever form they are reproduced (consider audiobooks?). This aesthetic view could of course be equally true of visual artworks – the event takes place when we view the work, but in an empty gallery or an unoccupied installation, all that exists is some colour on a surface or a collection of items.
Lucy Miu, Business Manager of the Bedlam Theatre and driving force behind this year and next’s Dramatic Impacts, is also an environmental sciences student so straddles the line between the arts and the sciences most effectively. She argued that for people to be informed by information they need to be engaged with it. This is backed up by plenty of behaviour change research which shows that plain information has almost no effect on the recipient’s behaviour. Kate Foster Wallace concurred – her experience with biology students saw them overwhelmed by the sheer level of information they were being asked to take in and her artistic practice allowed them to make sense of it, focus their new knowledge and understand it rather than just know it. Lucy felt that the arts, which engage us emotionally, can help, and also perhaps help where the original experience is not available to all (murdering in the King of Scotland, experiencing the bombing of Guernica) and the artist can bring that experience to a wider audience. For me what is particularly important here is that an artist may – perhaps must if they are to be described as an artist rather than a mere reporter – have special insight into the experience that they transmit to the audience along with the basic information: information + insight is what gets the event lodged in the audience’s understanding. Information + insight creates the sort of event we are interested in.
Lucy also made the point that all performing arts events are group activities in that even if the audience is of one the performer is there too, whilst engaging with visual arts is or can be a more solitary business. In her view this made the performing arts more engaging but Tim Collins argued that different forms do different things. (The similarities and differences between the visual and performing arts were questions that arose regularly and usefully during Co2 Edenburgh: Spirit in the Air.) The question of whether feeling is enough arose again, just as it had been raised by Chris Speed in Discussion 1, and it clearly isn’t enough: pornography, a well-made horror film or Love Story make us feel, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to change people or their behaviour as Badiou seems to be getting at. And here Sam Clark made her first intervention, noting that to the writer Rebecca Solnit the difference for the writer between discarding an article and having it published is minimal, but history starts when events happen – and of course it has to be published for the event to take place. The event may happen almost accidentally or is at least subject to chance and is not solely in the artist’s gift. How does this square with Wallace Heim’s view that the artist ‘practices making conditions where [Badiou’s] change can happen? The answer is surely that art is a fairly slippery thing with fuzzy boundaries. Questions of intention, insight, engagement and emotion swirl around this subject, which is perhaps what makes the question of whether art can change the climate so difficult to disentangle, let alone answer.
Sam Clark chose to address the title Going Beyond the Material more directly in her short and very beautiful talk, speaking about scientists working on matter. Only 4.7% of reality is material according to a physicist she knows; 75% is dark matter whose existence is only deduced from its interaction with matter and gravity. Even less concrete, dark energy is only imagined because the universe is expanding and accelerating, not shrinking or slowing down. These scientists are working on a relationship between the visible and the invisible, or in artistic terms the knowable and the ineffable (strikingly similar in my mind to Andrew Patrizio’s conjunction of the mercantile and the religious in fifteenth century Florence). The scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern use non-detection as a means of detection; 95% of the universe is only knowable through the instrument of the mind. Here we surely get into the realm of philosophy and for me insight comes to the fore again. What we want from artists – why societies from the year dot have supported, encouraged and valued them – is access to the knowledge of the things that are unknowable just through experience, knowledge that requires use of the instrument of the mind. Sam made the same point – insight and experience of things we don’t understand or things we hate, creating a space of wonder are the things we want from artists. And as Harry Giles made clear in the first of the Spirited Discussions, actually artists and scientists do many of the same things. But maybe Sam’s last suggestion is what artists do but scientists try to avoid: making the familiar strange.
The session came to a close with a short discussion about empathy, a subject that Reiko Goto Collins had touched upon in her introduction. Sympathy is when you simply feel for another; empathy is when you place yourself in their shoes, which takes more than just emotion. Lucy suggested that maybe if art can change the climate it is because it can help connect the brain and the heart. If we have done that just a bit with Co2 Edenburgh: Spirit in the Air, it will have been well worth it.