The Art and Activism of the Anthropocene, Part III: A Conversation with Helen Phillips, Amitav Ghosh, and Nathan Kensinger
By Amy BradyJuly 10, 2018
The first two panels featured William T. Vollmann, David Wallace-Wells, Chantal Bilodeau, Jeff VanderMeer, Gleb Raygorodetsky, and Zaria Forman. The third and final panel met on May 9, 2018, at the New York Society Library, and featured photographer Nathan Kensinger and the novelists Helen Phillips and Amitav Ghosh. The panelists discussed the difficulties that artists and writers face when trying to address climate change in their work — and the reasons why it’s important to do it anyway. The series was moderated by Guernica’s deputy publisher, Amy Brady.
What follows is a transcript of the third panel. It has been edited for length and clarity.
AMY BRADY: To get us started, I want to pose a question to all of you that I’ve been asking of all the participants in this series, and it is: What first drew you to the topic of climate change, and what compels you to keep addressing it in your work? Nathan, can we start with you?
NATHAN KENSINGER: What first drew me to climate change was Hurricane Sandy. That was a big turning point in my work documenting New York City. Before the hurricane hit, I’d been photographing and writing and making films about neighborhoods on the waterfront in New York City, telling their histories, looking at how they were changing, looking at various stories of these places that were not being written about very often. And when Hurricane Sandy happened, all of these communities that I’d spent about five years documenting were greatly affected. Some of them were completely destroyed. That was a huge wake-up call for me and for a lot of people in the city. I found myself in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane going back to these same places that I’d been photographing for years, and trying to tell their stories again, but through the lens of sea-level rise, climate change, and an increase in storms. I want to show what sea-level rise is going to mean for New York City, what’s going to happen to all these people living on the waterfront.
HELEN PHILLIPS: For me, the answer to that question springs from the fact that I grew up in a really rural place; I grew up in the mountains outside of Denver. You could leave my childhood home and wander for hours and not see other people. I have spent my entire adult life in an urban environment, and I love New York City profoundly. But living in a place like this and having my own young children in a place like this causes me to think a lot about how your relationship to the natural world shifts when you live in an urban place.
The crisis of climate change has begun to feel ever more acute, ever more present in our daily lives with these terrible storms, and the daily realities that we are confronting. And so it seemed I couldn’t not write about it. I always think of my writing as a way to process my anxieties, and I would place this anxiety right at the top.
AMITAV GHOSH: My interest in climate change really began around about the year 2000, when I started working on a book called The Hungry Tide (2004). I’m actually from Bengal, which is the delta of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. It’s not a particularly big area; it’s about the size of Kansas, but it’s very densely populated. There are about 250 million people there, and it’s also very low-lying. It’s perhaps the most threatened part of the world. Climate change is going to displace tens of millions of people from there. It already is displacing many, many millions.
So my book, The Hungry Tide, is set in a mangrove forest, and it’s a forest that I’ve had a connection with for a very long time, because I had uncles who lived there and so on. But when I went back in 2000 to spend time in this forest, it became very apparent to me that something was happening which was completely out of the ordinary. You could see that the sea had made inroads into places where it had never entered before. The composition of the water was changing, but that’s because of other impacts. It was very clear right then that something very strange was happening in this landscape. And then in 2009, about five years after I finished my book, there was a major cyclone called Cyclone Aila. In India and Bangladesh, there are good systems of warning, so the casualty toll was not very high. But this cyclone had a devastating impact, because the sea reached so far inland that many areas that had previously been cultivated are now unable to be cultivated for generations. A lot of land is lost, a lot of livelihoods are lost, and when you go there now you see that lots of people are moving.
So for someone in my part of the world, I think it’s impossible, if you’re paying any attention to the world, to ignore climate change. But the strangest thing is that if you go to my part of the world, if you go to India, if you go to Bengal — no one’s paying attention. The novels are not about this, the writing is not about this. It’s about other things.
The subtitle of tonight's panel is “Imagining the Impossible: The Roles of Art and Novels in Understanding Climate Change.” With that in mind, Amitav, my next question is for you. The Great Derangement (2016) was a foundational text for me and for thinking about this subject. For those of you who have yet to read it, it is a remarkable work of nonfiction that combines cultural and literary criticism, philosophy, politics, and a history of colonialism to broach the question, “Where are the novels and art that address climate change?” Amitav, can you expound on what you see as being the greatest difficulties that fiction writers face when trying to describe climate change in their narratives?
AG: You know, it’s not that the novels aren’t there. They are there. Jeff VanderMeer, who spoke on the last panel, for example. The problem is more with the ecosystem of literature, which involves not only how people write but how people read, and how books are received. The extraordinary thing is that even when very accomplished writers write about climate change, their books become completely marginalized. I think the most striking instance of this is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), which I think is a wonderful book and perhaps really one of the great novels about climate change. Barbara Kingsolver is an American institution; her books are hugely respected and admired and rewarded with prizes. But if you look at the reception of Flight Behavior, it’s very striking. The reviews are all kind of casual and sort of: “Why has she chosen to write about this, of all things?” Jeff VanderMeer, he’s a major writer, and there’s T. Coraghessan Boyle, and so on. But do you see their works often in The New York Review of Books? You really don’t!
One very interesting thing that strikes me is that Doris Lessing, for the last 15 or 20 years of her life, wrote basically science fiction of one sort or another. I recently read this interesting essay on her work where the writer was saying, you know, the Nobel Prize Committee had been bandying her name about for a long time, but when she started writing science fiction they got very worried and said, “No, no, this is not real writing.” And then she wrote this memoir, and they said, “Oh, thank God, now we can give her the Prize.”
It’s most extraordinary. The New York Times Book Review and other major review outlets represent high seriousness. They represent, if you like, the sort of heights of our culture. They’re deciding what is to be taken seriously by the culture. And when they decide that this is not important, what does it tell us about what we might call “high bourgeois seriousness”?
Helen, you’re a novelist, so I would love to hear your voice in this conversation, especially since so often I’ve seen your work described as “speculative fiction.” What has the reception been like toward your work? What do you think speculative or science fiction, or genre fiction can do that perhaps so-called “serious fiction” can’t do?
HP: In terms of the reception of my work and it being marked as “climate fiction,” I think you’re right. I will have reviews of a book that don’t mention the climate aspect of it, even though it’s present. One book that has climate change as a major theme is my short story collection, And Yet They Were Happy (2011), which is a series of stories that are all exactly 340 words long that invoke environmental crises. And then there’s my book Some Possible Solutions (2016), which is also a short story collection. Many of those stories are set in dystopian realities, but [climate change] just doesn’t come up in the reviews!
In terms of what I think speculative fiction can do? Well, I feel like I write sort of futuristic fiction, but the world keeps catching up and it’s not futuristic anymore. It’s just reality. Look at the world around us. It’s all sci-fi now.
Tonight I brought my favorite Ursula K. Le Guin quote to share with you guys because I think it’s helpful in terms of thinking about why speculative and science fiction are important to serve this purpose. She says:
To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment. But by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader's mind, from the lazy timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.
I respect the idea that just imagining alternate realities, whatever they may be, can move us out of our inertia. I think also that speculative fiction forces us to think about the future, to think about possible futures. It forces you either to aspire to them or to be terrified of them. And terror is helpful.
Nathan, let’s discuss the artistic realm of nonfiction for a moment, because you are a photographer. You have taken some remarkable photos of devastated places. Your series After Hurricane Sandy (2012–2013) was especially moving for me personally. I would say that one of the things that all of your photos have in common — whether they’re of environmental disaster areas, or post-industrial areas, or regions that are at risk of sea-level rise — is that they are all of landscapes that are in the midst of undergoing dramatic transitions. And a lot of those transitions are happening because of human activity. But what strikes me, though, is that so rarely does a human being actually appear in your photographs. What can we learn about these manmade spaces when the people who created them are absent?
NK: There are a couple reasons there are no people in many of my photographs. One of them is that the places I'm photographing are often not accessible to other people. I photograph places that are not meant to be seen. They’re fenced off, or hidden away. A lot of the landscapes that I photograph I seek out because I know that they’re going to disappear. I’m working on a series now about how Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront is being demolished. All of the sugar refineries and shipyards and powerhouses are being torn down, and as I’ve been shooting I’ve been thinking about climate change. It’s made me think [that] what we’re erasing by taking out our industrial heritage in New York City is the very story of how we got to this place with climate change. When we destroy all the factories, we’re destroying the evidence of the pollution that led to our current situation.
Another reason that there are very few people within my photographs is that I like to project the viewer into those spaces. I want them to have their own entry into these landscapes without having to interpret them through another human’s experience.
And I guess the third reason is that I’m really focused on what I would call a “nonhuman aesthetic.” I’m becoming much more interested in telling nonhuman stories. Telling the stories of landscapes, birds, forests, of other species in New York City. I think that’s something that’s really missing from a lot of fiction, a lot of writing. A lot of art does not really address the viewpoint of the nonhuman. Before this panel I was trying to think about books that wrote about climate change from the point of view of another species, and I couldn’t really come up with too many. Only a few came to mind. But I think that would be something valuable to talk about and to think about. We’re dealing with climate change, we’re dealing with these radical changes on the planet, but it’s not only humans that are living in the middle of this Sixth Great Extinction. We’re killing everything on planet Earth. Where are the stories that present that point of view?
I would love to toss that question to our novelists. Is there a particular challenge to writing about that viewpoint? Why don’t we have more stories from a not-human perspective?
HP: Well, now I know what my next novel will be.
AG: This veering away from the nonhuman is actually a phenomenon that’s accelerated exactly as greenhouse gas emissions have accelerated. If you think about literature in the 19th century, you might think of Moby-Dick (1851). It’s about a nonhuman being, and that being has agency, it has wisdom, it has rage, and it’s about a species being hunted to extinction. In so many ways I do think that Melville saw things that really have become closed to us. If someone were to write a book like Moby-Dick now, it would be classified as a children’s book. Or as a genre book. The only reason that it clings on as The Great American Classic is because it was written before it could be pushed away. Again, to return to this idea of the bourgeois seriousness, that is actually what is taking us over the edge. It’s that bourgeois seriousness that cannot reckon with the nonhuman.
HP: I think it’s interesting that you mentioned that it would be a children’s book. Even when you were asking that question, Nathan, my mind went to that place of “children’s literature,” because inanimate objects and animals having agency is something that children are really open to, or that we associate with children. It was actually funny, I didn’t mention before, but my book that most directly deals with climate is a book that I wrote for middle-grade readers, for 10- to 12-year-olds, that’s about a bird that’s going extinct. It’s all about the children’s father, an ornithologist who’s been kidnapped and brought to a place where they’re grinding up bird bones to make this anti-aging stuff. In retrospect, it’s interesting that it’s for an audience of children. I don’t know, maybe there is something about the charm of giving agency to animals and natural environments that puts us in the direction of children. But we’re all children! There should be more books for adults that are like that, too.
AG: The last book of that kind that was taken seriously as adult literature that I can remember was Richard Adams’s Watership Down (1972). And that was a wonderful novel.
NK: All of the examples that came to mind for me as well were books that would be classified as children’s literature. Watership Down, and also Plague Dogs (1977), which [Adams] also wrote. I don’t think those are necessarily for children. I mean, I read them as a child and I was definitely scarred by them. You can read them as an adult, and they’re still scarring. But yeah, most of the examples I can think of I think were intended for really young readers. Like Mr. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971). I remember reading lots of these as a child and being fascinated by them.
AG: But you know what is actually interesting about our culture? At any given moment you can look at the best-seller list, at the highest grossing films, and see that they’re all about nonhuman beings. They’re about zombies, they’re about vampires, they’re about extraterrestrials. What that really tells us in some sense — when you look at the whole ecosystem of fiction, as I was saying — is that the readership of high-serious fiction has almost disappeared. That’s the strange thing. The culture has left it behind. The culture has actually embraced fiction about these nonhuman beings. Why is that? When you come back to it, it’s because these nonhuman beings actually have real presence.
HP: I’m thinking of the Disney movie Moana (2016). I don’t know if any of you have been exposed to that, but it is about climate change in a really direct way. I mean, a lot of parents, of course, have been forced to watch that movie 15 million times. But it’s aimed at children, and I wonder why it is that we create space in the culture to teach children about this concern, to educate them about it, to make them think about the perspective of animals and plants — and yet we don’t create that for adults. I don't have any answer, but it’s an observation.
NK: Another example that comes to mind is WALL-E (2008), which I feel is one of the greatest climate change films of all time. It’s theoretically a children’s film, but I saw it as an adult, and I thought: These are some profound messages.
I’m so glad that you brought up the film WALL-E, because it is a profound film, as you said, but I remember that when it first came out there was a certain sector of the population that criticized it for its political messages, or messages that were deemed as political. I wonder: Is art still art when it becomes politically charged? Some might say that the inclusion of a political message renders art as propaganda.
NK: It’s a difficult line to walk, speaking as an artist, because you don’t want to necessarily step too far in one direction; you might become pigeon-holed. Maybe that applies to fiction, too. I think there’s a lot of fear that if fiction veers too far in a certain direction that it’s only going to be looked at through one lens.
HP: For me there’s a big difference between something being didactic and something being ethically engaged. To me what ethically engaged fiction would be is fiction that does an excellent job of illuminating the gray areas and their complexity. I’m teaching a graduate class now about experiments in fiction, and I’m realizing that I feel like I was raised and educated in a way to believe that art can’t be didactic. That art can’t be political, that if it’s political it’s not art, it’s something else. And with my graduate students, we’ve been talking about that assumption and the fact that it doesn’t feel true anymore. It feels like art isn’t just this separate aesthetic realm. Art actually has political implications whether you want it to or not.
AG: I was raised in a different sort of literary culture where it was assumed that writing and politics are not separate. But I have to say that even when you look at Western writing for the last 30 years, I can’t see how anyone could imagine that it was not political. Feminist writing, gay writing, identity writing of various sorts, writing about military experiences — all of it, politics is at the heart of it. I think, actually, that’s one of the reasons why climate change is so elusive to novelistic technique as it has evolved, because all of these issues are joined by one thing, which is that they’re all about identity. Somehow it’s very hard to address climate through an identity prism. And I think that’s why [climate change] so resists contemporary fiction, because artists and writers have become very accustomed to thinking about their work in terms of identitarian issues. It’s very hard to frame this issue in that way.
Amitav, your voice in this conversation is important for so many reasons, but one reason in particular is that in both your fiction and in your nonfiction you take a global view of climate change. Americans are renowned around the world for being national navel-gazers. We don’t think too often outside of our own boundaries. What would Americans — in general, as well as our writers — gain if we looked at climate change from a more global perspective?
AG: It certainly does strike me very often that when I’m with “climate-interested” people in America, that the whole discourse on climate is the most Eurocentric discourse that exists. It’s really quite striking. I suppose that happens because so much of this discourse is produced by Western universities. When I hear Americans say, “What can we do,” what they really mean is “What can we, Americans, do?” The thing is, America is not the main player in this. This issue is not going to be settled in America. It’s going to be settled in Asia. If this problem was ever purely a Western problem, that door has long since closed. If there is a solution, that solution can never exist unless Asians are brought on board.
NK: You address that point in a fascinating section in your book, The Great Derangement, and people should read that book because it brings your argument out in a fantastic way.
Nathan, I want to talk about your work for just a moment. If you had an ideal viewer, what would you hope that that person took away from your photographs?
NK: That’s a difficult question. I would say, with my photographs and with a lot of the other artworks that I do, it’s intended to be engaged at multiple levels. I’m thinking of this art installation that I did on the Newtown Creek. It’s one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. With my wife, Sarah [Nelson Wright], and with a third artist, Laura Chipley, we created an installation on the Newtown Creek with the intent to bring people there to experience the site, to appreciate its history. We really had to think through the different ways that someone could come to such a place and experience it. I think that’s true of my photographs as well. You can look at them on one level and have a very quick response to the projects that I make, you can look at the photographs and say, “Oh, this is an interesting place. This is an interesting space to look at.” Then you can dig a little deeper and have an experience of learning more about the background and the history of the place. I would say really that the ideal would be that people have their own deep responses. I want them to develop their own ideas and feel inspired to go off on their own and investigate these issues. So really, having a viewer that is open to responding to the artwork and then have it in some way affect their lives and transform it.
HP: Nathan, I have kind of a follow-up question. It arose for me as I was looking at your photographs and watching your videos. They’re very beautiful. Your photographs are very beautiful. And your videos are very meditative and peaceful. They reinvent these urban spaces in this kind of tranquil, rustic way. A part of me enjoyed the aesthetic quality of them, and a part of me wondered: What is the effect if you’re taking something that we usually think of as being an ugly or disturbing thing, and you take this amazing photograph of it, and suddenly it’s beautiful? Are you suggesting a sort of path forward into a future where we just have to live with these decaying urban spaces, and rising oceans, and we find beauty in that?
NK: That’s a great question. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some of these places, they are deceptively beautiful, and yet you’re looking at horrible pollution. I have this photograph that I love that’s of this landfill in Jamaica Bay in Queens. It’s been breached, and the landfill has spilled out thousands of bottles onto the beach. The beach is covered in debris. Pure pollution is falling into the water, polluting it. But it is a strangely beautiful place. You’re walking on a beach made out of glass, out of the history of pollution that was buried and hidden away and has now revealed itself. I think it’s hard to translate an experience like that into a photograph, but I attempted it. I go to these places with an eye toward sharing these very strange experiences of pollution, of abandonment, of climate change — trying to translate that into something a viewer can experience in their own way. Whether they see beauty, or whether they’re horrified by it, I don’t really know. Sometimes people are horrified. They look at the photos, and they’re like, “Oh man, this is terrible!” It depends on the photograph.
HP: And the viewer.
NK: And the viewer.
I have a version of that question I would like to ask to you, Helen, because there are some descriptions in your work that are truly beautiful. But many of them are also unsettling. A word that comes up often in reviews of your work is uncanny. So my question then, is: What draws you to this notion of the uncanny? Do you think it’s useful in communicating issues of climate change?
HP: I don’t know if I’m drawn to the uncanny; I just move through the world finding everything uncanny. I feel like almost anything you look at closely starts to feel slightly strange. Think about any word you repeat over and over. Soon it becomes a non-word. So is that uncanniness serving a purpose? When I’m evoking something that’s beautiful and eerie, in a way I’m trying to convey my own personal experience of the world, even if that means I might be describing an alien at that moment, or I might be describing what it’s like to use a breast pump, which is a total sci-fi experience. Some of my most uncanny scenes are the most mundane scenes, like a table that’s set, and no one’s sitting at the table, and it’s just a description of the table and the food on the table — that was in my first book, and I think it’s one of the scariest things I’ve written. Nothing really happens, but you just go microscopic on it and suddenly it becomes really strange.
I’m often just looking around and wondering, are other people finding this all as uncanny as I am? Maybe if I write it down and someone else reads it and says, “Oh yeah, I feel that way too,” then I won’t feel alone in this terrifying, uncanny space.
AG: I think “uncanny” is exactly the ground of climate change.
I created this panel tonight under the assumption that art and novels do matter in the discussion of climate change. But I’m realizing that we haven’t actually discussed why that is. So my last question for all three of you is: Why do art and novels matter in a time of climate change?
AG: It matters to me because I’m a novelist and that’s all I’ve ever done. This book I wrote, The Great Derangement, it’s a really a kind of introspection. Writers like myself, we started writing at a moment when the dominant aesthetic was one of avant-gardism. We thought that we as writers could see things that other people couldn’t. And now it’s become so clear that, in fact, exactly the opposite was the case. We were actually far from being in the avant garde; we were actually lagging behind what everybody else could see. In a way it was our work, our art, that prevented us. That’s what interests me really.
HP: That’s a very hard question. It makes me reflect on things like, how many American adults have even read a novel in the past year? So putting that aside, and just imagining a dream world where everyone from our highest leader on down read fiction, I guess I feel like fiction can maybe do a couple of things. For one, we can hear statistics about global warming, but they’re abstract and scientific, and so I think that well-written climate fiction, or speculative or futuristic fiction — that again, will quickly cease to be futuristic — can make you more nervous and scared and anxious about climate change. How does that actually convert into real action like rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, or actual political action? I don’t know. I’m a little dubious about that.
But I also think another possibility is that art helps us to imagine what life will look like when the oceans rise. What life will look like in a polluted world. Will we survive? If so, how? Where will our children find beauty and peace?
NK: That is a very difficult question. I would say that the best art for me is something that can change the way you look at the world. The films that struck me the deepest are the ones that changed the way that I look at the world around me. The photographers who really changed the way that I view the world are the ones that stick with me the most. So for me, I think the role of art in climate discourse is that art can help make people look at the future in a way that they might not otherwise. If you just read a newspaper article every day that’s like, “Oh, horrible things are happening,” it’s a lot different from if you read a novel that speculates about what those horrible things could be. Or if you look at a painting of a possible future, or if we look at a photograph that helps tell a story, those things are much different than dry facts. I think a lot of people get overwhelmed by hearing the same facts over and over. And a lot of people, myself included, are overwhelmed by the science behind climate change. That’s something that artists can help translate: they can help turn facts and science into something that other people can understand.
We haven’t really talked about nonfiction. I would say for myself, nonfiction is often the catalyst for changing how I look at the world. I’ll give a shout-out to The Sixth Extinction (2014) by Elizabeth Kolbert. After Hurricane Sandy, reading The Sixth Extinction was pretty life-changing. After that, reading Cosmos (1980) by Carl Sagan brought me out of my negativity about the future of the world, because it gives you a perspective on the planet that shows you how small the planet actually is, and how these issues that are affecting us aren’t all that important in the cosmic sense. So in a way, that’s reassuring.
HP: In a dark way.
NK: Yeah, in a dark way. “We may be in the middle of a sixth extinction, and we may about to flood all our cities, but, you know, in the bigger sense…”
HP: The aliens are fine.
Well, on that hopeful note, I’d like to open up questions to the audience.
AUDIENCE MEMBER No. 1: There’s been a lot of discussion about the future in fiction and art, but there’s already so much happening now with climate change, people who are dying, who have to relocate. For some people, their country won’t exist by midcentury. What is the challenge about writing something that is set in the present, to flesh those issues out for readers and viewers?
NK: I’d say documentary film is doing a fairly decent job of depicting stories that are happening now. Capturing the effects of sea-level rise as they’re happening, the effects of climate change as they’re happening. I think it would be difficult to — and correct me if I’m wrong — it would be hard to write a book about something that’s happening immediately, because as soon as the book came out it would become dated in a sense.
AG: I think your question is a very, very good question. Actually, I think one of the really great works of American literature about climate change is The Grapes of Wrath (1939). If you read the first chapter, it’s a magnificent piece of writing on, literally, climate change. That whole migration from the Midwest comes from environmental changes that led to the Dust Bowl. But if you look back at the reception of Steinbeck, you’ll see that Steinbeck is revered in Asia and in many other parts of the world. But he’s not in America. He was reviled by his contemporaries. Absolutely reviled by Hemingway, and Scott Fitzgerald, and so on. But that book was the most important American book of the 20th century.
Now, why was that book so reviled? I think it’s because our contemporary ideology has become a sort of blind belief that things will always get better. That there will always be more. There will be more of everything. That’s what really holds back our writing of these books. If you even look at state-of-the-moment novels, all of them assume this thing, that there will be more and more stuff. And now it’s become perfectly clear that that is what there won’t be. There won’t be more stuff. A lot of science fiction and writing about climate change has become obsessed with the apocalypse, but few novels deal with the slow death depicted by John Steinbeck.
AUDIENCE MEMBER No. 2: This is a question for all three of you. I’m wondering if you have a success story. Was there a time when you felt like your work had a very specific impact in relation to climate change?
AG: I may be making a very tall claim, but after my book The Hungry Tide came out, it certainly had some positive impacts. This mangrove forest that I write about, the Sundarbans, it exists, and it’s a very amazing landscape, but there’s never been any fiction about it. And as a result, it’s never actually “existed” as a space in the imaginary. I do think that in some way my book made a space for it. I think that’s just about the most that a novelist can hope to do.
HP: I agree that that’s the most that one can hope to do. I dare not make the claim that my fiction has affected anyone in this regard, or in any regard — but, after I wrote my book for children, Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green (2012), I got a lot of fan mail. It’s great to get fan mail from 10-year-olds, because they haven’t read much, so they’ll be like, “Your book is the best book ever written.” So plenty of children said that to me, and I did get a lot of reactions from kids about the bird going extinct. Again, maybe kids are where we need to be directing these energies
NK: It's hard for me to measure the impact that my work has, but the intent is to change the discourse. At least here in New York City. By constantly reminding people about what happened after Hurricane Sandy, about rising sea levels, about the pollution that surrounds us, about these things that are already happening. I do believe the discourse has changed somewhat. When I first started doing these photo essays, about 11 years ago, I would do a photo essay every two weeks about some aspect of New York City's waterfront. So for the last 11 years, every two weeks I've written a different story about New York City's coast, and when I started, people were not looking at the water. They were not looking at these neighborhoods nor at the natural world in New York City. I'm not saying it's my work that created the shift, but there has been a shift.
I have an exhibit in the subway right now — it’s at the Atlantic Avenue subway station. About eight photographs show the pollution of Brooklyn’s waterfront. I don’t know how many millions of people have seen those photos, or whether they’ve been affected in any way, but I do know that they’ve been up for almost two years now. They must have seeped into millions of people’s consciousness as they’ve gone on their daily commute.
AUDIENCE MEMBER No. 3: It’s really interesting to hear you guys talk about all these different aspects of what art can do. I just got back from the climate talks this past week, and one of the parallels that I see is the humanizing quality, and the shedding of what is the technocratic, bureaucratic, bourgeois way to look at climate change as a thing that is separate from us. I see a lot of similarities between how activism and art does that humanizing. My question is: How do we better catalyze the connection between activism and art?
NK: That’s a great question. One example is a conference at the Queens Museum called Open Engagement, which involves artists who are addressing sustainability through their social practice. I’ll be giving a presentation about a project I’ve been working on called “Chance Ecologies.” But that said, I have a challenge coming up with artists who address climate change. Before this panel I tried to think of artists who are doing a great job of addressing climate change and I could not think of many. That’s a question I guess I would have of other artists besides novelists, or writers. What artists are really out there addressing climate change in a great way? I can make a very short list.
HP: I was just reading Highlights for Children with my kids last night, and do you know this artist on the West Coast who gathers up all the litter that washes up on the beaches of Washington and makes them into fantastical sea creatures? They’re beautiful, they’re amazing. Volunteers have collected something like 200 tons of trash that have been washing up on the shore. Your question is such an important and interesting one, and I love the idea that both activists and artists are trying to figure out a way to make these crises feel human and not abstract. In terms of specific kinds of affiliations, or what we can all do together, I’m going to think about that. That’s a really cool question, and I want to think more about what a really concrete collaboration could look like.
AG: You’re right. It is really extraordinary that today it’s very hard to think of an artist who addresses climate change. It’s the same issue with novels. It’s the ecosystem of art that actually completely sidelines art that addresses the topic — figurative art and representational art. So much of art today is conceptual art, or “political art,” which is essentially art about identity issues. But today, most artists that you meet are not even able to draw a tree. And if they did, they would never be able to show it. They would be overwhelmed by shame. Art that is considered representational is considered “artisanal.” If you look at Descartes 500 years ago saying, “I think, therefore I am,” this is what art has become. But human beings aren’t what they think. They’re also what they experience and what they look at. There’s been nothing more destructive to this world than this Cartesian view of the world. This is what our current art is stuck in, in this kind of conceptualism, this completely, to my mind absolutely banal form of retreat into what they think of as ideas.
AUDIENCE MEMBER No. 4: Have any of you seen the statue of the three rhinos in the East Village?
NK: That’s the sculpture of the three last white rhinos in the world. I forget who the artist was. But since it went up, I think one of those white rhinos has died and now the white rhinos are effectively extinct, because it was the last male white rhino that passed away. But yeah, that’s a great example of a piece that really looks at species extinction, which has to do with climate change as well. It’s a big, big problem.
I wish there were more artists doing this. Actually, there’s an exhibit at Storm King that I just read about. It just opened and features several artists looking at climate change. I haven’t been up there yet to see it, but I’m looking forward to seeing it. So there are more artists who are addressing these issues, certainly, but not a ton.
That’s why conversations like this are so important. To bring more attention and awareness to narrative and visual forms of art that in fact address climate change.
AUDIENCE MEMBER No. 5: As artists, how do you see working with scientists as important or not important?
NK: As I said before, I think it’s very important for artists and scientists to collaborate, especially around the issue of climate change. It is such a complicated issue, there’s so much information and so much that you have to process to even come to an understanding of it. Being able to translate all of that into something that people can understand is very important. I think artists are a sort of conduit.
HP: Many of my ideas for stories and books come from science articles. I have one story in my collection that is about the decline of the bee colonies. It was inspired by a science article. For my last book I interviewed in depth a mathematician, and for this book I interviewed a paleobotanist. I love scientists. I think they’re the most interesting people. I feel like they’re similar to artists, and I feel very connected to them. I do think art can translate ideas from science, though I haven’t articulated it that way before. When I think of my own creative processes, I realize that that’s what’s going on: I’m diving deep with a scientific topic and then taking it to a certain extreme.
AG: There is [an artist named] Mary Miss. She has been doing very interesting work on these issues, especially in relation to architecture. I feel that one must mention her.
That is all the time we have for this evening, so Nathan, Helen, Amitav, thank you so very much for being here this evening. It has been a pleasure.
This series was co-produced by the New York Society Library and Guernica magazine, with additional support from Orion magazine.
Amy Brady is the deputy publisher of Guernica magazine and the senior editor of the Chicago Review of Books, where she writes a monthly column about how contemporary novelists are thinking about climate change.
Amy Brady is the deputy publisher of Guernica magazine and the senior editor of the Chicago Review of Books, where she writes a monthly column about how contemporary novelists are thinking about climate change. Her writing on books, art, and the environment has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, Pacific Standard, Hyperallergic, and other places.
LARB Staff Recommendations
“Vollmann is less interested in how we imagine the future than in how the future imagines us.” Ted Hamilton on William Vollmann's "Carbon Ideologies."...
The Art and Activism of the Anthropocene, Part II: A Conversation with Jeff VanderMeer, Zaria Forman, and Gleb Raygorodetsky
Amy Brady of “Guernica” magazine presents the second conversation in the series “The Art and Activism of the Anthropocene.”...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.