How can artists confront the climate crisis?

Oliver Ressler, Not Sinking, Swarming, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 37 minutes. Photo: Oliver Ressler/àngels, Barcelona/The Gallery Apart, Rome.

For twenty years, Oliver Ressler has been making videos on topics such as capitalism, democracy, racism, and ecology. Below, he discusses “Barricading the Ice Sheets,” curated by Corina L. Apostol at Tallinn Art Hall as part of the artist’s wider research project involving six exhibitions across Europe that focus on the climate movement. On view through November 6, the Tallinn show features the six-channel video installation Everything’s coming together while everything is falling apart, 2016–2020, which follows environmental activists as they plan and carry out blockades and demonstrations in various locations throughout Europe.

I AM CERTAIN that the climate crisis is the most dire crisis facing humanity today; it threatens the very basis of what makes life possible on Earth. I believe we must remember this alongside all actions we undertake as we rethink and redesign how to exist in the world as humans, artists, and cultural producers. With this in mind, I’ve been working on the cycle of films, Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart, 2016–20, about events of mass civil disobedience related to the climate justice movement. Each video focuses on a particular event, for example, the blockade of an open-pit coal mine outside of Berlin (as with Ende Gelände [End of the road], 2016), the obstruction of Europe’s second-largest coal port (Amsterdam, 2017) or the 2019 occupation of the Venice Film Festival red carpet, a guerilla action that drew media attention to the climate crisis (Venice Climate Camp, 2020). Since 2016, I have created six of these films, all of which are on view at the Tallinn Art Hall.

In all my work, my aim is to overcome the conventional distinction between artistic and documentary elements. For example, in the film Not Sinking, Swarming, 2019, which focuses on the planning of a highway blockade in Madrid, I had to anonymize the activists I was filming in order to protect them from potential harassment and persecution. At various points in the video, the entire image is pixelated, creating an effect that could evoke Pop Art or something similar. The pixels are in constant flux, following the movements of the assembled activists. Later, I chose a different way of concealing the participants’ identities while simultaneously highlighting the actions being developed through their discussions. I created a quite complex image structure in which I used the outlines of the people sitting in the assembly and filled these outlines with the documentary footage of the climate action that took place a few weeks afterward. What we might label an artistic intervention is thus motived by the documentary material itself; this goes some way to bridging the perceived gap between activism and art.

In another film, Barricade Cultures of the Future, 2021, I bring together five artists, each born in a different decade from widely varying backgrounds, and each with a clear point of view informed by their activist artistic production. I deeply appreciated being in conversation with people who have very strong opinions about what they are doing. We have Aka Niviâna, an Indigenous artist and activist from Greenland; Nnimmo Bassey from Nigeria, who won the Right Livelihood Award—commonly known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”—in 2010, and who, in addition to being a well-known poet, is also one of the most prominent African climate activists; Jay Jordan from the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination; Marta Morena Muñoz, a performance artist from Extinction Rebellion in Spain; and Steve Lyons from the Museum of Natural History. They were invited to discuss the usefulness of culture to activism and tactics for tackling climate breakdown.

There are critiques of the art world in the video for sure. At one point, Muñoz says that she thinks the idea of ecological art entering the mainstream art world like a Trojan horse is interesting, before qualifying that such a strategy is inadequate to the urgency and scale of the climate crisis. Jordan adds that the art world is insular and essentially “middle class,” and that we need to “bring back function, bring back place, bring back territory, and bring back art for everyone.”

Oliver Ressler, Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart, 2016–20, six-channel video installation, color, sound. Photo: Paul Kuimet/Tallinn Art Hall.

I really appreciate it when people attempt to bring artwork into the real world and try to use this to mobilize people for important actions. But I do not believe that all artists must do this, or that this has to be the only function of art. I think it’s important that this kind of political art is made, but I can also see the very ridiculous ways in which this is undertaken—this radical outcome that never manifests. Another problem is that the art world is segmented into different sectors that don’t communicate with each other. And I think there are some sectors in the art world, institutions open to establishing alliances with social movements and progressive political organizations, in which work with a leftist agenda can be presented and messages multiplied. For example, S.a.L.E. Docks in Venice is an art institution that emerged from an occupation; it is used as an assembly space for radical movements.

Clearly, it is no longer justifiable to fly around the globe for two or three days just to attend art fairs or exhibition openings, or to meet other people. But it’s also crucial to emphasize that there’s way more at stake beyond individual behaviors. Far more important is the fight against those who are the most responsible for climate destruction. Leading climate researchers have determined that fewer than one-hundred actors—primarily large transnational corporations and the Pentagon—are responsible for 70 percent of all carbon emissions worldwide. Our responsibility, as individuals and members of different political and cultural organizations, is to make it impossible for these malignant entities to destroy our world.

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