The roof of the Nordic Pavilion in Venice, 2018 Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

The Moment of Reckoning: On Forgetting and Remembering the Air

Hanna Johansson, Professor, Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts Helsinki

Also published in Leevi Haapala and Piia Oksanen (eds.), Weather Report: Forecasting Future. Ane Graff, Ingela Ihrman, nabbteeri. A Museum of Contemporary Art Publication 169/2019. Milan and Helsinki: Mousse Publishing and Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Finnish National Gallery, 2019. Transl. Silja Kudel

The threat of global warming[1] has recently risen to the forefront of political, ecological, scientific, artistic, and humanistic discourse and action around the world. The debate revolves around two core issues: first, how are we to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to prevent temperatures from rising beyond the decisive 1.5 degrees defined as the ‘safe’ limit of climate change? The second issue, which ominously underlies the first, is an even deeper source of concern: is it even possible to sustain (human) life on this planet, particularly in the form that we enjoy today?

In order to nurture and safeguard life on Earth, we must identify modes of representation that allow the claim of life to be made and heard. This idea proposed by philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler links together media and survival. In short, what we recognise as valuable is contingent upon its claim of life being made perceptible as a thing of value, as something worthy of preservation.[2]

Climate and weather-related events, changes, and fluctuations have made their presence felt more tangibly in recent years. Humanity has woken up to the fact that global warming is among the greatest threats to its survival. Butler’s ideas about making visible the claim of life are difficult to apply to global warming, however. It is far easier, for example, to comprehend the value of a plant or animal under immediate threat of extinction. When a rare insect species that is normally invisible to the human eye is made perceptible, its claim of life becomes something we can readily grasp.[3] Where climate is concerned, however, the issue is more complicated. Not only is climate a more abstract entity than an insect, it is also omnipresent. Furthermore, its core material component, the atmosphere, is virtually invisible.

With this in mind, both art and other media, indeed all who work with any form of representation, have a special responsibility to make visible all those living beings and life-sustaining entities that are otherwise invisible to the human eye.

[1] In the spirit of Timothy Morton, I specifically use the term ‘warming’ to preclude the notion that the climate has always been subject to ‘change’. Morton even suggested that we should start calling global warming ‘mass extinction’, which is the net effect. Timothy Morton, Being Ecological. London: Penguin Books, 2018, 45.

[2] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London & Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2009, 181.

[3] See e.g. The Beetle, by Henrik Håkansson.

Featured image: The roof of the Nordic Pavilion in Venice, 2018
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

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