What Can Museums Actually Do for Climate Justice?

21 February 2023

Caspar Wolf, Der Untere Grindelwaldgletscher mit Lütschine und dem Mettenberg, 1774

In the essay collection Climate: Our Right to Breathe, 25 writers, artists and activists trace how climate change interacts with long-standing systemic injustices

‘The Global South cannot breathe,’ writes Françoise Vergès in the opening essay of this anthology of texts and artworks that address the uneven distribution of the impacts of climate change. Besides being suffocated by air pollution, marginalised communities – including people of colour, indigenous populations and the poor – can also be strangled figuratively and literally, subject to violence that manifests in events like the 2014 death of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer, which, in turn, precipitated the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement. Vergès argues that both forms of breathlessness stem from an extractive and racialised capitalism. Climate justice and social justice are two sides of the same coin.

Her essay sets the agenda for the book. In it, 25 writers, artists and activists trace how climate change interacts with long-standing systemic injustices, and suggest ways to resist these hegemonic forces. From academia, we have essays deconstructing the underlying cultural assumptions that played a part in driving climate change. Then there are direct accounts of dispossession and exploitation. An epic poem composed from interviews with 33 forest agents from the Amazonian city of Rio Branco – who are elected by indigenous communities to care for the land – sets out their experiences and hopeful vision for the future. Finally, there are examples of solidarity and resistance, such as the activist Grupo Semillas (Seed Group) from Colombia, a grassroots organisation that supports indigenous and peasant groups in defending their rights to land and water.

What can art institutions do for climate justice? Mônica Hoff’s essay pulls no punches: museums can make all manner of climate commitments and decolonisation drives, but these would simply be polite noises if the institution does not fundamentally unlearn its complicity with colonial power structures and epistemes. And to do this, it needs to get uncomfortable; apologise for wrongdoings; learn, not teach. Hoff ’s text works more from a loose style combining elegant, aphoristic prose as well as unrelenting rhetorical questions that communicate the urgency and near-impossibility of the task at hand.

Artworks that offer models of what art can do in the fight for climate justice are included as case studies in critical essays or simply reproduced in the book’s pages. But there is a sense in which social and climate injustice remains simply a subject for these paintings.

The more involved and transformative artworks are those that go beyond treating climate justice as a topic, to accepting it as a necessary historical condition that expands the parameters and processes of artmaking – sometimes to the extent that the result looks very little like art at all. A classic example is the work of Forensic Architecture, the investigative agency whose research findings are exhibited in art galleries and used as evidence in courts. In this book, the group presents an analytical model for mapping the shapes and concentration of toxic clouds of teargas, as well as data visualisation methodologies to measure the adverse effects of smog caused by forest fires. Also blurring the categories of art and sociopolitical action are ‘neo-pastoral artist’ Fernando García-Dory’s Escuela de Pastores (Shepherd’s School) in the Cantabrian mountains in Spain that trains anybody – from young people to migrants – in the basics of sustainable shepherding, integral to the agroecological heritage of the area; as well as Marina Naprushkina’s Neue Nachbarschaft/Moabit (New Neighbourhood/Moabit) project in Berlin, an informal association that runs cultural and educational programmes for migrant communities and refugees. Care, mutual aid and self-organisation are the guiding principles for these projects. Their hybridity suggests that a climate-informed art might be one that necessarily erodes conventional categories of art and the rest of life, and in themselves embody the sorts of cataclysmic, global creativity we need to navigate the climate emergency.

Climate: Our Right to Breathe, edited by Hiuwai Chu, Meagan Down, Nkule Mabaso, Pablo Martínez and Corina Oprea.
L’Internationale Online and K. Verlag, €29.50 (softcover)