Tagging glaciers, metaphorically

January 2017
‘I’ll melt with you’, Acrylic painting on birch panel, by American artist Josh Keyes (2016)

I came across the above image quite recently. It depicts an iceberg covered in spray-painted tags in various colours contrasting against the white-blue of compressed glacial ice and reflected upon the gentle rippling water at its edge. It is a surprising image, particularly as it is easily mistaken for a photograph upon first glance, especially when viewed in a much smaller format. This easy mistake is observable in reactions of outrage in the comments on Instagram on a reposted version of the image. Several comments betrayed a sense of moral outrage at the very idea of graffiti on this little bit of frozen ice lost at sea. It is, in fact, a painting by American artist Josh Keyes and not a photograph at all.  In small orange letters, it bears the written message: “I’ll melt with you”.  This is not only a reference to the hit song by 1980s New Wave band Modern English,  but this text and its context suggest an important environmental message, a rather direct allusion to climate change and the melting of sea ice. But what interested me most was the following: where was the moral outrage at the idea of melting ice? Why was it easier to organise debate over the presence of graffiti on what some might consider a natural landscape than the idea that this very landscape is disappearing?

Graffiti is alright on subway trains but “pointless graffiti on boulders” is another thing, or so said renowned land artist Robert Smithson on the unacceptability of graffiti on rocks[footnote]Reference from Allen Carlson’s 2000 book Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art, and Architecture.[/footnote]. Smithson is himself known for his largescale rearranging of rocks, evidenced in his most famed work Spiral Jetty. With the aid of heavy machinery along the shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah, Smithson moved basalt boulders – several thousand tonnes of volcanic rock – and repositioned them into a spiral form emerging from the shore to make Spiral Jetty. If you are familiar with landform morphology, it is much like a spit turned into itself, coiled in a way that natural currents would have been unlikely to have done themselves.

Walking through the Montréal neighbourhood of Point St-Charles recently, trudging through slush and snow in the south western quartier of Montréal on the way to visit family, I stumbled upon Smithson’s work. Well, a photographic representation of it. Startled to see this large print, I thought this might be heterotopia at its very best (with a little bit of heterochrony and serendipity thrown in as well): a piece of land art from Utah made in 1970, in a large scale print faded from the bright Montréal sun, in the Sud-Ouest of the city, on the outside of a Mosque, with a few tags which recall the lasting and far flung impacts of the graffiti movement of American cities of the 1970s and 1980s. This scene comprised of so many of my favourite things conjure some of the most fundamental philosophical questions underpinning my work, all converging at this street corner as I walk with my Mum. These philosophical questions have a lot to do with the role of art, particularly art which is found in public space or art which is site-specific, and the roles of art with regards to understandings of space and the environment. My work has revolved around these issues for over ten years and though my work has become more nuanced and sophisticated, many of these crucial questions remain constant. The wonderful thing about philosophy is that the questions may remain constant, but the answers keep changing and evolving.


‘Spiral Jetty, twice removed’, Point St-Charles, Montréal (2016)

Robert Smithson was part of the Land Art movement. It coincided with the height of the American environmental movement, when the scale of human impact on the environment began to be understood and articulated. This is, recall, not long after the publication of Rachel Carson’s pivotal book ‘Silent Spring’ which made the connections between the extensive use of pesticides – specifically dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or DDT – and its bioaccumulation and biomagnification through the food chain. The problems of this bioaccumulation was most famously described by Carson who argued that the concentrations of these chemicals in the eggshells of many bird species – notably eagles and falcons – weakened the shells so much so that they crumbled under the weight of nesting birds. The currents of the environmental movement began to be reflected in diverse art practices. Land art is one such example though despite its use of natural materials and its site-specificity in natural environments, it was of course highly criticised for its largescale and often damaging manipulations of the physical environment. Spiral Jetty necessitated moving thousands of tonnes of basalt rock, repositioned in the spiral form. The sculpture evolved over time, as site-specific pieces tend to do, with salt crystallising gradually over the volcanic forms. According to the DIA Art Foundation, to whom Spiral Jetty was donated, Smithson’s work revolved around ideas of entropy and transformation. Indeed, entropy is transformation; originating from the Greek words for “in transformation”. Entropy is fundamental to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which in simplified terms refers to the fact that natural systems have a tendency toward disorder.

‘Spiral Jetty’ (1970) by American land artist Robert Smithson, photograph courtesy of the Dia Art Foundation


Transformation is something very much on my mind after having spent several days away on a retreat for the kick-off of the project AdaptationCONNECTS , a special project hosted at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo. The project, led by Karen O’Brien, strives to “develop new understanding of whether and how different types of transformations can contribute to successful adaptation to climate change”. The project aims to bring together the seemingly disparate, to make likely and unlikely connections, to foster new ways of thinking about a problem so very serious yet still so difficult to mobilise around politically. It is contraindicatory to the nature of such a project to suggest that there is one way that successful and transformative adaptation might look. Not only are there multiplicities of how adaptation might look – multiplicities that are highly contextual, dynamic and subject to change – but the ways in which we may arrive at them are also multiple. To suggest that there might be some single pathway leading to successful adaptation is also problematic for it implies something which is linear, unamenable and unchangeable, fixed and rigid, predetermined. It reflects the very type of reasoning that such a project should be attempting to challenge. Rather than a pathway then, perhaps transformative adaptation might look like something more organic, more like the very things we are endeavoring to protect, maybe something more like a spider’s web: interconnected certainly, complex undoubtedly, but also flexible and itself adaptable. Perhaps it is like a tree, not for its potential role as a carbon sink, but as an inspiration for being rooted but strong, vulnerable but resilient, making its own diurnal and seasonal transformations: breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen, turning sunlight and water into sweet saccharides, knowing when to grow and when to rest, and allowing for hundreds of processes of symbiosis and unlikely partnership. Rebecca Solnit writes on the transformation of the pupae into winged creatures[footnote]Found in Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 book ‘ A Fieldguide to Getting Lost’[/footnote]; describing moements of decay and destruction precipitating the emergence of the butterfly in one of nature’s most remarkable examples of transformation. The beauty perhaps lies in the very processes of transformation itself, rather than the end result.

The way we think about climate change has already transformed rather dramatically, though perhaps not at the rates which are truly necessary. What was once described as a scientific and technical problem is now recognised also as a social and political one. Dominant discourse has accepted that climate change is indeed anthropocentric, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) having put it in writing in 2007. It is also significant that the social sciences are not only now considered important but also necessary to grappling with this most wicked of problems. Now, I believe we are on the threshold of something even greater, standing upon a precipice and gazing out across the deepening divide between the sciences where we still stand firmly rooted and the arts: close but still somewhat beyond our reach. It is not only the social sciences which are needed, for, like the natural sciences, they remain still so very rooted in the rigidity of the scientific method and anchored in a rather prescriptive way of viewing and interpreting the world. Now is the time for the humanities. Climate change is not only a scientific problem, not just a social and political problem, but it is also a moral problem. Indeed, it is perhaps the full gamut of the humanities that we need now more than ever, including philosophy, history, and art. For it is not just the environment that we are compromising, but our very humanity. Philosophy and history may offer us both old and new ways of looking at the problem of climate change. Art may also do the same, of course, but may offer something further: an alternative to the scientific method, a very long list of potential contributions which entail everything from communication to provocation, offer new ways of thinking, and act as a much needed catalyst to action.

Rather that attempting a definition, transformative adaptation might be best described by its qualities. Successful adaptation is likely highly contextual, flexible, empathetic, complex, and reflexive. When it comes to transformation, we are talking about things more abstract, less tangible, and I think it would be dangerous to suppose that the role of art lies exclusively in communication, visualisation,  or in the production of something aesthetic. It is thought and process which is also as interesting as the work or performance at which it arrives. It is the non-representational which is where perhaps the enacting of impassioned politics and empathetic critique lie. The work of art is immensely important as well, but we must not focus on that alone. Science – both natural and social –  is frequently presumed to be objective for its rational following of the scientific method, for its abilities of generalisation,  for its studies designed so that results may be replicable, and for results respected in large part because of that trusted method. What then of artistic method? This is where the magic of art comes in, for what is strength in science may just be a weakness in art. Replicability is false in art. Mimesis is one thing but to replicate a piece of art is considered forgery. It is because the process is different. Even though method may be the same, the creative impulse is not. To replicate process simply to arrive at the same result is counterintuitive to the artistic process. This is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of art. It is not about integrating art and the artistic process into current approaches to adaptation. We run into problems, I believe, when we use words like “integrate” and “incorporate” for in those concepts, issues of power remain entangled. It suggests an ever-present dominance; that something should become part of something else, in a sense losing its integrity in integration.  These issues have been well addressed in literatures on indigenous knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge, for example, an article by Paul Nadasdy called the Politics of TEK (1999)  was an incredibly powerful read for me and was inspiring in my own endeavors to think differently about knowledge. Integration is a type of assimilation, one in which something is certainly lost for that which is being integrated and even that which is being integrated into. A loss of difference, perhaps. This is why we may wish to look to the natural sciences for inspiration, for thought on how systems work together both in states of strength and in states of decay. And this is also where issues of political theory are also immensely valuable. The idea of agonism that Chantal Mouffe writes about is particularly poignant.

What is at the heart of that moral outrage about graffiti on glaciers (and graffiti on walls, for that matter)?  Likely, there are many issues at the heart of this outrage, including ideas of a pristine nature that exists separate from us, one which deserves protection. There is also an idea of the value of the aesthetic beauty of nature, on which is exemplified by a pristine aesthetic quality which maintains this nature/culture divide. And finally, there is the whole web of ideas around graffiti as destructive, damaging, offensive, and criminal. Can we shift some of that moral outrage over vandalism to climate change? Can we get as angry over the invisible conglomerate of carbon and oxygen atoms that we are releasing so fervently and carelessly into the atmosphere?  What can get us to this point? Well, what got us to the point of a very widely shared opinion of tagging and graffiti as negative? A very careful crafting by politicians and private interests, a bit of exaggerated social science research suggesting a now quite contentious hypothesis called the ‘broken windows theory’, and the force of media and education campaigns. It is this blend of politics and media which led to an indoctrination so deeply steeped in neoliberalism and capitalist interests. Sot the force behind that politics and media has been capitalism. Climate change needs that similar force. But, in many ways, it is capitalism that we are working against; it is the elephant in the climate change room that no one seems to know how to talk about. Understandably so. Yet,  behind capitalism lie beliefs and values, and worldviews. Though likely they are intertwined, feeding off of each other. And so we need to figure out how to get at that seemingly insurmountable change, and at a rate which may be as unprecedented as the climate changes we are currently experiencing.

In actual fact, that little bit of glacier is far from pristine. In its compressed molecules, it contains thousands of years of human history and influence. As it melts, it releases back this history rather poetically; particles and molecules washing out to sea and escaping into the nebulous atmosphere. The compressed molecules of frozen water contain isotopes and bubbles of air through which the history of climate change itself and Earths changing atmosphere can be read through the extraction of ice cores. That calved piece of glacial ice pressed so compactly and under so much pressure that it radiates a blue so chilling and pure, is under far more threat by the invisible, molecules of carbon dioxide far more detrimental than the visible tags of a few graffiti writers.  We don’t need new knowledge or new science really. Though science and technology has evolved no doubt, the simple message remains very much the same since the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s when Rachel Carson was talking about birds and Robert Smithson was moving rocks. Something has to change. We need revolution and action, in mind and body. I think now of Norwegian urban artist Pøbel who in 2009 very provocatively tagged the body of a dead whale along the coast of Norway. How can we think of this act? How might it challenge our conceptions? How can it contribute to (re)volution of thought?

Tagged whale by Norwegian artist Pøbel, photography courtesy of Nuart Festival (2009)

And how could I not? Here is Modern English with the tune ‘I melt with you’ (1982), with some surprisingly fitting lyrics. The future’s open wide.

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