Interdisciplinary Group Addresses Climate Change Through Art

Nov. 2, 2015

For some, the adverse impact associated with global climate change lives in abstraction. Even through a growing number do believe changes in the climate pose a significant threat, people do not always know how to react or plan to help strengthen the environment. 

Research indicates glaciers are melting at an accelerated rate, sea levels from New York to Newfoundland increased about four inches in 2009 and 2010, and California's Sierra Nevada snowpack is the lowest it has been in five centuries. With this reality in mind, a University of Arizona-led group of faculty and staff has been working in partnership with community-based artists at the intersection of the arts and humanities and the environmental sciences to help drive conversations and actions around climate change.

Called the Art-Environment Network, this interdisciplinary group was founded to communicate and engage individuals across the perceived barrier that divides the University and the general community. Collectively, the network's members believe that it is possible, through creative and collaborative means, to explore issues related to climate change with the purpose of acting in ways that promote environmental resiliency.

Members include UA School of art professor Ellen McMahon, who worked in collaboration with School of Art student Travis Boswell and UA architect Beth Weinstein to produce "Prone to Collapse," a multimedia installation. The piece established an immersive, sensory experience meant to mimic a forest and was inspired by research by UA environmental scientist Dave Breshears. The installation, presented earlier this year as part of the Balance/Unbalance 2015 Conference in Phoenix, is on exhibit through Oct. 11 as part of the 2015 Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art.

Eva Simone Hayward, an assistant professor of gender and women's studies, this fall is teaching "Environmental Justice Through Film Photography Art," a course that that bridges art, humanities and the environmental sciences. All told, the UA maintains nearly 500 courses related to sustainability.

Another member, Simmons B. Buntin, is founding editor of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, a Web-based magazine that publishes poetry, nonfiction and fiction, editorials, reviews, and other writings related to the environment.

Also, in 2016 the UA Press will publish "The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide," a book edited by Eric Magrane, a graduate research associate with the UA Institute of the Environment, and Christopher Cokinos, director of the UA Creative Writing Program. With illustrations by artist Paul Mirocha, the book contains poetry and prose as well as field guide entries on species of the Sonoran Desert.

We asked two key members of the network, which was established by the Institute of the Environment, to speak about the origins of the network and members' long-range vision. Responding are the UA's Gregg Garfin, an associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment and deputy director of Translational Environment Research at the Institute of the Environment, and Magrane, a doctoral candidate in the UA School of Geography and Development.

Q: Considering contemporary issues and grand challenges related to the environment, why is the work of the network important, viable and timely?

Garfin: Urgent environmental issues like water and ecosystem sustainability, biodiversity and global climate change invite the participation of all of society. In the U.S., our responses to these issues have lacked vigor. We need the broadest range of perspectives on these issues to provide insights, and to garner the attention of the public. The Art-Environment Network can energize discussions of these issues and provide fresh insights, from the meeting of multiple disciplines and interests.

Magrane: We're conscious of multiple roles that the arts can play in addressing environmental issues. One is in helping to communicate environmental issues to broader publics. This is important. The other is related to imagination. Culture, creativity and the arts have been key aspects of social movements throughout history, and have helped point to futures that weren't even imagined at the time. The work catalyzed through this network can play a similar role in the face of today’s environmental challenges.

Q: What does it mean that creative works can introduce new and different ways of knowing the environmental sciences? How so?

Garfin: The arts, sciences and humanities all aim at understanding our world and how it works. The arts and humanities, in particular, aim to make sense of the human predicament at the intersection between natural and managed environments.  Moreover, artists and scientists are keen observers of the world. Through a different set of lenses, artists can elucidate — sometimes in visceral ways that science cannot — connections, conflicts, contradictions and solutions.

Q: The network also maintains a philosophy that the UA and broader community be highly engaged, whether that be around research, events and other initiatives. Why is the public-private partnership so important to you? 

Magrane: Tucson has extremely vibrant arts and culture. I look, for example, to Tucson Pima Arts Council's place-making initiatives, to myriad galleries and museums and theater companies, to the many individual artists and collectives in Tucson who do work around environmental issues. Many community artists have a presence in the Arts-Environment Network, and we consider the network as one forum in which to bring the University and broader community together to discuss ideas around arts and environment and to learn from each other.

Q: What are the long-range plans for the network, particularly related to its programming and organizational structure? 

Garfin: We plan to develop the network, from an informal initiative to a vigorous program and vital intellectual and collaborative presence at the UA and in Tucson, with a national reputation. To make this vision a reality, we are taking the following steps: We are convening an executive committee and an advisory board; we are increasing the number of events that we initiate and co-sponsor; we are widening network membership, increasing communication between members and planning more off-campus events; and we are seeking funding through grants and donations. All of the aforementioned builds on our two-year journey of learning about each other's work, fostering collaboration and co-developing a vision for vibrant activities and programs.

The Art-Environment Network is hosting a number of events through the rest of the year, which are free and open to the public. A calendar of events is available online and includes:

  • Nov. 3: The Grad Blitz, an Institute of the Environment-sponsored competition designed to let grad students show off their environmentally themed work, including creative art-environment pieces, will be held in Room S107 of ENR2 at 2 p.m.
  • Nov. 13: An Art-Environment Network tour of the collection of unusual trees adapted to semiarid climates will be held with the Campus Arboretum at 1 p.m. The group will meet on the west side of Old Main.
  • Dec. 4: The Art-Environment Network is hosting a lunch, which will include short "TED Talk" presentations by Cokinos, Mel Dominguez, Paul Mirocha, Erika Colombi and Kathleen Velo. The event will be held from noon to 1:30 p.m. in Room 604 of ENR2. RSVPs are required by contacting Angie Brown at aabrown5@email.arizona.edu

For those interested in being added to the UA's Art and Environment Network's listserv, email Angie Brown at aabrown5@email.arizona.edu.