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Climate Crisis: Speculative Futures

Written by Sarah McLean
Published date 16 December 2019

On 5 March 2020, students from Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon will take over the Horniman Museum and Gardens in south east London for a night of interactive experiences created in response to the global climate crisis.

Developed by students at all 3 colleges, across art, design and performance courses, the event will invite the public to take part in interventions and activities throughout the museum, aimed at inspiring speculation and dialogue about proposals for how we might make a just transition to a post-carbon society.

Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Since it was dedicated in 1901 as a free museum for the public, forever, the Horniman has been a place that connects us all with global cultures and the natural environment. Today, the new mission of the museum is to encourage people to engage with the accelerating global social-ecological crisis.

The Horniman’s collections and displays include anthropology and natural history collections, musical instruments, a world gallery and an acclaimed aquarium. Through these as well as focussed project work, temporary exhibitions and public workshops, the Horniman aims to address the converging issues of climate breakdown, mass extinction and ecological collapse, the migration of peoples across borders and the processes of cultural globalisation.

Over the years, Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon colleges have each worked closely with the Horniman in many different ways, from artists’ residencies to research collaboration and symposia. Now, the Horniman event will mark the development of a strategic partnership.

This alliance aims to promote knowledge exchange and build on our common interests, particularly following UAL’s announcement in September 2019 that decarbonisation will be at the heart of the university’s academic offer with sustainability a vital part of the student learning experience.

Advising on the development of proposals for the event is artist and academic David Cross, a UAL Reader in Art and Design whose own research and practice for the past 30 years has applied constructive institutional and social critique, with a particular focus on the intersection of transformative pedagogy and environmental change. This makes him uniquely placed to shape the brief for this exciting partnership.

We spoke to him about why the global ecological emergency should be a priority, and why he feels the arts can help to engage people in ways that are enjoyable, critically informed, and welcoming of real difference.

CGI landscape by Conford and Cross.
Cornford & Cross, Black Narcissus (2014). Artificial mountain landscape generated from financial graphs - Credit: Cornford & Cross. Caption

Can you tell me a bit about your own research background?

My research has long focussed on visual culture and the contested ideal of “sustainability”. More recently I’ve been exploring the transition to a post carbon society. This has led me to ask how the climate emergency is rooted in the history of how London got rich.

The great expansion and enrichment of London since the Industrial Revolution was absolutely part of the colonial project of the British Empire, which for hundreds of years took wealth from other parts of the world and concentrated it in the capital city.

This laid the foundation for much of the global inequality we see today: while a tiny minority of super-rich people in the ‘developed’ nations become ever richer, hundreds of millions of people in the Global South are struggling in poverty, as their countries are left in a state of under-development.

On top of this historic injustice comes the climate emergency. It must be bad enough to live in parts of the world that are most exposed to hurricanes, floods or drought. But where communities also don’t even have good roads, schools or hospitals, much less resilient electricity and telecommunications systems, we have a recipe for ecological and humanitarian disaster.

It’s a vast and complex ethical problem that artists and designers can’t be expected to solve. But creative actions and critical reflection can help people think differently about their relationship to the difficult choices and major opportunities ahead.

Aquarium tank filled with nothing else apart from plastic bags to highlight the issue of plastic in out oceans.

How does this work link into our relationship with the Horniman?

Closely! The Horniman has developed an ambitious 10 year programme to address the climate emergency and the wider social-ecological crisis. Clearly, they recognise that these interconnected issues profoundly change our understanding of the past, and our attitude to the future.

I think that offering the museum as a safe space to explore hopes and fears, and to imagine different possibilities is a really intelligent, far-sighted way to help people creatively engage with the greatest challenges facing the world.

Another strength of this partnership is that UAL has recently announced its ambition to respond to the climate emergency, and with Citizens’ Assemblies forming across the university, there are lots of students who are excited and want to use their creativity to get involved.

The project of decarbonisation is an enormous challenge, as it will mean shutting down the fossil fuel industry all over the world while completely rebuilding our energy economy. And we have to achieve it before it’s too late - to avoid runaway climate breakdown, we in the wealthy consumer societies must achieve Net Zero Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2030.

But we can’t make the mistake of calling this a technical problem for scientists, engineers or economists to solve. We need a cultural transformation, a shift in attitudes informed by recognition of the debt at the heart of the legacy of empire.

The really massive thing to do is to connect decarbonisation with decolonisation. That way, we can achieve not only a post-carbon society, but a just and progressive future where everyone can realise their potential.

This aligns with crucial work already being done by students and academics at UAL through projects such as Shades of Noir, Decolonising the Curriculum, Transnational Art, Identity and Nation, and the new Institute for Decolonising Art.

Sea turtle in the Natural History Museum in London.

I’m impressed by the Horniman’s open approach to ecological restoration and social justice, as these issues are intertwined in the history of the museum itself. This history began in the nineteenth century with John Horniman, a tea merchant who made his fortune as tea was becoming an essential part of British society - first as an exclusive status symbol for the upper classes, then as a modest luxury for the aspiring middle classes, and finally as the everyday stimulant to boost the productivity of the working classes.

Horniman was a Quaker, a Christian movement that rejects formal worship and hierarchy, and demands scrupulous honesty in business. But if you follow where the tea came from and how it was produced, you enter the history of British imperialism. The tea traded around the London docks was brought by ship, initially from China where it had been exchanged for silver bullion.

But as demand rose, Britain began paying for the tea with opium grown in its colonies in India. When China resisted, Britain waged the Opium Wars, and switched tea production to the colonies of the British Empire in India, where people were coerced into working on monoculture plantations, on land that had been taken by force.

When he retired, John Horniman devoted himself to philanthropic work, including the Peace Society, the Anti-Slavery Society, and the Howard League for Penal Reform. When he died in 1893, Horniman left £320,000, which would be around £40 million today. That’s a lot to make as a pacifist and anti-slavery campaigner! His son, Frederick John Horniman, inherited the business, and used his phenomenal wealth to travel the world collecting objects, and to found the museum to display them in.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the Hornimans’ prosperity made them, to some extent, complicit in the system of colonialism. But rather than judge, we might ask ourselves: what is our relationship to the world order today? We may know something about the history of empire, and the climate emergency. But as we enter an age of converging crises, do we fully realise what forces we are aligning ourselves with?

I think the Horniman project is a rare chance not only to ask tough questions, but to use creativity to envision alternatives and expand the horizon of possibility. We will be working with students across courses, across colleges, across levels from BA to MA and perhaps even PhD, with disciplines ranging from fine art through to design and performance. With these multiple approaches, we hope to create a dynamic evening event which works as a showcase of interactive experiences for the public.

The Horniman are open to any and all proposals. I think that their approach is that if a proposal fits, and if it’s progressive, exciting and engages people, then let’s give it a go.

Tropical fish in aquarium with plastic in the water highlighting the issue with people throwing plastic into the oceans.

The brief for the event is for students to develop site-specific interventions that get the public engaged in the issues of climate crisis. Can you tell us about the connections between this and your own artistic practice and its focus on socially-engaged work?

As an artist, I worked in collaboration for over 25 years with Matthew Cornford as Cornford & Cross. We would go into public situations and look for “trouble”, symptoms of tensions or conflicts embedded in everyday life.

Our artistic interventions offered aesthetic experiences that aimed to attract people’s interest and hold their attention. If people accepted our offer, it was like a deal being struck which allowed us to publicly explore issues that would normally be outside the realm of polite conversation: how did this situation come to be, and could it have been otherwise? By implication, how did we come to be like this, and could we be otherwise?

This approach proposes that cultural practice is more than leisure or entertainment — although it certainly can be recreational and enjoyable! In creating an event or experience which provoked a reaction, we were often able to engage people in different subject positions.

When art is able to loosen assumptions and the institution is willing to provide a safe space for discussion, quite often people will see that it’s OK to explore a controversy and try out different, even opposing points of view. I’m interested in the potential of art to activate social agency, whereby people can act not just in an individual or private capacity but collectively and in public. It’s not just about reaching agreement it’s about finding ways to recognise and accept differences.

Here at UAL we combine the creative impulse of the art school with the academic rigour of the university. A prime example of that combination is practice-based research, which applies creativity and criticality to forming new questions and finding new ways to answer them.

I’m excited by the idea of the Horniman welcoming in emerging artists and designers. And if this is an encounter of curiosity and reflection, understanding and imagination, who knows what the outcome will be? I’m thinking this could be a unique situation in which people can learn from each other while exploring new possibilities about our common future.

UAL x Horniman Climate Crisis: Speculative Futures takes place on 5 March 2020, 6:30 - 10pm.

Tickets go on sale in January 2020. Book a ticket via the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Find out more about David Cross’s research.