Crafting an artistic response to climate change
By Kayla Schulte
Over the course of eight weeks, I descended into the cool, concrete basement of Modern Art Oxford (MAO) for two hours at a time, leaving behind the buzz of summer and any trace of mobile service or WiFi. Here I was welcomed by a group of local artists, all women, tinkering with different biodegradable materials. Each artist brought her own energy, experience, and skills to an experimental ‘artistic response to climate change’. The ebb and flow of practices and ideas evolved into Continuing Bodies – a feature of the upcoming exhibit Future Knowledge. Located in Wytham Woods, the piece is a collaborative interrogation of climate change and anthropogenic relationships with the environment using biodegradable materials.
I assumed the hybrid role of journalistic observer and participating artist, dividing the project into four phases to outline the process: I. Initiation, II. Experimentation, III. Infrastructuring, and IV. Installation. This is to allow the reader to trace the thematic strands, perspectives, dialogue, and skills that ultimately coalesced into the striking installation now standing in Wytham Woods. Each section draws on my own notes and experience, along with photos and interview excerpts from each of the participating artists and lead curator on the project, Sara Lowes. Together, these pieces illustrate how the group created an iconic environmental installation.
The project was first pitched by Modern Art Oxford as an opportunity for local artists to ‘collectively explore new biodegradable materials and rate their potential to be used as a part of a tool kit for making art, [while] using scientific research from Wytham Woods to create an artistic response to climate change’. An emphasis on integrating art and science, as well as facilitating knowledge exchange among the collaborators and prospective audiences, immediately brought out an inquisitive, intellectual energy among the group. The group – Katalina, Janet, Claire, Angela, Maria, Clare, Heather, Morwenna. Helena, Lillian and myself – are all artists or creators and local to Oxfordshire.
The third meeting of the group took place at Wytham Woods, a historic research site managed by the University of Oxford since 1942 and the pre-arranged location for the installation. Here, the installation could reinforce the spirit of human experimentation, discovery, and knowledge already present in the woods. Nigel Fisher, Wytham's grounds manager, presented the exhaustive amount of climate-related research already taking place at this site. This inspired ideas to design a piece that, once situated amidst a backdrop of trees at Wytham, could prompt thoughts of greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration, and atmospheric exchanges. The group’s philosopho-scientific approach to trees as the ‘lungs of the planet’ is reminiscent of the Gaia hypothesis. Proposed by NASA scientist James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, they conceived of the earth as one interconnected, single-celled organism. From this perspective, oceans are our circulatory system, species are various organelles, and the atmosphere is our breath. Climate change could be imagined as a fever, symptomatic of some deeper homeostatic imbalance.
Continuing the theme of ecologically symbolic bodies, the group was introduced to the pre-selected material for the installation: mycelium. Mycelium are the root-like strands that branch below the earth and constitute the main body of mushroom networks, below the cap or mushroom ‘fruit’ we observe above ground. This organic substance is experiencing a surge in popularity among environmental science and sustainability buffs for its fascinating, foundational role among forest ecosystems (see RadioLab). Mycelium networks serve as a form of economic infrastructure through which trees can communicate and barter for nutrients. They also secrete important enzymes for decomposing surrounding organic matter (i.e. plants, animals, etc.), facilitating the cycle of life. As an artistic medium, mycelium brilliantly represents the exhibit’s overarching themes of the temporality and temperamentality of earthly phenomena, particularly when considering the implications of climate change.
Plied with souvenirs from Wytham and a ‘playground’ space in MAO’s empty basement, the group began to experiment. We developed a pattern of going off on our own, testing out various skills, conceptual approaches, and biodegradable materials, then returning to the basement to debrief either with photos or physical models of the materials. This pattern reinforced how important it was to test out different methods, with new creations crafted out of mud, mycelium, and other curious substances being brought down into the basement each week. A sustained interest in carbon, trees, and respira