By Naomi Riddle
27 September, 2019
‘The story of the earth—the story of its ‘symphonic synergies’ in which its parts renew each other, in which everything conspires with everything else to bring forth new life (where even death is converted back into life)—is itself on the edge of unravelling.’
Delia Falconer, ‘The Opposite of Glamour’, Sydney Review of Books, (2017)
‘Although the goal—the reduction of greenhouse emissions and a shift to a sustainable economic model—is relatively easy to define, the path towards it is not, and the changes it demands are far-reaching and fundamental.’
James Bradley, ‘Unearthed: Last Days of the Anthropocene’, Meanjin, (2019)
Last Friday, I marched, along with 100,000 others, in support of the School Strike 4 Climate in New York. We met at Foley Square, just outside of City Hall, and made our way south, past the Chamber of Commerce, past Wall Street and the Freedom Tower, until we reached Battery Park. The kids were raucous, noisy, excited, and angry. Their voices soon became hoarse from the chanting. Some scrambled up the traffic lights to display their signs to the passing crowd. One boy climbed up the pillar of a sandstone government building, and then stood to attention outside a first-floor window. His t-shirt read, ‘Open the Borders Now.’ Later, Artemisa Xakriabá, a nineteen-year-old Indigenous Amazonian youth leader, addressed the crowd. ‘My people have been fighting for five hundred years,’ she said, ‘we are not giving up now.’
Those in power greeted this jubilant rage with silence.
Coverage of the march, as well as the marchers’ demands, lasted for about eight hours. By Saturday, the online feeds and front pages of newspapers were filled with the revelation that the President of the United States had pressured a foreign power to investigate a political rival; by Sunday, with the frenzied talk of impeachment. In Australia, attention was given not so much to the number of protesters (the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the invasion of Iraq), but to whether Greta Thunberg was an anxious puppet of the Left.
In ‘This is how extinction could play out’ (2019), climate activist Bill McKibben argues that the ‘the physical world is going from backdrop to foreground’ and the consequences of global warming are already here. What is at hand is a great disordering, one which permeates and infects all aspects of lived experience. It disrupts narratives of progress, GDP figures, patterns of migration, illness, the treatment of illness, requests for credit cards, sex, birth, childhood, adolescence, time and care.
Even using the phrase ‘climate change’ conceals the extreme complexity of the crisis: it scrapes together the effects of colonisation, genocide, land clearing, the lack of Indigenous sovereignty, white supremacy, militarisation and fascism. The politics of our time suffers from the ricochet-effects of ecological stress.
But human beings have always had the capacity to incorporate all manner of horrors into our day-to-day existence. What may seem unfathomable one minute will quickly deaden to a norm.
But the climate crisis also disorders the process of writing and storytelling. As Delia Falconer suggests in ‘The Opposite of Glamour’ (2017), ‘the passage of the seasons; the opposition between wild and domestic; the ideal of progress; and even the notion of futurity—all these drivers of the writerly machinery—now seem hollow.’ Amitav Gosh goes a step further in The Great Derangement (2016), arguing that the novel form is a tool that works to conceal the reality of ecological trauma. At the heart of these discussions is a consideration of what a narrative is, what linear time now means, what counts as action, and what power the writer has in the face of such a sprawling global emergency.
These knotted questions must also be asked of contemporary art. If anything, such questions become more urgent because contemporary art deals in materiality, in aesthetics, in objects and things. Almost all aspects of modern life are anathema to stemming the impacts of climate change, and artistic practice cannot be separated from this reality. Just as the myth of the Western canon is interrogated by artists of colour, or institutions are critiqued for their proximity to systems of oppression, so too must we push ourselves to think through what it means to make work in the shadow of ecological collapse. (An aside: on the boards of many of our institutions and not-for-profit organisations you will find those who benefit from the extraction of fossil fuels. Demanding divestment is as good a place as any to begin.)
Such conversations are difficult, fractious, urgent, and necessary. Such conversations cannot be dismissed, because they are a defining feature of our contemporary world, and they will become, like the weather, only more insistent. Such conversations also require pushing through their subsequent affects: sluggishness, apathy, avoidance, and helplessness. They may precipitate a desire to make less.
This is not an opinion piece, it is a letter, and it thinks of itself in that form—it hesitates, it ruminates, and it discloses. It strives to be an opening, not a manifesto. And, like anything, there is contradiction inside of it: the contradiction of writing this after flying fourteen hours and then another six, the contradiction of not currently feeling the direct effects of climate change while others do, the contradiction of being in a position secure enough to ponder the future instead of the immediate present. But I am tired of how easily we counter discussions about climate change with individual rather than structural attacks. To solely point out contradiction is to fall back on a tactic of avoidance.
We ask: What are you doing about your individual choices?
What we should ask: how can we change the makeup of this world?
I am writing this partly because this last week feels like a watershed moment where we decide which side we want to be on / partly because being in New York at this time feels like reckoning with two competing views of the future / (there are the WeWork offices, the scooters, tech start-ups, Soul Cycles and endless construction sites; there are the children accusing us of robbing them of adulthood) / and partly because these are the same questions that concerned me three months ago or a year ago or when I started Running Dog in the first place: what does it mean to write about art in this moment, and what should we demand such writing do.
I am also writing this at the same time as I am reading Derek Jarman’s Chroma (1994) and David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives (1991)—two projects written at the height of the HIV/Aids crisis, and in an era of complete societal and governmental disinterestedness. For both Jarman and Wojnarowicz, to write these works was to imagine and to share and to commune and to expose. It was to write in error; it was to write because, and in spite of, the near threat of death. In their work you will find clarity, love, joy, generosity, immense beauty, radical hope and purpose, but you will also find an unflinching examination of hypocrisy, weakness, selfishness and greed. Jarman and Wojnarowicz sounded the alarm against what they saw as false existence—carrying on as if nothing disastrous was happening; seeing a future in terms of the status quo. (Wojnarowicz: ‘I’m amazed we’re not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.’)
I look to these artists to know what is possible and to know about writing in a time of emergency, but I also look to them because they suggest a way of living that refuses evasion and distraction. In confronting what is most horrifying, they are able to interrogate and (re)invigorate not just the idea of making, but of future-making too.
‘We came to alter the world’, writes Jarman in Chroma, ‘not join it.’