Some thoughts about the purposes of art

The other week I attended a conference for the opening of a small exhibition at Canada House in Trafalgar Square in London. This was an exhibition of photographs, videos, maps and architectural models from work by the Arctic Perspective Initiative, an international group of artists, designers and media workers, led by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman., Peljhan and Biederman were present at the event, Peljhan is the flesh and Biederman vis a Skype link The project focuses on the process of building a network of open and free media, communications and sensing technologies across the Arctic.

What made the event interesting for me was not the exhibition, which was very small and highly documentary, but what happened during the Skype interchange. Matthew Biederman was joined on Skype by one of the participating Inuit, who just happened to be the great Inuit film maker Zacharias Kunuk. If you don’t know Kunuk by name you may have seen or heard of the film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001).It’s everything a film should be – based on Inuit legends (perhaps history) it has a great story, complex characters and stunning direction/cinematography. It opens up a corner of the world most of us cannot even imagine.

Anyway Kunuk was there, chatting to the web cam – in a much more relaxed way in his home territory than one would be if forced to come personally to London and sit in Canada House.

Although the conference was mainly about the project , one of the audience asked Kunuk directly how the media communicativity could help to raise awareness of climate change.

Now I will be the first to admit that I have long been a climate change sceptic. Not a denier, mark you, but certainly a sceptic. Not only because I intensely dislike the self serving attitudes of many in the scientific community, nor because I intensely dislike and disagree with the classist elements of many in the “climate change” or environmentalist camp (like Plane Stupid etc.), who can afford to be Luddite because they are cushioned by wealth. They don’t have to live in cheap, uninsulated houses, and can afford to buy hybrid vehicles instead of old bangers.

I’ve been a sceptic because, as a student of Braudel (The Mediterranean and Civilization and Capitalism), I am acutely aware that we need to be aware of how we measure time. History and all life exists within many time frames: geological, environmental, and technological time – which is far less perceived than the short history of events that we normally consider history: politics, wars and so on.

Braudel and the Annales School’s idea of the longue durée approach to history stresses the slow and often imperceptible effects of space, climate and technology on the actions of human beings. So, aware that Braudel himself has discussed the effects of geological and climate change on the Mediterranean, I was aware that one thing we do know is that we are always in flux, that change happens. Whether we do anything about it or not.

And yet. When Zacharias Kunuk responded to the question, he did not cite facts or statistics. Nor did embark on a missionary crusade. What Kunuk did was give a startlingly poetic, off the cuff impression of what is happening now, right now, in the Arctic, through the eyes and ears of one who is living there. Relating what people in his community are telling him they have seen. The melting of the ice, the appearance of different animals, the changes in the quality of air, the look of the snow, the shifting of the light.

Some how, through the poetic language of the artist, the unchosen words of this great film director, I felt a new awareness come over me. Actually, I’ve been so turned off by the rant and rave of the “green” movement and its failure to effectively challenge capitalism, but instead to join it and capitalise on climate concern! SO turned off that I am blocked my ears and eyes to the authentic voices. Voices like Kunuk’s, and there are – must be – others.

And now I am reminded again why I decided to be an artist. It was because I decided that through art I can see things and discuss things and speak out about things that matter in a way that is uncompromising and untainted. Unlike TV (which is what I was doing before, as well as new media advertising, for which I am ashamed), art has the possibility to be really awaken the mind.

Why else would the Bush Administration pressure UN officials to cover up the Picasso Guernica tapestry, rather than have it in the background while Colin Powell and U.S. diplomats argued for war on Iraq in 2003?

Art can be a spiritual guide to invite people to examine their own ideas, belief and thoughts and through examination make changes. This is when art is, and must be, political. It’s not about “politics” – here I am still a Braudelian par excellence! It’s about the polity, – the people – our world – us.

It has certainly worked for me. I am a lot less sceptical. I am also now thinking of ways that I can act on my shift in thinking.

I’m really hoping that the Arctic perspectives project can really offer a way for the people of the Arctic to make their art and their voices heard. And that the rest of us can help.

One comment

  1. This is a lovely post, honest and moving. I love the description of Kunuk’s elegaic observation. I’m sorry that I missed this event (unavoidably) so thanks for your account. I’m very convinced of the importance of poetic means of changing minds about the environment. You can see several posts on this on However, I think it’s important too to defend the work of environmentalists and scientists. I would argue that they could have ranted & raved more (would actually be interested to be shown an environmental scientist ranting & raving) given the extraordinary and rapid changes they are seeing definite evidence of, and given the utter panic many feel the more that they are convinced of the severity and near-irreversibility of climate change, the more there is scientific consensus and also the more they receive hate mail/death threats from climate deniers. More than any other science disciplines I’d argue that ecologists and climate scientists are motivated by global or biosphere conscience, not by self-serving interests. Also, many are working in respectful collaboration with indigenous people and also with artists. There isn’t necessarily a great divide between scientists and artists, and maybe the climate crisis will see stronger bonds formed between them.

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