© 2019 by Manifest Data Lab partners & contributors

  • TomCorby

Everything is Changing, Everything is Connected

Updated: Feb 3

Climate change is a deeply relational problem (cf: Rawes, 2013), it’s aesthetics, politics, impacts, affects and solutions are contested across contexts and scales that boggle the mind and swamp the imagination. It cuts through everything, and leaves nothing untouched. How do we even begin to approach issues around artistic representations, what can we do? What do we need to do and how?

I think I can speak for the entire group of researchers for the Materialising Data project, in articulating a sense of being overwhelmed with the complexity and possibilities of a project that by necessity cuts across cultural, technical, aesthetic and material regimes of doing and knowing. This morning, I have tried to assemble a non-exhaustive list of problems when trying to represent climate change from a visual arts perspective.

Some of this is derived from communication studies and geography rather than the visual arts, because that is where much of the more rigorous thinking has occurred. These approaches have limitations though as they generally focus on mass media representations. With some notable exceptions (Yusoff, Hawkins, Smith amongst others) this research hasn't got much to say about the histories and practices of art making and the aesthetic and critical imaginaries that are beginning to emerge in arts cultures. More nuanced understandings of affect and material relations could enrich these debates moving them away from an obsession with audience studies (IMHO) although interdisciplinary perspectives are vital.

Other parts of the list have resulted from my own thinking around the issue from the past 20 years. It presents many paradoxes, is contradictory and difficult to parse across problems. In our project we are attempting to use data imaginatively (rather than as a technical resource or ‘medium’); we think this may offer a route through issues because data, can spread out and operate in relational ways that can disrupt technical and aesthetic orders. There are dangers and limitations including over-focusing on the technical, but there are also opportunities including the ability for data to take material form in a way that screen-based representations can't.

Here is my list of problematics; it is flawed, ongoing and guides possible ways forward:

1. Artists being used as illustrators of scientific process rather than developing imaginative transformations of climate knowledge

2. Uncritical re-deployment of scientific data in ‘info-graphics’ or other artistic, technical, sonic and material forms. Lack of context or understanding of how data need to ‘unfold' into the world and connect different materialities and registers of experience

3. Fundamental lack of understanding of the science of climate change in the visual arts/humanities (problem of scientific literacy)

4. Lack of confidence in the scientific community of admitting to the situatedness of their knowledge (cf: Haraway, Latour)

5. Lack of visual languages/exemplars to draw upon that articulate the interconnection of climate change as a complex that is material, environmental and also caught up with larger geopolitical forces

6. Problem of scale: disconnection to here and now caused by invisibility of processes, how to represent massive interactions across temporal and geographic space that include impacts in the real world, on the ground

7. Over-reliance on aesthetically pleasing myths of unspoiled wilderness and nature at risk (cf: Linder, 2006)

8. Over reliance on visual clichés from the mass media (ice melt, desertification, burning globe) (cf: O’Neill and Smith)

9. What I describe as the ‘cuddle problem’ polar bear (distancing, sentimentality, using cliched imagery) (cf: Doyle)

10. Lack of substantial visual work articulating histories of colonialism in relation to climate change (cf: Yusoff)

11. Use of imagery that isn’t about ‘climate change’ but about some other environmental issue

12. How to respond to emerging cultures of climate resistance

13. Low carbon approaches to practice (treading lightly)


Doyle, J. (2007), “Picturing the clima(c)tic: greenpeace and the representational politics of climate change communication”. In: Science as Culture, 16(2), 129–150

Hawkins, Harriet & Kanngieser, Anja. (2017), “Artful climate change communication: overcoming abstractions, insensibilities, and distances: Artful climate change communication”. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. 8. e472. 10.1002/wcc.472.

Haraway, D. (1988), “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”. In Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn), pp. 575-599.

Houser, H. (2014), “The aesthetics of environmental visualizations: More than

information ecstasy?”. In: Public Culture, 26(2), pp. 319-337.

Kitchin, R. (2014) Data revolutions, London: SAGE.

Linder, S. (2006). “Cashing-in on risk claims: On the for-profit inversion of signifiers for “global warming”. In: Social Semiotics, 16(1), 103–132

Latour, B (1992), We Have Never Been Modern, Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2003), “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern “. In Critical Inquiry , Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 2004), pp. 225-248.

O’Neill, S. J., & Smith, N. (2013), “Climate change and visual imagery”. In: WIREs Climate Change, 5(1), 73–87.

Yussof, K. (2019), A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, University of Minnesota Press