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A curator's view: Michaela Crimmin

Michaela Crimmin is an independent curator and producer specialising in commissioning art for the public domain. She was Head of Arts at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London from 1997 to 2010. During that time, she initiated and directed the RSA Arts and Ecology Centre. She coordinated the first phase of the high-profile Fourth Plinth series of temporary commissions in London’s Trafalgar Square, and directed the £2 million Art for Architecture award scheme. Previously she was a curator for the Public Art Development Trust.

Michaela sits on a number of committees, including the Wellcome Trust’s major awards panel, the arts committee at the Centre for Water and Environmental Management, and she is also a trustee for Channel 4’s Big Art Project. As a direct result of working on arts and ecology, Michaela is also developing a new inquiry into the relationship between culture, conflict and conflict resolution.

  • Do you understand and do you agree with the statement that “culture is the fourth pillar of sustainability” (alongside social, environmental and economic issues)? How would you “translate” this expression in practical terms?

I am no theorist, reader beware. My career has centred on commissioning art in the public domain, with an increasing interest in environmental issues and the social impact, and artists’ responses to a changing world. So first of all, what is the difference between “social” and “cultural” in the question? From Félix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies of 1989 to Arup Director Peter Head’s recent Brunel lecture, Entering the Ecological Age, there is a wealth of persuasive discourse on the relationship between what I would call culture, and sustainability. Head has said very convincingly that it is entirely pointless for architects or engineers to build sustainable infrastructures without the acknowledgement that change is ultimately dependent on cultural shifts. His paper is a concept that defines an ecological age by 2050 as a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by a global average of 50% compared to 1990 levels; a similar decrease in the global ecological footprint (the amount of land it takes to produce the resources to support each member of the population) to 1.44 global hectares (gha) per capita; and a significant improvement in the Human Development Index.

The lecture has travelled around the world and has been informed by realities in each location. This is where a more distinct meaning of the word “culture” kicks in. There seems to be a wealth of difference between the consumerist Western way of living – our so-called culture – and examples of more sustainable cultures such as those of Aborigines, First Nations or the Inuit (where they survive). We in the West are encouraged to desire “more, more, more” without properly understanding that resources are finite; while people who are more directly dependent on the land are more aware of what it can, and cannot, yield; the need for rest and replenishment, for conservation and where there is a natural counsel against waste.

Then we hone down further. Head, and some other policymakers and decision-makers, are increasingly looking to the cultural sector to affect the profound cultural transformation that is critical to creating public support and demand for the massive, unprecedented changes needed to deliver a low-emission and resource-efficient planet by 2050. This is reported by the international association, Culture Futures.

Here, however, we plunge into the more disputed territory of the role of the arts in addressing environmental challenges and their social ramifications. From Nicolas Bourriaud’s 1998 Relational Aesthetics (and long before), discourse and disagreement often rage around the legitimacy, or not, of artists being called on to address specific social issues. During the Second World War, the then director of the UK’s National Gallery, Kenneth Clark, set up a scheme to commission artists to witness and document the war effort.
The artists who make up the Danish artists’ group Superflex talk easily of the “clear social relevance” of their work; but others shudder at public funding strategies set up to reward artists who do social, educational or environmental “good”.

My own view is that artists are addressing environmental issues, climate change, sustainability, the raft of reasons behind climate change. However, they could be encouraged more, listened to more, included more in cross-disciplinary debates about the future. The best art is likely to be the art that is not didactic, the art that elicits our own responses rather than telling us what to do.

  • What do artists and arts communities in your region/country do (and how) in order to translate global issues (including climate change) into artistic visions? Could you give an example?

Artists are inevitably addressing issues with which we are inextricably bound. I’m not sure I would use the word “translate”, however. Rather it’s more about a diverse range of approaches – bringing different insights by opening up issues, sometimes through being provocative, asking questions, encouraging responses from their audiences, viewers and sometimes participants.

As we know so well, there is a long and incredibly challenging list of often inter-related global issues: the population is set to rise from six to nine billion in the next three decades; expanding economies are adding to the casual consumerism of the West; natural resources are being extracted that will never be replaced; diminishing biodiversity; increased conflict and increased migration. All of these are exacerbating unacceptable existing inequalities that you can group under headings such as “poor health” or “inequality” or “failings in food distribution”.

To take just one example: conflict. The UK’s recent engagement in wars, including Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq, have elicited some very compelling work. One example is Jeremy Deller’s It is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq, which involved towing a car that had been flattened and mangled by a bomb that hit the Booksellers Market in the cultural part of Baghdad, across the breadth of the United States. Together with an Iraqi citizen and an American soldier, Deller literally encouraged and documented open conversations. The website is really worth going into, and particularly the Road diary. Following this tour, the car has now been given to London’s Imperial War Museum and has taken its place alongside the tanks and aeroplanes – somehow presenting the reality of war in a wholly different way. This is what art does.

“My own view is that artists are addressing environmental issues, climate change, sustainability, the raft of reasons behind climate change. However, they could be encouraged more, listened to more, included more in cross-disciplinary debates about the future. The best art is likely to be the art that is not didactic, the art that elicits our own responses rather than telling us what to do.”

Michaela Crimmin
  • In your opinion, how do artists and arts organisations convey the message on climate change to citizens and communities? What is the feedback they receive? Are there any examples of recent art work or projects on this matter?

Climate change – the scientific community largely agrees – is the effect of a complex inter-relation of natural and human causes. In turn, its affects can be anything from a pleasantly warmer summer in a country that yearns for sun to the downright catastrophic. It can be discussed and explained in scientific, political and economic terms. Happily I am unable to give a “typical” artistic approach – but I can certainly describe an example.

As part of the Barbican Gallery’s 2009 Radical Nature show, the arts collective EXYZT was commissioned to create a temporary, public artwork in London’s East End. Working with the art and architecture practice muf (the UK’s representative at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennial) and landscape architects J&L Gibbons, a piece of overlooked land (one of those “in-between” spaces that become invisible) became a three-week alternative to the encroaching developments that were in danger of engulfing it. EXYZT recreated a small version of Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield (planted in Battery Park New York in 1983), built a temporary wind turbine, set up a flour mill, an oven and a bar and encouraged people to participate in events, and to bring their own ideas and contributions. Over three weeks, 17,000 people came and experienced this demonstration of the natural cycle of growing, reaping and eating and drinking together. A “back to the future” that was greeted with a book full of encouraging and enthusiastic comments:

  • It is my idea of community living
  • Great to see food growing in the city – it’s easy to forget there is soil under all the concrete!
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  • Dear Prime Minister, I went to Dalston Mill and was blown away by the beauty and concept of it, and the fact that it is almost self sufficient. We people of Britain want more support for the same enterprises. And it will boost your public image and will bag you a few more votes. Thank you!!!

Such was the success of the project that EXYZT have been back on site in summer 2010 establishing Dalston Mill as a long-term initiative, proving that practising sustainability is far from sackcloth and ashes. It is a viable, creative and participatory prototype for public space.

  • How can we educate young people to understand the importance of climate change through artistic projects?

If “educate” means involving and working together with young people in a way that is inspirational rather than preaching, then there are as many ways for artists to be involved as there are willing artists. When I was directing the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre, we set up pilot projects for artists to work in inner-city primary and secondary schools with an organisation called Creative Partnerships. Not only did these give some inner-city children their first ever experience of the countryside, they involved whole schools and the children’s families in practical experiments, as well as in learning how to lobby members of parliament and how to hone their arguments.

  • Does the policy framework in the UK support issues related to climate change (for example, is there government support at a regional or local level)? If yes, how? Is this support connected with supporting culture and arts projects related specifically to global issues such as climate change?

There is indeed policy support at a national level and on the ground for initiatives, although these were never enough and are now threatened by the Government’s savage public spending review in an attempt to ameliorate the effects of the banking excesses. Meanwhile both Arts Council England and the British Council have been supporting arts projects addressing climate change, sustainability and so on – but there is no overarching fund or policy.

  • Do you currently work (or have your recently worked, or do you plan to work) on a project, related to arts/culture and climate change?

I initiated and then directed a five-year programme, the RSA Centre for Arts & Ecology. This programme supported, promoted and debated artists’ responses to current environmental challenges and their social ramifications. Activities included artists’ commissions and residencies in the UK, India and Afghanistan; a website; international events; education pilots; and the development of an interdisciplinary network of interested individuals and organisations. This was what we termed “open research” – research by doing and talking. This came to a close in the spring of 2010.

I became more interested in human rights, conflict and migration – the tough end of climate change. As a result, I am setting up a new inquiry into the relationship between culture – the arts – and conflict and conflict resolution. I now believe that, unless we work very much harder to build better understanding and empathy across cultures, we are in even bigger trouble than we are at the moment. Artists are doing extraordinary work in war zones, with little support and little public understanding. If anyone has examples of work that is happening, or if anyone is interested, we will be establishing a website early in 2011 and will be welcoming engagement.
Please email if you would like further information.

  • Do you consider your project “innovative”? If yes, why?

Arts & Ecology worked in a way that I hope was complementary and at the same time supportive of other initiatives, some of which – such as David Buckland’s Cape Farewell – had been addressing climate change for a number of years. I am not too interested in the word “innovative” when there is so much to be done. No-one should feel excluded. Having said that, however, our new Culture + Conflict work aims to be distinct in that it will gather together and conserve what are otherwise scattered projects and pieces of information. By doing this, and understanding and building on what is already happening, and by making information available as widely as possible, we aim to provide a useful service.
Every day there is new work being created that addresses the causes of climate change in various ways and quite often the effects too. But ultimately, as I’ve said, it is all there for the looking. As the Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed said recently in an interview for The Guardian: “Art is just things in the world, usually an arrangement of colour and shapes. It’s people who have the feelings and the reactions”.

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