Half a century ago, English novelist and scientist C.P. Snow famously coined the term "the two cultures" to describe how scientists and artists had become separated by a gulf of mutual ignorance. David Buckland is trying to close that gap, by booking passage for artists on scientific research trips into the Far North.
Buckland is the founder of Cape Farewell, a London-based organization that over the past decade has sent hundreds of artists into Arctic waters, "always aboard a beautiful sailing ship," as he said during an interview in Toronto. The idea is that once they've seen the science of climate change in the field, they'll be better equipped to make art that prods the rest of us into doing something about it.
The passenger list for these grown-up field trips has included novelists Ian McEwan and Yann Martel, musicians Laurie Anderson and Leslie Feist, and visual artists Brian Jungen and Antony Gormley. Exhibitions and events spun off from Cape Farewell's activities have shown up in London, New York, Beijing and now Toronto, in a Royal Ontario Museum show and festival called Carbon 14: Climate Is Culture.
"If you're a sailor, you never hang off a cape, you make a decision," said Buckland, a charismatic British filmmaker who named his organization after a spot on the southernmost point of Greenland. Cape Farewell, whose Canadian foundation is chaired by former Toronto mayor David Miller, promotes the kind of agitprop work that, in C.P. Snow's time, might have been aimed at deciding to end the arms race – another world-threatening cause that brought scientists and artists together.
Now as then, the challenge of agitprop is to produce something more substantial than a slogan, more intrusive than a piece of art tucked away in a gallery. If the Toronto exhibition is any guide, and as McEwan hinted in his 2010 novel Solar, Cape Farewell's most publicly engaging result may not be the works produced, so much as the comfort given by its promotion of the idea that artists, and by extension the rest of us, can make a difference.
Cape Farewell benefits from the faddish scaffolding many artists have built between their activities and the work of science, about which most of them still know little. Any tour of alternative galleries is bound to bring you into contact with works that are supposed to "research" some social phenomenon, or to "interrogate an issue" – a phrase Buckland used more than once during a conversation at the ROM.
The ROM artists did their interrogations on dry land, as the first group of Cape Farewellers not to board a beautiful sailing ship. Two years ago, Buckland and co-curator Claire Sykes put them into intense bull-sessions with eight "informers" – not just scientists this time, but also new-energy technologists, politicians and economists. Eight months later, after more discussions, Cape Farewell asked the artists what they could produce for Carbon 14.
For all the talk about making a difference, the work at the ROM is short on solutions, long on lamentation. Six of the 13 pieces were made before the meetings in Toronto. They include Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, an hour-long 2010 film by Zacharias Kunuk and climate researcher Ian Mauro, which not only documents thinning ice and milder winters in the North, but challenges science's low respect for what it calls anecdotal evidence. Kunuk's informants are elders, who in the traditional Inuit view are the best sources of information about how things were and how they've changed.
Photographer Donald Weber's powerful portraits Quniqjuk, Qunbuq, Quabaa, from a series created for Canadian Art magazine in 2011, shows Inuit faces glimmering out of the darkness in a ghostly light. Weber, shooting at a high school in Igloolik, took off from the oil-lamp photos of Robert Flaherty (who made Nanook of the North), and used the light of whatever digital device his sitters had in their pockets.
Photo series from Baffin Island and the Atlantic coast by Mauro and others start to edge toward spreads from National Geographic, in part because the point of the images relies so much on the captions. A photo of walrus hunters with their kill, for instance, could be about Inuit pursuit of traditional ways, but the caption says it's really about a proposed ore-shipping route that could drive the walrus away.
The caption takes over entirely in Minerva Cuevas's A Draught of the Blue, a new black-and-white underwater film of a coral reef, behind which divers periodically appear holding banners that say things like IN TROUBLE. It's the closest thing to putting a bumper sticker on the ocean floor.
That's the danger with agitprop: the art can easily become an illustration for an idea. Cape Farewell dodges this a little by saying its show isn't just an art project. "I'm more interested in the idea of cultural production," says Sykes, who has included work by "communicators" such as journalist Alanna Mitchell (author of a monologue presentation at the Theatre Centre in Toronto, Jan. 29-Feb. 3) and broadcaster Laurie Brown, whose mock trial of David Suzuki takes place at the ROM on Nov. 6.
The most public manifestations of Carbon 14 will appear on Pattison Onestop ad screens in shopping malls across Canada, where astronaut Chris Hadfield's photos and tweets from his space voyage will be shown. Much of the other work, holed up in the ROM Institute of Contemporary Culture's Roloff Beny Gallery, will be seen mostly by the museum public, which includes a lot of people already worried about climate change. They may learn a few things, and feel a glimmer of solidarity, but there are few signs here toward an exit from our climate predicament.
Carbon 14: Climate Is Culture runs at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Theatre Centre and other Toronto venues Oct. 19 through Feb. 2. For complete program information, see capefarewellfoundation.com.