Sublime Climate II: Alarm—Projecting Global Change

Sublime Climate—Addressing Global Warming
Part II

January 7 - March 14, 2008 

Alarm—Projecting Global Change

In the late 1980's, we didn't completely understand the sensitivity of the Earth's physical systems to small shifts in temperature. Most of the scientists I talked to then would not have predicted that a I-degree rise in global average temperature, which is what we have so far caused would be enough to so thoroughly disrupt the planet. But it has. The world is a different place-more chaotic, storm tossed, and disease ridden. Here's one way of saying it: In 1968, when I was a boy, Apollo 8 sent back the first pictures of our planet, that blue-white marble floating in space. Well, those pictures are as out of date as my high school yearbook photo. The planet doesn't look like that or behave like that anymore-there's more blue and less white, more cyclones swirling in the tropics. It's a different Earth; we might as well hold a contest to pick a new name.
Bill McKibben
That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Neil Alden Armstrong
Beautiful. Beautiful. Magnificent desolation.
Edwin Eugene 'Buzz' Aldrin, Jr.
Instead, picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.
Alan Weisman
Ghost of the Future...I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?
Charles Dickens
Alarm, however quickly we realize it, is a sobering reality check and a matter of coming down to earth. In reaction to human activity, our planet is waging magnificent desolation. This second installment of Sublime Climate takes a view from above as much of the work in the show projects possible futures and forewarns hypothetical catastrophe. Alarm is a sampling of artists' works for our three-part exhibition addressing climate change, which, seem to be fear-based and which send clear warning signals that we are not accustomed to hearing. Each piece in their own way engages that part of our limbic systems that motivates us to utilize the full complexity of neocortical skills with an express purpose of enacting a shift in direction. Collectively, once the recognition sets in, the work in Alarm—Projecting Global Change demands appropriate responsive action.
The work in our previous installment, Subliminal—Recognizing the Global Dilemma, examined the early warning signs—the ones that seemed to lie below our threshold of perception, the ones that stopped us in our tracks and caused us to recognize the imminent horrible beauty and the potential 'sacred horror.' In a sense, as primarily non-objective works, they tripped our silent alarms. The work in this present segment, however, is far more objective, nameable and blatant. If not didactic, the warning devices in this present show are at least not as covert. Therefore, if the bulk of the work in the previous show was subliminal, then these individual works place us in that strange zone of liminal territory—the in-between spaces of corridors, birth canals, doorways, gateways and all vehicles of transportation—neither here, nor there. By recognizing the liminal space that we are standing upon today, as neither being where we were, nor having yet arrived at where we will ultimately land, these works tell us that we are now on the threshold of something new. And just as the work in the previous exhibition set off our odd fascination and awe, this present collection of work advances us further along our path. These alarms are not only vehicles for igniting attentiveness; their assembly here signifies the necessity for a human change of attitude, much like Dickens's ghost of the future. They are projections of what might come to pass if we humans do not host a change of attitude.
During early childhood, we learn what to do when the alarm sounds; we quickly move to safe territory. As we mature, so do our instincts and our priorities about emergency situations. We are taught to have a plan in mind and to rehearse the plan; and we are taught to leave things behind as we evacuate the situation. We learn to check for loved ones and others first, and we do what ever we can to insure their safety. But during our down time, when we are practicing our evacuation techniques in our minds, we often mull over other kinds of situations: What would I take if the alarm sounds? Each of us has probably imagined amending the plan: If I had time enough to find my most prized possessions, what would I take with me? Having been a proctor of a high school dormitory, I learned to leave the student roster, my keys, glasses and shoes in a place easily grabbed if the fire alarm sounded in the middle of the night, as it was practiced about four times a year and having been caught off guard the first few practices was an all too sobering experience—when you are late to high school dormitory fire drill, you are obliged to go through it all over again, until you get it right and that means getting up in the wee hours more than the requisite repetitions. Such mental and physical preparation is crucial—it has to be in place when it involves the lives of others in your custody. Such plans like the ones we are taught and the ones we learn hold important wisdom for us. Don't we consider ourselves custodians of the Earth? As custodians don't we have similar responsibilities? The artists of Alarm strongly suggest that we do indeed hold such responsibility and their works asks: "Are we prepared?"
But evacuation, helping others evacuate, and leaving behind various things is, unfortunately, not the only response to an alarm. Unfortunately, another much less desirable reaction is also possible: being stunned into a frozen capacity, which one can imagine can have dire consequences. The problem today is that our slow response to recognize, let alone diminish the causes of climate change, has caused a thaw—the likes of which we humans have never encountered before, and so a new set of alarms is indeed needed. With the imagery of polar/glacial melting, flooding, border shifts, rampant emissions, manufactured nature and reliquaries for nature's past, which proliferate this exhibition, the artists of Alarm—Projecting Global Change reset and re-trip our systems for high alert.
These artists seem to be collectively indicating the abundant need for a second series of alarms, and reconsidering Bill McKibben's comments about Earth's present semblance, the first comments uttered on the surface of the moon have now taken on a foreboding new meaning. When I was a young boy, my heart swelled and my mind filled with wonder as the Apollo program launched its initial lunar missions. Grainy and highly abstracted black and white television imagery haunts my memory of those anticipatory moments of the approach to our satellite and that extraordinary moment when Neil Armstrong left the first human impression on the surface of the moon. A 'small step' was all it took for me to realize our own marvelous potential as a species in the world. More importantly, somehow during those famous hours of the first lunar landing, the great peoples on our Pale Blue Dot (Carl Sagan) were unified for those all too brief moments.
It is truly incredulous that as carbon-based life forms we have been able to use our resources and our wits to reach such remote territory and certainly our inability to recognize our collective impact until now is a point we must grant compassion and empathy for—we are compelled to reach for the stars, but now we need to do it in a way that is firmly grounded by wisdom for how to use materials in appropriate ways. William Anders' unscheduled photographs of the Earthrise gave us the first real glimpse of our borderless group of continents; they beckon reflection about why we treat each other in hostile ways and one must ask as well: Why engage in wasteful activity; aren't there limits to the planet's abundances? That singular image has influenced many thinkers and advocates for the environment since it first became presented to the general public. And not surprisingly, this famous photograph is hailed by wilderness photographer, Galen Rowell, as the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.1 But today, since the Earth doesn't look like it did during the teenage years of modernism, artists have endeavored to re-envision our little blue-white marble. As a young boy, I often wondered if there were a telescope powerful enough to find the first footprint on the moon. For just a few short decades, the size of our footprints on the lunar surface seemed truly small. Unfortunately, in the last twenty years and particularly within the last ten years, we are finally looking at our impressions with adult eyes and recognizing the hard truth. Bill McKibben's learned recognition tells us that from the moon, we can see our collective footprint on the Earth without the aid of such seeing devices; our impact is blatant. And that is indeed alarming. Appropriately, like so many individuals who have written about our species delayed response to climate change, the work in this exhibition aims to haunt the mind enough to motivate us to move off this threshold of inactivity.
Alarm artists are warning us that there is a grave new kind of bias and chauvinism that threatens to cleave the planet into frightful segregation and we must be on high alert for what may evolve when the climatologically disadvantaged find themselves on lower ground. These artists point out that to subsist, we have to find ways to treat the causes, along with doing away with any activities that promote or prolong the symptoms. Gaia, our little oasis in the universe, has a fever2; what things do we need to leave behind as we try to evacuate our ways of life to treat her illness?
Todd Bartel
Curator, Gallery Director
Thompson Gallery
1., January 2, 2008
2. Gore, Al, The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Lecture 2007, (Oslo, December 10, 2007),, January 2, 2008
    • William Anders, Earthrise, Apollo 8 Mission, December 24, 1968, NASA

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