Creating Change: Angela Y T Chan on seeking climate justice through the arts

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An educator, researcher, and “creative climate change communicator”, Chan discusses the importance of anti-colonial climate research, and how to resist greenwashing

Climate change is an ever present topic within society. Following the COP26 conference in Glasgow in October last year, a renewed scrutiny has been added to the government’s responsibility to tackle the crisis.  

For the climate change communicator, Angela YT Chan, how we talk about the climate is crucial. Through topics such as for instance colonial history, racial and social justice and geography as well as conflict and migration, she uses the arts to investigate the power structures that shape the inequities of climate change.

Starting out throughout her undergraduate degree in 2014 under the name Worm: art + ecology, Chan began to share interviews she made with cultural practitioners, activists and academics working on art and the climate crisis. Since then, Chan has expanded her practice, with wide-spanning curatorial projects and exhibitions under Worm: art + ecology , in addition to making research-based artworks, co-directing the London Chinese Science Fiction Group and London Science Fiction Research Community.

Chan’s recent projects include [Export_Explode> (2021). The short video discusses Wat Tyler Country Park – a nature reserve and popular migratory bird-watching site in Essex, that has been formerly the Pitsea Explosives Factory. The film underscores the links between restricted migration, colonial extractivism and the British arms trade. Rain Paradox (2021), a critique of the Environmental Agency supported report ‘The Great British Rain Paradox’, warns of UK water scarcity issues in 20 years’ time, and the ‘paradox’ that most UK citizens surveyed don’t believe there’ll be water scarcities. Chan is critical of the report’s give attention to individual consumer responsibility in place of the accountability of the federal government and privatised water companies. It culminates in an illustrated speculative comic strip that ties a critique of the report with communal perspectives.  

Unifying Chan’s work is an interest in, “emphasising everyday knowledge and non-mainstream experiences, often by deconstructing the criteria of what constitutes ‘expertise’ on climate and arts subjects, and situating them in the current political climate. ” Drawing on research from her ‘living room conversations’, Chan helps to ensure that climate issues are communicated through the voices of Indigenous, Black and People of Colour.

She speaks to Jamila Prowse about the power of counter narratives, art making and an anti-colonial approach to climate research.

JP: What drew you to working within the intersection of art and climate change research?

AC: Worm: art + ecology started in 2014 as my website to talk about interviews I was having with various cultural practitioners, activists and academics who work on arts and climate issues. We’d talk about why it’s important to them and how their practices add to engagement on climate change. Beginning the project online allowed for a more flexible space for climate and arts to come together as they did. I shared a range of activist and artistic perspectives. I was still an undergraduate then, uploading articles in my free time. The project developed as I began to be commissioned to produce exhibitions, though I continued working anonymously under this name. These projects brought me to a new experiment of communicating climate change issues through artworks.

Recently, I started using my name as I began to work offline. In-person, I deliver public talks, facilitate as an educator at universities or run workshops with youth groups. And, this year I began accumulating my own research-art practice. I’ve been working as a research consultant in international climate and cultural policy too, which gives me other cross-sector challenges to think through in my own personal practice. These are those activities that have really given depth to my existing strategies, because they’ve helped hone how I hold a place for climate engagements, particularly as I forefront colonial climate histories and contemporary racial and social struggles as key themes.

There is an essential element of self-archiving in the projects I do. How do we record the sidelined, unwritten or even erased cultural narratives of climate histories (and those in the making)? It’s about ensuring that inclusive counter narratives to the hegemony are supported and sustained.

JP: What impact can art have on knowledge and learning around climate change?

AC: I think the imaginative capacity of the arts can be encouraging. Some people say that the arts offer a more ‘emotive’ or ‘sensory’ understanding of the climate and social justice issues around us than politics, the media, sciences and so on. I guess that can be true, but I feel the worthiness is in something even more concrete and less art-speak than that, which is in simply talking through and experimenting with how communicating a few ideas can disrupt the uncertainties the climate crisis may possibly overwhelm us with through information, feelings or social divisions. Maybe it links back to how I see my practice: to do of use research and communicate climate change as the intent, not to produce ‘climate art’ it self. I’m excited by these communal ways of (un)learning, and how we can push more inclusive actions to simply take hold.

JP: What exactly is possible when we use speculative fiction to imagine alternative futures around climate change?

AC: I am drawn to how justice is integrated into the science fiction worldbuilding by authors of systemically minority backgrounds, such as Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany. Stories often advocate for racial, social and climate justice, as well as queer, trans and disability rights as a given criteria for a secure, safe and healthier future. So I feel it’s not only about the imagining of futures that’s significant, but in addition the understanding of how to bring historical facts and real experiences into shaping a more just future for all.

Paraphrasing a text I wrote for my exhibition Climate Knowledges , I like that we can explore alternative ways to think about the truths of the climate crisis through speculative storytelling, from ancient mythologies to futuristic science fiction. These can confront the colonial and patriarchal origins, and their exploitative processes, that produced the current climate crisis. Radical climate science fiction reconciles with the mistreatment of race, class, disability and gender politics in the mainstream climate debate, by reaching beyond and building fairer worlds.

JP: Why is it important to center anti-colonial climate narratives?

AC: The climate crisis has been unnaturally caused by the long violence of oppressive powers on peoples and their lands. For example , we could look to the colonisation and genocide of Indigenous peoples by European invaders to the Americas in the 1500s, which caused advanced agricultural lands to regrow, and shift the worldwide CO2 levels. I think cultural narratives are really significant in telling truths that should inform public climate framings. How does it take Western sciences to prove that Native cultural and climate histories are truths? Analysing how power and knowledge is structured is interesting to me in thinking about how this moment of history is likely to be documented for the next generations too. It’s about asking questions like: “What constitutes knowledge about climate change? ”, “Who is in control of producing and sharing information? ”, “How does this information benefit or compromise marginalised groups?

JP: When working within or next to institutional settings, how do you identify and resist the widespread tendency towards greenwashing?

AC: It’s important to raise that I see many parallels between the mainstream arts and the global North’s climate movement. Both are inaccessible to certain demographics, restricting who gets to be involved and steer the actions. In their overlap, there is a business-as-usual sustainability approach in the arts. The green capitalism that has stemmed from colonial exploitations that continue today through frameworks like free market imperialism, curatorial programmes as extractive exercises, while major patrons are active in fossil fuels and arms industries.

As an independent practitioner, I’ve unfortunately witnessed countless individuals, small organisations and national institutions who not only co-opt the global climate struggles for their artistic careers or programmes, but also actively exclude the people who have long practiced intersectional approaches to the issues and are often speaking from lived experiences. There are many examples of how greenwashing can be avoided: redistributing resources to community organisers and practitioners who are actually fighting for climate justice, rather than to blockbuster artists who use extractive processes to create ‘climate art’; not speaking over or for marginalised people in tokenistic and silencing tactics; budgeting for greener, more accessible and ethical practices; financing longer term public engagements on anti-colonial climate issues, in the place of treating it as an one-off, tick-boxed curatorial season.

Jamila Prowse

Jamila Prowse is an artist, writer and researcher who uses her experiences as a mixed race, disabled person of Black parentage to understand and subvert barriers to working in the arts. She is currently working on some films tracing the history of her ancestry through her relationship with her late father Russell Herman, a South African jazz musician. Jamila holds a studio at Studio Voltaire and was a studio residency artist at Gasworks from January to April 2021. She has written for Frieze, Dazed, Elephant, GRAIN, Art Work Magazine and Photoworks.

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