Political Art Matters to Build Environmental Social Movements: Art and Visual Culture on Climate Change in the Anthropocene


Lisa E. Bloom Ph.D. (University of California, Los Angeles)

Judit Hersko (California State University, San Marcos)

Amy Balkin (California College of the Arts)

In this event, feminist art historian, Lisa Bloom, and artists Amy Balkin and Judit Hersko imagine new ways of representing climate change and thinking about the current moment to provoke more vital cultural and political debates about nature, environment, and climate at a time when there is a wholesale attack on environmental governance.

These three presenters argue that art and visual culture play a crucial role in our thinking on the Anthropocene. The concept of the Anthropocene is that humans are the driving power behind planetary change, a shift from previous ages where the major effects on the Earth were determined by other factors. This is a moment when our visual perceptions and our very sense of environmental time are changing as the planet is undergoing rapid and dramatic shifts in its physical state.

The art discussed is not just an illustration of planetary demise and a call to action. It is also about seeing how new forms of art and visual culture are highlighting awareness of living through a kind of slow-moving environmental disaster. They record what could be seen as a particular “structure of feeling” or dread of this historical moment and its transformation from complacency and passivity into an activist consciousness and sensibility as in Standing Rock and the protests connected to the Dakota Pipeline that has drawn international attention.

Lisa Bloom’s talk draws on her feminist and post-colonial work on the topic from her soon-to-be completed book, Polar Aesthetics in the Anthropocene: Art and Visual Culture of the Polar Regions. The book examines aspects of feminist and environmentalist art and visual culture in relation to new scholarship of the polar regions, bringing together issues routinely kept apart in climate change debates, such as connecting gender to fossil-fuel capitalism, nationalism, and post-colonialism. While discussing the premise of her book, she draws on the work of some international artists whose work engage with these issues.

Artist, Judit Hersko will give a performance piece for the panel based on her speculative eco-feminist autobiohistoriographical fiction.

Artist, Amy Balkin will then give a talk on her recent art work on climate change including her project “A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting” that blends science and science fiction to jolt its audience by showing that many of the dire predictions of climate change scientists are already beginning to come to pass in the Polar regions and elsewhere. Her archive made by citizen artists/scientists around the world requires a repositioning of the viewer from spectator to participant, and even activist.

All three presenters make us think about how to represent environmental crises discounted by dominant structures of perception. Each also addresses the emotional disturbance of living with and witnessing climate change in various locations around the world, including the Arctic and the Antarctic, and how these are very different emotions than the old flag-planting heroism of explorations to “the ends of the earth” from an earlier epoch. They are proposing a new kind of art that promises new emotions, and new ways about thinking of the world. This new art would be focused on the limits of the livable rather than the promise of limitless horizons from older narratives  which served to promote imperial masculinities (e.g. the Golden Age of Exploration) and neo-liberal capitalism that are now being replayed during the Trump era.

Image credit: Balkin, et al. A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting (2012—ongoing), New York USA Collection (Annex I, II, B) contributed by Adriane Colburn and Tyler Henry. Image Credit: Mary Lou Saxon. Courtesy of the Archive

About the Presenters:

Lisa E. Bloom is currently a research associate at the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA. She is the author of Gender on Ice: American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions, the first critical feminist and postcolonial cultural studies book on the polar regions.  Her other books include With Other Eyes: Looking at Race and Gender in Visual Culture, and Jewish Identities in American Feminist Art: Ghosts of Ethnicity.  More recently, she has written extensively on the polar regions, contemporary art and film, and is currently writing a book titled Polar Aesthetics in the Anthropocene: Art and Visual Culture of the Polar Regions. (Duke UP, 2017).

Amy Balkin combines cross-disciplinary research and social critique to generate ambitious, bold, and innovative ways of conceiving the public domain. Her projects propose a reconstituted commons, considering legal borders and systems, environmental justice, and equitable sharing of common-pool resources in the context of climate change. These include Public Smog (2004+), “Reading the IPCC” public reading series (2008-ongoing) and Invisible-5 (2006), an environmental justice audio tour of California’s I-5 freeway corridor. Balkin’s solo and collaborative projects have been presented at Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y Leon, 2017; at Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, 2017; Centre Pompidou-Metz, 2016; dOCUMENTA (13), 2012; and included in the books Decolonizing Nature, 2016; Public Servants, 2016; Art in the Anthropocene, 2015; Materiality, 2015; Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics, 2015. Amy Balkin studied at Stanford University and lives in San Francisco.

Judit Hersko is an installation artist who received her Master of Fine Arts degree from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago in 1989. Since then her work has been featured in numerous (over 45) exhibitions in the United States and Europe. Her work has been shown in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Spain, and in many cities around the United States including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Diego. In 1998, she won a California Arts Council Visual Arts Fellowship in Sculpture. In 2005 and 2006, she was invited as a fellow to the Lucas Artists Residency Program at Montalvo. She has several pieces in museum collections, for example, at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Ludwig Museum in Budapest. She is an Associate Professor in the School of Arts at California State University San Marcos where she initiated the art and science project in 2004. Her collaborations with scientists have resulted in exhibitions that visualize science and climate change through art such as “Shifting Baselines” that was selected for the exhibition “Weather Report: Art and Climate Change” curated by Lucy Lippard at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (fall 2007). Recently, Hersko traveled to Antarctica as the recipient of the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Grant (2008/09).