Slow Violence: Bringing climate change closer to home

Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales… Slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes present formidable representational obstacles that can hinder our efforts to mobilize and act decisively. The long dyings—the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties, both human and ecological that result from war’s toxic aftermaths or introduction climate change—are underrepresented in strategic planning as well as in human memory.

– Rob Nixon (2011), Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.

Rob Nixon describes the “slow-motion toxicity” of climate change and the environmental impact of war in his 2011 book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Nixon’s ideas are the inspiration for the exhibition currently on display at the Art & Design gallery. Responding to Nixon’s ideas about “slow violence”, the exhibition collects the work of several artists who have explored ways of representing those largely invisible and apparently distant events that are eroding our way of life, with a particular emphasis on the “slow-moving catastrophe of climate change”. The artists have responded to the challenge of mediating climate change to make it more visible, more proximate, and more urgent.

In the seminar that accompanied the launch of the exhibition, Christian Klockner, introduced “the psychology of slowness” with the metaphor of frogs boiling slowly in a pan. If a frog is immersed directly into boiling water, it will immediately jump out of the pan, but if the water is slowly heated from cool to hot, the frog will be unaware of the danger. We are, argues Klockner, like those unfortunate frogs. Climate change is “happening so gradually that it is beyond the threshold of our awareness”. Although we are told by the majority of scientists that climate change is the biggest threat the planet has ever faced, we are masters of “psychological distancing”. We fail to take action because the threat lacks the urgency and spectacle of newsworthy violence that is, writes Nixon, “highly visible… focused, time bound, and body bound.”

Klockner describes the ways in which we psychologically distance ourselves from slow violence, locating it in another space or time. Its worst consequences “will happen far away”, not here in the UK, and will affect people unlike us, in societies dissimilar to our own. If it does affect our location, it will not do so until the distant future. Even when we see the signs affecting people like us, as in recent floods, it seems that no one can tell us for certain that our own unethical environmental practices are responsible. “Climate change is not a certain science”, and the minority view, that global warming is the result of natural causes, still receives enough press attention to instill doubt.

This doubt or skepticism arises as a result of the complexity of climate change science. In his seminar presentation, Julian Manley observes that the scientific explanation is so complicated that it becomes intangible. He describes climate change as “the unthought known”: something that “we know, but is buried within”. There is “no desire to engage with the facts”, and this willful ignorance fuels psychological distance.

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The artists whose work is collected in the Slow Violence exhibition have explored a variety of strategies to bring climate change into closer proximity, including interactivity and immersion, as well as references to familiar locations and settings. Their task has been to learn from the “visceral, eye-catching and page-turning power” that Nixon identifies in sensational violence, and draw it out of the “tales of slow violence, unfolding over years, decades, even centuries”. As Kamila Kuc says at the seminar, the role of the artist “is to digest this information and to vomit it out in a different form”; to translate invisible slow violence into something that seems visible, close, and relevant.

Tom James has responded to this challenge by imagining contemporary tools and technologies transposed into a future in which our needs have necessarily become more basic. Taking tools that are reflective of the sedentary, technologically-enhanced lifestyles that we lead today, he imagines the loss of value in this tools in a future when a “bitter, barren world” requires us to focus all our efforts on survival. A Future Manual (2014) is an imaginary publication that teaches survival techniques to readers living in this harsh new world. Readers of the first issue are reminded that even some of the most basic survival tasks are made more difficult without the fossil fuels and electricity that we now take for granted. Sticks and kindle are provided for readers who no longer have access to lighters and lighter fuel.

We are reminded that our creature comforts will hold little value in this imaginary but likely future, with tools that have been repurposed for a post-catastrophe age. In issue 2, computer cables, redundant without electricity, are presented as tools for trapping rabbits. The closeness of this future is made visible by the familiarity of these tools. We view computer-cables as tools of this information age, and to locate them in the context of a desolate and unforgiving future makes that world seem less temporally distant.

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Spatial distance is overcome in in Michael Pinsky’s Polution Pods (2017), which bring together the atmospheric conditions of six global cities. In Europe, particularly in the rural areas where the pods are displayed, we are normally protected from air polution by the distance from these cities, but entering these interconnected geodesic domes, participants are exposed to the bodily conditions of the heavily polluted streets of Sao Paolo, Dehli, or Beijing. The smell, humidity, and temperature of each of these locations is replicated in each dome, so that participants can travel from pod to pod in just a few steps, and appreciate the contrast between the clean air of Olso in contrast to the “airpocalyptically” polluted air of Delhi.

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Collectively, the works in the exhibition are a warning against complacency. They locate the problem of climate change in the here and now, and ask us to reflect upon our inaction. Research by Lo and Jim (2015) and Spence and Pidgeon (2010) has shown that “by highlighting local impacts” of the global threat of climate change, we can promote sustainable behaviour. The here and now is perhaps most evident in Jon Thompson and Alison Craighead’s London (2007). Thompson and Craighead’s video collects footage from local BBC news, showing the devastating effects that climate change has already had on our local environment. Bringing all of this footage together, the artists have highlighted the increasing frequency of floods and hurricanes in the UK, and present it as evidence for audiences who might otherwise believe that the UK is protected by distance from the consequences of climate change.

Other works in the exhibition will be explored in further blog posts.

Further resources
Sam Jury’s four-year ongoing project, ClimArt, is “one of the bedrocks” of the Slow Violence exhibition.

References
Lo, A.Y. & Jim, C.Y. (2015), “Come rain or shine? Public expectation on local weather change and differential effects on climate change attitude”, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 24, no. 8, pp. 928-942.
McDonald, Rachel I., Chai, Hui Yi, and Newell, Ben R. (2015), “Personal experience and the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change: An integrative review”,  Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 44, 2015, pp.109-118.
Nixon, Rob (2011), Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press.
Spence, A. & Pidgeon, N. (2010), “Framing and communicating climate change: The effects of distance and outcome frame manipulations”, Global Environmental Change, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 656-667.
Spence, A., Poortinga, W. & Pidgeon, N. (2012), “The Psychological Distance of Climate Change”, Risk Analysis, vol. 32, no. 6, pp. 957-972.

 

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