Fear Framing

Accompanying the Slow Violence exhibition, visitors to the gallery have been asked to write definitions of climate change onto a post-it note, and to share their definition on the wall. Visitors notes reflect a range of emotional responses to climate change, from anger to skepticism, and perhaps most fittingly, fear. Authors of the post-it notes express fear that climate change will “kill us all”.

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There are, in climate change discussions, a number of approaches to expressing the urgency of our situation. Some present the raw data, inviting audiences to draw their own conclusions, while others use more emotive language, with the intention of inciting fear. Risbey (2008) argues that may be the civic duty of climate scientists and commentators to use alarmist rhetoric, because it is only if they instill fear in their audiences that we will be driven to action. Evidence presented by Spence and Pigeon (2010) “suggests that fear framing is indeed effective in motivating behaviour change.” In this way, climate change art can be viewed as a kind of intervention. It would follow that it is socially responsible for Thomson & Craighead to focus their attention on the most devastating impacts of climate change in their work, London. The BBC footage gathered for London focuses on loss, including images of houses and cars crushed by trees in fierce winds, and water flooding through residential streets.

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In his video, Deep Above, Adam Chodzko (2015) seeks to counteract the paralyzing effect of fear that has caused our inaction. Images of deforestation, noisy urban landscapes, and slick, black oil, are combined with a guided meditation that lulls the audience into a hypnotic state. The voice over, in its calm, meditative tone, proclaims that “if you stay underwater for long enough, you will find way to breathe”. It challenges the audience not to be so panicked by climate change that we will be scared into inaction, but instead to take a calm and measured approach that might lead to solutions.

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The calm is interrupted by visceral imagery, as audiences are asked to imagine “finding out that someone had concealed rotting meat into the sandwich you are happily eating”. Chodzko selects frames that contain green, serene landscapes alongside steaming emissions from factories and power plants. We are forced to consider our tendency to focus our attention on the green spaces within our polluted cities, as we seek out beauty and ignore the pollution that creeps into frame. We are, the voice-over says, inclined to apply a flawed logic, telling ourselves that, so long as there are green spaces here, greenery must thrive elsewhere too, in the places where we refuse to direct our attention. This is the self-deception that has led to inaction.

Chodzko’s video places blame squarely on the audience. He uses the metaphor of being trapped inside an image, “not seeing it because you are inside it… not feeling it because you are it.” He asks us to “work on [our] feelings of disgust”, to borrow the visceral responses that we have to images of oil and pollution, and to apply them to images of landscapes that do not ordinarily disturb us – images of clean, residential streets in the sunset; places that we are happy to call home, while denying the damage that has been caused by the industries that sustain our energy-dependent lifestyle.

Thomson & Craighead and Chodzko’s emotive works contrast with the approach taken by Ackroyd & Harvey, who have avoided emotive or antagonistic text in Seeing Red…Overdrawn, opting instead to present data which, they hope, would have “more subliminal” impact. Their work is consciously devoid of emotion and alarming imagery. When listing the names of endangered species, they have done so without sentimentality. This data, they hope, will speak for itself. Thomson & Craighead credit the audience with the intelligence to understand the significance of the pure, unfiltered data, and allow them the opportunity to independently form unbiased responses.

Chodzko, Thomson & Craighead, and Ackroyd & Harvey’s approaches, though different, all stem from the hope that climate change is not an insurmountable problem, and that it is not too late to take action. The value of these kinds of climate change art is in their potential to provoke action, which may in turn prevent some of the catastrophic damage that is foreseen by scientists. An alternative approach is to accept devastation as an inevitability, and rather than seeking to change our path, to help prepare for the unfortunate state in which we will eventually, inevitably find ourselves. Tom James’ Future Manual does just this. The survival manual locates itself in an apocalyptic future, devastated by climate change, and promotes preparedness. It is, writes James, “half satirical and half deadly serious” in its depiction of hopelessness. Though it uses a different method, James’ work is just as effective at fear framing as some of the other works on display.

Despite the insurmountable evidence of climate change, the post-it notes on the gallery wall reveal that there are still, even in a university setting, audiences who are skeptical of the claims made by climate change scientists. One participant has written that it is a “media construct”, and others that it is, “fake news”, “a hoax”, “a big prank”. Others accept that climate change is happening, but describe it as a “natural and normal” occurrence. Chodzko’s video indirectly locates these views in the current political climate of distrust, encapsulated in Michael Gove’s claim that “people… have had enough of experts”. “We are not scientists”, he says in the conclusion of his video, as he asks his audience whether they may be more inclined to listen to climate change science if it is presented within creative practice rather than in government reports and scientific papers. “Do you trust us more,” the video asks, “if we are artists?”

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References

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