Footprint Modulation: art, climate and displacement
Introductory description from the curator and artistic director, Kooj Chuhan
International artists, researchers, communities and local activists are combining forces using art to push climate change up the agenda in a ground-breaking exhibition titled Footprint Modulation. The exhibition focuses on the massive and increasing impact that climate change will have on humans by forcing us to abandon our homes and migrate. The renowned, award-winning Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam presents work for the first time in the North East. Platform based in London use film and performance to highlight the corruption within global oil. A number of UK-based artists from diverse backgrounds provoke us to connect with human realities in other countries. The New York based architecture and digital art company Diller Scofidio + Renfro present a film commissioned by the Cartier Foundation to artistically re-interpret data about climate migration.
Taking place in Durham from 5th June – 5th July, the Footprint Modulation exhibition is spread across five venues including Durham’s leading galleries, museums and artists’ studios, Durham University and the magnificent Durham Miners’ Hall. The Miners’ Hall is itself of particular interest with its ongoing tradition of working class radicalism. As Dave Hopper the General Secretary of Durham Miners’ Association says, “We want to be able to reflect our concerns with pressing humanitarian issues and conflicts of our time across the world, and the exhibition is a part of that.” As a bonus the exhibition allows visitors a rare opportunity to see some historic paintings and murals permanently housed at the Miners’ Hall, as well as the powerful setting of its little-changed nineteenth century council chamber.
This connection alone, along with further grass roots activity through creative collaboration with local environmental activists Transition Durham, would set the project apart from other exhibitions of this nature yet its unique qualities don’t stop there. The exhibition culminates in an international conference hosted by Durham University which discusses climate-induced migration, titled ‘Human Migration and the Environment: Futures, Politics, Invention’. This concludes four years of cutting edge workshops by leading researchers across Europe and also sets the theme for the exhibition. The chair of the conference Dr Andrew Baldwin states, “When people think of climate change they don’t make any connections with migration, yet migration is probably the biggest human consequence in a truly devastating way for people who are forced to leave their homes and livelihoods. Getting it on the agenda is way overdue, and this art exhibition is a great way to do that.”
Artworks have been carefully selected to underline the theme of climate change and migration by curator and artistic director Kooj Chuhan, not least by hosting the sensitively portrayed photo-documentary series titled ‘Climate Refugees’ by Shahidul Alam on show at the Oriental Museum. In Shahidul’s own words, “Bangladeshis living in the low lying coastal regions of the country are amongst the most vulnerable to climate change … often living in abject poverty … This often requires relocation to areas of relative safety, where they have even fewer rights than on their own land.” Shahidul’s work is accompanied by ‘Resilience’, a video installation by emerging UK Bangladeshi media artists Apu and Murad Chowdhury who respond to Shahidul’s photography.
Elsewhere, Iranian artist Mazaher exhibits his video installation ‘The Level’ at Durham Miners’ Hall, which dramatises verbatim dialogue from interviews conducted in acutely affected parts of the world by the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition. Also at the Miners’ Hall the artist Tracey Zengeni responds to climate change in Zimbabwe, her native land. Her work is titled ‘African Fragments’ and uses stop-motion techniques to layer painting over documentary sequences by film-maker Nigel Hulett. Durham Art Gallery hosts a new interactive digital and musical art installation by Kooj Chuhan titled ‘Chamada From Chico Mendes’ which connects climate struggles in multiple countries with Brazilian activist and trade unionist Chico Mendes who was murdered in 1988.
The well-known arts, activism and education organisation Platform exhibit a revised version of their critically acclaimed ‘Refining Memory’ video installation, again showing at the Miners’ Hall. This commemorates the 20th anniversary of the murder of leading writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9 due to their resistance against activities by Shell Oil and the Nigerian governement. During a weekend packed with talks, activities and screenings at the end of June that overlaps with the conference, Platform also head a performance and discussion night at Empty Shop HQ titled ‘Silence Would Be Treason’ involving performance poets Sai Murray and Selina Nwulu. Collaborating with Platform on this night will be local environmental activists Transition Durham who will use video and poetry to present their campaign demanding that Durham University divests away from fossil fuel companies. They hope that Durham will follow in the inspiring footsteps of Glasgow University who have already set a precedent.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s acclaimed film titled ‘Exit’, seen as a key artwork about climate migration among researchers of the subject, will be screened at Durham University accompanied by a panel discussion involving experts in the field. Other talks and debates featured during the same weekend include a discussion about new approaches to art, research and activism at Durham Art Gallery involving Alex Randall from the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition and Janet Stewart the director of Durham’s Centre for Visual Arts and Culture. Geography researcher Andrew Telford of Durham University will add perspectives on how climate change is likely to affect Durham county and city itself. Then there is a debate at Durham Miners’ Hall around the thorny areas of workers’ rights, fossil fuels and the miners involving writer, ex-miner and trade unionist Dave Douglass who previously collaborated with the Turner prize artist Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the Battle Of Orgreave.
This integration of local grass-roots involvement alongside art, research and activism at multiple levels and including people from diverse backgrounds is essential for project director Kooj Chuhan and his company Metaceptive who are delivering the work. The process is informed by Kooj’s experience not only as an artist and activist but also as a community worker, teacher and ex-scientist. He suggests that “the way art is produced, distributed and consumed generally becomes distant from our lives and our control, it’s hard to really connect with it. Footprint Modulation with its provocative focus manages to integrate with peoples lives, activities, issues and discussions at an unusually high level.” Kooj hopes that local involvement will leave a lasting legacy, encouraging more work like this to be possible from the relationships formed and the experience and skills gained.
The title ‘Footprint Modulation’ on the one hand suggests our carbon footprint is being ‘modulated’ or pushed in different directions by active forces, yet at the same time it references FM radio (‘Frequency Modulation’) where messages are added to and carried by a radio wave. All of the work in the exhibition involves the use of digital imagery and software, and also uses documentary footage and production in a variety of ways that re-interpret the world around us and add artistic layers to that footage, imagery, text and dialogue.
Human Migration and the Environment conference: