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A History of the Future

A History of the Future

This visual essay is drawn from a project titled A History of the Future. Artists Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris photographed and researched in locations where scientists study the impacts of climate change. This series was shot in Peru where disappearing glaciers threaten the country’s water supplies.

Most of us barely know how to read the land. Once you start to learn, even a little, you are confronted everywhere with absence. You are drawn back into the past, and this seems, at first, the only direction you can go. You see glaciers in the striations on the stone, the flatness of the valley at the foot of the mountain, the melt water, the rocks left in a field thousands of years ago by the withdrawal of a nearly unimaginable force. Yet, feeling the past in this way is like taking a few, hard steps up a hill, gaining elevation from which you ultimately hope to see in all directions, even the future…

“A History of the Future” is a series of large-scale landscape photographs taken around the world in places where scientists are studying the impacts of climate change. To date, we have photographed fourteen locations. Rather than only focusing on the extreme polar or equatorial regions—where much climate change imagery is generated—we also give extensive treatment to the middle latitudes where populations are denser. The images examine a variety of impacts, including melting glaciers and icecaps, drought, extreme storms, rising sea level, and disrupted ecosystems. Many of these impacts are interrelated, acting in tandem to affect a region’s ecology and human populations.

The project was inspired by a desire to find out what could be seen of climate change in still landscape photographs. As Emily Eliza Scott states, climate change presents intense “representational challenges.”[1] These challenges have various causes including the fairly straightforward fact that climate change unfolds in geologic rather than human time frames. Jodi Dean says it most succinctly, “we can’t see climate change directly… We see in parts.”[2] We wanted to present some of these ‘parts’ and produce images that might bridge the gap between scientific data and public understanding of the issue.

We are drawn both to the stillness and the potential of violence in these landscapes. It is important to note that this violence is not necessarily in the landscapes themselves. The meaning of these images depends on their context within a larger discourse about climate change—a discourse with many registers: scientific, journalistic, activist, and artistic. In the aggregate, the photographs form an archive and can be positioned as evidence. Viewed individually, the images form a blank stare. How we meet that stare depends on our changing perceptions of Nature. Is the Nature in these landscapes fragile or violent? Indifferent or damaged? By what hand?

Traveling to these locations was often a strange and disorienting process. Before departing, we would immerse ourselves in the existing climate science around each location through reading a wide array of research documents and discussion with scientists and journalists. But arriving on location, we often had the experience of not seeing what we were hearing about. Because climate change mostly happens imperceptibly, the landscapes often seemed eerily peaceful and silent. Without the overlay of scientific information, we (the viewer) are left with the ‘blank stare,’ a certain kind of indeterminacy, as if something is hanging in the air.

So in the field we were faced with a choice: dramatize the landscape in a way that creates a polemic about the damaged earth (in an effort to activate feelings of indignation, disgust and dismay) or more honestly confess to the complex, even contradictory feelings of incomprehension, seduction, disorientation, loss of scale and panic. One approach is a gesture of mastery, the other of submission.

Wanting to make pictures that reflected our experience in the landscape and the strange silence they contained, we chose a less dramatic approach. Within the areas demarcated by local experts we photographed whatever made us feel and believe that a change was truly beginning—i.e.: that the history of the earth is long compared to the short history of humans; that time marches on; that unimaginable forces of nature are constantly changing the land; that this thing referred to as a ‘climate change impact’ could translate into suffering; that seeing the past is seeing the future, etc. In short, we photographed what, to us (in the field, in real time) seemed to manifest not just the facts of climate change per se, but its trauma and uncertainties.

The photographs are on one hand indexical because in the field, we were often literally following the pointing finger of local scientists describing an impact of climate change. But on the other hand, the images are absolutely not indexical because they depend entirely on context for their meaning. In various iterations of the project we decided how much of that context (how much of the pointing finger) to reveal. In each case, we strike a different bargain between illustrating the facts of climate change (always contingent on captioning and context) and laying bare a state of disorientation and collapse of scale that seems the only reliable opening into the trauma of climate change.

As the project grew, we turned our attention to the distribution of the photographs and how they functioned in different contexts. The images lived many lives: having been art objects framed in a gallery with an edition number and the aura of value; as pedagogical tools in science museums and classrooms, openly disclosing (delimiting) their content; as billboards and bus ads as well as editorial content for magazines and news articles. In each case, we struck a different bargain between illustrating the facts of climate change (always contingent on captioning and context) and laying bare a state of disorientation and collapse of scale that seemed the only reliable opening into the trauma of climate change.

Our sense of what these images do best changed substantially over the course of the project. This, in turn, produced a transformation in our understanding of activist art and research-based art and led to the formation of The Canary Project, which we co-founded in 2006. The Canary Project’s mission is to produce art and media that deepen public understanding of climate change and other ecological issues such as extinction, food systems, and water resources. Since its founding, The Canary Project has produced more than twenty projects involving hundreds of artists, scientists, writers, designers, and educators.

[1] Emily Eliza Scott, “Archives of the Present-Future: On Climate Change and Representational Breakdown,” in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, ed. James Graham (New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, Lars Müller Publishers, 2016), pp.130-140.

[2] Jodi Dean, “The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change,” e-flux journal 69 (January 2016), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-anamorphic-politics-of-climate-change.

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