FUTURE SCENARIOS: Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping talking to Kris Kozlowski Moore
Let’s start at the beginning, how did this work come about?
We have been making work about climate change and the Anthropocene together since
2012 following a field trip to China. Because of that trip, we became gut wrenchingly aware of what lay behind the curtains of neoliberalism’s shiny western facade; it was a challenging time for us as we grappled with massive questions about representation without a solid understanding of, or belief in, the ideas surrounding documentary work.
In 2016, on the strength of our past work, we were awarded the yearlong Culture and Climate Change Future Scenarios networked residency that was intended to explore the idea of artists working as climate change researchers by facilitating collaboration with climate change researchers, institutions and policy makers.
Throughout the year, under the guidance of emanate researchers Renata Tyszczuk and Joe Smith we explored the themes of responsibility for and vulnerability to climate change. We were introduced to the concept of scenarios thinking (which is a strategy planning technique with origins in the Cold War) and made aware of the role that narrative plays in shaping our future.
But most importantly, through our collaboration with researchers such as Dr. Saleemul Huq at The International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Dhaka Bangladesh, we learnt how the narrative of vulnerability that once surrounded those nations most vulnerable to climate change has developed into a narrative of resilience and adaptation, as they emerge as leaders in mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
Although the residency ended in 2017 we have continued to work with Culture and Climate Change and pursue collaborations with researchers as Future Scenarios has developed and we explored different scenarios. Knowing that the project could go on forever and that it is of vital importance to show it as quickly as possible we have exhibited it several times even though it is not fully formed.
What do you see as the importance of the film in Future Scenarios and its relationship to the photographs?
We have always worked across the two mediums of still and moving image, even before we started collaborating together. Working with both mediums simultaneously allows us to think more about representation by comparing how the two mediums operate; what they include, leave out, how they frame what is in front of them. They are two different brushes in a toolbox.
We really see the film as the main outcome of the project, the text vitally important and then the photographs in service of the text. It wasn’t intended this way and we worked just as hard on the photographic element of the work, but film is in many ways a much more complete medium. Our film seems to have less representational baggage than our photography does. It is much more open ended it also lacks voiceover narration (as you would normally get in anthropological documentaries). Perhaps this is also because of the cinematic device that we are using, the Steadicam shot, was never used by colonial explorers to catalogue indigenous peoples, however the gazes and confrontations that are recorded in the film make the viewer very much aware of the act of looking.
Our Future Scenarios film installation is an hour long, three screen installation that is structured around four sets of loosely defined speculative futures that imagine the next eighty-one years. Throughout most of the film the viewer experiences one scene or location from multiple perspectives as the camera spends time with people engaged in resilience, adaptation and consumption that is related to migration, food, water, shelter, leisure and work as climate change affects their daily lives. At times three scenes are shown simultaneously.
The stabilised camera used for the film acts as the point of view of a somewhat unknown persona (it is obvious that the camera is an outsider). To us this embodied camera is complicit, a cool and distant observer that plays the role of someone who is responsible, both responsible for climate change and responsible for the mitigation of climate change.
The camera is present to disrupt, present to learn from those most vulnerable, to draw attention to itself whilst revealing power relationships and inspiring performances. At times the camera is welcomed and at others it is regarded as an intruder, and at moments the camera itself appears to be vulnerable.
What the film communicates through its motion and soundscapes above and beyond photography is an experiential sense of place, not just place in the local sense but also in the ‘we are all in this together’ global solidarity sense. Whereas a set of single photographs from different locations seem only to create a disparate aestheticised collection of people, places and actions from an away that we cannot extend empathy to. There is a reason why people feel deeply moved (so we are told) by our film and spend an hour sitting on a hard bench in a gallery to watch it, and only three minutes looking at the photographs. Film, particularly cinematic film, has the stopping power that photography doesn’t.
You mention that the embodied camera takes on the role of someone responsible but is a somewhat detached observer. Do you think that description has some parallel to a ‘western gaze’ towards climate change?
Yes, that was much the intention to draw that parallel. In the UK particularly, climate change remains a distant, far away, future that will largely happen to someone or something else in a landscape of which most of us have never visited. Most image consumers therefore largely view those who are affected by climate change or pollution or war for that matter, in much the same way as the Victorians or Edwardians viewed colonial subjects or distant landscapes in 19th or 20th century photographs: as exotic and far flung.
The future is unevenly distributed and we have felt little of the impact that climate change is having in comparison to other locations; last summer’s UK heatwave high was 35°C pales in comparison to heat waves in Southern Pakistan in 2015 of 49°C. We therefore adopt this degree of detachment from it, still remaining largely concerned with our personal hardships. As much as we can foster empathy and a sense of solidarity through this work, it is hard to make someone take on real long-term engagement with climate catastrophe. If, however, as the Climate School Strikers have demanded, climate change (we would also like to add colonial studies) was taught in schools from a very early age and the principals of climate justice were entrenched in our moral psyche, this may change. Whether we have time for this to happen is another question.
Still thinking about the film, it’s intriguing that the literal framing of the film relates somewhat to the issues at hand and how they are presented through different lenses so to speak. Could you talk a bit more about this and your method of colour coding?
In our film the foregrounding of the camera’s presence is intended to emphasise the use of different ‘lenses’ or frameworks in research, journalism or documentary. Often framing the way we view, and therefore how we interact with the world; without our knowing it, these frameworks shape the way we imagine our future. Although these “lenses” are not physically represented by a change in focal length, we indicate which future events (they are written in a list) are indicative of a climate justice framing, of an indigenous futurism encompassing alternative ideas of human-nature systems and non-human subjectivities, a Neo-Malthusian framing, or a technocratic framing of the future through colour coding the text.
The colours are: green for climate justice and solidarity in the future, red for a scary Neo-Malthusian future where drastic measures are used to control dangerous levels of overpopulation, and blue is used for a technocratic future full of techno-fixes like geo-engineering and authoritarian governance and purple for indigenous futurism.Through conversations with researchers we had learnt how studies were often made through a particular lens or framework or how outcomes could be interpreted as leaning towards one lens or other. Once we started to analyse how climate change and environmental issues were represented in for example the media, Hollywood and BBC wildlife narratives we realized just how prevalent the use of these lenses was.
This idea of colour coding was also partly inspired by the aesthetics of scientific graphs; the way in which scientists and different research agencies label their scenarios, models and future predictions. Because there are so many scenarios that are being tested and because these scenarios are often compared together, they are often colour coordinated to make them readable in the graph’s legend.
You position the photographs knowingly as secondary to the other parts of the work. It feels that, for such a subject, it’s healthy to realise that photographs can only speak so much. Could you talk more about how each part (text, video, photograph) relate to each other?
Agreed, the photographs are very much secondary to the text and film, stemming from photography’s inadequacy to represent actual circumstance or even truth. We are strong believers that all the photograph can communicate accurately is the power relationship between the subject and the photographer and that every portrait is performative and every landscape or still life a subjective framing of circumstance. That is why the addition of text is so important, it debunks misinformation and it shifts perceptions away from well-worn stereotypes in a way that a photograph alone cannot.
Because we were tasked to be artist-researchers, a role that we embraced in a serious manner (we created research reports for several of the organisations we worked with like UNHCR), we felt that we had a responsibility to communicate what we learnt to others. When we started our research for Future Scenarios, we quickly identified that the representation of climate change did not need any more images of polar bears and that we should focus on lesser known climate issues relating to migration, conflict, food and water shortages amongst others. These issues are much less recordable in a photographic sense and they are vastly more complicated which consequently called for texts to explain such matters.
We have also worked hard towards creating an immersive exhibition experience. The whole idea of the work is to get people to engage with some of the more nuanced aspects of climate change such as climate justice, historic responsibility, intergenerational inequality and the North – South divide, firstly on an emotional level then hopefully on an intellectual one. The film, photography and text all play different roles in the exhibition context. The film communicates without words, images hopefully entice people to read the captions which illuminate some lesser known aspects of climate change and the speculative future magazine covers impart the idea of thinking in terms of scenarios. All of which is intended to get people to make their own inquiry into climate change and to imagine futures that are habitable.
But of course, the strands of the work relate to each other not only by sharing a common subject matter but also because each work questions what it means to document something, and how can we represent climate change without falling into the disaster narrative? Because climate change is a process which is largely invisible and a hyperobject that is massively distributed in space and time, something that we can’t point to all at once, let alone photograph completely even with such things as satellites it has therefore been quite challenging to photograph it both conceptually and logistically.
The idea of collaboration with other organisations, activists, groups etc in this work speaks volumes about the ideas in the work; climate change is not something that can be tackled alone, it’s a collective phenomenon in a myriad of ways (cause, responsibility, change). It’s an astute parallel. Was this a conscious choice?
Very much so, we actively sought out collaboration with scientists and researchers because we desperately wanted to make sure we were getting the science right and not creating climate misinformation. Learning about climate change was and still is a challenging task on your own. The issue is so complicated that without help to move beyond purely seeing it as an environmental problem, it is very hard to appreciate how it will affect you, how it relates to human rights, economics and politics and how something like migration across the Mediterranean can be exacerbated by climate.
Our own collaboration (Teo and Lena) was founded on the idea that together we could learn more, make more images and films and carry more stuff like tents, film and water, but collaboration is something that is, like you say, intrinsic to tackling the issue of climate change. It is an issue that is beyond the politics of any one party. It requires collective action and most importantly it requires us to listen to and support those who in the past we have not; researchers in the Global South (low and middle income countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean), indigenous communities and school children who want a future. Perhaps most importantly though, we need to actively engage with those who are leaning to the right of the political spectrum and those that are climate contrarians.
When I was reading about Future Scenarios, the biggest surprise I encountered was your talk of climate change in relation to socio-economic factors, particularly gender; the role of women and the effects that these global happenings will have on them. This was new to me, and something that I feel is certainly overlooked. Could you talk about this responsibility and effect on women?
This is exactly the problem with the way climate change has been represented in the past. Everyone is probably an expert on polar bears, greenhouse gasses, plastic (ecology’s poster child) and glaciers, but you have perhaps not been exposed so readily to social economic issues relating to climate change. We have had so many curators and critics in the art world say things like “climate change isn’t about poverty, wars are nothing to do with climate change”, yet they are according to climate researchers.
The social economic impacts of climate change are at first very hard to grasp because you have to learn so much to understand how things like poverty and conflict arise. But once you understand why a phenomena such as child labour occurs it is easy to see how climate change could exacerbate its prevalence. For example, a child may be forced into work because his or her family was displaced by riverbank erosion due to sea level rise and increased glacial melt water. In most cases, climate change is just one of a number of push factors, but the effect is undeniably there.
Women are particularly impacted by climate change because of their already heightened vulnerability, owing this to their socially constructed roles, their wrongly perceived incompetence and the fact that they are often dependant on men. They face inadequate access to health care, washing facilities and feminine hygiene products. They experience high rates of gender-based violence (rape and domestic abuse) and reduced access to education and job opportunities.We find that women are often impacted the hardest by climate change because, for example, they have to carry water further in times of drought or because they are susceptible to being crushed safeguarding the household during a cyclone which is driven by a social expectation. It’s not that the drought or cyclone was caused by climate change but that it was made more frequent or more intense by climate change. In most cases, climate change is making existing problems worse.
It is in this way women and other vulnerable groups are affected by climate change. In recent years developmental strategies have shifted to focus more on supporting the interventions made by women, their role and their empowerment. Many government agencies, policy makers, NGO’s and researchers found that interventions relating to education, environmental protection, sexual health and disaster preparedness had failed to enact positive change when targeting the male population of a community, whereas supporting women was more successful. When empowered, women could greatly influence their husbands, sons and community leaders, leading to meaningful long-term impacts within the community. As Ina Islam, a researcher from ICCCAD says, “Women are the glue that hold families and communities together.”
You started this work in 2016, how has the conversations around these issues changed in that time and also how have your own ideas changed?
We really think it has really taken us the last eight years to truly grasp the vastness of all the social and ecological issues that relate to climate change. As a result we both strongly feel that although the work we have done has artist merit- it represents our development as artists and relationship to the subject and climate change as a cultural paradigm- that whatever we do next will hopefully be the most adequate and impactful representation of our knowledge of climate change and its complexities. We of course have no idea what that may be as we have not yet finished this work… but it will definitely relate to climate change… We will resolve the photographic part of Future Scenarios as a book in the next year (the film is almost finished), because we feel that we need to evaluate all the things we did wrong (and right) and work with a more clearly defined structure in the future. We have never doubted that climate change was happening, but we have learnt to better deal with feelings of guilt about personal carbon footprints and we have stopped being very pessimistic about the future and become really quite hopeful.
Since 2012 not only has our knowledge of climate change shifted but so to has the media and political discourse surrounding it changed. When we first started, people still asked us if it was happening and curators or reviews often pushed us to be critical of climate science (yes that really happened)…Then there were a few good documentaries on climate change like “Before the Flood”, and the Paris Agreement that fostered engagement with the issue.. and then the disaster of Trump and Brexit happened, events which detracted from climate action. We have seen the narrative change often, but with the rise of climate awareness in the last year and the last weeks climate protests things are looking up. And now the role of art in highlighting the ecological crisis has been for-fronted (for better or worse we artists are doing a PR work for scientists) and curators are better informed and want to show the work hopefully there will be more opportunities to show the work and reach more people.
Have you finished with a more optimistic view of the issues we face given your focus on the resilience of groups rather than the fatalistic narrative as you astutely put that we are so often confronted with through the media?
Yes, we are optimistic and actively driven to make a habitual future possible, but we are also realistic about the potential hard times ahead and how disaster capitalists entangled in the petrol-industrial complex will try to delay climate action until it best suits them.
Recently we have been ecstatically inspired by the rise of the Fridays For Future School Strikes led by Greta Thunberg and also by some of the aspect of the Extinction Rebellion’s climate action in London.When we started this work, we were actively filming protests relating to social justice such as those relating to Grenfell Tower to try and represent future climate protests and then all of a sudden it just happened! Most encouraging is just how clued up both groups are about climate justice and how they speak of solidity with those who will be most affected in the Global South. It is also good to see that there is not a disproportionate focus on personal responsibility for climate change as guilt has in the past pushed people away, instead the blame is being placed on fossil fuel giants like Shell and Exxon Mobile as it should be. The positive narrative called for by those children demanding a habitable future is a very powerful tool that we believe will help us all move beyond the doom and gloom fatalistic end of the world narratives that are far easier to imagine than the changes that need to happen.
It’s been refreshing to talk about real, humanistic issues that here are supported by art. Future Scenarios feels like a vessel for something much larger. Do you think that art has a responsibility to talk about these universal issues and do you think we will see more of this in the future?
Yes, we do think that art has a responsibility to talk about such issues because it’s simply not possible to talk about (almost) anything without talking about the environmental catastrophe. Even if you are an amateur artist painting basket of kittens and daisies, those kittens and daisies will be affected by climate catastrophe. However not every artist or photographer has the capacity to make such work and it is important that we have some culture that is comforting as even climate scientists need downtime.
The privileged position of the mega artists as self-indulgent societal commentator is largely the by-product of the neoliberal capitalist economy. We simply need more artists engaging with the world like Forensic Architecture and less artists making luxury items for the mega rich. But as T.J Demos criticism of super photographer Edward Burtynsky’s more recent aerial work in the Earth Edition of Aperture Magazine points out, we photographers and artists need to be careful not to unwitting fan the flames of disaster capitalism through highly aestheticised images of self-destruction and the use of military industrial imaging devices and technologies that widen the gap between audience and subject. We too have at times been guilty of these practices as we have negotiated how to represent climate change and are seeking to address this. Instead we must decolonize futures throughout the lens of climate justice.
We need to keep it close, hot, sweaty and bodily. If we could sustainably heat our exhibition spaces up to 40°C with a humidity of 80% and leave a pile of rotting garbage in the corner, we would, because that is what climate change feels and smells like. The problem is probably not many people would stick around to read our captions or watch the hour-long film if we did that.
The Climate Change in Residence: Future Scenarios programme was an experiment to pilot a new residency model — that of a ‘networked residency’. Climate research has long relied on networked collaborations rather than individual, geographically-located centres and the design of the Climate Change in Residence: Future Scenarios residency programme deliberately responded to and mirrored the distributed networks of climate change research. Rather than a traditional residency based in one institution, the networked residency engaged with a community of people across institutions and disciplines whose work, individually and collectively, informs the development of climate scenarios.
The Scenarios residency programme was launched in December 2015 at COP 21 and received over 270 applications from visuals artists, musicians, poets, writers, theatre-makers, choreographers and creatives from across film and digital media. Each residency included an award of £10,000. The awarded artists were Emma Critchley, Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping, and Zoë Svendsen. Their residencies began in July 2016 and each month the artists published an update on their work in progress.
Throughout their residencies, the artists were able to research issues around climate change scenarios and spend time exploring and developing their own artistic practice. The programme has also provoked new thinking about the ways in which researchers from a wide range of disciplines consider the relationship of their work to wider cultural work on climate scenarios. You can read the month-by-month accounts of the residencies here.
Interviewed by Joanna Kobyłt
Everything we do, we do in the service of the image
Interview with Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping laureates of Jerwood Charitable Foundation Prize funder of Climate Change in Residence, Future Scenarios
Your project Feedback Loops is a series of photographs that were made in response to several trips to the Tibetan Plateau. The Photographs illustrate both climactic and social changes that are not widely know. Why did you decide to go there?
Teo Ormond-Skeaping: It all began in 2012, when I was studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. I was awarded a residency prize by The Red Mansion Foundation which has been initiated to expose British Artists to Chinese Artists and the Chinese art world and vice versa. I stayed in Beijing for one month and then at the end of my residency period Lena joined me and we traveled to western China, to Urumqi. Our time in western China ended in the regions in which we are currently focusing on the eastern fringes of the Tibetan plateau which although geopolitically outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region are still culturally Tibetan.
Since then we have returned twice to this area for duration of up to two and a half months. The photographs that make up the Feedback Loops project are the result of our evaluation of two previous trips, and were created on our last production trip in 2015. Whereas the footage for Time Of The Glacier was created during our trip in 2014.
Our initial enquiry led us very quickly to recognise the geopolitical significance of China, a location that exemplifies a large number of the problems we will face in the near future, it is something that ultimately shaped our practice both ethically and artistically.
What do you mean? Is it like a prism, through which we see the problems of the world?
Lena Dobrowolska: Yes perhaps, for me it was like stepping behind the scenes or entering the back stage of our western model of development. Not only was I seeing how and where our consumables are being produced and what environmental and social impact that had upon China and the world, more than anything I was made to question the lifestyle that has been proliferated in the West. I started to understand how something physically distant and disparate can affect and shape my beliefs, feelings, perceptions and daily behaviour without my knowing. It was very eye opening.
Teo Ormond-Skeaping: It was a hugely problematic period of questioning. We found our self’s asking what it means to be privilege in many aspects of life amongst other questions such as how can I photograph. It was just a shock. So strong that we knew we had to go back.
To work through it.
How do you mean work through it? Did you go out with the assumption that you want to challenge the stereotypical approach to the subject of Tibetan geopolitics? Or did the place itself demand such an approach?
TOS: The location definitely challenged our methodologies as well as the way we work with ethical subjects. China like no other place asked us to reevaluate what it means to work with lens based medium and therefor the ethics of representation.
LD: The biggest challenge was the message and the way the medium of photography operates. We were not only negotiating the problem of orientalisation and othering, but also working with beauty and the sublime with the intention of questioning the definition of nature. Yet we tried to maintain the objective factual ethos that working as a documentary photographer or as a journalist requires. The problem was a generalisation and simplification of the message. We were looking for the right formula, somewhere between a document that deals with certain existing facts and problems and a direct emotional communication with the audience. That's why we wanted to make our message something which is much more complex and contradictory, which in turn reflects the complex nature of the subject matter and the confusion we felt when working with it .
Very often, documentary work focuses on a narrow subject, because it is easier to present as a congruent decodable narrative, that which is what we have largely come to expect of the photo journalistic essay. It is far easier to simplify, than to show something that is in complex and reveals many contradictions.
TOS: We eventually realised that we wanted to make the contradiction and the complexity that was inherent to the subject matter we were working with one of the main focuses of our work.
This contradiction can be seen in the photographs. On the one hand, they are one part documentary, and on the other the photographs are indicative of a fine art context . They also resemble anthropological photographs, as if they were part of a archival research project. And yet they deal with pressing current issues, which gives them an activistic capacity.
TOS: This is certainly not activist art or activism in the strictest sense. We do work in the service of change, but not as activists waving banners. We try to inform, at the same time spend a lot of time working on formalising our work with the intention of asking ourselves questions about the medium itself and therefore the way we (society) communicate problems or in fact how aware we are of the way in which photography or film manipulate us.
LD: We are of course committed morally and ethically, but at the same time we believe that particularly in the case of photography, which is a certain code of communication, that is often used as a method of illustration. The problem is that photography can not show the actual thing it can only show the appearance of the thing.
Our stand point on image making is to create images that function autonomously (as works in their own right), even without the proper contextualization that we usually secure via captions or curatorial text. We find that it is acceptable that they may illustrate but that perhaps that they may fail to communicate the full breadth of the issue. What is important is that the images stir emotionally and or critically and that that stirring hopefully leads to personal enquiry.
We are committed to a medium that has been repeatedly manipulated in various historical circumstances; therefore we are drawn in to formalism and autonomy. Everything we do, we do in the service of the image. If the image can affect someone through its aesthetic values, it has already achieved something.
If we operate in any sense, as activist, it is in the way in which we try to push the viewer to engage with their own inquiries and interests, by providing an aesthetic jolt that hopefully re activates their enquiry into a subject that we present.
TOS: However we do not put restrictions on the use of our images for example: in magazines or books, if either the proper context is maintained or image autonomy is guaranteed.
Through the juxtaposition of contextualizing materials, such as texts and captions we also wish to create a friction within our photographs between the information given and what is visible in the image itself. For example an image that may appear to resemble a sublime landscape, a pristine and untouched wilderness is transformed through contextualization to a landscape deeply scarred by human induced climate change. Here beauty is the catalyst that changes the way the image be it landscape or portrait is read by the viewer. Beauty is also key to unpicking the idea of nature.
Your attitude draws attention to the figure of the photographer, but also to the mediums association with the figure of a white man or woman from the highly developed West, who comes to help the poor. A photographer who often hides behind the camera lens and renders reality through a certain prism.
LD: Actually, this difficult figure of a photographer was much more problematic here than it is there. We have been challenged many times about the validity of our working in other countries.
TOS: Yes we have thought a lot about the subject of othering and we are trying to find a more collaborative way to work with the people we wish to photograph, one that suggests an understanding of representing others and the post-colonial legacy.
China is a very interesting country to photograph in, because a European you find yourself photographed over and over again with and without permission. I was actually photographed far more times than the number of portraits I took. And often having been photographed when I asked permission to photograph the person who took my photograph they said no… [laugh]
LD: At some point during the third trip, people began to fully recognise Teo [laughs] and show us pictures of ourselves from before. We were a kind of spectacle; turning the othering back on itself, which is not all that talked about, especially when criticism is given.
Is your sensitivity trying to draw attention to responsible travel so called post tourism, to an attitude, which does not support the entire mechanism of mindlessly consumerist tourism. Dose a part of your project talk about this issue?
TOS: No not really, we are not making work about tourism. I do not perceive myself as a traveler. We are forced to travel to access locations and phenomena, we do so having researched thoroughly and usually with an itinerary. It is really very different from backpacking. We do have a very ethical attitude to how we operate. But there are some things that cannot be avoided such as; working on a project about global warming and traveling on airplanes? However, all these contradictions are just a part of the nature of the subject matter and therefore our work.
LD: Our first trip to China was definitely more of a travel trip, but the second and especially the third visit was completely different, much more serious and focused, even though we mostly went to the same places. Returning and rethinking is what facilitates focused work. We use it as a” total process” in which we can become completely immersed. This is what we think our work requires.
TOS: Travel photography and photojournalism are heavily mythologized. There is a certain amount of romanticism and the suggestion of adventure that supposedly leads to the creation of a personal archive of images that communicate the experiencing itself. We work hard to avoid such contexts. It is sometimes very difficult indeed to make curators or other practitioners understand that we treat it with deadly seriousness. But I believe that the work is starting to communicate this autonomously.
LD: Upon returning we realised that we had made mistakes, something had not worked technically or conceptually and we would know that we had to go back. This is when it becomes serious, no longer an adventure.
Can you tell us what the mistakes were?
LD: It took us a long time to realise that we were actually working together. Of course, we did a lot of research together and spent the whole time with each other during the first and second trips to China, but we weren’t yet working as a collaboration. That took time to establish. I realised that my medium format black and white photographs taken in 2013 were inadequate and not capable of representing what I was interested in representing. I felt limited aesthetically by black and white photography and the aesthetic artifice that it was creating. I realised, I had to rethink and reject some of my strategy.
TOS: I had a lot to learn about film making, so I made the decision not to photograph during the second trip only film. This made me really want to return and make photographs. I also spent a lot of time working through the ethics of photographing morally challenging situations, how ever this never really goes away and is in fact what drives my inquire into documentary.
LD: We have developed our own language, created our own symbolic order out of the phenomena that we were pursuing. We were no longer looking for subject matter - we knew exactly what we wanted to represent. The way we tend to work is not exactly easy for us. We do not want to be in a situation of comfort with the medium, rather we seek the methodology that works best for the subject. This makes things much harder, especially in China, where you are very visible as a photographer and you have to worry about censorship and surveillance. At the same time this kind of problems shape the way we work.
Your project is in opposition to the pursuit of a decisive moment? Is your project trying to present another mode of operation?
TOS: Yes, this is exactly what we want. As much as we are critical of our own methodology, we are also critical of the validity of other methods. Despite there being so many changes and developments photo journalism has not changed that much.
Some have asked us whether the formal concept was applied to our work just to legitimise showing the work in a gallery? The answer of course is no, but we do wish to emphasise the conflict that occurs when a documentary photograph is placed as a work of art in a gallery. We do not have the luxury, nor it is total relevant, to create an even more dramatic statement by giving the works a price tag of thousands of dollars. We perhaps would prefer the works to be show in an institution that nurtures the serious nature of the work and encourages a type of broad historical, cultural and scientific thinking such as a museum. Therefor we have made a specific aesthetic decision, one that is suggestive of an informed indexical representation that will have a historic value and therefore longevity.
We have been greatly informed by The New Topographic’s, the conceptual documentary photographers that have followed and the early pioneers of expedition photography. Their work has been displayed in all kinds of institutions, and its scale and quality both lends itself to the formal academic nature of these spaces and benefits from it. Those building upon the formal concerns of The New Topographic’s like Richard Moose with his project Infra are pushing the aesthetics into exciting new territory. This is proof of the fertile nature of the formal foundations that The New Topographic’s explored.
LD: The New Topographic’s were a largely American landscape photography movement, which simultaneously drew upon the European idea of topography and landscape which included its cultural significance, and the American approach to topography, which focused upon mapping and geographic significance. Such photographers as: Bern and Hilla Becher’s, Robert Adams and Steven Shore.
It has greatly influenced the way photographers like Luc Delahaye, Edward Burtynsky, Andreas Gursky or Paul Graham work; they do not have to prove that what they do is full of purpose. The attitude itself and theire methodologies are already characterised by the seriousness of the aesthetics and therefore the image is no less ethical if it autonomous and without contextualization.
TOS: When you start to work as an artist on the Tibetan plateau, it generates a lot of questions from people who are trying to help there, mostly Ngo’s or political activists. Often they are trying to achieve certain objectives, such as the promotion of their activity or political agenda. Immediately they begin to create a narrative about how to help people. We often get the impression that they are not there to talk about the causality of climatic or social phenomenon, but about themselves and their work. Therefore, we were not able to find a common ground with which to establish a partnership with the limited number of organisations that work in these areas. But I also think this was more due to the sensitive political situation in the region.
LD: You used the word "manifesto", for us this project is like a manifesto. In some way, we feel that we have finally found the right balance in our work. At this stage we just would like to make more work, wherever it will take us next
TOS: Yes, it is a kind of statement of intent for the future.
You are taking part in an innovative yearlong networked residency called Culture and Climate Change:Future Scenarios, which was awarded by Culture and Climate Change and supported by The Jerwood Charitable Foundation, The Ashden trust, The University of Sheffield and The Open University. You will now be collaborating with scientists, researchers and policy makers that are working with future scenarios.
LD: This is a new, experimental residency program, involving collaboration between artists and scientists researchers and policy makers. Unlike the traditional model of a residency, the artists are not tied to one particular institution, but to a network of contacts. In this case, a group of leading scientists, researchers, specialists and consultants that are working with the science, law and legislation of climate change and scenario planning. In this way, the residence provides contact with many institutions and scientists creating a network of interdisciplinary connections. The organisers of this program: Culture and Climate Change, a collaboration between researchers from Sheffield University and The Open University, wanted the residency to reflect the complexity of the climate research network and the network of political and social research that make up the discourse on climate change.
What scenario will you be working with?
LD: The term Future Scenarios is not just a metaphor to describe a multiplicity of possible improving or worsening futures or solutions to climate change. It is actually a technique used by scientists. It entails future modelling and therefor planning based upon the social, economic, geopolitical and many other factors that are affected by climate change and therefore climate forecast. Some well known scenarios include: The Shell Scenario and Limits to Growth which we worked with in Feedback Loops .
TOS: We want to continue to work with systems of representation, as we did in Feedback Loops, to further develop work in relation to the massive philosophic shifts that the Antropocene and climate change has caused. To do so we intend to utilise our indexical representation of current climate, environmental, geological, economic and socio-political phenomena to illustrate the visceral reality of different hypothetical future scenarios. Through images of our present we will suggest an imagining of difficult and improving futures. Throughout the residency we will continue to focus on phenomena we have already identified in Feedback Loops such as glacial recession. But we will also explore the possibility of representing: climate induced migration, future cities, overpopulation, drowning islands, the psychological pressure of climate change and the prognosis of a difficult future scenario, among other subjects.
We also plan to document the process of environmental policy making, intergovernmental climate change summits, conferences, seminars and climate change research facilities and methodologies, with the intention of increasing the visibility of the scientific investigation and legislating of climate change further clarifying the relationship between environmental and socio- political issues, climate change and human rights. We think that we will also be working with the cultural meaning of the disaster.
I think that your work is asking for us to make changes, even if you are not directly working in an activistic capacity or in the service of organisations that call for change. I feel that those who view your work and inform themselves about climate change may then try to make changes in their lives. Do you believe that the choices we make as individuals matter?
LD: The greatest tragedy of all is the fact that one person cannot do anything about climate change. There is also the myth, the overrating of the free will, which is a little bit perpetuated by consumerism. Of course, it is good that we decide to recycle or buy Fair Trade and that those personal choices contribute on a small scale. But I think that many people fail to understand the main point of the argument, which is why the critically important matters such as climate change are so removed from the public consciousness. We of course try to stir that consciousness in what every way we can, however brutal.
TOS: What torments us is that art is that it is often consider incapable of talking about serious issues, it is often considered silly or infant elitists and a waste of time and money. It is now much harder to be an artist, let alone an artist working with serious documentary, so I can’t imagine how hard it is to for activists or lobby groups; NGO’s or even the scientists themselves, not only because the economy is poor but because the world is so saturated with problems.
LD: I am struck by the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy. That's what you do leads you to a certain destiny. Up till now we thought of globalisation as an idealised solution that would at some time in the future allow all of us to live comfortably. And undoubtedly to some extend that has been fulfilled. I think it is the time though to realise also some of the negative aspects of these changes. Only now we are beginning to realise, as a multitude of environmental and social symptoms are made visible by empirical scientific studies, that problematic networks of reliance and causality had been created. It has become hard to deny that the way and the model in which globalisation was implemented repeated some of the mistakes that were made during colonialism, and that it has benefited only a small part of the globe and created huge disparities in the rest of the world
That is why you have named your project Feedback Loops ?
TOS: Yes, exactly. The name “feedback loops” comes from Jay Forester’s famous cybernetic systems theory. Cybernetics groups scientific theories in order to make visible the mechanism by which each one influences the others, this mechanism is called feedback. This theory allows scientist to see unforeseen changes. The mechanism of feedback has been studied and applied to many branches of science, especially climatology, for example it is fundamental part of the mechanics of global warming. We intend the idea of feedback to imply that every action humanity takes has consequences that return to shape the future in a way that cannot be foreseen.
We cannot stop what has happened, but we can act now to increase the likelihood that an improving future awaits us.