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“Yes I could live in this town/ Before I head for home”

July 26, 2011

In a strange and round about way (or, more accurately, a completely normal internet interaction), my very real attempts at avoiding work dropped me right smack in the middle of a dynamic involving the representational structure of climate change that I have been thinking about for some time. This morning while I procrastinated by surfing around the net read the news, I happened across an entertaining moment from Conan O’Brien that featured the comedian as an animated superhero. While watching Coco become “The Flaming C” in all his loafer and fishnet stocking glory, I noticed a little box to the right called “The Latest” that features videos of guest stars and funny moments on Conan’s show. At the exact moment that I was watching the animated Coco feature, the video being promoted was of KT Tunstall singing her song “Uummannaq” from her recent album, “Tiger Suit” (the featured shorts change, but you can still see this episode by clicking “See All Videos”).

This caught my attention at once and fired my curiosity. Uummannaq is obviously a word in Inuktitut, why was Tunstall singing about something Inuit? What exactly was she even singing about? What was Uummannaq? A little research later, I learned that Uummannaq is a town in northwestern Greenland with, I assume but don’t know for sure, a mostly Inuit community. What does Tunstall have to do with northern Greenland? KT’s appearance on PBS gives a slight clue, writing under the video of her performance: “’Uummannaq’” is about the Arctic in a time of global warming ‘as the temperature rises all around/To the sound of a ticking bomb.'” Why does KT care about “the Arctic in a time of global warming’? I found a clue here: “Drastic Fantastic made KT Tunstall a mainstay on adult album alternative radio. Touring established a worldwide fan base. Then she hit the ice ceiling at a gig in Uummannaq, Greenland, participating in the Cape Farewell Project climate-change initiative. The experience of playing one of her worst shows ever and having the rose-coloured glasses view of her career shatter was the inspiration for Uummannaq.”

The Cape Farewell Project climate-change initiative?! Now you have my attention.

According to their website, Cape Farewell

has brought together leading artists, writers, scientists, educators and media for a series of expeditions to hot spots of climate change. Together they have mapped, measured and been inspired by this awesome environment and have endeavoured to bring home stories and artworks that tell how a warming planet is impacting on the wilderness and us.

The scope and reach of this initiative is staggering, as is the impressive list of artists involved. The expedition that KT Tunstall participated in that led to her disastrous (but ultimately career bolstering) performance was a 2008 expedition to Disko Bay:

The ambition of Cape Farewell’s seventh expedition is to inspire the creative team to respond to climate change both in the Arctic and on their return. On 25 September these artists, scientists, architects, comedians, musicians, playwrights, composers, engineers, film-makers and journalists journey aboard the science research vessel – Grigory Mikheev, from Kangerlussuaq to Disko Bay. The boat will then voyage across the front of the Jakobshavn Glacier, one of Greenland’s largest glaciers moving at a faster rate than ever before, losing 20 million tons of ice every day.

As KT sings:

“…Suddenly

[Chorus 1]
I, oh well I could live in this town
Five cold years before I
Yes I could live in this town
Before I head for home

It’s my turn
With the spotlight burning a hole
But my bird-heart’s turning cold
As the temperature rises all around
To the sound of a ticking bomb
And then it’s not just showing off here
You know there’s something going on here
Going on here

Suddenly…”

Leaving KT Tunstall and the Uummannaq song aside for a moment, I want to consider the Cape Farewell project in relation to several other climate change initiatives currently in process to raise awareness and create spaces for dialogue and change all through very humanistic means: theater, poetry, song, film, fine art and storytelling (often alongside more scientific and ethnographic projects as we can see from the Disko Bay research team’s study of receding glaciers). I’ve mentioned the Civilian’s project “The Great Immensity” (to find out more about the play or to buy tickets for the opening next spring, visit their website: http://www.thecivilians.org/current/the_great_immensity.html), but there is also Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky’s new project, The Book of Ice and Subhankar Banerjee’s ClimateStorytellers.org to consider.

DJ Spooky explains his project:

In light of climate change and tireless human enterprise to be present everywhere on the planet, Miller uses Antarctica as a point on entry for contemplating humanity’s relationship with the natural world…Drawing on the continent’s rich history of inspiring exploration and artistic endeavors, Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky has put together his own multimedia, multidisciplinary study of Antactica. Book of Ice is one aspect of this ongoing project.

Banerjee writes the history of his project:

Last year, I wrote an article, BPing the Arctic? to help stop Shell’s oil–and–gas drilling plan in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of Arctic Alaska. Thanks to Tom Engelhard, the piece first appeared in TomDispatch on May 25, and then in numerous other progressive Internet media around the world, reaching millions of people. On May 27, President Obama suspended Shell’s Arctic drilling for 2010.
With that modest victory, I realized it would be nice to have a gathering place on the Internet for in–depth stories on all things global warming.

My interest isn’t whether or not climate change is a measurable fact or to what degree humans are responsible for global warming or even the politics and economics behind denying or proclaiming the reality of a warming world. What interests me is the form that the discussion is taking. What is noticeable here, is that none of these climate change advocates and activists are scientists. These are widely disparate artists: a DJ of electronic music, a photographer, a pop singer, a theater troupe. All use multimedia, the internet, conventional modes of engagement such as conversations or eye-witness accounts as well as more radical forms such as collage, mixed media, and layering the objective (science) with the subjective (representation–art) to try and encompass the ever expanding reality of what change is and what change means.

This reminds me of a paper that Richard Kerridge of Bath Spa University (UK) gave at the 2009 ASLE conference. The panel was simply called “Global Warming” and Kerridge’s paper was titled the slightly enigmatic “Global Warming and Literary Form.” In it, he presented a reading of the English poet Ruth Padel’s “global warming” poem, “Slices of Toast” (unfortunately the entire poem is only available for purchase from the London Review of Books). Kerridge poses the age old problem of form vs. content: the poem is written in the highly conventional, even traditional, poetic form of the “morning poem” or, I believe he termed it, the “matinelle” (I keep meaning to brush up on my critical poetry skills) even while the content, the “plot” of the poem tells the story of an absolute rupture, or disjuncture between the speaker lying in bed, going through her morning routine, with the knowledge given by her radio of calamities across the world in the form of mud-slides in the Philippines and rising waters in Bangladesh. The speaker is unable to process the magnitude and distance that engaging with “the global” entails and reverts back to the domestic, the utterly local, embodied in her address to her daughter and the “small waters/ of our particular rivers”. While ostensibly about global warming, Kerridge argued, the poem does little more than re-present the issues arising from a changing climate in the same pessimistic and paralyzing binaries that characterizes the thinking that led to the political and cultural, not to say economic, modes of production and consumption that got us to this moment in the first place. Kerridge, using Ursula Heise’s criticism in Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, calls for new forms of writing that can encompass the temporality of change in such a way that forestalls nostalgia and paralysis while

articulat[ing] a cosmopolitan awareness that links the ecological and the technological across a diversity of cultures, and a utopian kind of human collective that erases neither the individual not the small community but links both to a global ecological self-awareness (Heise 85).

While I don’t think KT Tunstall’s song quite reaches this lofty goal, I do think the project of engaging artists and all sorts of “cultural workers” in the project of re-envisioning climate change, what it means, who it affects, how do we talk about it, is on the right track. Cape Farewell, DJ Spooky, Subhankar Banerjee, The Civilians, Zacharias Kunuk’s film on Inuit and climate change–all enliven the terrain and the conversation as they test new forms, symbols, metaphors, tropes and eventually, hopefully, new modes of inhabitation and engagement with the world, our world.

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