Can artists save the world?

Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and others respond to climate change

A large, parasite-like form has appeared on the façade of 6 Burlington Gardens, London. It is the installation CO2morrow, by the artists Marcos Lutyens and Alessandro Marianantoni, for the exhibition "Earth: Art of a Changing World", which has just opened at the Royal Academy of Arts. The show presents the creative responses of 35 international artists to the pressing issue of climate change, just days before the big summit in Copenhagen is due to start.

CO2morrow's spectacular shape is the result of a cutting-edge technological innovation from California. It is made from recyclable carbon fibre and is based on a new carbon-scrubbing molecule. Commissioned by the National Trust for this exhibition, it shows, using a light display, fluctuating levels of CO2 in the atmosphere at specific national heritage sites.

"These molecules have the power to capture and retain carbon dioxide," Marianantoni tells me. "They are being produced in tonnes, with the main aim to be positioned on the top of power stations' chimneys. Scientists are currently working on a version for cars."

Like the whole RA exhibition, it raises fundamental questions about the responsibilities of artists in contemporary society and the relationship between art and technology.

"New technology is part of an artist's palette, as oil paints were during the Renaissance," explains Lutyens. "In a world where it is harnessed by corporations and by the military, it is important for artists to harness that same tool and use it for good."

The combination of science and art "helps to draw people's attention", continues the artist, "providing a wider view of what's going on. For example, the hi-tech sensors used in this installation to collect data extend our nervous system into the world around us. Without this kind of access, we would be blinder."

The artists exhibiting in this seminal show are, in the words of the co-curator David Buckland, "going to the edge before us". From Antony Gormley, with his striking crowd of clay figures staring at the viewer, to Mona Hatoum's threatening, cage-like steel globe; from the evocative island project by Antti Laitinen to the poignant journey to the Arctic reported by Sophie Calle, each issues his or her personal warning.

"There is no plan B for failure at Copenhagen, only plan A, and A stands for action," the UN's top climate official, Yvo de Boer, said recently. Six hundred digital clocks hanging on the wall of the RA, hauntingly ticking, help us to internalise the message.

How then to respond to these threats? Some artists have found their answer in a return to emotions. "My message is about love, nature and respect for nature," says Tracey Emin, commenting on her embroidered piece with figures of birds, flowers and insects. "For this work, I was inspired by a story that my father told me. At my father's wedding, my grandfather told his son's bride: 'Draw yourself a cross and in that cross put a volcano, a tidal wave, an avalanche and a hurricane. Now go and throw yourself at anyone.' "

Asked about their hopes for the coming climate conference, some artists are optimistic. But, as Emin remarks, "It is absolutely down to individual people to try to change something. After this show, I'll go home and I'll do stuff -- I'll turn my lights off and so on."

Leaving the Royal Academy, I hope that passers-by will raise their heads and wonder at that strange object nesting on the building's façade. Cycling, I feel I'm doing at least something to join the effort. And echoing in my ears is a line of a song from a video installation in the show: "What if we got it wrong?"

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.