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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.