Who works hard in the underground and actively resists climate change? According to programme maker Angela Chan of the curatorial project Worm: art + ecology, it’s the worm who does a lot of unnoticed labour. Team MAMA editor Annosh Urbanke sat down with Angela to talk about the history of climate change, the importance of art and activism, and her fascination for the small critters. Join us for this interview, after or before, visiting Climate Knowledges at our re-opened showroom or virtually.

Hi Angela! Thank you for meeting me online. I was checking out the website for Worm: art + ecology, the curatorial project you initiated. Can you explain a bit more about why you started this project and what its intents are?

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My entry point into climate change issues was through contemporary art history and engaging with exhibitions by artists working with climate and environmental themes. At the time, there weren’t many online spaces that gathered these visual projects together, unlike today where there are many more websites, journals, Instagram accounts looking at climate change through the arts. Worm: art + ecology began as a website where I published my responses to exhibitions and interviews with artists and others involved in creative climate practices.

"I’ve come to think of the worm as a slight metaphor for the resistance against climate change."

Over time I became more familiar with climate change issues informed by social and racial issues and reached further into history, politics, social sciences and activism. I studied climate change as my postgraduate and nurtured a greater understanding of various perspectives. As the platform gained momentum, I began broadening my work with Worm: art + ecology to deliver creative workshops, public talks, university lectures and youth group projects on art and intersectional climate change issues.

In these sessions there often would be participants who focused not only on the relationship between race and climate change for the first time, but sometimes art or climate change themselves.

Many are unaware, but the current climate crisis originates from colonial history, its foundation of exploiting people and the earth, which continues in today’s globalized processes of extraction and power. It’s important to introduce issues of climate colonialism and environmental racism to people.

My own academic research in climate change focuses on science and speculative fiction (SF) as a way of documenting climate change history and challenging systemic injustices of the crisis, towards futures with social and climate justice. In other projects aside from Worm: art + ecology, I specialise in contemporary sinophone SF and collaborate with authors, translators and researchers internationally to organise reading groups, author events and write articles. I am excited by the multitude of stories that break the white, heteronormative stereotype of science-fiction, and explore non-Western-centric, queer and transfeminist experiences.

On a side note, a little on the name itself: Worm: art + ecology. I really like worms for what they do for the natural ecology. Worms work hard underground, their labour is often unnoticed compared to the much more visible and louder bees. Their work is unglamourous, yet they churn waste into fertile soils that we directly depend on. I’ve come to think of the worm as a slight metaphor for the resistance against climate change, not even backing down when cut and not chasing to be seen above ground, just trying to turn a rotten situation into the fertile soils for our fruit. Also, worms have five hearts!

ck_igsquare-minClimate Knowledges campaign logo by Alex Walker (2020).

Shall we dig a bit deeper into your exhibition Climate Knowledges, currently hosted at MAMA? What is the narrative the exhibition explores?

The narrative is twofold. Firstly the project emphasises that we already have many different ways of thinking, communicating and understanding the climate crisis. That’s why I highlight them as plurals: ‘histories’, ‘futures’, ‘knowledges’. Yet only a limited few of these views are given mainstream validation and access to vital resources to mitigate climate change, and those who are the most vulnerable are systemically side-lined (or even erased) from the more visible mainstream climate movement. Like I said before, climate change is the result of the colonial history of so-called developed countries, whose patriarchal white supremacy continues to annihilate people and the planet. Analysing power permeates my shaping of Climate Knowledges.

Secondly, Climate Knowledges presents different culturally situated works. These dispel and disrupt the tendency to evaluate people of colour as having a homogenous history and experience in climate issues. There are many different understandings about our climate that have long-existed as embodied experiences and knowledges shared across generations in Black, Indigenous and people of colour cultures.

Often people are very focused on what the future holds for us in light of climate change, and I always persuade them to first look back at history, and analyse what processes created this uneven crisis. What we uncover is the colonial exploitation of people and natural resources to fuel industrialised, white supremacist and patriarchal capitalism – and it’s ongoing.

And what would you like to achieve with this exhibition?

My intent with Climate Knowledges is to address climate change narration by asking: ‘What constitutes knowledge about climate change?’, ‘Who is in control of producing and sharing information?’, ‘How does this information benefit or compromise marginalised groups?’ The exhibition aims for visitors to re-evaluate the climate crisis as seen in the mainstream and question how we got here, where we will be and, critically, who are included in this ‘we’.

But it is not enough to only rethink how we imagine the future. We must relearn history to see more clearly the true events that have caused and sustain climate change: the racist, sexist and ableist structures of climate colonialism. A significant theme in Climate Knowledges is thinking about the authorship of your own historic and present-day realities, so as to retain agency and control over your future. Valuable information and knowledges about climate change can be found beyond the Western scientific lens, which is unfortunately the one that is most pervasive in the current climate change debate.

ck_facade_lotte_stekelenburg-2Climate Knowledges (2020). MAMA facade. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.

What do you mean by ‘scientific lens’ exactly?

Climate science is undoubtedly important to our understanding and consensus of climate change. However, it is necessary to view the larger picture of how structures of power shape the knowledge created, transferred and activated. It is fundamental to not isolate science as truly objective, unbiased and the only solution to climate change. Historically, Western academic sciences derive from studies of the colonies and colonised subjects. Colonisers used these to further secure control over people, resources and wealth for imperialist conquests. Today, we need to critically assess our information with ethics, such as identifying if corporations or trusts that fund scientific research are also funding fossil fuel companies. We need to keep posing questions like why Indigenous land and water protectors, herders, and farmers, who hold generations of lived experiences and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), do not ‘qualify’ to the same level of ‘expertise’ as academic scientists or hold rights to vote at global climate talks as policymakers. The issue here is concerned with the power relations behind knowledges.

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Does this mean the Western scientific model of climate knowledge is counterproductive to solving climate change problems? It seems unlikely the cause can offer the cure, especially if we are blind to its histories.  

Climate science can supply evidence of historical injustices and identify those responsible for climate change. For example, a 2019 study that showed that the genocide of Indigenous populations by European colonisation of the Americas caused the global CO2 levels to change. Even so, we need to ask why people believe this relation between colonisation and climate change more upon seeing ‘scientific proof’, as opposed to the generations of Indigenous activists fighting for sovereignty in parallel with climate issues. The point here is not about the verification of scientific facts about climate change, or having two fields. Instead it is to map how the power dynamics of many discourses and knowledge systems influence the flow of truths – empirical and analytical, qualitative and quantitative data – towards collective solutions.

What role can Climate Knowledges play in bringing about these collective solutions?

Climate Knowledges gives one possible mapping of climate knowledge, by offering an insight to the many perspectives of climate change. I don’t only mean in terms of many timelines of past, present and future perspectives, but also as geographically and culturally varied perspectives. The artworks in the exhibition are a multi-layered structure of perspectives. It is really important that stories and people’s collective lived experiences, from generations ago to today, are still being told and documented. These stories materialise as speculative fictions, mythologies, philosophies, songs, festive traditions, cultural proverbs, and so on. I don’t think that art in general is the only answer, but it is one of the ways we can communicate with each other.

The exhibitions also contains contributions by climate activists who are active in The Netherlands. How do you include them in your exhibition?

The exhibition establishes a Climate Visual Cultures Library with Indigenous, Black and climate activists of colour based in the Netherlands, many of whom highlight how white supremacy drives the exploitative processes against people and the planet, as well as whitewashing in the mainstream climate movement itself.

The Climate Visual Cultures Library illustrates the solidarity networks across the Netherlands that are opposed to the racism and whitewashing in the mainstream climate movement. The library is a way to maintain Indigenous, Black and people of colour authorship over climate justice stories. It aims to grow with new contributions and remain hosted in the Netherlands beyond the exhibition run, to continue documenting the visual culture of this climate justice movement.

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Annie Mackinnon - A Sublime Sky, A Technological Eye (2020). Foto: Lotte Stekelenburg.

You mentioned before that you have an interest in mythologies, science-fiction and speculative storytelling. Each of the artists showcased in Climate Knowledges also works along or draws inspiration from ancient mythologies and speculative fictions. Why are you so inspired by these alternate worlds?

I’d start with introducing the concept that science or speculative fictions (SF) about climate change are already science facts or realities for some parts of the world that are experiencing climate impacts now. In other words, it is a privilege to be surviving well enough to even be able to imagine futures.

Annie Mackinnon’s (UK) film and soft sculptures explore Chinese mythologies and philosophies to re-articulate our entanglements with the environment and critique exploitative techno-futures. The colourful and intricate hand paintings on the fabric ‘torso’ sculptures narrate mythologies and philosophies relating to humans, the heavens and the environment, like Xiangliu is a mythological nine-headed snake that devastated ecology everywhere it went. They also visually refer to the garments Annie crafted for her video, which was mostly filmed in China.

Jessica El Mal (UK) challenges the boundaries of contested borders, with an installation co-produced with participants of a collective research workshop, as well as two fabric hangings that collate open-source aerial and map views around the Strait of Gibraltar. She determines the history of legal treaties, geo-political policies, economic developments and land acquisitions against the backdrop of ecological issues.

Josèfa Ntjam’s (FR) speculative film traces the monster in the time of cyborgian hybridity and climate change. Drawing upon Drexcyian myths and colonial histories of Central and West Africa transatlantic slave, Josèfa narrates fictions and truths towards a decolonial, trans-feminist empowerment. She refers to Mami Wata as a feminist and genderless, trans mythological figure of the sea, and merges with the Afrofuturist discourse as inspired by the works of Sun Ra. There is liberation and reparation within this imagined future, and the sense of temporal hybridity is reflected in the heavily collaged and immersive wallpapers across the gallery walls. They hold photos of her own family members resonating in the rendered and animated visuals, telling many stories instantaneously.

Science fiction writer Regina Kanyu Wang (CN) imagines interspecies knowledge systems and communication methods through her queer ecology short story. The protagonist Dǎo, (meaning island in Chinese) is an island that experiences sea level rise for the first time and must communicate across species languages to mitigate the worst impact. It does so by travelling through an internet-like circuit within the island soil. The story is adapted as an audio piece for Climate Knowledges, narrated wonderfully by musician Tessa Qiu (UK).

One of the works in the exhibition is the Climate Visual Cultures Library. It presents the long and ongoing history of the climate justice movement led by Indigenous, Black and people of colour, who show that climate resistances are inseparable from the wider global social justice, human rights and decolonial independence campaigns.

These issues are presented in the Climate Visual Cultures Library contributions that span posters, pamphlets, stickers, texts, song lyrics… and a policy-printed toilet roll. The latter is by artist and activist Teresa Borasino, who created the toilet paper emblazoned with IPCC report for the Paris COP21. She says that:

“Delegates [are] told to #GiveaShit and stop wiping their ass with the science…In The Netherlands, toilet paper rolls were given as a present to all the members of the senate that voted against the new energy law, which will delay the construction of wind energy parks. Through the website giveashit.nu, individuals can order toilet paper rolls and send them to their most uncooperative local politicians.”

The library so far include Chihiro Geuzebroek’s Radical Friends (film, 2014), Shell Must Fall, Climate Liberation Bloc, Aralez, Teresa Borasino, Fossil Free Culture NL, Wij Stoppen Steenkool, Free West Papua Campaign NL. Contributions range from leaflets, musical scores, song lyrics to other visual media items that are part of their decolonial climate justice campaigns and direct actions.

The collection is creative and informative, and intends to encourage learning, sharing and discussion.

Notice that I speak of futures in its plural form, because we should be aiming for many forms of possibilities to suit our myriad ambitions, rather than a singular supremacy of predetermined destiny. I approach SF as an avid reader of stories by Indigenous, Black and people of colour authors, who centre decolonial futures that are built of careful and determined reconciliation of histories.

As a programme maker, I am interested not so much in the aesthetics of the genre, but more in the critical conversations that Indigenous, Black and people of colour SF authors ignite with speculation as activism. SF dreams of transformative futures, which many fighting for climate justice are already shaping in the real world. Within these stories history, culture, politics and dreams can be found entangled on the same page.

When we talked before this interview you briefly mentioned that the COVID-19 pandemic also lays bear some of the same issues that you explore with Climate Knowledges. That was a very interesting thought. Can you maybe explain this a bit more in depth?

In terms of discussing COVID-19 and climate change, I’m disturbed by the sentiment some people are declaring: ‘humans are the virus, nature is recovering’, whilst countries are on social distancing lockdowns. It makes a blanket statement that all demographics of people have caused climate change. It needs to be reinstated: the most vulnerable people are dying due to systemic injustices that keep their access to healthcare underserviced, render their insecure work terminated or expose them to daily risks as frontline workers, or endanger them to more discriminatory and brutal policing disguised as social distancing enforcement or immigration border control, and much more. These are disproportionately Indigenous, Black and people of colour, the poor, the differently able-bodied people, who are the same people who have contributed the least to global climate change.

Further, the far-right’s focus on ‘overpopulation’ rather than consumption footprints as the climate change culprit, interprets xenophobic stances that some human lives are more disposable than others, particularly mentioned in this current circumstance. Yet states allow corporations to profit or be bailed out, whilst years of another/continued recession will stamp out what little economic stability the already disadvantaged have. There is no silver lining to a pandemic. Those who see any are very, very privileged, and co-opting the climate movement here is the eco-fascism we should all be educating each other to dismantle.

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Wij Stoppen Steenkool demonstration (2017). Photo by Daniela Paes Leao.

Do you collaborate with activists a lot? 

Talking about the history of climate change, and current ways of resistances, and imagining futures is work that climate justice activists have already been doing for a very, very long time. As with most political subjects, there runs a risk for the cultural sector to co-opt, aestheticise and tokenize. With Climate Knowledges as an exhibition, I wish to reveal how varying knowledge systems (whether art or activism) and modes of communication (artworks or protest visual material) can altogether present a fuller understanding of the issues. They balance abstract imaginations and concrete case studies that both exist in these overlapping areas for creative social change.

I think it is essential to place value on these communal ways of exchanging climate change knowledges and creative ideas, so I recommend everyone to seek out and support decolonial climate justice activism in your local region, wherever you are.

Whilst art offers creative elements to think with, I believe that it is imperative to direct visitors to the work of activists who are campaigning on the ground, in order to connect, stand with and redistribute resources and power to them.

This interview was held in April 2020, in the context of MAMA’s exhibition Climate Knowledges and explores alternative ways of looking at the current climate crisis.

Many thanks to Annosh Urbanke for interviewing, Angela Chan of Worm: art + ecology for her participation and editor-in-chief Gari Koolen.

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