Climate-Arts Lab is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the NGO Ekoltava (Poltava, Ukraine) and the NGO ITTA (Chernivtsi, Ukraine) coordinated by Iryna Zamuruieva. An artist, scientist, cultural geographer and organizer Iryna Zamuruieva tells how thanks to the Culture Bridges national cooperation grant, the team managed to implement a large-scale project on the intersection of culture and climate change.
In my head the thought of combining the cultural and climate sectors has been brewing for a while. Speaking as someone who studied the natural sciences and runs my own creative enterprise, I started to see that technical reports on ocean acidification or global warming weren't sufficient to avoid climate crisis. Society has been bombarded with this date for going on half-a-century yet there's been no systemic change.
I turned to ITTA, whose founder I'd known a long time. They're interested in the potential of cultural work in addressing socially important issues and use performative approaches to do it. I told them about my idea. Now, prior to that, they hadn't done any work on climate change but agreed to my experiment. We worked together to choose some potential partners, and I was finally able to make a working connection with my experience in environmental activism in Ukraine. That's when I turned to ECOLTAVA with whom I had connected five years earlier while working for the Let's Clean Up Ukraine NGO. The idea of using art to rethink climatic topics really resonated with them and so everything fit. I was the liaison between the two partner organisations coordinating the project.
an independent civic association of experts and ecological activists and committed to forming communities which sort and recycle garbage and use energy rationally. The NGO is based in Poltava but is active throughout Ukraine, carrying out activities to improve ecological conditions. EKOLTAVE has carried out projects supported by the European Union, the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, the URBIS Foundation and the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Germany). The organisation leads press and demonstration tours of solar energy facilities, consults with state agencies and the Ukrainian residential utilities administration and conducts educational summer camps for climate activists.
A non-profit civic organization created by youth for youth based in Chernivtsi. ІТТA's mission is to encourage active citizenship and civic participation in society with a primary focus on the empowerment of young people to create a positive change in their communities. The organization has experience carrying out international projects as part of the Erasmus+ and Meetup programmes. ІТТА works according to the forum theatre method, expanding the practice via theater workshops held in cities across Ukraine.
The idea for the project came to me a few years ago when I was researching art and artistic practices that work on climate change. I was particularly interested in interdisciplinary collaborative formats. One of my starting points was the Cape Farewell project, based in England. I was impressed by how seriously and deeply they work with the cultural narratives of climate change and the format they used: they arrange expeditions on ships to the Arctic for artists, journalists and activists. Following their return they develop productions, poetry, performances, photography and sculpture based on their experience. I thought, "We have to do this in Ukraine!" It wasn't obligatory to go to the Arctic to do it, because you can see climate change everywhere in Ukraine if you know how and where to look.
Our aim was to combine the work of artists and climate scientists and activists and rethink climate change in Ukraine. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the climate crisis and its consequences this topic remains poorly understood in Ukrainian society and is virtually absent from the Ukrainian cultural space. Any communication we see is mostly in sterile scientific reporting and writing and has no effect on creating systemic (social) change. So, we decided to take another tack at confronting people with climate realities: with art.
140 applications from people in 52 Ukrainian cities of Ukraine
8 day residency programme in Slavsky
16 participants working in tandems (an artist + a scientist or activist)
2 group exhibit in Chernivtsi 28 May – 2 June and in Kyiv 12-18 June
During the eight-day intensive residency programme held in Slavsky in the Carpathian Mountains, we had 16 participants working in tandems (an artist + a scientist or activist) to explore climate change not only as a physical or environmental phenomenon but also as a complex cultural and socio-political manifestation. We didn't randomly choose this location but selected a place where the effects of climate change were clearly felt and seen.
Following the residency everyone went home and began to form working pairs to put their ideas together under the guidance of a mentor. We showed the result of their work at a group exhibit called "The Extreme Climate Movement" with Iryna Zamuruieva and Oleksandr Dolgiy as co-curators working with the residency participants. The exposition was shown in Chernivtsi 28 May – 2 June at the Youth Residence Centre and in Kyiv 12-18 June at the MetaCulture Cultural Centre.
The climate-arts laboratory format provided space and tools for arts-activists and arts-sciences collaborations and experiments. For artists, this project provided an opportunity to delve into one of our most pressing contemporary problems within an interdisciplinary environment. For scientists and activists, it's a chance to look at their work from a completely different perspective. We were looking to create a space for interaction between these groups to create socially engaged art that could serve as a driver of change.
Most of our lab residents had no previous experience with interdisciplinary work and our goal was to create conditions in which artists and scientists would be able to overcome any biases about each other's work – e.g., "artists are too emotional", "scientists are fixated on numbers" - and collaborate on an absolutely equal footing. For this purpose we conducted a two-hour workshop addressing stereotypes about the categories of "artist", "activist" and "scientist". The group was so diverse that we had questions ranging from "what is 'queer'" to "what is "agrobiocenosis?"
We offered the residents free choice of partners and the tandems formed organically after the meet and greet and a couple days of the residency. There was only one condition: the interdisciplinary collaboration had to be outside their usual comfort zone.
During our exhibitions we announced our Extreme Climate Position and it was fascinating to put this kind of vision statement together in that collaborative setting. All the residents, Ecoltava, and Ecodia worked on a Declaration of Extreme Climate Conditions to support and supplement extant climate change narratives in Ukraine (e.g., the need to transition to renewables, free and open access to hydrometeorological data). The process was transparent and multidisciplinary with all content agreed on by both climate and cultural specialists and was released online with the support of both groups.
The project had the biggest impact on the practices of participants in the arts and other sectors. In order to assess this we conducted in-depth interviews with the residents at the close of the project and noted several areas of change:
- An improved understanding of social processes and the creation of additional dimensions of artistic practice. For example, the "ruїns collective" arts group, though already involved in the climate change question at a philosophical level, noted that this was an opportunity for them to dive deeper into these processes and find ways to work with people from different disciplines.
- Developement of thwe links between the arts sector, science and activism. Climate Art Labs became a project in which this collaboration and exchange between different disciplines not only took place, but was also transformative for the participants.
In order to continue and give depth to this kind of influence, team has distributed a Roadmap for Creating Creative Climate Partnerships to cultural and environmental organisations that was created drawing on Climate Art Labs experience and further inter-sectoral research.
The project has managed to establish the cultural relevance of the topic, problematizing the climate change issue in the Ukrainian cultural environment, freeing it from its "climate bubble" and bringing it into the broader artistic and media discourse. In general, following the project, the presence of environmental and Anthropocene themes employed in art circles has shown steady growth.
We are now in the process of project evaluation and are further developing an understanding of how to turn this into something usable. We are planning to continue with informational events to share our experience by adapting it for a wider audience. We're working on the idea of creating a flexible model of climate labs as an excellent collaborative space. And to implement this we might be looking for additional financing in the future.
We are also looking to European organisations where we can learn about the processes involved in creating this kind of module. For instance, we're looking at the Artists Placement Group (London), which has been working with artists since 1965 and placing them in completely non-artistic contexts to provoke interaction and to employ an artistic mindset in a non-arts context. We discussed this very thing with one of the residents, installing them at a hydrometer centre or another type of environmental institution, but it's an expensive proposition and we don't have a clear vision for it yet.
We've also established contact with the Lysychansk Museum, the Tyshkivka Library in Tyshkovka and a space in Severodonetsk, which are all interested in showing the work produced at the KML residency. They're looking to involve the local populations to discuss the coal mining industry and the future of mining in the region, but we haven't found the resources yet to make this happen. In fact, it was just a few days ago that we were contacted by the OY Sound System project to create a collaborative immersive performance covering the topics of climate change and how it interacts with humans and other living things. So now we are in communication with them and looking for points of common interest and mutual support.
Photo credits: Nika Popova, Iryna Zamuruieva