Perhaps the single most important phrase in the historic agreement signed by 196 countries at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 is “2 degrees.” According to the Paris document, the world community is now pledged to “holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.” Climate scientists describe this figure as the threshold past which the earth’s environment will suffer significant irreversible damage. While small island countries lobbied hard for an even tighter restriction of 1.5 degrees, the question of whether the two-degree goal is achievable remains to be answered. While only time will tell if we can stop the pace of global warming, there’s still plenty of work to be done on how to slow or even reverse the process. That investigation will of necessity continue to focus on sites where natural resources such as minerals and fossil fuels are exploited on a large scale.
For Beyond 2 Degrees, the new group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB), curator Brooke Kellaway has found 10 artists hailing from all over the world whose work provides an artistic perspective on the environmental and social impacts of natural resource exploitation. These artists have researched the disruptions around copper mines, oil rigs, dams, factories, and radioactive materials to create vivid multimedia experiences designed to raise consciousness about human activities that degrade the environment. On Saturday, March 12, two of these international artists, Ursula Biemann and Carolina Caycedo, were on hand to speak and perform, thereby augmenting the already powerful exhibit with the strength of personal presence.
Biemann’s piece in the show, a collaboration with Paulo Tavares called “The Land Grant: Forest Law,” is a video installation in a specially constructed separate room, and it’s one of the most ambitious works ever shown at MCASB. It documents the success of a legal proceeding known as the case of Sarayaku v. Ecuador. The Sarayaku are an indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon region with a cosmology that considers the forest in which they live to be a living creature. When the government of Ecuador sold the rights to drill for oil in their forest to a conglomerate from Argentina, the Sarayaku took them to court on behalf of the forest. After years of legal struggle, the case was resolved in favor of the Sarayaku, with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights upholding their right to free, prior, and informed consent in relation to the lands they hold sacred being drilled for oil or excavated for minerals. In essence, according to the beautifully rendered video and accompanying illustrations and documents of Biemann’s artwork, the court held that the forest itself had rights because, in the Sarayaku cosmology, the forest is a living and sentient being.
Caycedo’s piece strikes closer to home for those of us here in Santa Barbara, as it includes a large aerial image of Bradbury Dam, the structure in Santa Ynez that gave us Lake Cachuma. Called “Be Damned,” the work is part of an ongoing project through which Caycedo seeks to understand the dimensions of the ecological impact caused by hydroelectric mega-infrastructural construction, aka big power and water. Other artists in the show include Olga Kisseleva, Nicholas Mangan, Otobong Nkanga, Zhao Renhui, Andrea Polli, Amie Siegel, and Melanie Smith. In remarkably various ways, each of them succeeds in taking viewers deeper into the contradictions and the urgency of global environmental policy.