Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping

FUTURE SCENARIOS: Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping talking to Kris Kozlowski Moore

Let’s start at the beginning, how did this work come about?

We have been making work about climate change and the Anthropocene together since 2012 following a field trip to China. Because of that trip, we became gut wrenchingly aware of what lay behind the curtains of neoliberalism’s shiny western facade; it was a challenging time for us as we grappled with massive questions about representation without a solid understanding of, or belief in, the ideas surrounding documentary work.

In 2016, on the strength of our past work, we were awarded the year long Culture and Climate Change Future Scenarios networked residency that was intended to explore the idea of artists working as climate change researchers by facilitating collaboration with climate change researchers, institutions and policy makers. Throughout the year, under the guidance of emanate researchers Dr. Renata Tyszczuk and Professor Joe Smith, we were introduced to the themes of responsibility for and vulnerability to climate change alongside the concept of scenarios, about thinking and being aware of possible futures. But most importantly, through our collaboration with researchers such as Dr. Saleemul Huq at The International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Dhaka Bangladesh, we learnt how the narrative of vulnerability that once surrounded those nations most vulnerable to climate change has developed into a narrative of resilience and adaptation, as they emerge as leaders in mitigation to climate change.

Although the residency ended in 2017 (there was no requirement to produce any work, just research), we have continued to work with Culture and Climate Change and pursue collaborations with researchers in the form of Future Scenarios. It’s a work that is critically unending and we are constantly adding, altering, thinking and exhibiting in one continuous stream.

What do you see as the importance of the film in Future Scenarios and its relationship to the photographs?

We have always worked across the two mediums of still and moving image, even before we started collaborating together. Working with both mediums simultaneously allows us to think more about representation by comparing how the two mediums operate; what they include, leave out, how they frame what is in front of them. They are two different brushes in a toolbox.

We really see the film as the main outcome of the project, the text vitally important and then the photographs in service of the text. It wasn’t intended this way and we worked just as hard on the photographic element of the work, but the film is in many ways a much more complete medium, it seems to have less representational baggage than photography does.

Our Future Scenarios film installation is an hour long, three screen installation that is structured around four sets of loosely defined speculative futures that imagine the next eighty-one years. Throughout most of the film the viewer experiences one scene or location from multiple perspectives as the camera spends time with people engaged in resilience, adaptation and consumption that is related to migration, food, water, shelter, leisure and work as climate change affects their daily lives. At times three scenes are shown simultaneously.

The stabilised camera used for the film acts as the point of view of a somewhat unknown persona (it is obvious that the camera is an outsider). To us this embodied camera is complicit, a cool and distant observer that plays the role of someone who is responsible, both responsible for climate change and responsible for the mitigation of climate change. The camera is present to disrupt, present to learn from those most vulnerable, to draw attention to itself whilst revealing power relationships and inspiring performances. At times the camera is welcomed and at others it is regarded as an intruder, and at moments the camera itself appears to be vulnerable.

What the film communicates through its motion and soundscapes above and beyond photography is an experiential sense of place, not just place in the local sense but also in the ‘we are all in this together’ global solidarity sense.  Whereas a set of single photographs from different locations seem only to create a disparate aestheticised collection of people, places and actions from an away that we cannot extend empathy to. There is a reason why people feel deeply moved (so we are told) by our film and spend an hour sitting on a hard bench in a gallery to watch it, and only three minutes looking at the photographs. Film, particularly cinematic film, has the stopping power that photography doesn’t.

Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping
Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping
Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping

You mention that the embodied camera takes on the role of someone responsible, but is a somewhat detached observer. Do you think that description has some parallel to a ‘western gaze’ towards climate change?

Yes that was much the intention to draw that parallel. In the UK particularly, climate change remains a distant, far away, future that will largely happen to someone or something else in a landscape of which most of us have never visited. Most image consumers therefore largely view those who are affected by climate change or pollution or war for that matter, in much the same way as the victorians or edwardians viewed colonial subjects or distant landscapes in 19th or 20th century photographs: as exotic and far flung.

The future is unevenly distributed and we have felt little of the impact that climate change is having in comparison to other locations; last summer’s UK heatwave high was 35°C pales in comparison to heat waves in Southern Pakistan in 2015 of 49°C. We therefore adopt this degree of detachment from it, still remaining largely concerned with our personal hardships.

As much as we can foster empathy and a sense of solidarity through this work, it is hard to make someone take on real long term engagement with climate catastrophe. If however, as the Climate School Strikers have demanded, climate change (we would also like colonial studies) was taught in schools from a very early age and the principals of climate justice were entrenched in our moral psyche, this may change. Whether we have time for this to happen is another question.

Still thinking about the film, it’s intriguing that the literal framing of the film relates somewhat to the issues at hand and how they are presented through different lenses so to speak. Could you talk a bit more about this and your method of colour coding?

In our film the foregrounding of the camera’s presence is intended to emphasise the use of different ‘lenses’ or frameworks in research, journalism or documentary.  Often framing the way we view, and therefore how we interact with the world; without our knowing it, these frameworks shape the way we imagine our future.

Although these “lenses” are not physically represented by a change in focal length, we indicate which future events (they are written in a list) are indicative of a climate justice framing, a neo-malthusian framing, or a technocratic framing of the future through colour coding the text. The colours are: green for climate justice and solidarity in the future, red for a scary neo-malthusian future where drastic measures are used to control dangerous levels of overpopulation, and blue is used for a technocratic future full of techno-fixes like geo-engineering and authoritarian governance.

Through conversations with researchers we had learnt how studies were often made through a particular lens or framework or how outcomes could be interpreted as leaning towards one lens or other. We were quite shocked to see how prevalent these lenses were in media, Hollywood and even BBC wildlife narratives (conservation can often be anti-human).

This idea of colour coding was also partly inspired by the aesthetics of scientific graphs; the way in which scientists and different research agencies label their scenarios, models and future predictions. Because there are so many scenarios that are being tested and because these scenarios are often compared together, they are often color coordinated to make them readable in the graph’s legend.

Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping
Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping
Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping

You position the photographs knowingly as secondary to the other parts of the work. It feels that, for such a subject, it’s healthy to realise that photographs can only speak so much. Could you talk more about how each part (text, video, photograph) relate to each other?

Agreed, the photographs are very much secondary to the text and film, stemming from photography’s inadequacy to represent actual circumstance or even truth. We are strong believers that all the photograph can communicate accurately is the power relationship between the subject and the photographer and that every portrait is performative and every landscape or still life a subjective framing of circumstance. That is why the addition of text is so important, it debunks misinformation and it shifts perceptions away from well worn stereotypes in a way that a photograph alone cannot.

Because we were tasked to be artist-researchers, a role that we embraced in a serious manner (we created research reports for several of the organisations we worked with like UNHCR), we felt that we had a responsibility to communicate what we learnt to others. When we started our research for Future Scenarios, we quickly identified that the representation of climate change did not need any more images of polar bears and that we should focus on lesser known climate issues relating to migration, conflict, food and water shortages amongst others. These issues are much less recordable in a photographic sense and they are vastly more complicated which consequently called for texts to explain such matters.

We have also worked hard towards creating an immersive exhibition experience. The whole idea of the work is to get people to engage with some of the more nuanced aspects of climate change such as climate justice, historic responsibility, intergenerationality and the north – south inequality, firstly on an emotional level then hopefully on an intellectual one. The film, photography and text all play different roles in the exhibition context. The film communicates without words, the images hopefully entice people to read the captions which illuminate some lesser known aspects of climate change and the speculative future magazine covers impart the idea of thinking in terms of scenarios. All of which is intended to get people to make their own inquiry into climate change and to imagine futures that are habitable.

But of course the strands of the work relate to each other not only by sharing a common subject matter but also because each work questions what it means to document something, and how can we represent climate change without falling into the disaster narrative? Because climate change is a process which is largely invisible, one that is massively distributed in space and time, something that we can’t point to all at once, let alone photograph. The hyperobject of climate change has been quite challenging to photograph; we have for example tried very hard to make petrol stations look evil…

The idea of collaboration with other organisations, activists, groups etc in this work speaks volumes about the ideas in the work; climate change is not something that can be tackled alone, it’s a collective phenomenon in a myriad of ways (cause, responsibility, change). It’s an astute parallel. Was this a conscious choice?

Very much so, we actively sought out collaboration with scientists and researchers because we desperately wanted to make sure we were getting the science right and not creating climate misinformation. Learning about climate change was and still is a challenging task on your own. The issue is so complicated that without help to move beyond purely seeing it as an environmental problem, it is very hard to appreciate how it will affect you, how it relates to human rights, economics and politics and how something like migration across the Mediterranean can be exacerbated by climate.

Our own collaboration (Teo and Lena) was founded on the idea that together we could learn more, make more images and films and carry more stuff like tents, film and water, but collaboration is something that is, like you say, intrinsic to tackling the issue of climate change. It is an issue that is beyond the politics of any one party. It requires collective action and most importantly it requires us to listen to and support those who in the past we have not; researchers in the Global South (lower earning countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean), indigenous communities and school children who want a future. Perhaps most importantly though, we need to actively engage with those who are leaning to the right of the political spectrum.

Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping
Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping
Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping

When I was reading about Future Scenarios, the biggest surprise I encountered was your talk of climate change in relation to socio-economic factors, particularly gender; the role of women and the effects that these global happenings will have on them. This was new to me, and something that I feel is certainly overlooked. Could you talk about this responsibility and effect on women?

This is exactly the problem with the way climate change has been represented in the past. Everyone is probably an expert on polar bears, greenhouse gasses, plastic (ecology’s poster child) and glaciers, but you have perhaps not been exposed so readily to social economic issues relating to climate change. We have had so many curators and critics in the art world say things like “climate change isn’t about poverty, wars are nothing to do with climate change”, yet they are according to climate researchers.

The social economic impacts of climate change are at first very hard to grasp because you have to learn so much to understand how things like poverty and conflict arise. But once you understand why a phenomena such as child labour occurs it is easy to see how climate change could exacerbate its prevalence. For example, a child may be forced into work because his or her family was displaced by riverbank erosion due to sea level rise and increased glacial melt water. In most cases climate change is just one of a number of push factors, but the effect is undeniably there.

Women are particularly impacted by climate change because of their already heightened vulnerability, owing this to their socially constructed roles, their wrongly perceived incompetence and the fact that they are often dependant on men. They face inadequate access to health care, washing facilities and feminine hygiene products, high rates of gender based violence (rape and domestic abuse) and reduced access to education.

We find that women are often impacted the hardest by climate change because, for example, they have to carry water further in times of drought or because they are susceptible to being crushed safeguarding the household during a cyclone which is driven by a social expectation. It’s not that the drought or cyclone was caused by climate change but that it was made more frequent or more intense by climate change. In most cases, climate change is making existing problems worse. It is in this way women and other vulnerable groups are affected by climate change.

In recent years developmental strategies have shifted to focus more on supporting the interventions made by women, their role and their empowerment. Many government agencies, policy makers, NGO’s and researchers found that interventions relating to education, environmental protection, sexual health and disaster preparedness had failed to enact positive change when targeting the male population of a community, whereas supporting women was more successful. When empowered, women could greatly influence their husbands, sons and community leaders, leading to meaningful long-term impacts within the community. As Ina Islam, a researcher from ICCCAD says, “Women are the glue that hold families and communities together.”

You started this work in 2016, how has the conversations around these issues changed in that time and also how have your own ideas changed?

It has taken us from 2012 to now to truly grasp the vastness of all the social and ecological issues that relate to climate change. As a result we both strongly feel that although the work we have done has artistic merit, it really represents our development as artists and relationship to climate change. Whatever we do next will hopefully be the most adequate and impactful representation of our knowledge of the subject, although we have no idea what that may be as the work is far from finished yet.

Since the start of this process, not only has our knowledge of these climatic narratives shifted but so to has the media and political discourse surrounding it changed. When we first started, people from the artworld still asked us if it was actually happening. There was genuine ignorance everywhere. Then there were several promising documentaries on climate change such as Before the Flood and then the Paris Agreement fostered a wider discourse whilst the disasters of Trump and Brexit soon followed, events which definitely detracted from action around climate change. We have seen the narrative fluctuate massively, but with the rise of climate awareness in the last year and recent protests, things are looking up. So with any luck if climate change goes mainstream, we might even be accused of being disaster capitalists.

It’s also interesting to consider that all of these ideas are not the recently discovered phenomenon that the media often pedals. Admittedly, it is only now seeping into public knowledge in a profound way, but since the latter half of the 1970s scientists and those in the likes of the petroleum industry have been aware of the consequences of their actions. Oil has also become an increasing obsession for us; how it has become one of the most elusive yet omnipresent substances in the world, a true hyperobject to quote Timothy Morton. And we’ve learnt about how neoliberalism is in part, based on branches of colonialism, with its resource control, resource extraction and forceful displacement of indigenous communities. It’s been an incalculable amount of learning and our work has become more political because of this; focusing more and more upon the ethical and moral aspects of climate change.

Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping
Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping
Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping

Have you finished with a more optimistic view of the issues we face given your focus on the resilience of groups rather than the fatalistic narrative as you astutely put that we are so often confronted with through the media?

In a way yes. We are driven to contribute towards a habitable future but it’s hard to describe it as optimism, instead we feel an awakened urgency. As part of those who care about the future of the planet, we’ve past the declaration stage and are now on the brink of real action. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.” At the same time, we are also realistic about the potential hard times ahead; how disaster capitalists entangled in the petro-industrial complex will try to delay climate action until it best suits them and it is unlikely that we will see investor bankers striking against climate change anytime soon.

It’s been refreshing to talk about real, humanistic issues that here are supported by art. Future Scenarios feels like a vessel for something much larger. Do you think that art has a responsibility to talk about these universal issues and do you think we will see more of this in the future?

Yes we do think that art has a responsibility to talk about such issues because it’s simply not possible to talk about (almost) anything without talking about the environmental catastrophe. Even if you are an amateur artist painting baskets of kittens and daisies, those kittens and daisies will be affected by climate catastrophe.

The privileged position of the artists as self indulgent societal commentator is largely the by-product of a neoliberal capitalist economy. We simply need 100% more Forensic Architecture and 100% less Jeff Koons. And as T.J Demos criticism of Edward Burtynsky’s recent aerial work in Aperture points out, we artists need to be careful not to unwittingly fan the flames of disaster capitalism through highly aestheticised images of self destruction and use of military imaging technologies that widen the gaps between audience and subject. (We too have at times been guilty of these practices as we have negotiated how to represent climate change and are seeking to address this.) Instead we must decolonise futures throughout the lens of climate justice.

We need to keep it close, hot, sweaty and bodily. If we could sustainably heat our exhibition spaces up to 40°C with a humidity of 100% and leave a pile of rotting garbage in the corner, we would, because that is what climate change feels and smells like. The problem is probably not many people would stick around to read our captions or watch the hour long film if we did that.

Interview by Kris Kozlowski-Moore June 2019