Art in Conversation with Climate Change: Anthropological Reflections

Ethnography and art can be forms of storytelling. Both can surface hidden patterns, invisible undercurrents, and fraught dimensions of life, revealing uncomfortable truths and subjugated knowledges. How does ethnography speak to art, and art to ethnography, about critical issues of our time? Can we read ethnography and art together—talking with them, putting them in conversation with each other—in order to find deeper meaning, greater understanding, and more profound insights? These questions animated a course called Climate Change Ethnography that brought together five students, seven ethnographies, one professor, and one art exhibition for an intensive set of conversations and provocations about how to confront the pressing and immediate reality of climate change. The class spent hours in the exhibition Occupy Colby: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Year 2 while reading ethnographies by anthropologists who study climate change. The ethnographies varied as widely in scale, approach, and methodology as the work in the exhibition, ranging from a case study about a failed multimillion-dollar wind-park project in Mexico (Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene by Cymene Howe) to an ethnographic meditation on mass extinction through the lens of Australian aboriginal philosophy (Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction by Deborah Bird Rose) to an exploration of the relationship between Islamophobia and environmental destruction (Is Racism an Environmental Threat? by Ghassan Hage). Students were invited to find connections between the assigned ethnographies and the artworks on display. Here we have assembled one conversation created by each of the students that captures the rapport they discovered between one of the ethnographies and one of the artworks. Close your eyes and listen as they narrate their explorations; embrace the questions they offer about how to imagine, and whether we can imagine, a shared future in the wake of mass extinction and environmental devastation.

— Catherine Besteman, Francis F. and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology


My Death Song

By Mannon Frykholm

Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction by Deborah Bird Rose in conversation with Bird is the Word (2019) by Mel Chin and Polar Bear Slideshow (2008) by Meg Webster.

Photo of the author, Bird is the Word, and Bear.
Left: Mel Chin, Bird is the Word, North Carolina Variation, 2019. Webster’s Third International Dictionary, beeswax, wood. 11 1/4 x 7 1/4 x 5 1/2 in. (28.6 x 18.4 x 14 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Helen K. Nagge. Photo: Micky Bedell.
Right: Meg Webster, Bear, 2008. Electronic images of polar bears gathered from the Internet. 7 3/8 x 9 1/4 x 1 3/8 in. (18.7 x 23.5 x 3.5 cm). Edition of 3, 2 APs. © Meg Webster. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.



My Death Song is a spoken-word piece that puts in conversation the book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction by Deborah Bird Rose with two works of art, Bird is the Word and Polar Bear Slideshow, from the Occupy Colby exhibition. Rose’s poetic ethnography urges readers to join her on a philosophical journey assessing the ethical questions we must ask of our own human species as we face earth’s sixth great extinction. Rose uses the Australian dingo as an example of a species (what Rose defines as an “Earth Other” in relation to the human species) that is facing human-provoked and
-exacerbated extinction, much like we are. Bird is the Word, a sculpture of a bird made of beeswax and a dictionary, is mounted on a peg on a large, blank white wall. The bird faces sideways along the wall, looking directly at the digitally produced Polar Bear Slideshow, which depicts Google images of polar bears. Interestingly, these two artworks take up little space on the museum wall on which they are mounted, creating a sterile and distanced relationship between the two pieces. Incorporating the questions that Rose’s ethnography asks of its readers into the museum space helped me navigate—with a heavy heart, I might add—the eerie space that exists between the bird and the polar bears in the exhibit.




By Caroline Stoddard

Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction by Deborah Bird Rose in conversation with Imbroglios (a phylogenetic tree, from Homo sapiens to Megalops atlanticus) (2012) by David Brooks.

David Brooks, Imbroglios (a phylogenetic tree, from Homo sapiens to Megalops atlanticus), 2012. Fiberglass gelcoat, MDF, pencil, hardware. 60 x 144 x 252 in. (152.4 x 365.8 x 640 cm). Photo courtesy of the author.



David Brooks’s Imbroglios (a phylogenetic tree, from Homo sapiens to Megalops atlanticus) is an artistic rendering of the evolution of the Atlantic tarpon as diagrammed by a phylogenetic tree. The piece features numerous constructed tarpon, all swimming and turning in different directions, and bound by constructed planks with penciled numbers. It is made of fiberglass, Gelcoat, MDF (medium-density fiberboard), pencil, and hardware, and occupies 60 x 144 x 252 inches of floor space—a piece that is impossible to ignore when entering the exhibition. This piece clearly reflects themes throughout Deborah Bird Rose’s ethnography, Wild Dog Dreaming. In her ethnography, which is set among the aboriginal people of Australia, Rose discusses human-caused mass extinction. Tracing the story of the endangered dingo, Rose asks humans to reconsider their positionality and mind-set as being the center of the ecosystem. Notably, she calls upon readers to be comfortable with living in uncertainty. Therefore, Rose might challenge scientific ordering systems like the phylogenetic tree. Why is there a need to “order” the natural? Perhaps this is what Brooks is also arguing since the tarpons’ faces seem to express pain at the ordering of the wood planks—the phylogenetic tree. An interpretation of Brooks’s piece and Rose’s ethnography is that they both call upon humanity to end the ordering of disorder.

In my spoken audio piece on Brooks’s Imbroglios, I provide listeners with a quote from the artist on the topic of ordering biology. I then recite a creative rendition from the point of view of one of the subjects in Brooks’s piece, the Megalops atlanticus.



What Is Natural?

By Kevin Argueta

Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene by Cymene Howe in conversation with Honey Helmet (2018) by Lauren Bon.

Lauren Bon, Honey Helmet, 2018. Soldier’s helmet and beehive in artist’s vitrine. 32 x 19 x 19 1/4 in. (81.3 x 48.3 x 48.9 cm). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Joshua White.


Ecologics takes the reader through the construction of the Mareña Renovables Wind Project in Oaxaca, Mexico. The wind-park project came with the promise of energy and jobs but also threatened to destroy the livelihood of local indigenous people and cause an ongoing violent struggle. Honey Helmet is composed of a white military helmet displayed upside down, which holds a beehive inside of it. I chose this artwork because it puts a helmet alongside a beehive in a similar way that Ecologics put trucks alongside other species as being part of an ecosystem. These two works made me question the boundary between what is natural and what is human made.



The Anthropocene: A New Era of Solitude

By Emilie Pilchowski

Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction by Deborah Bird Rose in conversation with Polished Stainless Steel for Reflecting Outstretched Arms (2012) by Meg Webster.

Photo of the author and Polished Stainless Steel for Reflecting Outstretched Arms.


In Wild Dog Dreaming, Rose urges readers to rethink their relationship with nature, given that we are currently living in an era of mass extinction, resulting in a profound sense of loneliness as we lose connections with species. This loneliness is further exacerbated by a failure to appropriately grieve the loss of kinship and to view death within a temporal and ontological dimension defined by connectivity and mutuality. Webster’s engaging piece is a human-sized reflective cross resting against a wall, which demands self-reflection from the viewer. I found it particularly called into question the space we consume and our role in society, which enabled me to grapple with the solitude Rose describes.



The World Isn’t Me

By Siobhan Pascal

Is Racism an Environmental Threat? by Ghassan Hage in conversation with Disney World I (2005) by Alexis Rockman.

Alexis Rockman, Disney World I, 2005. Oil on wood. 72 x 84 in. (182.9 x 213.4 cm). Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody. © 2019 Alexis Rockman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.


I have chosen to look at Disney World I, a 2005 oil painting on wood panel by Alexis Rockman. This yellow monochromatic oil painting depicts what appears to be a swamp-submerged Disney World with various mosses growing over a Mickey Mouse costume in the foreground and Epcot’s Spaceship Earth geodesic sphere surrounded by a haze in the background. I am holding this painting in conversation with the ethnography Is Racism an Environmental Threat? by Ghassan Hage. In his work, Hage argues that the philosophies we use to rationalize and govern the overexploitation of natural resources are the same ones deployed to justify Islamophobia. Part of his argument is that our capitalist society attempts to domesticate everything into profitable roles, including Muslim people, but we live in fear that the things we domesticate will turn against us. Disney World I, either intentionally or unintentionally, communicates our fear of the reversal of domestication and colonization.