Tim Godwin, creative director of Human Nature was invited to speak at the launch event of the Oxford Climate Forum, the UK’s largest student-led climate change conference. Other speakers at the event were prominent environmental lawyer Catherine Redgwell, Torsten Thiele CEO of The Global Ocean Trust and Richard Bailey Associate Professor, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.
We were invited by Sophie Pridgeon to bring an arts perspective to the debate by discussing the responsibility of artists to change peoples behaviour around climate change and other environmental issues.
A synopsis of Tim’s talk is below:
I was asked to talk about relationship between the environment and art – and I’m going to do that through the lens of Human Nature.
We started a year ago, with an exhibition running for two days in a small gallery in Hoxton, East London – it seemed to light a touch paper with many artists, art buyers and journalists and we have been developing the platform since. We’ve run several exhibitions, two street art projects and we have various ongoing concepts in planning.
So, what is the Human Nature project?
In essence, it’s a platform for environmental art. We’ve got a curated mix of very talented artists. We exhibit, promote and sell their work, and we work with partner organisations to reach and grow audiences and tell stories.
That’s the ‘nuts and bolts’ description of what we do, but why do we do it?
We want to to see a sustainable, positive & fair future, in which the natural world is celebrated and valued. And we think that art, and when I say art, we mean fine art, design, illustration, printing, graphics, all visual arts – in fact, all sectors of creativity – can help shape that future – and in fact it has a responsibility to do so.
We are pushing sustainability and environmental concerns higher in the art world. We’re are a bit disruptive in what we are trying to do. We think that, previously, art that questioned our world’s imbalanced relationship with nature has been less respected, than art that has, perhaps, had more of a human centric focus – we’re seeking to change that. And, although we are a small fish in a big pond, we’re making progress. Our last show had over a thousand visitors, and among them we’re starting to have conversations with journalists and art buyers who have influence.
We have a slogan, as you’d expect an organisation set up by two communications types to do – it is – Art Changes People. That’s what we think our projects and artists do.
I honestly think that simple statement is true – I can recall vividly the impact pieces of art and design have had on me in my life at certain times – from a young age. We work with artists who want to use that impact – the emotional and intellectual impact, of their work to encourage people consider the problems we’re facing and consequences our of collective actions.
An example: we work with the very talented street artist ATM. He paints these amazing, elegant and beautiful birds at a very large scale on walls. And I mean a large scale – several metres high in some cases, on tower blocks, ends of terraces, building site hoardings.
ATM paints these birds – which are endangered, and in some cases extinct in the UK – because by portraying them in a remarkable visual way, in the places where he works, he can tell the story of the bird in a way that will get attention and make people think. And they do make impact – they can stop people in their tracks as they encounter them.
And it’s worked – the RSPB have called him one of the most important conservationists in the UK – his paintings have people in inner city estates in west london thinking about habitat loss for barn owls, and arts critics in broadsheet newspapers writing about species re-introduction.
Another artist we work with is Ben Wilson – also known as ‘chewing gum man’. Ben paints miniature pictures with intricate detail on an unusual, but very easy to access canvas – discarded chewing gum on our pavements. He says about his work that he wants ‘to help reconnect people with the consequences of their actions’ His conversations with people as he works are almost as important as the work itself – people come away from it with a different perspective on waste – and our streetscape is made more interesting and beautiful.
With climate change – we need artists & creatives to challenge the fossil fuel incumbency – not just to say no, and protest, and point out the folly, and immorality, of their business practices, but also to signpost the direction that we need to go in, to paint the picture of the sustainable future we want and need.
We work with a brilliant painter who does just that – Nicola Nemec, and she creates atmospheric canvases that portray the landscape of Northern Ireland, where she’s based. She includes in these images representations of the renewable technologies such as wind & solar – that we need to develop and scale to save those environments from the effects of man-made climate change. Her paintings – whilst traditional in medium, landscape painting isn’t really a hot bed of radicalism currently – are provocative, by seeing the beauty in what some see as intrusions into the landscape – she questions the priorities of those holding those views.
The funding of the arts from fossil fuel industries is a well known source of controversy – with many oil and finance institutions – who fund the environmental destruction that we seek to avert – purchasing a ’social licence’ for their activities with their sponsorship of galleries and exhibitions. Organisations such as Fossil Funds Free, Liberate Tate and Art not Oil have all done great work in pointing out the problems with these relationships that the money brings.
We’re very proud to have flipped this around in our work, with our association with Abundance Generation, who have funded our projects over the last year. Abundance are a peer to peer lending platform for developing renewable energy in the UK – so there’s a shared ambition between our funders and our activities. So let’s get oil out of art – but if we need funding – get businesses with a social and moral imperative in.
One of the questions that Sophie asked me prior to this event was ‘Do you think artists have a responsibility for changing the way people think?’ In short, the answer is yes – but to be more expansive on it – I think the Human Nature Manifesto we’ve written, and which is signed by our artists, sums up our answer to that question quite well – which is this:
We believe that the way in which we live is in conflict with the natural environment.
We believe that the choices made in our market driven, consumer orientated, fossil fuelled society are steering us to ever increasing environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and species extinction. The path we are on does not lead to a good destination for anyone, or anything.
It is important that we address and confront these issues. We want to re-assess our relationship with the natural world and help develop a sustainable, intelligent, fair, beautiful and ecologically rich future.
We believe art and design is a vital part of this.
Creativity is not a neutral, value-free process and the choices we make in the work we produce have impact.
We choose to take responsibility to design and promote a sustainable future. Art changes people, it can tell stories in ways that inspire people, moving them to think and act differently.
Art and design can create a vision of the world we want to inhabit