New paper: montage and climate futures

I have a new paper out in the RGS-IBG’s relatively new open-access journal Geo: Geography & Environment, entitled ‘Picturing the future-conditional: montage and the global geographies of climate change‘. The paper will form part of a themed issue on global environmental imagery being convened by historian of science Sebastian Grevsmühl. The introductory essay by Sebastian is also available online, and others papers will be following soon.

John Heartfield, cover image for Upton Sinclair’s ‘After the Flood’, 1925

The paper is the outcome of a long-standing side project on how artists and designers have sought to represent the possible effects of global environmental change in very local settings, often through strategies of visual composition such as montage, collage and graphical manipulation. I’m interested in how such images play on ideas of place, and how the representation of spatial otherness functions as an analogue for futurity.

There are some interesting parallels with the main themes of my current project – i.e. how colonial actors sought to come to terms with climate – scientifically, but also politically and normatively. Imperial ideologies were shot-through with ideas of climatic determinism, of racial superiority shaped by climatic superiority, and many of the practices of colonialism were informed and directed by ‘imaginative geographies’ of climatic excess, danger and inhospitability. Regional climatologies, describing the stable characteristics of the climates of distant places, were also moral climatologies, to borrow David Livingstone’s term, speaking of stable orderings of people, place and environment.

An advert for Bile Beans, the “medically tested laxative” from Australia, c. 1900. Reproduced in Jackson, ‘A Very Short Introduction to the British Empire’.

The montaged climate futures which I examine in the paper work by disrupting some of these deep-seated notions of climatic otherness, and of related fears of the destabilisation of our moral climatologies. But this destabilisation narrative also has a long history, which can be read from the genealogy of the ruin in western European art. Fantasizing about the future ruins of one’s civilisation was rarely subversive; rather it played upon notions of the grand endurance of civilisation’s artefacts beyond the timescales of shifting human fortunes. To imagine ruination was to promise immortality.

Images of climate-changed futures often work by constructing a stable, happy order tensed on the verge of transformation, often of a catastrophic, ruinous nature. They don’t tend to engage with present-day instabilities, injustices and inequalities; rather, the present emerges as a curiously stable thing, only to be turned upside-down by a cast of climatic, biophysical and cultural Others. Again, there’s a long (and decidedly imperial) history to this kind of thinking.

From the series ‘Postcards from the Future’, Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones.

However, I argue in the paper that the historical radicalism of montage as a mode of artistic production offers the seed of more progressive, reflexive kinds of future-visioning. ‘Reflexive’ in the sense that montage makes clear the choices and cuts made by the artist. The decision of what to add in, and what to leave out, becomes part of the representation itself. There are some radical lessons in there not just for the visualisation of climate-changed futures, but for much broader modes of constructing futures, where the black-boxing of such choices can have significant epistemic and political consequences (see, for example, the ongoing controversy over the under-acknowledged inclusion of certain ‘climate engineering’ technologies in recent climate change scenarios).

More of the images on which I based my discussion can be found collected together here.