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Insights of an Eco Artist

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In conversation: Chris Wilmott

Insights of an Eco Artist Team

In this interview, we speak with Chris Wilmott, an acclaimed artist and writer whose collaborative work received a nomination for the 8th International Marianne Brandt Award in 2022. With a background in business and the water industry, Chris's artistic endeavors explore themes of coastal cities, art intersecting science, human security, social justice, and uncertainty. As a non-scientist board member of Climanosco, Chris actively promotes climate science accessibility, while also participating in the Tran-Generatives 2030 network for sustainability transformations. Recently, Chris served as a panelist at the 2023 E4HS conference, highlighting the vital role of arts education in human security.

30 May 2023

Chris’s collaboration with Swiss poet Robert Fred was nominated for the 8th International Marianne Brandt Award, 2022. Work developing from his University of Hertfordshire BA Fine Art and MA Fine & Applied Art. Before which Chris’s business career, apart from experience as a telecommunications partner in a global management consulting firm included experience of the water industry. Chris writes about Coastal Cities responding to rising sea levels, art intersecting science, human security, social justice, and uncertainty. He is a non-scientist board member and an accessibility reviewer of scientific manuscripts for Climanosco. Which has a mission of climate science for everyone. He is part of the Tran-Generatives 2030 network. An initiative, by the UNESCO Chair at ARTEM-ICN and the CEREFIGE-Université de Lorraine. In collaboration with the National School of Art and Design in Nancy (ENSAD), for sustainability transformations. Chris was a panelist for the session Education in the Arts for Human Security, of the 2023 Education for Human Security (E4HS) conference. Amongst others E4HS is supported by the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS).

To begin, please provide an introduction of yourself to our audience. Can you share a bit about who you are and how you would describe both your personal identity and artistic style?

I identify as a European emerging artist. Before art (BA) my UK business career took me all over Europe and to the Middle East, Far East and America. In this work, I dealt with technology, finance, business, water, and the public sector. This experience contributes to my identity. As does my anglo saxon heritage.

I like to collaborate. Collaboration contributes to my identity. Other contributors are the cultures of climate science, quantum science and science fiction. Not forgetting family.

I develop a visual language for use in climate art. I explore Surrealism. I explore imagination. I have fun.

How did you first become interested in climate art and its intersection with social and ecological justice?

I engaged with climate first in 2005. When exploring the subject of imagination in climate science. 

In my research, I read Julie Doyle. Who said the aim should be to move images about changing climate away from the obvious, such as images of what man does to the environment, to facilitate more meaningful, human-centred responses, and a context for a problem often too huge to comprehend. 

I set off on Doyle’s path. A path too huge to comprehend. Art intersecting science. Which intersection involves me in philosophy and ethics. As well as history around BC 2200. These all lead to social and ecological justice perspectives.

Fish & Scream, LIBERTY and liberty by Chris Wilmott. Image courtesy of Chris Wilmott.

How do you collaborate with other artists, such as Swiss poet Robert Fred, to create your climate art pieces?

To start a painting, I write a word sketch rather than sketch a drawing. The words I translate into a painting. 

I send an image of the painting to Robert Fred, the Swiss poet. He interprets the painting into poetry. He sends the poetry to me. We engage. Creativity sparks. We have never met in person, only in Zoom.

Words, poetry, and painting narratives expand and find new directions for artistic expression. The process repeats. 

The process is the same with all collaborations. Start with words then go from there.

What are some of the most pressing environmental challenges facing coastal cities, and how does your work address them?

To answer it is best to quote Ocean scientist Eelco Rohling: 

“Combined with global sea-level rise, a general rise in storm intensities spells doom for exposed coastal regions. Frequencies of flooding extremes will increase dramatically even if sea level rises only 20 or 80 centimeters. Coastal cities of the world will not be able to live with this. Except through commissioning massive engineering projects to keep the sea out, or to move critical infrastructure inland.”

If this is so these matters increase our appreciation of water, as being important to all, through the potential impact of rising sea levels on us and civilisation. These are matters for human security.

In which the environment is going to press onto Coastal Cities. This is also an environmental challenge. The implications of this pressure are vast. Possibly too huge to comprehend. Affecting not just social and ecological justice but all aspects of city life. Which lead to new perspectives on justice, social or ecological in Coastal Cities. 

Without even mentioning the pollution of our oceans and water with plastic, oil, chemicals, pesticides and so on. Such polluted water returns to Coastal Cities when oceans flood the land. Inundating Coastal Cities with polluted water presents its own social and ecological challenges to justice.  

My work draws Coastal City Citizen's attention to these matters. Engaging with marine science, history, education, and engineering.

Fish & Scream & Extinction by Chris Wilmott. Image courtesy of Chris Wilmott.

Can you discuss a specific project or piece that you feel best represents your approach to climate art and its connection to social and ecological justice?

A specific project is Undersea Symbiotic Imaginaries

Undersea because a feature of changing climate is rising sea levels. 

Symbiotic because a feature of relationships is symbiosis. Between human and non-human nature. Or within non-human nature, between fish & trees, where ocean life depends on trees. 

Imaginary because new relationships require imagining and need symbols, arrived at through experiments; these constitute the Undersea Symbiotic Imaginary. 

Creating, ultimately, a new type of art and sustainability initiative. One that starts with imagination since this quality is required in sustainability.

Undersea Symbiotic Imaginaries are a new initiative and:

  • a practice methodology. 

  • virtual or physical exhibitions. 

  • new ways to bring creative solutions to the challenges that face Coastal Cities in responding to rising sea levels. Cities like New York, Mumbai, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, Mumbai, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, and so on. As well as Amsterdam, Venice and other EU cities.

  • ways to help put research and innovation into a new role, combined with new forms of governance and collaboration, working from the bottom up.

  • a means to engage Coastal City Citizens.

  • led by art.

  • Asking How Might We Live Well Underwater?

A specific work is Fish & Scream, LIBERTY, and liberty. 

I imagined being a climate justice lawyer in New York. Thinking about the semantics of the question, how might we live well underwater? Thinking in a social justice context, in terms of freedom and liberty. What might the question mean to this lawyer? Could it mean living well with liberty, even if underwater? Or, in that circumstance, the sustainability of justice underwater, in order to live well?

The Statue of Liberty is an iconic symbol of New York and freedom. A gift to America from France, in 1886. 

I wrote, for the climate justice lawyer, a poem as a word sketch for a painting. The poem plays with words, with LIBERTY the statue, and the concept of liberty. Then I made a painting. 

The painting image has various content. An overall motif is derived by reinterpreting Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream. Replacing Munch’s screaming figure with LIBERTY. 

Co-opting an old master painting for the contemporary purpose of climate art. A 21st-century approach to Andy Warhol’s 20th-century practice of reinterpreting Munch. Since what better reaction could there be to the idea of New York, LIBERTY, heritage, liberty, or social justice being underwater, than a scream? 

The painting has no necessarily right way up for curating. 

In one orientation the painting places the Statue of Liberty on its side. Storms having blown LIBERTY over, from vertical to horizontal. Is social and ecological justice in danger of being blown over too? 

There is a faint, distant lightning motif. Since the Coastal City thunderstorm has passed. Although that motif could be taken for seaweed when the painting is rotated 180 degrees. Does social and ecological justice require a different orientation from what is considered traditional?

There are motifs for fish. As well as for air and water. How does ecological and social justice deal with fish, air and water?

There are circles, faint, but motifs all the same, with ambiguous meanings. Referring not just to bubbles, found underwater. Such as bubbles of gas, oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane and so on, found undersea; perhaps in the Atlantic offshore from New York. But to: 

  • the moon, a symbol found in Coastal City terrestrial skies, and also beliefs about the moon influencing oceans. Or the moon in a New York Metropolitan Opera production of Rusalka. Which narrative is based on a fairy tale about a water spirit, calling to the moon? Seeking transformation from spirit to human form. What art stories are there about social and ecological justice that invoke the moon. Apart from Mountains of the Moon, by Stephanie Weller Hanson.

  • the helium balloons of Solar Radiation Management technology in the sky. Would such technologies ever be found in New York skies, to manage its climate? What social and ecological justice would there be in that technology?

  • balls found in city parks, and children’s balloons found in city skies. Play things of those recently born or yet to be born into New York. What social and ecological justice is owed to these young Citizens?

  • the circular shapes of coins; the economic costs of changing climate. Symbolizing the many zeroes found in mathematical notation. The multiple 000,000,000,000,000,000’s of the dimes, of the $$$ trillions scoped as the cost of climate change. Connecting to mathematical Surrealism. What are the costs of social and ecological justice?

The preceding questions about social and ecological justice are not for me to answer, they are for lawyers. However, the questions serve to illustrate narrative and metaphor that can develop when discussing ecological and social justice. Using art as a platform to inform and stimulate those discussions.

Undersea Symbiotic Imaginary is my essay that further explores Fish & Scream, LIBERTY, and liberty. 

Can you tell us more about your role as a board member and accessibility reviewer for Climanosco?

I am a non-scientist board member of Climanosco. The Climanosco model allows climate science to intersect art. I contribute to that model. I contribute with art. Climanosco runs projects and in these invites science and art to respond to the same theme at the same time. Past invitations have been about oceans and rising sea levels. The current invitation is about forests.

As an accessibility reviewer, I have the opportunity to comment on scientific papers. This is my contribution to science. Accessibility reviewing is interesting and informative work. From which I see the direction of a wide variety of scientific research into climate change. Covering the life of salmon, the gulf stream and various other topics. Whilst at the same time I review how easily the science might be understood outside of the science silo of thinking. This informs my perspective on art. It also informs my perspective on social and ecological justice thinking.

Fish & Scream, LIBERTY and liberty by Chris Wilmott. Image courtesy of Chris Wilmott.

Can you elaborate on the Tran-Generatives 2030 network and your involvement in its sustainability transformation initiatives?

The Trans-Generatives 2030 global network, is an initiative for sustainability transformations. Led by Paul Shiravastava who was Chief Sustainability Officer and Director of the Sustainability Institute at The Pennsylvania State University. 

The network is new, holding an inaugural conference in 2022. At this conference, I presented some of my early work. During 2022 Trans-Generatives people held informal Friday Zoom get-togethers. These allow general discussion about many issues, including the World Economic Forum and the work in which Trans-Generatives people are involved. My involvement with human security stems from my Trans-Generatives 2030 experience. There is an expectation for a 2024 Trans-Generatives 2030 event.


What do you see as the role of art in intersecting with science to address issues such as rising sea levels and climate change?

I agree with Adam Brenthel that science, when intersecting art, sometimes does not use art in the right way. In my view, art used the right way intersects science to raise awareness about the human condition. With respect to issues such as rising sea levels and climate change, this means awareness about the impact of nature on humanity. Awareness about the threats posed to human security. From oceans on the rise. In which are entangled issues of social and ecological justice. 

How do you hope your work will inspire others to think differently about the relationship between art, sustainability, and social justice?

I hope to inspire others to think differently. Others are all citizens of coastal cities, whether artists or not. Thinking about new ways to approach art, sustainability, and social and ecological justice. Using Undersea Symbiotic Imaginary methodology. Thinking about life and where we go from here. “We” means our future generations.

As French sailor Isabelle Autissier says the idea of sustainability as a kind of equal interaction between economics, society, and the environment may need a new perspective. Looking at sustainability more like a multi-tiered wedding cake. Oceans, seas, and water and their physical functioning at the base. Everything else is on top. If we destroy the oceans, seas and water, the rest, including the society of cities collapses. Accordingly, there is a perspective about avoiding a wedding cake collapse, of human security, and social and ecological justice, for Coastal City Citizens.

And lastly, what are you working on right now? Anything exciting you would like to tell our readers?

Early in 2023, I sketched out my art methodology, for the Education in the Arts for Human Security session, of the Education for Human Security (E4HS) conference. This is a new initiative of the World Academy of Art & Science (WAAS). 

Following on from this, I work on developing exciting possibilities, for a pilot Undersea Symbiotic Imaginary. As well as on extending the papers I author: Reinventing Coastal City Education and Reinventing Coastal Cities. A paper about Reinventing Fairy Stories is a possibility since that can deal with the moon and social and ecological justice. About which there are paintings developing in the studio.

Fish & Scream, LIBERTY and liberty is to be a poster for ECCA2023 the European Climate Change Adaption conference in Dublin. 

Cover Image:

Fish & Scream, LIBERTY & liberty by Chris Wilmott. Image courtesy of Chris Wilmott.

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