Walking the Edge of a Blade of Grass: Art and Activism of The Canary Project
Let’s start anecdotally: a pair of high-end white leather boots, a smart piece of luggage, a decadent bijou cradled by a clump of ice, and drifting in a wintry, monochrome sea. The Travel/Winter 2008 issue of T: The New York Times Style Magazine presents our failure to deal effectively with the issue of climate change in the image of luxury goods amid melting icebergs. The word to the savvy consumer: buy it fast before the economy liquidates.
The climate crisis triggers Pavlovian responses of panic and anxiety, which sabotages clear thinking and, consequently, effective action. Its circuitous route around our collective consciousness might best be compared to trying to unwind a pretzel in your mouth without salivating. The defensiveness that arises as an automatic response to polemic is precisely the target of the sleeve-rolling work of The Canary Project. Based in the Old American Can Factory on the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn, The Canary Project comes to terms, visually and verbally, with the critical issue of climate change that threatens to subsume us psychically, and physically, if we don’t put ourselves in dialogue with it. Their work is devoted to producing visual media, events, and artwork that stir public awareness of human-induced climate change and encourage our adaptation and commitment to solutions. Unlike the icebergs, The Canary Project is in a solidifying, not a melting period.
Met head-on, the challenges stemming from their practices of photography and curating can present some unwieldy terrain. The Canary Project began in 2005 when its founders, Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris, traveled to places radically altered by climate change: disrupted and damaged ecosystems, drought and fire, extreme weather conditions, melting glaciers and permafrost, and rises in sea level. Sayler’s photographs documented these phenomena with scientific methodology, compiling a visually compelling body of evidence from fourteen locations over three years—a carcass hanging from tree after Katrina, reefs in Belize blanched of their vivid hues, and charred valleys in California. These 40" × 50" color photographs of transformed landscapes carry the starkness of aftermath and its palpable silence.
Yet Sayler and Morris were not completely disheartened by this initial foray; she also shot “solutions” along the way—existing technologies, practices, and protective measures, such as the Maeslantkering storm surge barrier in the Netherlands. The artists are currently in residence at Harvard, where they are preparing a book of Sayler’s photographs and meeting with critics, art historians, and figures like Marshall Ganz, the labor, political, and community rights organizer who collaborated with Cesar Chavez and fought in the Civil Rights Movement. While the images of solutions will not be used in the book because they lack the kind of visual impact that would instigate further action, the curatorial questions they engender have become equally important to the overall work and how it is seen and understood. “The bigger problem,” Morris says “is the operative mandate, how the work is in the world.”
Morris, who dubs himself a “framer,” and Sayler both describe their photos as “flexible” when viewed in a gallery setting—crossing the line between photojournalism and fine art—but the wall labels accompanying them are “complicated” because their tone and emphasis need to be continually adjusted for specific audiences. The photos are confrontational, yet in an avant-garde context they would almost read as contemplative, and they could just as easily reside in a science museum. Either way, the quality of reflection that the work encourages is very much in keeping with the terrifying sublime of Kant. Since the issue of climate change transcends any particular group or elite, the question of how to rhetorically frame the work persistently resists a purely aesthetic positioning.
Whether presented artfully in the photos of Sayler, or in a vulgar—or worse, a slick—ad campaign, climate change traverses areas of art, philosophy, social justice, politics, and grassroots organizing. Recognizing the breadth of its undertaking, The Canary Project embarked on an educational outreach program in schools as well as art institutions in order to present these and other images in a thoughtfully framed discourse. In classroom presentations, they cite advertisements that are as problematic as the imagery on the cover of The Times’ winter style issue. These ads, Morris asserts, “bank on a certain level of fatigue” in the viewer. A campaign for the Italian clothier Diesel features a photo of a man on a beach—which at second glance, is actually the rim of a semi-flooded Mount Rushmore—massaging oil onto a woman’s back. The tagline: Global Warming Ready—a glib and trivializing conflation of the same old “sex sells” with a real ecological crisis.
It is not necessarily the medium of advertising that is to blame but its commodity-driven appetite, which propels it to absorb and subordinate critical issues beyond of the scope of consumerism. The Canary Project found that it could use advertising effectively with the launch of the Denver Bus Project. Working in tandem with advertisers and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, they produced an alarming series of public service advertisements on city buses showing ravaged landscapes—“Dead Coral” in Belize, “Dead Glacier” in Austria. With their bright yellow backgrounds and succinct phrases, Sayler and Morris succeeded in releasing a wide-ranging and potent message.
The issue of messaging, of how to appraise and direct the language attached to images of climate change, is as challenging and as instrumental as the imagery itself. Simultaneously bankrolled and exhausted, the term “green” is so overcooked it’s seared to a blackish tinge, masking any differentiation between manufacturing practices and the front-end of branding. Still, it assures us that the situation has already improved. But even a seemingly benign word can have dangerous undertones. As Sayler elaborates, even the common term “environmentalism,” a word carefully side stepped in their presentations, connotes a wilderness autonomous from humanity. “If the effort is led by so-called environmentalists, then it leads to conservation efforts,” says Morris who points out how some environmentally progressive leadership must now be understood as outmoded. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., for example, has been a strenuous opponent of wind farms off the coast of Cape Cod because they would ruin picturesque views (an example of the ideological brunt of the aesthetic, tying conservation to neo-romanticism). And so, with great attention and care, The Project is interested in the language that shapes movements and which combines top-down and bottom-up strategies; that is “progressive, forward thinking and based on economic reality.”
Since their first series of photographs, a large part of their work has been various collaborations with a number of other artists. In a minimalist-in-spirit performance, Eve Mosher remapped the terrain of New York City with a chalk line demarcating the height at which climate-induced changes in sea level would leave the resultant waterline. For this piece, The Canary Project assisted Mosher in matters of research, funding, and publicity, becoming “environmental” stewards in their own right. There is no question here about the relevance or importance of visual communication and art informing policymaking and social awareness. The job of facilitating a piece like Mosher’s is equal parts marketing and social service. As an autonomous organization, The Canary Project can “absorb some of the rhetorical pressure” in a collective manner in order to “free up the art.” Morris asserts that politics is about consolidating the energy of citizens, and art is about deconstruction and dispersal. He applauds Paul Chan for his ability to marry the two, with his activist map pamphlets for the Republican Convention in 2004. It is that edge, where thoughtful and insistent public action takes place, which is terribly precarious but necessary to walk.
Among the preoccupations of their collaborations with thinkers at Harvard has been the identification of rhetorical, economic, and political limits, so they can be sagely trespassed. And while “bottom-up” grassroots efforts might get derailed by “top-down” power structures, Morris and Sayler were cheered by Obama’s choice of John Podesta as co-chairman of the transition team, and the new president’s interest in an eco-progressive agenda. We will have to wait to see how expediently this agenda is actualized, and waiting can be agony. But as Sayler and Morris have put it, climate change is the inclusive challenge. Their projection is that “in the coming years the difference…will be less based in volunteerism and service than, as Marshall Ganz calls it, citizenship, and addressing infrastructure.” By unmasking, vocalizing, and re-picturing climate change The Canary Project aims to overcome the “enemy within” in the face of a movement with many challenges but “no real opposition.” If we can unanimously accept the problem, then hopefully, with some shadowboxing, we may begin to change our regard, and by extension, our troubled ways.
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Jon Sands is a winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series, selected for his second book, Its Not Magic (Beacon Press, 2019). His work has been featured in the New York Times, as well as anthologized in The Best American Poetry. He facilitates the Emotional Historians writing workshop, which you can learn more about on IG at @iAmJonSands.