Climates of Colonialism

 Julia Lum, Scripps College (Claremont CA, USA)
Gabrielle Moser, York University (Toronto, Canada)

This session investigates how art and cultural production in the former British Empire has long charted the interdependent and co-constitutive logics of climate and colonialism. Examining a diverse range of media – including painting, video, architecture, public sculpture and photography – the papers consider how artistic treatments of environmental change can be located within overlapping and interconnected histories of acclimatisation, forced migration, land dispossession, resource extraction, deforestation and struggles for Indigenous sovereignty. Not only has climate been central to anthropological representations of racial differences in imperial ideologies – such as suppositions about which populations were ‘naturally suited’ to particular weather events, temperature ranges and climatic conditions – but colonial practices of extraction and commodification have radically altered ecologies under colonial rule. Following calls by Indigenous, Black, postcolonial and feminist scholars to extend the time frame of climate change beyond the Industrial Revolution, the presentations in this session imagine climate change not as a new event, but rather as ‘the continuation of practices of dispossession and genocide, coupled with a literal transformation of the environment, that have been at work for the last five hundred years’ (Davis and Todd 2017: 761). Taking up the rich cross-disciplinary discussion that has emerged around the Anthropocene, the session considers case studies in Australia, Barbados, Canada, India, and the heart of the Empire itself.

Speakers & Abstracts:

Nineteenth-Century Climate Adaptation and the Architecture of Acclimatisation

Kathleen Davidson (The University of Sydney)

In a paper read before the Society of Arts in 1860 on ‘The Acclimatisation of Animals’, Francis Buckland highlighted some of the practices of the acclimatisation movement. These included the custom of framing and modifying environments by creating parks, pools and enclosures for introduced beasts, fishes, birds and plants for the purposes of human amenity, pleasure and knowledge. The principal function of these structures was to expedite the physical adaptation of animals and plants to their adopted climates and surroundings. In 1867, W.C. Piguenit produced a portfolio of large lithographs depicting the Salmon Ponds constructed on the River Plenty, a small tributary of the Derwent River, near Hobart Town in the colony of Tasmania. The portfolio declared the viability of this enterprise which entailed repeated attempts and, eventually, the continuous, precise regulation of temperature and other environmental conditions to ensure both the safe transportation of live salmon from England and their acclimatisation to their new, colonial habitat. Although relatively limited in their circulation, Piguenit’s prints and contemporaneous photographs spawned numerous visual iterations – variously representing the difficulties and successes involved in the translocation and commodification of Atlantic salmon as a new delicacy in the Southern Hemisphere, and promoting breeding facilities as a destination for ‘picturesque outings’. Taking the Tasmanian Salmon Ponds as a case study, this paper addresses colonial geographies as re-envisioned and customised landscapes and ecologies, and investigates 19th-century environmental aspirations and ventures with regard to the architecture of acclimatisation and representations of early experiments in enviro-climatic adaptation.


Alan McFetridge (Artist)

Canada’s largest evacuation of 88,000 people occurred in May 2016. Given the time of year, the heat and area burnt by the unseasonal Horse River wildfire, it became crystal clear that the impact of industrialisation and Western colonisation underpinned this event. The effect on the immediate population was life-changing and highly traumatic. It was also unique in that a new community began moving from 1960 onwards in search of work within the Tar Sand mining industry that exports enough oil to place Canada in the top five oil producers globally.

This talk will engage photographic representations made by the artist during or soon after the experience of dispossession. Produced from 2012 onwards, these studies include regions where gentrification is active and earthquakes were the cause of altering habitat. The editions comprise photographic observations and research made at the scene of the event. This project aims to be objective, identifying the nature of the external and to gain understanding of the ground position of those ongoing movements.

The talk will also discuss a more recent photographic project and series on Indigenous land management in Tasmania and Arnhem Land, Australia. The subsequent edition takes a historical position to understand the nature of fire regimes on the Australian continent and the influence of industrialisation and Western colonisation. This represents a shift from the disaster framework to engage with art history, reappropriation of the landscape and a culture with a different kind of relationship to fire.

Water is Life: The sensual and affective politics of Rebecca Belmore's Fountain and Freeze

Elizabeth Went (University College London)

This paper addresses Anishinaabekwe artist Rebecca Belmore (Lac Seul First Nation)’s video/water work Fountain (2005) and 2019’s ice sculpture Freeze, both of which address the imbrication of Indigenous loss and climate change, suggesting that climate change is a form of settler-colonial necropolitics, and that the haptic and affective qualities of water could posit a different way forward.

Fountain is a 2:35 video work projected onto an indoor waterfall, which culminates in Belmore hurling a bucket of what appears to be blood at the camera. The waterfall turns red, linking environmental degradation (the pollution of Canada’s, and specifically Indigenous Canadians’, water supply) and the ongoing disappearances and deaths of Indigenous women.

Freeze: Stonechild Memorial featured multiple successive blocks of ice, into each of which was carved a letter in Neil Stonechild’s surname, revealed as the ice began to melt. Stonechild was killed by police in 1990 at age 17: they took him to the outskirts of Saskatoon in the middle of the night and left him there to freeze to death. The emergence and dissolution of Stonechild’s name links not only the violence Indigenous peoples continue to face, but also the melting of the polar ice caps, and the fleeting attention we pay to both – for all its careful work, the sculpture was to end up a puddle.

The paper will argue that putting ice and water into affective and material relationships with viewers serves to construct an Indigenous epistemological understanding of ‘relations’ between viewers, Indigenous peoples and the natural world.

Alberta Whittle: The Other Side of a Heatwave Is a Hurricane

Giulia Smith (Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford)

The biotic exploitation of the Caribbean occupied a central place in the formation of a globally interconnected market with irreversible anthropogenic effects on the planet. Today, intensified hurricanes and prolonged droughts are only the most violent meteorological expressions of a global environmental crisis with disproportionate effects on this region. In How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth (2019), her exhibition for Dundee Contemporary Arts, the Scottish-Barbadian artist Alberta Whittle used a combination of historic and contemporary imagery to collapse the temporal and ontological distance between the Columbian exchange and the catastrophic atmospheric turbulences that now beset the Antilles, and Barbados in particular. The installation made an affecting case for placing the origins of the Anthropocene with the European colonisation of the Americas, critiquing the universalising geologics implicit in the nomenclature of this discourse. Crucially, the project addressed Britain as a nation founded on collective amnesia, where the historic effacement of overseas regimes of colonial exploitation and the ongoing refusal to provide meaningful reparations for slavery go hand in hand with the privilege of welcoming each summer heatwave with not so much as an afterthought for the catastrophic ramifications that such climatic anomalies have on a planetary scale. Starting from a close analysis of Whittles work, my paper will map out a rich tradition of environmentalist resistance among Anglo-Caribbean artists and thinkers including Kamau Brathwaite, Sylvia Wynter and Derek Walcott, suggesting that such a lineage is invaluable for rearticulating the intersection of climate and colonialism through the lens of todays crises.

Epidemic Landscapes: The Visual Culture of Nineteenth-Century Medical Topography in Britain and India

Amanda Sciampacone (Queen Mary, University of London)

With Britain’s imperial expansion into environments deemed dangerous to the British body in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, medics began to believe that “foreign” climates and irregular meteorological phenomena were sources of epidemic disease. Military doctors, government agents, local medics, and amateur scientists produced studies of the relationship between health, and the climate and weather of particular areas of the British Empire. These reports often focused on how tropical climates and irregular meteorological phenomena posed a real physical threat to the health of British citizens both abroad and at home, emphasizing that shifts in the climate could weaken British constitutions and transform common illnesses into deadly epidemics. In an effort to highlight the correlation between climate and disease, medics produced scientific images that juxtaposed the data on climatic conditions with statistics of disease mortality. These images became crucial to supporting or refuting medical arguments, playing a central role in promoting and circulating anxieties associated with illness and the networks of empire. Alongside the visible flow of traders, travellers, and military troops lurked the invisible movement of wind currents, miasmas, and disease. Focusing on Britain’s relationship with India and the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century, my paper will argue that visual culture was a vital force in the development of studies of the environment and in the construction of epidemiological theories. Such images, rather than serving simply as illustrations, became a crucial part of scientific arguments, transforming the way these theories would be formulated, debated, and legitimated.

Making and Sensing Climate at Kew

Nicholas Robbins (Yale University)

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have long been recognised as a crucial nexus of science, colonial bureaucracy and biopolitical regulation within the former British Empire. In returning to this key site in the entwined histories of ecology and colonialism, my paper focuses upon the Palm House or ‘Stove’, the large iron-and-glass greenhouse built between 1844–48 to house Kew’s tropical plant collections. While the Palm House is often discussed as a typological predecessor of modernist modular architecture, my paper focuses instead on how it staged a spectacular sensory experience of the ‘torrid’ climate for the largely metropolitan visitors to Kew. Heated by an invisible, underground network of coal-fuelled boilers, I consider the structure as a kind of industrial factory for the production of a colonial aesthetic experience of climate, one dependent upon the extractive economies both of coal (from Britain) and of plants, labour and local knowledge (from the British Empire). This building thus sutures the industrial and the colonial histories of 19th-century environmental regulation.

Following this analysis of the production and sensation of climate at the Palm House, I will consider how this experience of embodied immersion in the ‘torrid zone’ – a virtual transportation much remarked upon – related to contemporary medical anxieties about climate and racial difference. If the ‘acclimatisation’ of the white colonial body was seen as increasingly impossible or undesirable, the Palm House constructed a temporarily acclimatised aesthetic sensorium for its British visitors – a containment of climate that mirrored the disciplinary ‘improvement’ of settler-colonial landscapes.




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