Art projects explore the deeper dimensions of climate engineering

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The impact of human activity is causing global temperatures to continue to rise. Can geoengineering save us from global warming?

Geoengineering technologies designed to combat or otherwise technologically adapt to climate change have a dystopian sci-fi feel, said assistant professor of art and design Colin Lyons, who explores the connection between climate engineering and alchemy in his art installations researched.

In his projects, Lyons seeks to capture the tensions and opportunities of geoengineering, which involve radical strategies that are currently years away from realisation. For example, one such proposal would use high-altitude jets to spray sulfur particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight away from Earth, mimicking a process seen in volcanic eruptions. Another would build a giant parasol around the planet, Lyons explained.

Lyons’ artistic exploration will take him around the world during four artist residencies over the next year, all supported by a Research and Creation grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

He started spring in Belgium working on an experimental printmaking project. This summer he’s heading to New Hampshire before ending the year on a remote island off the coast of Finland. And that’s not all: next spring he will be on a sailing ship of the Barquentine [a vessel with three of more masts] in the arctic circle.

“Geoengineering has a messianic tone, a way of absolving us of the sins of the Anthropocene,” he said. “A lot of the projects I work on also have a ritualistic undertone that’s obviously separate from science and engineering.”

Around the world

At the Frans Masereel Centrum in Belgium this spring, Lyons worked on a series of etchings that combined elements of geoengineering technologies with alchemical imagery. He began with a handmade etching, then overlaid it with strange inks made from ferrous sulfate, crude oil, and sulfuric acid.

Much of the imagery is by Hendrick Goltzius, a 16th-century Dutch engraver and alchemist who created a series of images based on Ovid’s metamorphosis with detailed cloudscapes. Instead of gods, Lyons populates the cloudscapes with technological imagery instead – a visual commentary on the hubris of those who attempt to use them.

“I thought of geoengineering as a kind of contemporary alchemy with somewhat similar goals,” he said.

During his stay in Belgium he laid the groundwork for future installations by exploring Kelmis, also known as La Calamine, an old zinc mining town. Until it was annexed by Belgium after World War I, Kelmis was a disputed area between several nations known as Neutral Moresnet.

“It was just a wild place; Utopian ideas were developed there,” said Lyons. “They had a push to make Esperanto the official language. Many things happened there that would not be possible in a nation-state; it existed as a sort of corporation-city-city-state, one might say.”

Due to mining-related contamination, plants growing in Kelmis have adapted to high levels of zinc. Lyons is fascinated by the unusual adaptations that take place after industry, both in human communities and in the natural world, he said.

In June and July he will participate in another residency at MacDowell in New Hampshire where he will focus on a solo project called Alchemical Valley Geoengineering Seed Vault.

Then in December, Lyons will travel to Finland for a stay at ÖRES, located on the island of Örö, a former military fortress island turned nature reserve in Finland’s Archipelago National Park. The projects there concentrate on experimental fields of art, art-scientific cooperation and interdisciplinary projects. Most of the time, he’ll be sharing the island with just one other person, another artist in residence.

There he will work on a project called Operation Habakuk, which will focus on competing geoengineering technologies proposed for the Arctic. In one, wind-powered water pumps brought warm water to the surface and nebulized it in the air, causing the ice to thicken in winter. Another would create artificial icebergs by desalinating the water of the Arctic Ocean and reshaping it into hexagonal ice shapes. And then there’s the suggestion of sprinkling quartz sand — essentially tiny glass beads — over the Arctic to make it more reflective.

Lyons will combine these proposals into a single art installation: the creation of an ice raft based on the one-man rafts used by the military. The title refers to a special operation during World War II for which the Canadian government manufactured a scale prototype aircraft carrier out of a combination of pulp and ice.

“I’ve been thinking about the convergence between these geoengineering technologies and the history of militarization,” he said.

His world tour will conclude in spring 2023 when he will board a barquentine sailing ship in the Svalbard archipelago with fellow artists and scientists as part of the Article Circle residency. The artists and scientists will spend two and a half weeks on a sailing ship departing from Svalbard, where the global seed vault is located.

Lyons isn’t sure yet what artwork this trip will produce, although it fits well with his interests in the Arctic, climate change and the landscape – and geoengineering.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see these things happen, but we’re moving in a direction where they’re becoming frighteningly realistic,” Lyons said.

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