Interview: art + climate with Andres Chang
Brooklyn-based artist and researcher Andres Chang shares how it feels to draw creativity from climate change. Through a diverse range of media, Chang combines the worlds of earth science, visual art, and culture to promote environmental awareness. His work, borne out of urgency, is not meant to provoke fear or panic, rather it encourages viewers to reflect on their own relationship with nature.
Do you identify as a ‘climate artist’?
Actually, I tend to avoid the label entirely. Climate has never been separate from our experience and shaping of the world: it’s embedded in every aspect of life, tangled up in many ‘serious’ art topics like memory, time, and war. I think it’s important for climate to gain footing and acknowledgement in the broader cultural canon rather than being defined as an art category of its own. ‘Climate art’ is not enough, and I see my own art as contributing to this broadening of awareness.
Some need labels to access the ‘abstract’ and the ‘intangible.’ How do you explain your art to those unfamiliar with the field?
I embrace descriptions of my work that point to climate as a central theme; but I think that labels, in general, can be prescriptive or reductive. For example, it is useful (and sometimes necessary) to refer to ‘abstract art’, but the way that the movement is defined tends to exclude the rich, pre-20th century/non-Western history of abstraction. And many people claim to hate abstract art because it brings to mind a very specific image, like a white square! To me, 'climate art’ also feels too categorical and loaded with expectations.
With climate change as a central theme: is making art liberating or anxiety-inducing?
I find that sometimes making art is immensely difficult, but these times are also some of the most inventive. It all feels very autonomous: art evokes struggle evokes art. Less often do I find the process to be therapeutic.
As someone who has conducted ‘real’ climate research, it’s freeing to be able to produce art that is untethered. At the same time, there is an unbearable amount that I want to share, which can add to the anxiety that I feel as a young person facing climate change. And because it’s so tied to my work at an environmental non-profit, my art is certainly not as much of an escape as it could be.
Ultimately, I feel an inexplicable need to create, and I want to build space for others to share in my experience and reflect on their own.
Does your art communicate climate change in ways the media cannot?
Mass media can be informative and important, but I’ve also found it to be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. More than add to a growing heap of media that stresses the urgency of the problem, I want to demonstrate new kinds of climate-related experience.
Business as Usual: 1967-2067 (below) is a projection of surface temperature and sea ice calculated from CESM – a modern climate simulation. Data is drawn from two different versions of the simulation: a "control run" with no human forcing and a "business as usual" scenario that closely matches recent climate conditions. The projection shows "control run" data, but when a person gets close, it switches to a "business as usual" scenario.
How do your audiences interact with your art?
I tend to make work that is activated by the body of the viewer, and I’m very specific about what information I provide them. It is a relationship founded on trust. Sometimes, the viewer has to take on the role of detective to uncover what’s embedded in a project: that kind of active engagement is important to me. My projects Exactly Where You Had Fallen, The Eternal Ocean, and chaos.17.01 are prime examples.
In Exactly Where You Had Fallen, the viewer is invited to flip through two research documents that include dozens of variations on time periods and locations described to me by my parents. The documents are composed of simulated climate data, and the piece is meant to be experienced while listening to audio of my parents talking about their memories. There is an immense amount of detail to be uncovered, and the closer you look/listen, the more is revealed.
Playing the role of ‘detective’: is that a responsibility viewers could walk away from? It reminds me of that fine line in climate action between giving people a sense of agency, while not burdening them with overwhelming responsibility, which could translate into apathy.
I try to make art that is enticing through the use of formal elements like scale and localized sound, as well as self-referential clues. In the right environment, viewers pick up on that sort of care, and in my experience, they have been excited to engage with the work on a deeper level. Of course, context is everything; and if your primary goal is to grab headlines, you might need a different approach.
What is your creative process, if you have one?
My process is sprawling and interdisciplinary. I sketch conceptual maps to surface new ideas; I make pastel drawings before shading digital work; I produce scientific graphs to test software; and ultimately, I throw everything together with care. I work a lot with systems, so whether the piece is a drawing or a sculpture or something else, setting up the system is one aspect and materializing it is another.
One challenge I face is that working with computation and digital media is very slow. I often wish that my process could better reflect the urgency of climate change, and I think that viscerality is one of the reasons that I was drawn to performance-based work in college.
How much waste does your art produce?
Hopefully not too much. My software is pretty efficient (it runs on a personal laptop, not a supercomputer), and I buy used materials as much as possible.
What project are you working on now?
I’m working on a new piece that combines traditional ink drawing with digital media and simulated climate data via OCR Tools. I’m excited because I think it will be more gestural than my last few projects, and I’m starting to experiment with materials and composition. I would also love to get started on more collaborative work.
This last question is left unwritten. A space for final thoughts.
Resist the feeling of powerlessness by building meaningful connections! Storytelling can make us powerful and shed light on how our experiences are tied to environments across time. Also, importantly, support the Green New Deal, divest from fossil fuels, and encourage your kin to do the same. We owe it to each other not only to memorialize the past, but also to do everything we can to liberate the future.