Children in Bangladesh has made art about climate. Photo: Mathew Stiller-Reeve

– What we want to do is to tell their stories through these narratives, Eamon O’Kane says. The project will primarily engage young children and teenagers, and we will get in touch with them through schools and arts organisations in Greenland’s Disko Bay and in Fiji.   

A deeply multidisciplinary project
The project Eamon O’Kane is part of is called Exchanging local narratives and scientific understanding of climate changes in indigenous communities of Greenland and the southwest Pacific. Recently the project was awarded more than 24 million Norwegian  kroner  from The Research Council of Norway. Kerim Nisancioglu, Professor at the Department of Earth Science at UoB and the Bjerknes Centre for climate research, leads the project. He says what  makes the  Climate Narratives project novel is the combination of climate science and visual art with local indigenous knowledge. - Narratives across cultures and generations helps us to identify challenges and possibilities in the face of current as well as future climate changes.   

The young interviewing the old 
According to O’Kane the project’s aim is to exchange experience through art, and to explain, write and draw climate stories with children and young people in Greenland and the Pacific.   O’Kane explains that the artists involved, like himself, will seek to understand and learn from those who live with climate change today. – We will really listen to them, to the different age groups - children, parents and grandparents. We will facilitate the children “interviewing” their grandparents, linking the stories across generations and help them describe the narratives through their drawings, paintings, photographs, video and sound.   

Rain seen from Norway and Bangladesh  
This is a way of working he has already been doing with children in Bangladesh and Norway. – In this project Dr. Mathew Stiller Reeve, myself and some of our students, worked with a class of children. We taught them how to make charcoal and about the painting process. Then they made their own paintings of everyday things, for instance good and bad weather, O’Kane says.   

The paintings made by the Norwegian children were brought to Bangladesh and given as a gift to children there. Subsequently the children in Bangladesh drew pictures of their lives, and those paintings were sent to Bergen. O’Kane describes this as a very simple way of connecting to the children, almost like having a pen pal on the other side of the world.   

- The artworks point out the simple differences. For instance, that the Norwegian children don’t like playing football in the rain and children from Bangladesh love to play football in the rain because of the heat. The children in Bangladesh on the other hand, sent many drawings of work tasks in everyday life, so the lifestyle differences were apparent.   

The young needs empowering 
Eamon O’Kane says a long-time collaboration with independent climate researcher Dr. Mathew Stiller-Reeve created the foundation for his work with narratives on climate change.   

- Mathew wanted me to come up with tools to address complex issues and through discussions with him, we came up with a truly collaborative project. Our project ideas came out of shared sense of emergency about the climate on a local and global scale. We both had a feeling that the younger generation is the right place to start, also because they need empowering, and we need to listen to their perspectives.   

What children can teach adults
 According to Mathew Stiller-Reeve the art exchange facilitated a lively exchange of ideas. Through the art, the children presented their own views on weather and climate and compared them with children from other parts of the world.   

-The children shared perspectives and understood what others were concerned about. The art told stories about the children’s local cultures and livelihoods. And in the end, we are left with a beautiful repository of children’s ideas about weather and climate that can also teach us adults something. Children will after all be most impacted by future climate change. It’s important that we listen to their voices and take their ideas into consideration, Stiller-Reeve says.  

Have to be very climate conscious 
For the new project the researchers and artists will travel to Fiji and Greenland. O´Kane is acutely aware that the artists participating have to be very climate conscious.  - We will limit our travels, but we also need to go to Greenland and Fiji to build trust. We will investigate the community and find ways to communicate the climate narratives to the outside world. There will also be exchanges of art and narratives  between  Fiji and Greenland.   

Indigenous heritage
O’Kane says that by engaging older people in these communities the aim is also to encourage them to tell stories that relate to their own indigenous heritage. To go back in time and retrieve stories that are forgotten but that can be relevant lessons for us today.    

How would you explain the art in the project, for you as an artist?  

  - Part of the project, and part of the process, is to be open-minded about the nature of the artwork. I find interdisciplinary projects really exiting as they take me into unexpected spaces and that drives my artwork forward. I hope to be able to contribute to this project in a useful way. As I said we want to empower children through simple instructions on how to use video and sound equipment, they will interview their grandparents. What was it like for them in their childhood? What changes have occurred, for example in relation to fishing.   

Climate change hits differently 
Do you think this art-based intervention can be therapeutic for young people affected by climate change?   

-Yes, perhaps that could be part of it, but it is about agency and knowledge. For example, from my knowledge of Greenland, there is huge impact, but that sense of threat is not the same as in Fiji, where there must be a sense that something foreboding is happening, as your islands are under severe threat. In Greenland on the other hand, there may also be a sense of opportunity, because as the ice recedes certain things become possible that weren’t before.     

What, in your opinion, can the public, and other strands of research, gain from an art-based approach?  

  - We will join the scientists in their research and help to communicate to the local community what we are doing while we are doing it. We will be on the boats with the fishermen and investigate how the environment has changed and how that has affected the flora and fauna.  

Will show in museums, galleries and festivals  
Can you say a little bit about how the artwork will be used?

- It will be shown in museums, galleries and festivals. We intend to produce a book which documents the process and the stories as well as the artworks. There will be a lot of scientific data collection and we will also bring this into the process. Some of PhD-students from the art academy may become involved if their research topics are relevant to the project. There will also be PhD students from the sciences specifically chosen to participate.  We have collaborated with Senior researcher Scott Bremer at the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities on previous projects and his  Calendars project will be an important reference point.    

Is art as a field very concerned about issues concerning climate and nature loss?  

- Yes, I find that artists are very concerned about the climate. The role of the arts in society could be seen to be one of creating unexpected spaces of critical reflection. Part of humankind’s problem has been seeing ourselves as somehow separate from ‘nature’ but that is a very damaging construct. We are part of nature, and our actions are coming back to haunt us. The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan was preoccupied with the relation of what he called the ‘anti-environment’ to the ‘environment’.  He was referring to the environment in the sense of a new technological environment and his big focus was the television. We don’t understand a new technological environment because we have never been in it and we instrumentalise our experiences of older more familiar technologies in order to try to understand it. McLuhan saw art as a way to avoid this instrumentalisation. So, in the moment of extreme climate challenge, we need imagination. Capitalism got us into this mess - imagination might get us out of it.