“Trial and Error”: Visual Art in the Age of Climate Change

Posted by on Aug 31, 2016
“Trial and Error”: Visual Art in the Age of Climate Change

On September 19th, Houston-based visual artist Josh Bernstein’s exhibit, Moon Finger, will begin its run at Devin Borden Gallery (3917 Main Street, Houston). Bernstein, a Lecturer in the Visual and Dramatic Arts department at Rice University, has produced a series of work whose past, present, and future are shaped by nonhuman forces.

Josh Bernstein, Houston-based artist and Rice University lecturer

Josh Bernstein, Houston-based artist and Rice University lecturer

Take, for instance, the inspiration behind the majority of the pieces on display. In the attic above Bernstein’s studio, he would often hear the scurrying of critters that he assumed—based on their apparent weight—to be medium to large-sized rats. Bernstein would then trace the pattern of the ceiling segment where he had heard the noises, diligently recording both the date and time of the occurrence. Coding the movement of rats using line, shading, and colored pencil, the artist created a pattern and process of art that is deeply indebted to the presence and intrusion of nonhuman others (see “April 13, 2016, 6:12 PM” below).

Where the exhibit is most notably sensitive to the constructive forces of other-than-human dynamics is in the material itself. Using paper vellum made from plasticized cotton, Bernstein traces and shades and colors. Bernstein was frustrated by the material at first, having “tremendous trouble with it because of its incredibly powerful contraction.” A gallery-goer will notice how, although suspended by small magnets, the drawing’s edges bend and curl. Arguably, very few artistic substances are more sensitive to changes in temperature, humidity, and climate than paper vellum. In a city like Houston especially, Bernstein has noticed how these pieces take altogether different shapes dependent upon location; from his studio to the gallery to buyers’ homes, the work evolves, contracts, and expands to fit its environment.


“April 13, 2016, 6:12 PM” (2016) – Ink and colored pencil on vellum, felt

Part of the challenge with using climate-sensitive materials like vellum or thin paper, however, is their lack of durability. While Bernstein does not view his art as attempting to issue “a Platonic statement of eternity,” he also doesn’t “want to use newspaper that, in a few years, would essentially be dust.” His work embodies the need to balance art’s potential short-term survival with its inevitable long-term decay (if, that is, we are thinking on global, geological timescales). Even the most treasured paintings are in a fight against time; their decay may not be imminent in the traditional sense of the word, but the Anthropocene challenges us to think in spans of time that would force us to regard the Renaissance as relatively “modern” history. In Bernstein’s own words, he chooses these kinds of materials “because they feel like they have a life before me and a life after me.”

Bernstein directed my attention to the artist Giovanni Anselmo, a member of the Arte Povera movement, whose “Respiro” (1969) involves two lengths of steel set along a level path with a small sponge in the gap separating each piece. The title plays with the idea of the objects’ “breath” (respiro), contracting and expanding based upon season or climate. Bernstein calls this a “barometric response” within the art, something that might be equally said of the work in his newest exhibit.


Giovanni Anselmo’s “Respiro” (1969)

Now, much of this analysis is undoubtedly this author’s employment of poetic license in relation to Bernstein’s process and product. Where he is specific about his intention is in his attentiveness to what he calls the “minor variations” that art can bring to the fore. As part of his Moon Finger exhibit, for instance, he has created kite-structures made from old clothes (what he calls, wonderfully, the “sloughed husks of other people’s lives”). Kites, he notes, are sensitive to wind patterns that we on the ground often do not or cannot notice. The same can be said of the vellum pieces, which are a “quasi-archival” effort to track the minor variations of unseen rats and their largely unobserved lives.

All of this brings us, perhaps all too predictably, to our present understanding of time, materiality, and the Anthropocene—which we now have been told, has a geological origin in or around the year 1950. Such dates, I think, are too simple for the artistically and theoretically minded. As we address the questions posed by human-caused climate change, we must play and test the limits of our production. Talking of his process and his experimentation with materials, Bernstein says, “Every new project involves at least one complete failure—where a thing collapses or destroys itself, or I realize over the course of months that the thing never actually dried and is rotting from the inside.” The only way he has uncovered which materials will last, which will not, which will bend, and which will break is quite simply through a process of “trial and error.”

Science operates quite rigidly upon an axis of trial and error, and while the Humanities certainly offer peer-review methods, the time may have arrived to experiment yet further with the interdisciplinarity and creative limits of our fields. Allow science to measure the literal barometric responses and climate science of our time; allow others to experiment with the farthest reaches of theory and the artistic imagination. We do not necessarily need art and literature that, with broad metaphors or didactic detail, spell out the problems of climate change. Rather, might we consider how, in our relationship with the literal materials of production and the scurrying, nocturnal sounds of our nonhuman counterparts, we have entered a new era of not only geological transformation, but also creative reinvention? How might “trial and error,” what in another register might sound like “play,” function in this Age of the “Anthropocene?” What have we not yet attempted, what have we not yet failed?


Clint Wilson III is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, a Diana Hobby editorial fellow for Studies in English Literature: 1500–1900, and a PhD student in English at Rice University. His research explores the intersection of race, politics, and toxicity in the modernist imaginary, as well as the larger study of contamination in the environmental humanities.