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'The Chicago Cli-Fi Library': representing vocabulary of climate change

The apocalyptic tone of the exhibition The Chicago Cli-Fi Library at Neubauer Collegium, Chicago, curated by Dieter Roelstraete is inspired by the literary subgenre of climate fiction.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jul 29, 2023

The soaring voices against the lopsided environmental changes have been on an exponential rise; it still falls short to set the course of contemporary art discourse into motion. The peripheral response by the art ecosystem on the topical theme of climate change urged Dieter Roelstraete to conceive, conceptualise and curate the exhibition The Chicago Cli-Fi Library at Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, The University of Chicago. The argument put forward by Roelstraete is based on the notion that climate change represents the most persistent existential threat that humanity has ever faced over the course of its three hundred thousand-year history. Despite this alarming reality, the potentially catastrophic implications of global warming and other related phenomena, collectively referred to as the "great derangement" by Amitav Ghosh in a compendium that has influenced Roelstraete's perspective are noticeably absent from the mainstream cultural discourse.

How Does the World End (for Others)?,Horseshoe Crab, 2023,Geissler &Sann|The Chicago Cli-Fi Library | STIRworld
How Does the World End (for Others)?, Horseshoe Crab, 2023, Geissler & Sann Image: Robert Heishman

Stemmed from the literary subgenre of climate fiction or cli-fi, the art exhibition features the work of Chicago-based artists Geissler & Sann, Jenny Kendler, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, and Dan Peterman. A curious mind is keen to know the presence of the term library in the title and how it speaks to the theme of exhibition and display. In an interview with STIR, Roelstraete expounds on this, “The project is named after the emerging literary genre of “climate fiction”, and books (or the ghosts of books) appear in three of the artworks on display—by no means an anomalous occurrence in our rather bookish exhibition program.” To illustrate further while citing works from the exhibition: The Neubauer Collegium terrace outside, an ar installation by Dan Peterman Archive for 57 People resembles an actual library, stocked with sheets of recycled plastic that look very much like books. A new work, How Does the World End for Others? by Geissler & Sann is a "performative reading” of an array of the literary snippets of the cli-fi genre. 

Archive (One Ton), 2012, Dan Peterman |The Chicago Cli-Fi Library | STIRworld
Archive (One Ton), 2012, Dan Peterman Image: Robert Heishman

Inside the art gallery, an ongoing Underground Library project on the mantelpiece by Kendler consists of a dozen bio-charred books selected from the artist’s own library of ecologically themed (i.e., non-fiction) tomes. The collection is sourced from the “five decades of defunct, passed over or ignored books on climate change—from unread technical manuals to forgotten best sellers.” Interestingly, more often than not, while watching the exhibition an idea crosses the mind, and an emphasis is made on the annihilation rather than the protection of the environment. Roelstraete elaborates, “Although the exhibition does venture to propose actual solutions to some of the problems in question (in the guise of Kendler’s Underground Library, for instance), the overall tone is indeed quite apocalyptic, much of the work rather ominous and sombre. My primary interest has been to use the way in which the exhibition was constituted as a model—for instance by opting to show work by artists living and working in Chicago, whose art has long been very carbon-footprint-conscious. Additionally, it was important to me that some of the art on view could be transported over to the gallery on a bike, so to speak.”      

West 11th Street, March 6, 1970,2006, IñigoManglano-Ovalle |The Chicago Cli-Fi Library | STIRworld
8 West 11th Street, March 6, 1970, 2006, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle Image: Robert Heishman

The work Whale Bells, made in collaboration with Andrew Bearnot and Kendler, has a set of suspended hand blown glass chimes which carry a piece of the fossilised ear bones of an extinct whale species. The older piece of work, on the east-facing wall, 8 West 11th Street, March 6, 1970, by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle is inspired by the archival newspaper, where there is a photograph of a young Dustin Hoffman in front of the Greenwich Village—a townhouse fortuitously blazed down to the pieces by the Weather Underground in March 1970. In the words of Roelstraete, “It is quite likely the very enormity of the challenge of imagining the unimaginable—the end of life on planet Earth as we know it—that causes this paralysis in the artistic mindscape. The Chicago Cli-Fi Library is a modest attempt to make sense of this paralysis, suggesting that art’s response to the complexity and enormity of the issue at hand can only ever be ad hoc and hyperlocal, virtuously so.” 

Archive for 57 People, 1998 – Ongoing, Dan Peterman |The Chicago Cli-Fi Library | STIRworld
Archive for 57 People, 1998 – Ongoing, Dan Peterman Image: Robert Heishman

The Chicago Cli-Fi Library was conceived in response to what Roelstraete experienced as a certain blindness, if not outright indifference, on the part of the mainstream art world vis-à-vis the current climate crisis. "The project’s basic aspiration is for that mainstream art world—the world of major museums and galleries, say—to engage this crisis more actively as a matter of serious artistic concern. It is time for the climate crisis to yield its first generation of masterpieces—so that there can no longer be any looking away,” confides Roelstraete. Even when the exhibition spaces, be it a gallery or museum address the pressing issue of the environmental challenges facing the planet, it involves a visual language that has over the years reduced to the circle of repetitiveness. From emaciating wild animals perched on an isolated mountain, urban landscape overpowered by the clouds of pollution to the parched land of an underdeveloped country or the melting glaciers—the limited audience of climate change, aimed to bring a call to action, has seen a little change in the grammar of visual representation. Against this, Roelstraete with this exhibition The Chicago Cli-Fi Library promises to initiate a dialogue on the underlying necessity to usher in a wave of a novel art vocabulary on the theme of climate change.  

Underground Library, 2023, Jenny Kendler |The Chicago Cli-Fi Library | STIRworld
Underground Library, 2023, Jenny Kendler Image: Robert Heishman
Portrait image of Dieter Roelstraete (Curator) |The Chicago Cli-Fi Library | STIRworld
Curator Dieter Roelstraete Image: Moritz Kuestner

The exhibition The Chicago Cli-Fi Library was on view at Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, The University of Chicago, Chicago until June 11, 2023. 

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