This art show won't stop climate change, but it might change the conversation

Featuring more than 20 contemporary artists, this group show aims to re-frame how people talk about climate change. It's not an issue you're for or against. It's a reality.

Look at these photos and ask yourself: 'Where do I fit in that situation?'

Paola Pivi. Untitled (Zebra), 2003. Pigment print. (Hugo Glendinning/Courtesy of Galerie Perrotin)

It's been a good 12 years, but remember that movie, The Day After Tomorrow?

If anything made an impression on you — anything beyond Jake Gyllenhaal's baby blues, that is — you might at least recall it was a disaster movie, one where tornados, tsunamis and/or apocalyptic blizzards plunge every city with an internationally recognizable landmark into oblivion.

The science was dodgy, but if that story of an environmental Armageddon stuck with you at all, it's a testament to the power of art and entertainment. So figures Paul Roth, the director of the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. 

The deep question that I always hope people will ask is, 'What is this thing that I'm looking at? Where do I fit in this situation?'- Paul Roth, director of the Ryerson Image Centre

"You look at a film like that and you go, 'Yeah, probably a lot of kids saw that film and it was part of their understanding of what's happening to our environment. And that's helpful."

"It may have been Hollywood, it may have been a disaster film and filled with overstatement." (Please see: Every scene.) "But it also added to a dialogue," he says. "And in our small, local way, we want to do that too."

Roth is referring to the latest exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre. In its own, Roland Emmerich-ish way, it's called The Edge of The Earth: Climate Change in Photography and Video, and it's a group show that pairs the work of more than 20 contemporary artists with an archival timeline of humanity's impact on nature, key reportage photos from the last century that have been culled from the RIC's Black Star Collection.

Gene Daniels. Untitled [Air pollution, California, USA], c. 1970. Gelatin silver print. (The Black Star Collection, Ryerson Image Centre)
Hicham Berrada. Documentation view of Celeste, 2014. (Amandine Bajou/ Courtesy of the artist at kamel mennour, Paris)

They act a little like "canary in the coal mine images," says Roth. "A forewarning of what's coming if we don't correct action."

The exhibition, curated by Montreal's Bénédicte Ramade, aims to give people a new way of thinking about climate change — or, for those skip over headlines about sea levels swallowing P.E.I. and increased storm activity in the Arctic, a way of thinking about it at all.

"I think that part of the problem with the subject of climate change — as it's described in the news media — is that it's an either/or situation," Roth tells CBC Arts. "It's the apocalypse or it's 'we'll just put our heads in the sand and ignore it.' And I think part of coming to grips with the subject is dealing with the complexity of it."

The exhibition doesn't present the subject matter as an issue, a socio-political cause to be debated. It's just our complex reality. We live in a world that has been changed by human industry and intervention, for better or (more likely) worse, and the art reflects on the past, present and future of that situation. How do we react? How do we evolve? And the same questions apply to nature itself.

Some pieces are more descriptive — Edward Burtynsky's photographs of scarred mountains in B.C., for example, or Chris Jordan's images of dead sea birds, their stomachs decomposed to reveal the man-made trash that killed them.

Edward Burtynsky. Railcuts #4, C.N. Track, Thompson River, British Columbia, 1985. Chromogenicprint. (Edward Burtynsky/Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto)
Chris Jordan. CF000313: Unaltered Stomach Contents of Laysan Albatross Fledgling, Midway Island, 2009. From the series Midway: Message from the Gyre. Ultrachrome Inkjet print. (Courtesy of the artist)

Others explore a more symbolic, speculative take.

"I'm hoping that by seeing so many different artists' approach to different types of questions within the subject," says Roth, "I'm hoping that will make people see that it is complex, and it can be understood in a way we can wrestle with. It's actually just an evolving situation that we can deal with."

Joel Sternfeld, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: Eleventh Session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention and First Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, Palais de Congres, Montreal, Canada, 28 November - 9 December, 2005. Robert Kofi Poamfo, Corporate Manager, Forestry Commission, Ghana. From the series When It Changed. Digital chromogenic print. (Joel Sternfeld/Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)
Brandi Merolla. What the Frack!, 2013. From the series Fracking Photographs. Inkjet print. (Courtesy of the artist)
Adrien Missika. Documentation photograph of Darvaza, Turkmenistan, 2011. (Courtesy of the artist)

Of all the questions to be asked while viewing the show, Roth says one is key. "The deep question that I always hope people will ask is, 'What is this thing that I'm looking at? Where do I fit in this situation?'"

That's where the conversation begins, and it's not a question of being for or against environmental action. Art's role in starting that discussion is, he says, a complicated but important one.

"Even though art often has a reputation for being difficult," he says, "art can cut through." It's non-linguistic, it's not presenting polarized positions. "Rather, artists are showing or revealing or investigating various issues."

"We have no illusions that this show is going to change the world," says Roth, "but it is part of many, many conversations that are kind of tumbling together."

Paul Walde. Requiem for a Glacier, 2012-2014. Still from 2-channel video installation with sound. (Courtesy of the artist)
Paul Walde. Requiem for a Glacier, 2012-2014. Still from 2-channel video installation with sound. (Courtesy of the artist)

The Edge of the Earth: Climate Change in Photography and Video. Featuring Andreas Rutkauskas, Brandi Merolla, Hicham Berrada, Jean-Pierre Aubé, Paul Walde, Evariste Richer, Adrien Missika, Peter Goin, Isabelle Hayeur, Julian Charrière, Nicholas Baier, Benoit Aquin, Naoya Hatakeyama, Edward Burtynsky, Amy Balkin, Richard Misrach, Robert Rauschenberg, Sharon Stewart, Chris Jordan, Mishka Henner, Paola Pivi, Gideon Mendel, Raymond Boisjoly, Joel Sternfeld.  To Dec. 4 at the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto.