Halcyon Fog is a multi-faceted, immersive exhibition with supporting speaking events. Through projections, video and digital art, the exhibit is aimed at getting viewers to think deeper about their own implication in these destructive systems, and to break the barrier between internal reactions and action.
Kelly Richardson is an artist and professor at University of Victoria, who has been working on environmental themes for 20 years. It would have been nice to move on, she says, but 20 years later, we are at a breaking point. “We live in a time where scientists have told us we’re in the sixth mass extinction event,” says Richardson in her artist talk, in an unflinchingly clear voice.
Richardson’s goal is clear – she’s using art to communicate what science has not. Art has the ability to affect the head and the heart – in other words, the consciousness of people to respond. “For me, what artists can do is get people to think about the world differently. Science has been warning us forever about this future that we’re now living in. Why did we allow ourselves to arrive at this place? All science is saying is what Indigenous Knowledge Keepers have said – forever.”
Through two large-scale video projections, and another two video installations, Halcyon Fog invites viewers to reflect on their lives now, and “what they’re doing to either usher these futures or alter them. That can be done on a personal level and it can be done in such a way that you’re challenging the government on their priorities.” While Richardson sees us as all having responsibilities, “we also have this monster of a machine that is devouring the planet.”
If we had continued doing those cultural burnings that happened 50 years ago, we wouldn’t be seeing this size of wildfires.
As an example, Richardson shares that she deliberately chose to become vegetarian when she was a young adult. “But that hasn’t prevented the bank from funding fossil fuel development, which of course is driving climate change and burning the planet. So the problem definitely is the systems by which we are living – all of them need challenging. An extraordinary challenge to these systems needs to happen in order for us to change the future.”
The exhibit came to be through Kamloops Art Gallery curator Charo Neville’s concern for deforestation in British Columbia. “I was quite interested in bringing the forest to the gallery as a way of getting people to engage with what remains,” says Richardson.
But she wants the conversation to go further than the big trees: “the biological wealth of those old growth ecosystems is extraordinary. And we’ll never get that back. Every time we log an area, we kill everything in it.” The emissions are another matter – “as soon as we cut down those trees, we release an absolutely huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere.” This contributes to climate change, which is accelerating the wildfires to form megafires.
Those megafires have impacted vast tracts of land – and the people who have been stewards of that land for time immemorial. This exhibit is supported by Secwepemc voices such as Angela Kane, CEO of Secwepemc Restoration Stewardship Society, who spoke in a Halcyon Fog event on wildfire recovery and restoration in Secwepemcúl’ecw. She was joined by Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, a PhD candidate and public scholar in the faculty of forestry at UBC, who has been working with Kane on the restoration and rehabilitation of wildfire areas – including the eight communities that were impacted by the massive Elephant Hill fire in 2017.
“Some people did think about it in terms of rehabilitation,” says Dickson-Hoyle, “assessing what was damaged by the fire or by firefighting activity. For example, fences were burned, fire guards were put in – let’s go back and rebuild those fences and seed those fire guards with grasses. That is a very short term, and quite reactive approach.” Recovery is a long term process – “It’s not just about putting things back the way they were, because the way things were wasn’t necessarily functioning as a resilient forest, or a well-managed ecosystem. Land-based recovery is linked to longer-term restorations, like restoring habitat and ecosystems.”
Kane agrees, “recovery isn’t just about landscape, it’s recovery from a community perspective, the social pieces. That’s the impact the fire had on communities, and their mental health and wellness. Basically it’s a grieving process because it’s a loss of a lifestyle. It’s a loss to that interconnectedness, which is who they are. For First Nations, it’s not just the tangible piece, it’s the emotional piece that goes along with that. And learning to live a different way after a fire, learning to accept what’s left there, learning to rebuild and to find those new medicines and plants out there, and resourcing wildlife and food sources.”
“We have been seeing the impact of climate change and heat with these larger megafires.,” says Kane. “And mismanaged forests. We stopped burning years ago and we are seeing the impacts of that today. If we had continued doing those cultural burnings that happened 50 years ago, we wouldn’t be seeing this size of wildfires.”
“The more people hear our story, the more people will start to understand the impacts on the land from past forest management practices and understand that Traditional Knowledge and Indigenous Knowledge have a place in wildfire prevention and forest management,” says Kane. “There just needs to be change around how we look at managing forests at a landscape level – looking at the forest as a whole, interconnected landscape.”
Immersive installations bring us to the sublime
It looks like an idyllic forest scene, with fireflies bringing archetypal nostalgia, until, panning out, the viewer has a growing recognition that these are drones. Machines that are measuring the destruction of humans using machines to deforest. It offers a simultaneous sense of deep beauty, and terrible destruction. The feeling is of the sublime, something that also captures Richardson’s attention.
“My interest is in the sublime – the highest emotion that we can feel, how it was originally conceived. The feeling of being in the face of that enormity, the threat and simultaneous beauty.” Richardson describes it as akin to the feeling of being on a cliff looking over into the abyss: “You’re able to experience the emotion and the feeling. Acknowledging the beauty that is there, and at the same time, the clear threat to you, if you were to take a step forward.”
Richardson shares, “I wanted to finish the exhibition on the note that the window is still open, it’s closing quickly, but there hope resides. I don’t personally have much hope that our governments are going to act accordingly, because they never have. They’ve just never, ever taken proper responsibility for what they should. And, therefore it leaves really one option and it’s for people to rise up and make change – force change.”
Odette Auger, Sagamok Anishnawbek, is a guest on Klahoose, Homalco, Tla’amin territories. Her journalism can be found at Watershed Sentinel, IndigiNews, APTN, and the Toronto Star, among other places.