For the second feature in Art Guide Australia’s series which focuses on a single artwork, Tracey Clement examines another piece which addresses the climate crisis. She burst into tears watching Laresa Kosloff’s online video, Radical Acts, and spoke to the artist about telling stories with dark humour.
I can barely stand to watch the news. And it’s not just because I don’t want to see disaster after disaster, crisis after crisis. After all, I have a predilection for post-apocalyptic fiction, most of which is very bad news indeed. But there is something paralysing about being bombarded with facts; the crushing weight of incontrovertible data leaves very little room to manoeuvre, and almost no space for hope.
On the other hand, storytelling (and here I include certain kinds of art) invites readers and audiences to become active participants in meaning generation, rather than passive listeners. For me, this is why fiction is such an effective way of communicating facts. And why Laresa Kosloff’s online video, Radical Acts – which tackles the very bad news of the climate crisis – was simultaneously able to elicit tears and give me hope, instead of making me just want to switch off.
In Radical Acts (which was commissioned by Buxton Cotemporary as part of their Light Source series) Kosloff uses stock corporate video footage to construct an almost plausible story in which climate scientists, frustrated by being ignored, spread a genetically engineered pathogen designed to curb excess consumption. Naturally the big corporations and their political puppets aren’t happy so they counter with a fake mission to Mars, complete with its own catchy hashtags: #our future, #gettingthejobdone. It’s a heady melange of sci-fi, thriller and farce – tragedy smashes head-on into comedy. I cried, but I know other people who have laughed out loud.
This is the great thing about good art: there is no right answer. And when I tell Kosloff about these different reactions she agrees. “Either response is great to hear!” she says. “The work shifts from irony to sincerity, however they share the same basis of understanding.”
In fact, Radical Acts is constructed from both irony and sincerity in equal measure, like the warp and weft of a fabric. Kosloff has cleverly woven these two seemingly opposite strands into a powerful whole. And as with the finished product, her choice of raw material – stock corporate videos – is both witty and serious.
“I like stock footage because it is the perfect metaphor for neoliberalism and our materialistic culture. There are literally hundreds of thousands of these clips waiting to be chosen, much like consumer goods,” Kosloff explains. “The clips are vacuous and yet filled with potential. I like the challenge of working with this material and manipulating it to suit my own needs. I think of it as a form of political ventriloquism.”
Subverting the system in this way is a deft ironic move that nevertheless delivers a deadly serious message.
The disembodied narrator in Radical Acts states, “Neoliberal democracy had produced passive consumers rather than global citizens, and the world was in deep trouble.” Sad, but true. But it is also kind of hilarious watching anonymous actors – playing corporate drones – perform this fact as fiction. Kosloff is not only speaking truth to power, she is speaking to us all using storytelling and laughter as a way in.
“The dark humour is a way of making the ideas accessible and appealing,” she points out. “The work performs a different function to journalism, for example, by being imaginative and oblique. I’m trying to liberate the subject matter from its heaviness so that it can be processed in a different way.”
Faced with a dying planet, negligent politicians and ruthless corporate greed, Radical Acts posits an imaginative, funny and sincere radical action. “And what did we do?” says the voiceover, “We used our privilege to lie down in radical acts of horizontality.” And this is the point where you can either laugh or cry.
As the music swells and then dissolves to leave a solitary voice singing plaintively, I wept and wept. The song, Kosloff explains, is one that Extinction Rebellion activists sing when one of their number is arrested. The first time she heard it, Kosloff recalls, “I felt a wave of grief and wanted to cry. The human voice connected me with something that I was struggling to process at the time. Unless there is an emotional register around the climate and ecological emergency we won’t feel compelled to act. This song triggered that for me…”
And this is the power of art, of music and storytelling – the strength of fiction over facts: the ability to access the ineffable, to tap into the subconscious, to generate emotions and inspire action. Through my tears Radical Acts left me feeling just ever so slightly hopeful. As the solitary voice fades and a murmuration of birds circles on screen I’m not entirely sure if I’m witnessing a utopian vision of The World Without Us, or a world in which we’ve managed to at least slow down the climate crisis and sixth great extinction. I guess the choice is ours.