Climate Crisis + Media Arts: Block Museum partners on Buffett Institute Global Working Group

What does climate change actually look and feel like?

From forest fires in the American West and desertification in northern China to climate migration in coastal Louisiana and Latin America, the ongoing climate emergency is a global problem that demands radically new, collaborative modes of scholarship and creativity.

For the past few years Michael Metzger, the Block’s Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts and colleagues from across Northwestern (including Professors JP Sniadecki, Documentary Media, School of Communication, and Corey Byrnes, Asian Languages & Cultures, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences) have been engaging in discussion around climate-focused media arts. How can makers, researchers, and activists harness the expressive power of media to communicate the urgency of the problem, and imagine strategies of resistance and adaptation?

While there is no shortage of scholarly studies and media representations on the topic of climate change, the shocking statistics and doomsday projections that are all too common in environmental media threaten to lead to fatigue and paralysis. The scholars recognized a new opportunity to combine research, media arts, and public participation to depict the lived experience of communities at the front lines of the climate emergency. Seeking to forge new paths of inclusive address that generate engagement, participation, and empathy, the scholars engaged in Northwestern Buffett’s annual Idea Incubation Process, which culminated in funding and support for their Climate Crisis + Media Arts Working Group.

My curatorial work has brought me into contact with numerous makers, writers, thinkers, and activists from around the world whose work addresses the threat of climate catastrophe.

The Climate Crisis + Media Arts Working Group will support, present, and discuss their work, but I see this working group not only as a platform for showing and thinking about media art works. Rather, CC+MA will be a space for rethinking our practices as artists, curators, scholars, and educators, developing tools for making our work more responsible.

Michael Metzger, Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts, Block Museum of Art
Still from EKIPA FANIHY (“BAT TEAM” in Malagasy), a film collaboration between biologists and artists that explores human-bat interactions in Madagascar via the the Brook Lab (Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago and University of Antananarivo, Madagascar). Photo Courtesy of Erik Nuding.

A public-facing and interdisciplinary project, CC+MA brings together artists, scholars, activists, and students, with the goal of producing empowering, informative, sensorial depictions of the material effects and lived experience of climate crisis in a range of sites in China, Central America, the US-Mexico Borderlands, Southeast Asia, and beyond. Combining the expressive power of the media arts with critical frames offered by the environmental humanities and the rigor of climate science, this project seeks to influence cultural and political discourse on the climate emergency not by speculating on unlivable futures, but by creating new ways of depicting what it means to live and die within a changing climate, right now.

Throughout 2021 and 2022, CC+MA presented screenings and artist talks around these themes, with the support of a Catalyst Grant from the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs.

Buffett Institute Global Working Groups

Northwestern’s Buffett Institute for Global Affairs recognizes that in today’s global environment, real change and innovation is generated through collaborations across the boundaries of disciplines, national borders, and institutional and personal identities. The Institute has pioneered a collaborative process, which helps groups produce research ideas, projects, and publications that generate substantive solutions to global problems. Northwestern Buffett Global Working Groups are selected by a panel of esteemed judges, and receive up to two years of support to pursue their research project including funding, fundraising support, graduate assistants, and administrative staff support for operations. 

Global Working Groups undertake collaborative, interdisciplinary research that addresses complex global challenges related to one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in coordination with experts and citizens worldwide. The goal is for Global Working Group research to be developed in conjunction with stakeholders who can generate the greatest social impact, including policymakers, practitioners and community members. Global Working Groups share and disseminate their research findings through publications, policy briefs, digital platforms and more.

 In the Spring of 2022, the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs officially recognized the Climate Crisis + Media Arts collective as an official Buffett Working Group. CC+MA presented its formative work as part of the 2022 Buffett Idea incubation showcase.

Climate Crisis + Media Arts at The Block

The Block Museum will offer a critical convening space for Climate Crisis + Media Arts activities within the ecosystem of Northwestern. With Block Cinema as a screening venue, the working group will have a regular campus and public presence, with quarterly screenings designed to showcase exemplary works of film, video, and media art that examine different facets of the climate crisis. With a track record of interdisciplinary exchange and co-sponsorship, the Block will help cultivate and maintain new relationships across departments and institutions, bringing on key partners in supporting and amplifying the working group’s activities.

In coming years Northwestern’s CC+MA Working group will seek to:

1. Showcase exemplary media arts responses to climate crisis through public screenings and discussions

2. Explore innovative approaches through annual workshops that exhibit works-in-progress by participants

3. Commission and publish new scholarship and artists’ writings about environmental media

4. Develop web platforms and exhibitions where related projects can be distributed and discussed

The Block Museum has been thrilled to begin to showcase project-related works within its Block Cinema program. The 2021-22 academic year included the following screenings


November 17, 2021

Plains Cree/Scots artist Thirza Cuthand explores queer sexuality, Indigenous identity, and forms of personal and collective crisis in her defiantly DIY videos, performances, and autobiographical writings.

Environments of Struggle: Crystal Z. Campbell and Christopher Harris

March 3, 2022

Focusing on landscapes of decay and material traces of structural neglect, the films of Crystal Z. Campbell and Christopher Harris challenge our perception of American injustice. 

LEVIATHAN (2012) with filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel

April 15, 2022

An astonishing synthesis of form and content, LEVIATHAN challenges sentimental and anthropocentric representations of nature and labor, remapping the possibilities of documentary in the process.

MAKE A DISTINCTION (2021) and FIELD RESISTANCE (2019) with filmmakers

April 22, 2022

This program brings together two recent hybrid documentaries that prove that the botanical is political.

THE ISLAND OF ST MATTHEWS (2013) with Kevin Jerome Everson

May 27, 2022

A portrait of collective memory, lost family artifacts, and the lived experience of ecological change, ISLAND trains its lens on his parents’ hometown of Westport, a rural community outside of Columbus, Mississippi. 

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