Cultural Atlas of Change

21.10.2022 von Katrin Löwe in Featured, Science, Research
Climate change and the energy transition are two of the defining issues of our time. The literary scientist and sociologist, Professor Ingo Uhlig, explores how art and literature are able to contribute to this debate and to a greater acceptance.
Ingo Uhlig directs the digital atlas “artwork.earth”
Ingo Uhlig directs the digital atlas “artwork.earth” (Foto: Maike Glöckner)

Glimpses into an imaginary flat in London in the year 2050: vegetables are grown in a tiny space under artificial light. On the table is a recipe for mealworm burgers, on the wall is one for fox stew - the need for self-sufficiency due to food shortages resulting from climate change is clearly visible. This is accompanied by the voice of a narrator who “is looking back at our naive present from a future that can no longer afford to be naive,” says Professor Ingo Uhlig. The scientist has held an extraordinary professorship at MLU since 2019 and is also currently working at the Institute for Climate Protection, Energy and Mobility (IKEM) in Berlin. He is focusing on how art and literature tackle the topics of climate change and the energy transition. The installation described above was created by the London-based design agency Superflux. Entitled “Mitigation of Shock”, it shows a flat and life in the future and is part of a digital atlas under Uhlig’s direction called “artwork.earth”. A website of the same name now lists around 200 art projects from all over the world that deal with ecological developments, climate change and fossil and renewable resources. “It includes a wide range of artwork. The idea was to collect them, organise them, and present them in such a way that they contribute to more than just art discourse,” explains Uhlig.

He implemented the idea as part of the WindNODE project, which was funded by the federal government from 2017 to 2021 through the programme “Schaufenster intelligente Energie - Digitale Agenda für die Energiewende (Sinteg)”. No comparable archive deals with transformation in this way. “The transformation is going to happen. We can either shape it or it will become an emergency project. I am definitely in favour of making it a design project,” says the scientist. The atlas is intended to help create an understanding - and even enthusiasm - among the general population for the tackling of global challenges. Further scientific work could follow on the back of it - or virtual exhibitions on topics such as the coal transformation on different continents.

A project by artist Olafur Eliasson: Small solar lamps make sustainable energy accessible to all.
A project by artist Olafur Eliasson: Small solar lamps make sustainable energy accessible to all. (Foto: Merklit Mersha)

According to Uhlig, the art projects can be roughly divided into two areas. One negotiates aspects of fear - with depictions of sinking cities and sinking people. “Where the tides ebb and flow” by Pedro Marzorati, for example, features several blue sculptures of men standing in the water, some of whom are almost completely submerged. The artist is thus drawing attention to the consequences of rising sea levels. “But there are also many pieces, especially in the visual arts, that deal with new concepts of mobility, energy, nutrition and housing.” A collaboration with science, business, civil society and politics that uses their core competency: being able to shape things. Uhlig mentions examples such as the British art collective Assemble, the Australian artist Natalie Jeremijenko or - probably the most popular representative - the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, who, along with an engineer, developed a small solar lamp titled “Little Sun”. It is intended to provide solar power in regions with poor grid coverage so that people can read, for example. “There are a number of projects that work in a similar way: experimental, participatory, i.e., in cooperation with people.” Uhlig mentions that one of the great historical examples of a piece on transformation that transcends different fields of knowledge is incidentally located in Central Germany: the Bauhaus, which connects design expertise and industry.

Uhlig is a sociologist by training who later moved to media and literary studies. He completed his habilitation at MLU, initially having worked in a more historical field. But at some point, he says, he became preoccupied with the question of how, as a humanities scholar, one reacts to something that will occupy us in the future. His research was once described as exotic at a conference of natural scientists and engineers working on energy transition issues. This status of exotic, however, quickly disappeared. “Energy research has, itself, discovered the topic,” says Uhlig - also in light of the realisation that it is already technically very advanced. “The energy transition can be implemented - even quickly. But cultural blockades and biases are slowing it down.”

The tasks that arise as part of the transformation cannot be solved in any other way than by a chorus of disciplines, says the scientist, who is himself a member of Scientists for Future in Halle. Narratives, too, are “not just accessories, but critical to decision-making.” A lot can be learned about the role of interpretive powers and art from historical energy upheavals. Interestingly, in the late 19th century, steam power was described as antiquated and masculine, while electricity was progressive and female. One of the most famous novels that presents the transformation to electrification is “Travail” by Émile Zola.

In recent months, Uhlig has been working on a volume of essays dealing with historical energy upheavals from the Goethe period to the Fridays for Future movement. How were they narrated, how were they illustrated? How do they differ? The ecological situation at the global level is new, says Uhlig. “It didn’t play a role in Goethe’s time, nor when steam power was introduced or nuclear energy was discovered.” The last time there was literature dedicated to energy and environmental policy was in the 1980s, he says. Back then, the novel “Das Windrad” (The Windmill) by Peter Härtling introduced renewable energies to literary history. It is about two quirky dropouts who want to build a windmill in the Swabian Alb. In 1981, Monika Maron published her novel “Fly Ash”, which looks at coal power and environmental pollution in the Bitterfeld area of the GDR. After this time, environmental topics fell by the wayside, says Uhlig. Literary fantasies were preoccupied with the German Reunification and the time after the fall of the Berlin Wall, while the technical focus was on digital innovation. This did not change until a decade ago. Remarkably, today there are many thrillers that involve wind power, but not as much realistic literature that deals with the opportunities and future prospects of the energy transition. “Surprisingly, literature is less willing to experiment.” While the visual arts have long been engaged with partners in designing new living spaces, literature is still largely stuck describing the problems resulting from climate change or arising in structurally weak regions with little acceptance for the energy transition. In his view, however, that change can happen by creating an ecological sensibility - for example, through the genre of “nature writing”.

Today, Uhlig summarises all this under the term “energy culture”. This, he concludes, deserves to have a greater presence.

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