Kooj Chuhan is a Digital artist, filmmaker and creative producer. He has worked with international artists such as Keith Piper and Shahidul Alam, with numerous local communities and was a senior manager at Community Arts North West. With his company Metaceptive, Kooj’s work connects with social justice, environment and diversity. Kooj has exhibited widely, including Arnolfini (Bristol) and ICA (London). He gained an award for digital arts connecting refugees with climate change, has lectured in filmmaking and served on the board for FACT (Liverpool). Kooj founded Virtual Migrants artists collective, co-founded the Black Arts Alliance, produced ‘Footprint Modulation’ environmental art exhibition across five venues in Durham.
Kooj Chuhan was born in Punjab, India but has lived in the UK most of his life. He is influenced by a range radical politics particularly strands of Marxism, and including integration of certain strands of Sikh thinking.
Tell me a bit about how you got to where you are now in your work.
I did a Biology undergraduate degree, I was a musician in my late teens and doing art on the side – which was less sociable. I played the guitar in bands and was fitting art around that. Later I did a Science and society postgraduate degree. I got interested in community arts and volunteered, eventually became a full time music worker, later managed an arts centre doing Asian arts for 10 years the unit was called BICA “Black Issues in Community Arts”. I did some video work and film making, did courses to become a film-maker and also got into digital media. Then as an independent freelance artist I focused on Black and Asian culture/issues and refugee / migration themes. For 10 years I have been doing projects on Climate Change, primarily looking at the link between race theory, inequality and diaspora to understand those connections with Climate Change.
What is the intention of this work/research?
I want to influence black and brown people to connect with the issue and have a voice on it. BAME people have a natural interest in what is happening in their mother countries, and sometimes we have faced racism, so we naturally have an affinity to other people like us in the world, who feel and understand racism. With Climate Change we are talking not just about people that have created gases, but that people have to migrate to save themselves, how do we get this across to people here?
Climate Change has a challenge of telling the story of what is going to happen in the near future. Climate Change is indirect and happening gradually, companies are making things we don’t need that are fucking up the world. Climate injustice is where innocent people are affected and dying who did the least to create the problem – it is hard to get this message across.
What is the relationship between art and science and is this effective when explored?
A lot of science is just data to prove this is real and that Climate Change is happening. Scientists create data showing a problem, or finding solutions to make cleaner energy. Art can help express the science. But art needs to be more than an infographic to make the science understandable, science and the amount of data is overwhelming and the language puts people off, there is endless detail. To stop Climate Change we need a political solution changing how economies work, there is easy profit in burning oil and coal. Nobody is adding up the cost of the damage – authorities should be looking at this at least in simple monetary terms but they are not. Scientists and economists should get together and look at most of the damage being caused, and historically it is probably by just a handful of companies. Then we need laws to control it.
Deepwater Horizon in 2010 was a major disaster and paid out record amounts, the BP oil spill. Companies need to pay up for what they are doing and will be doing to everyone.
Where do art and media come into it? People understand things through culture, artists have the ability not just to help people understand processes but to feel problems in hearts and minds, so that we feel things; joy sadness, urgency, celebration. Reading data won’t create feelings but art can do that. Artists can explore a range of narratives to empower and disempower people, show them as victims, or as resilient etc.
Most art labelled as Climate Change art in my opinion is awful. Most Climate Change artists are looking at icebergs or other natural phenomena, or data or technological alternatives. Virtual migrants are not into the ‘polar bear stuff’, yes this seems to be sexy and fundable. Talking politics is not fundable. Challenging the status quo is the problem. As Dom Helder Camara famously put it ‘When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist’. If one encourages more solar panels, supporting nature or protecting bees, one is called a saint, but if one questions what government and corrupt industries are doing and politics behind it, one is a trouble-maker (=communist). Here in the UK people don’t see effects strongly on us here, don’t see it on the streets. But refugees coming here can tell us what they have seen change back home – I made an art project from this. Most of the climate art out there can look quite sciency too, it does not attract diverse audiences to it.
Do you think you have had an impact? Can the work have an impact?
I have been able to have a big impact on the organistions I have worked with as they understand what is happening and how it can impact on their audiences. My work also encourages other artists to start thinking about the topic; impact is on peers and niche communities. Then my work with a particular community might be even deeper in terms of impact. There needs to be a lot of artists doing the same thing concentrated to make a significantly wider impact, it is hard for audiences to keep plugged in if just a one off.
How are/have you you funding this work?
Arts Council, University partnerships, mostly on a shoe-string. I was hoping my Footprint Modulation project would be a springboard for further exhibition.
Who is your audience?
Everyone; minority / ‘black and brown’ communities, Middle Eastern countries, etc are of biggest interest. Unless we get them on board, we then can have a more radical voice. Institutional racism exists in the arts networks and activist groups. We have Wangari Maathai the first African woman Nobel peace prize-winner, and many other really strong stories, leading radical activists on Climate Change. Leading activists are not fromthe UK and they much stronger. Why? Because they are feeling it and being affected by Climate Change enough right now.
Do you think diverse artists/people are less involved in exploring the climate issue?
The climate movement began as a White movement, roots of environmentalism are very colonial. It has an imperialist colonial background. Radical global activism groups are often indigenous groups including in white countries; North America and Australia, though migrants from black and brown countries tend to have a different focus. Also organisations dealing with issues are institutionally racist – not as individuals but as an organisation. They do not think outside of how western people think.
The big issues facing Climate Change as a human issue affecting people are in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Brazil… ‘black and brown’ countries are seeing the impact there right now with increasing floods etc. Even rivers in Punjab are drying up. Farming is getting worse but this is often not recogonised locally as a climate issue. People know what is going on but don’t understand the link with Climate Change.
People here that talk about ‘back home’ don’t talk about Climate Change. Theories of colonialism and racism don’t include Climate Change. E.g industrialization does not include discussion of colonialism. When looking at slavery it also does not include the economy or environmental impact. Sustainable agriculture existed in India way before British people came in. So-called ‘human activity’ is causing problems and the emission of gases from industrial operations by wealthy countries is doing the damage. Climate Change is a name for the symptom, is not talking about the history of the cause, the socio political cause and capitalism – this is all uncomfortable as its about industrialisation and profit making – politics and power and economy.
In the UK people start thinking about Climate Change when we have floods here, but not globally. For me Climate Change is all about race, industrial systems made in West. Historically the UK put forward arguments that all other races were inferior so it could invade them. They also used cultural power, for example using religion to enforce things, all part and parcel of a project to increase the power of European countries. All countries have their own issues within states. It was British colonies that fed British industries. There were always people that knew this was wrong, many grey areas.
Do you think that POC artists exploring the topic do so from a particular angle looking at specific subject matter? Is it more likely for White people to look at polar bears and melting ice caps?
I don’t know enough POC artists working in this area, and also don’t know depending what training they have what sort of popular form of Climate Change they might want to explore. Art education brainwashes people. Not all POC do art for the interests of POC. But there are definitely not enough doing it in Climate Change to answer this question satisfactorily, the sample size is too small.
Do you think the arts has the potential to educate and inform audiences about the climate challenge?
There is massive potential but it can also just become middle of the road, nothing will change. It does and there needs to be more work, radical education and more artists… people in the UK just don’t get it.
Do you think we need specific arts projects by and for diverse audiences to widen the impact and encourage change in society? Do we need diversity?
Yes. This is fundamental. I want to do follow up work with a Bangladeshi photographer and Bangladeshi communities in the UK. Bangladeshi communities just need a small nudge in the right direction – they already know a lot.
Too many POC stick to safe boxes, and do the easily funded stuff, not doing the edgy stuff. You can pick any topic and add a climate change angle to it – food and water, clothes, transport, concrete, the internet, … everything around us has a link with environmentalism. Given that it is everywhere it’s shocking that it does not get explored. It’s a shame that so much Climate Change art looks the same.
What else are your thoughts on this topic? What would you like to see more of and what is necessary?
We need focussed groups of artists in communities to have an in depth connection with particular countries, and their relationship to the UK. Very different to the usual stuff we see but more about how Climate Change is related to transport, manufacturing, cars, anything, from all artists including white folk. But I want to see some POC artists looking at how Climate Change is having an impact on Ghana, Bangladesh etc. It is sometimes harder for POC in the diaspora to get funded and have opportunity to get their work funded.
Kooj and the Virtual migrants have been around for a while, so if anyone would know of other POC artists looking at Climate Change it would be him, and he thinks there really are not that many. He states that POC tend to look at Climate Change from a different perspective to the White majority with a focus on people and inequality, injustice and race. Similarly to another artist I have interviewed he believes that POC artists in general stick to safe topics, often that are expected of them and easily fundable. He stresses that art can help make science easier to understand and accessible, so has a key role to play. Climate Art might get more funding but if not managed well or not very good may not change anything at all. There is also the suggestion of the arts sector being institutionally racist, so many challenges to face.
Myself and Kooj are part of an older generation and I have to remind myself of this when conducting this research. Certainly in pockets of London, the conversation about decolonising Climate Change with diverse audiences that includes many young people, are happening. Time is running out but I hope that younger people will rise up to the challenge more than my peers, who are more concerned with historical narratives in understanding themselves, exploring identity and celebrating culture and tradition. Whilst we absolutely need this we also need a concerted effort to shake up the status quo, and activists have always been considered as trouble-makers and frowned upon by the comfortable elite. In this case I am not simply pointing the finger at the middle class white male, it’s so easy to put all of the blame onto him when talking about diversity. No I am also talking about POC that also take up space, some gatekeepers and leaders that lead no progression or change, and we only seem to have enough room for a select few. Yes I am pointing the finger at them.
For an introduction to this series of articles see New Narratives on the Climate Story
This project has been supported by Creative Climate Leadership, a programme supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union