Haley Mellin On ‘A Century of Displacement: Climate & Mass Migration’ at the Whitney

“There is a different type of time that is present in an art exhibition," says Josh Kline. "Being physically present in the space, the works reach you in a way that maybe the glut of media possibly cannot."

This past weekend, the Whitney Museum of American Art staged “A Century of Displacement: Climate & Mass Migration,” a series of talks by Dr. Haley Mellin, Dr. Benjamin Strauss, Amali Tower and David Wallace-Wells that expand on the ecological ideas explored in the landmark survey at the museum, Josh Kline: Project for a New American Century.

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Left to right: David Wallace-Wells, Amali Tower, Haley Mellin, Ben Strauss, and Josh Kline. “A Century of Displacement: Climate & Mass Migration,” public program at the Whitney Museum, July 9, 2023. Photograph by Filip Wolak

The most recent works in the show consist of sci-fi installations, sculptures and videos that explore a future America beset by various climate and labor crises, including one that portrays a flooded version of New York, ala Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. We spoke with the panel’s moderator and co-organizer Dr. Mellin about how it came about and what the art world can do to prevent such disasters.

How did this series of talks come together?

I think it came out of shared conversations on environmental justice, land conservation, biodiversity, and global meta-crises during the past decade. Josh Kline, and the curator of the exhibition at the Whitney, Christopher Lew, sent an email over the winter with the aim of presenting programming on climate and sea level rise at the museum. We worked on this in collaboration with the museum’s Education Department. Programming of this kind is not currently common at art museums, and for it to occur at the Whitney, a museum built next to a tidal estuary, with its history in education, made sense.

What was the aim of the series?

Facticity. The program bought together activists, advocates, and researchers to discuss and educate. Ben Strauss shared an overview of recent sea level science and offered projections for this century as to the more dramatic sea level rise that different levels of warming could, and potentially will, lock-in. Amali Tower spoke about global climate displacement and presented a holistic picture of both slow-onset and fast-onset climate events driving and intersecting to force population displacements. David Wallace-Wells spoke about how to live in, and make sense of, an age of emergency that is also an age of rapid normalization; for example, normalizing the reality of 1-in-500-year storms that happen yearly now.

What does Josh Kline’s work articulate about climate change?

From my experience, the Climate Change chapter of work explores a future defined by migration and the accelerating reality of climate-related displacement. The work illustrates the historic effects of carbon emissions from the industrialization of the global north, how fast climate change is unfolding, and the undeniable and unjust way it is driving mass displacement and global suffering to largely affect the poorest and least adaptable communities. As coastlines are lost to rising seas, tens and later hundreds of millions of people will become refugees. The work exhibits how an artist can move dialogues forward in a direct manner and how art can center on personal, lived experiences.

As an artist, what is your experience of the work?

Art can play an effective role in communicating the climate crisis. My experience is that the work asks, “Does accountability for this crisis rest on individuals or government policies? Who is responsible to fix the climate?” Some of my notes include: sand from Coney Island, sedimentation from the Potomac River, poetry by the artist, melting buildings and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Components of the chapter on Climate Change are on exhibition at the Whitney Museum from the Adaptation and Personal Responsibility series, and the full chapter will be exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles next year, with support from the museum’s Environmental Council.

Why do you think museums have been slow to embrace ecological issues?

Ten years ago, these conversations weren’t happening actively, except in a few pockets, like at the Tate. In the past two or three years, the embrace, interest, accountability, care or curiosity, depending on which institution you are referencing, has evolved. For example, the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami and the Hirshhorn have done committed work. Museums are beginning to calculate their carbon emissions to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere from exhibition activities. CO2 is both odorless and colorless. It is something one can’t sense and thus can’t quantify without the calculations. That said, while we can’t see CO2, daily we can see the effect of its accumulation in the atmosphere, such as the Orange Skies over Manhattan in June 2023.

What is your experience with the Whitney Museum?

When I moved to New York, I taught at the Studio Museum in Harlem and studied at the Whitney’s Independent Study program downtown, led by Ron Clark. It was an effective and affordable education for an artist, and I received a tuition reduction for keeping a part of the study space clean. My experience was a specific and critical education, working with and listening to people such as Okwui Enwezor, Benjamin Buchloh and Andrea Fraser. The museum’s director, Adam Weinberg, met with us as students, and that was memorable. I think that the type of atmosphere that we produce—educational and otherwise—is important to keep in our awareness.

Can you define Climate?

The word climate refers to the state of the atmosphere over time, it is defined generally as “long-term weather.” We are releasing unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide into the global atmosphere, creating a climate emergency. The planet today, in 2023, is at least 1.2 degrees Celsius—2.2 degrees Fahrenheit—hotter than it was before the industrial revolution and half of all carbon emissions that we’ve produced in the entire history of humanity from the burning of fossil fuels have been released in the last thirty years. Last week, the Earth reached the hottest day ever recorded, and it did so repeatedly, for four days in a row.

How can we effectively communicate about the climate crisis?

In-person experiences can be effective communicators, especially within the context of a community. As two fellow speakers said during our conversational period, changing a habit in regard to sustainability, or learning a climate fact, and then sharing it with friends, can be a force multiplier. In a recent talk co-orchestrated by Luise Faurschou at Art 2030, and Carson Chan at the Emilio Ambasz Institute at MoMA, Josh Kline noted, “There is a different type of time that is present in an art exhibition. Being physically present in the space, the works reach you in a way that maybe the glut of media possibly cannot. People spend longer with art, and they take it seriously in another way.”

What makes David Wallace-Wells so good at communicating about it?

Possibly his storyteller’s ability to share facts and experiences that unfold in time—whether that be a talk, an article or a book. For their presentations in this series, “A Century of Displacement: Climate & Mass Migration,” both David Wallace-Wells and Amali Tower discussed the current deformations of the climate and its global cost to all species—and the absolute inequity of the producers of greenhouse gasses being the in Global North, while the most suffering and impact will be on the global South, in countries like Somalia. Their visualizations connected. Connection is a pivotal step in the learning process.

What do you hope people took away from the talks?

Action.

Haley Mellin On ‘A Century of Displacement: Climate & Mass Migration’ at the Whitney