Halcyon Fog is an immersive, multi-faceted exhibition accompanied by speaking events. Through projections, video and digital art, the exhibition aims to get viewers to reflect more deeply on their own involvement in these destructive systems and to break down the barrier between internal reactions and action.
Kelly Richardson is an artist and professor at the University of Victoria who has worked on environmental themes for 20 years. It would have been nice to move on, she says, but 20 years later we are at a breaking point. “We live in a time when scientists have told us we’re in the sixth mass extinction event,” Richardson says in his artist speech, his voice unflinching.
Richardson’s goal is clear: she uses art to communicate what science doesn’t. Art has the ability to affect the head and the heart – in other words, people’s consciousness to react. “For me, what artists can do is get people to think about the world differently. Science has always warned us of this future in which we now live. Why did we allow ourselves to come to this place? Everything science says is what Indigenous Knowledge Keepers have said – forever.
Through two large-scale video projections and two other video installations, Halcyon Fog invites viewers to reflect on their current lives and “what they are doing to usher in or alter these futures. It can be done on a personal level and it can be done in such a way that you challenge the government on its priorities. While Richardson sees us all as having responsibilities, “we also have this monster of a planet-eating machine.”
If we had continued to do these cultural fires that happened 50 years ago, we would not have seen this size of forest fires.
As an example, Richardson shares that she deliberately chose to become a vegetarian when she was a young adult. “But that hasn’t stopped the bank from funding fossil fuel development, which of course is causing climate change and burning the planet. So the problem is definitely the systems we live by – all of them need to be challenged. An extraordinary challenge to these systems must occur for us to change the future.
The exhibition grew out of Kamloops Art Gallery curator Charo Neville’s concern for deforestation in British Columbia. “I was very interested in bringing the forest to the gallery as a way to get people interested in what’s left,” says Richardson.
But she wants the conversation to go beyond the big trees: “The biological richness of these ancient ecosystems is extraordinary. And we will never get it back. Every time we save an area, we kill everything in it. Emissions are another matter – “as soon as we cut down these trees, we release an absolutely huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere”. This contributes to climate change, which accelerates wildfires to form megafires.
These megafires have affected vast swathes of land – and the people who have been stewards of these lands since time immemorial. This exhibit is supported by Secwepemc voices such as Angela Kane, CEO of Secwepemc Restoration Stewardship Society, who spoke at a Halcyon Fog event on wildfire recovery and restoration in Secwepemcúl’ecw. She was joined by Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, a doctoral candidate and public researcher at UBC’s Faculty of Forestry, who has worked with Kane on restoring and rehabilitating wildfire areas – including the eight communities that were affected by the huge Elephant Hill fire in 2017.
“Some people thought of it in terms of rehabilitation,” says Dickson-Hoyle, “assessing what was damaged by the fire or by the firefighting activities. For example, sensors have been burned, firewalls have been installed – let’s go back and rebuild those sensors and feed those firewalls with weeds. It’s a very short-term and fairly reactive approach. Recovery is a long-term process – “It’s not just about putting things back the way they were, because the way things worked didn’t necessarily work like a resilient forest or a well-managed ecosystem. Terrestrial recovery is linked to longer-term restorations, such as the restoration of habitats and ecosystems.
Kane agrees, “Recovery isn’t just about the landscape, it’s a recovery from a community perspective, the social elements. This is the impact the fire has had on communities, their mental health and well-being. Basically it’s a grieving process because it’s the loss of a way of life. It is a loss for this interdependence, which is what they are. For First Nations, it’s not just the tangible element, it’s the emotional element that goes with it. And learning to live differently after a fire, learning to accept what’s left out there, learning to rebuild and find those new medicines and plants there, and replenishing wildlife and food sources.
“We’ve seen the impact of climate change and heat with these larger megafires,” Kane says. “And poorly managed forests. We stopped burning years ago and we see the effects today. If we had continued to do these cultural fires that happened 50 years ago, we would not have seen this size of forest fires.
“The more people hear our story, the more people will begin to understand the land impacts of past forest management practices and understand that traditional knowledge and Indigenous knowledge have a place in forest fire prevention and management. forests,” Kane said. “It just needs to change the way we look at forest management at the landscape level – looking at the forest as a whole, an interconnected landscape.”
Immersive installations take us to the sublime
It looks like an idyllic forest scene, with fireflies providing an archetypal nostalgia, until, panning, the viewer increasingly recognizes that they are drones. Machines that measure the destruction of humans using machines to deforest. It offers a simultaneous sense of profound beauty and terrible destruction. The feeling is sublime, something that also captures Richardson’s attention.
“I am interested in the sublime – the highest emotion we can feel, how it was originally conceived. The feeling of being in the face of this enormity, threat and simultaneous beauty. Richardson describes it as if akin to the sensation of being on a cliff overlooking the abyss: “You can feel the emotion and the feeling. Recognizing the beauty that is there, and at the same time the clear threat to you, should you take a step ahead.
Richardson shares, “I wanted to end the exhibit on the note that the window is always open, that it is closing quickly, but there is hope. Personally, I don’t have much hope that our governments will act on this, because they never have. They just never, ever took responsibility for what they should. And, therefore, that really only leaves one option and that is for people to stand up and make the change – force the change.
Odette Auger, Sagamok Anishnawbek, is invited to the territories of Klahoose, Homalco and Tla’amin. His journalism can be found at Watershed Sentinel, IndigiNews, APTN and the Toronto Star, among others.