Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts became the first museum in the United Kingdom to designate a curator for art and climate change, and it appointed none other than Filipino curator John Kenneth Paranada to the role.
Paranada assumed the position in October 2022.
Speaking to GMA News Online, Paranada said the creation of the role is "part of the museum's 50th anniversary program. The director [Jago Cooper] was telling me it's part of the museum's ethos to go back into this closer understanding of art and nature and ecologies and environment."
The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, located inside the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, opened in the '70s and quickly earned the reputation for being "genre-defying."
And its "emphasis on climate and sustainability enticed me," Paranada said. "I believe the climate crisis is one of our generation's most pressing, challenging, and complex issues."
Growing up in Ilocos Sur, Paranada's introduction to climate and the environment started at a very young age thanks to his environmentalist parents who worked at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
"Growing up, this was my education. 'Look at the trees, tell me what you're seeing. Observe.' This was my foundation, the core. They introduced me to climate change at a very young age — obviously, I couldn't understand it then, only clicking when all these catastrophes started appearing," he says on a Zoom call in January.
He got his bachelor's degree at De La Salle University Manila, took up his masters at the University of the Philippines and in 2013, got a post-graduate scholarship to study the Philosophy of Nature in Paris with Bruno Latour, "one the trailblazing philosophers of the 21st century."
Paranada says it was when Latour quoted from British scientist James Lovelock's book, "The Vanishing Face of Gaia" that his deeper engagement with the climate crisis really started.
"Lovelock posited that all forms of life, combined with the physical systems around them, are vital to regulating the Earth's delicate chemistry and temperature, which in turn keeps conditions stable enough for life to continue. He termed this process of life as Gaia, after the Greek goddess of the Earth," Paranada narrated.
"The likening of our planet to a goddess has such a mythological and magical undertone to it, inviting us to see the Earth itself as a living, breathing entity. I found these ideas deeply poignant," Paranada said.
He found himself plunged even deeper into the issue of climate change when he flew back home to the Philippines in November 2013 for a holiday. Typhoon Yolanda had just struck Eastern Samar, killing and displacing some 7,350 people and destroying and damaging more than a million houses. It is famously the Philippines' worst typhoon on record.
Paranada became witness to the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. "The news, the catastrophe and the devastation. What is happening? That really impacted my desire: How do we change society through art?"
As climate change becomes more and more urgent, museums all over the world are slowly appointing a curator for art and climate. The Canada's Royal Ontario Museum is widely believed to appoint the first curator of climate in the world, naming environmental scientist Soren Brothers to the position in 2021.
The Sainsbury Centre in the UK followed suit, appointing Paranada to the role late last year.
In holding the historic position, Paranada is working closely with the Tyndall Center for Climate Research of the University of East Anglia, which he says is "the first university in Europe to dedicate the study of changing environment." He adds he is constantly validating "if the science is correct in my writing."
"We're also going to be working with the scientists from MIT, from Cambridge in Oxford, across Europe to translate hard data into something visual and experiential for people to relate and understand no matter their status."
"There are numerous ways to engage with the overlap between art and climate change," Paranada says.
He intends to break away from the usually bleak, often depressing narratives of climate crisis by prioritizing hope and promoting "the possibility of change, without reducing the very serious threats the climate crisis poses on humanity."
Paranada continues: "I want to have a frank, honest and urgent conversation. The climate crisis is the most significant and most pervasive threat to humanity, and to sugarcoat this truth would be a disservice to the audience."
In his curatorial exhibit, Sediment Spirit, Paranada intends to "highlight art and ideas that demonstrate a shared understanding that nature – understood as a living ecosystem – is something of which humans are actively a part."
"I will showcase artworks that demonstrate the fact that there is no escape from our shared responsibility towards Earth's survival. They elucidate the impending consequences of our impact on the planet. The artists working on explaining the complexities of the climate crisis represent our contemporary canaries in the coal mine – warning us of the future and allowing us to imagine a more sustainable way of living."
"As a curator in a public museum, my role is to harness the power of storytelling through art to captivate, enchant, warn and inspire audiences from all walks of life about the vast impending consequences of the climate crisis."
Sediment Spirit will open in October 2023 and will run for six months. It is comprised of three different shows — one on plastic, another on indigenous art, and then finally the titular show, after which "there will be loads of programs to activate all the works together — artist talks, a performance, a discussion, a workshop."
"What I want the audience to get from Sediment Spirit is an understanding of how intrinsically we're part of nature and that we cannot control it anymore in ways that our former knowledge dictates. That's the first thing," Paranada said.
"On a personal level, I want people to have that deep reflection of trying to unlock our ecological unconscious. That notion that we need to address this problem collectively. It doesn't happen automatically or in 24 hours, but the moment we start considering all these things, the moment we allow it to enter our inner consciousness, it starts to brew," he adds.
Before taking on the job, Paranada was a curator of performance and engagement at contemporary art gallery, Zabludowicz Art Collection in London.
"I was mainly doing art performances and access programs, which are more focused on broadening the audience base of the gallery — so it's like programming how visually impaired people can go to the museum and access art. It was making sure art is accessible, removing barriers, and creating a social and nurturing space. This is the museum of the 21st century. It's no longer just for the elite. It's for everyone who wants to understand what art is." he said. — GMA Integrated News