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Writing ‘Life Notes Instead of Suicide Notes’: Three Conversations and a Sound Installation

Written by Godela Weiss-Sussex |

Over the past few months, the School of Advanced Study (SAS), Senate House Library and London-based arts organisation Artangel have collaborated in creating and convening events that have explored the experience of weather events and climate change. The collaboration is at the heart of the ongoing work of SAS to develop a Research Hub to promote and facilitate research in the transdisciplinary and transmedial field of Environmental Humanities.

Three conversations staged between July and October this year have brought together discussants from the fields of Science, the Humanities, and the creative arts. Stressing the importance of various and interdisciplinary approaches to climate knowledge production speaking to one another, these events have complemented the audio installation A Thousand Words for Weather, which is hosted by Senate House Library until spring 2023. 

The installation project was conceived and developed by environmental historian and author, Jessica J. Lee. She worked with a multilingual team of poets and translators, encouraging them to express the sensory experience of weather in a selection of key words that focused individual experience and thus made it shareable. The same team then translated these words into and between various languages, and in this way increased that shareability in multiple ways. With sound artist Claudia Molitor joining the team, the project was further expanded to building on the multilingual treasure chest of words and interpreting it by transforming it into abstract sound. The result is the installation that is currently available to viewers in Senate House Library, floors 4, 5 and 6, and that blends information on climate change – in the form of codified knowledge, i.e. scientific books presenting historical and current knowledge on weather events and their experience – with the more visceral, affective experience of the soundscape hovering in the Library space and accompanying the reading process. Very deservedly, the installation received a rave review when it opened in June this year, the Observer’s Laura Cumming calling it ‘mesmerisingly subtle’.

The conversations hosted by SAS and Artangel around this project in the summer and autumn this year deepened the interdisciplinary aspect of the work, and the awareness that it is via different aspects of knowledge production – scientific, experiential, and creative – that we can gain a more profound understanding of what weather and climate mean to us and how we can develop new ways of thinking. 

The first of these conversations took place on 21 July, when Michael Morris of Artangel invited author Jeanette Winterson to speak with Professor Friederike Otto of Imperial College, London, one of the leading international specialists in Climate Science.

Jeanette Winterson, a writer who has always been profoundly engaged with the social reality we live in, with issues of gender, of artificial intelligence and climate change, was perfectly placed to draw out, discuss and contextualise Otto’s work on extreme weather events. At the heart of their conversation was the urgent question of how to act rapidly, and with scientific precision in the face of environmental change – a question that is at least partly addressed by the World Weather attribution initiative, co-founded by Otto: the initiative is designed to overcome the time-lag caused by lengthy scientific peer-reviewing systems, and provides robust assessments on the role of climate change in the aftermath of weather events such as droughts, heat waves and storms. A recording of the conversation is available at the World Weather Network.

Two further events were co-convened by Jessica J. Lee, Artangel and the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies (ILCS) in September and October this year.