The artist is the harbinger of change.
So thought famed Toronto scholar and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, who, in fall 1966, likened art at its most significant to "a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it." In other words, change, be it cultural or climatic, is best conveyed not through cold, hard science, but within the emotional, human-size realm of the arts.
In light of this, and to pay tribute to Mr. McLuhan, who would have turned 100 this year, the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto is hosting an international conference and DEW Line Festival exploring art, media and culture. The six-day fest, which begins Nov. 5, will culminate in a concert on Nov. 10 featuring the Stars' Amy Millan and Patrick Watson and his band, the Wooden Arms.
Billed as the Climate Is Culture Concert, the show is co-presented by charity Cape Farewell, a UK-based non-profit that pairs together climate scientists and creative minds and sends them to far-flung locales such as the Arctic Circle in the hopes that the experience will inspire the artists to create art tied to climate change.
But fear not, this isn't Bono begging for change. The connection to the cause is much more subtle – author Ian McEwan's 2010 novel Solar was inspired largely by his 2005 Arctic voyage with Cape Farewell on a 100-foot schooner. Other expeditions have included artists such as Jarvis Cocker, Feist and Life of Pi author Yann Martel, who, after returning from an 18-day trip to the Andes, wrote a text to be read during a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3.
"The problem with mixing music and politics is, I don't think it's the job of the musician to tell people what to think," says Patrick Watson. "I'm not a scientist. My role is to open the audience's imagination, and then maybe inspire them to seek out the science behind the songs."
Likewise, you won't find Mr. Watson hocking Cape Farewell T-shirts after the show. "The art always takes centre stage," says Carolyn Taylor, executive director of Cape Farewell North America. And there's no mandate on the artist to make something directly related to the experience, even if you're one of the lucky to travel to the north on a schooner. Although, adds Ms. Taylor, "we certainly hope they do. After all, this is why most of them get involved in the first place."
The newly opened North American arm of the charity has its headquarters in Toronto inside the MaRS Discovery District building on College Street. Founded in 2000, MaRS is an independent research corporation that promotes medical, social innovation, engineering and information and communications research.
It's places such as MaRS and other environmentally minded groups such as Evergreen, coupled with Toronto's burgeoning arts scene, that drew Cape Farewell to open its new North American office in Toronto, says the organization's founder, David Buckland. But it was meeting former mayor David Miller – at a 2009 C40 conference that brought mayors from 40 cities across the globe together to discuss how to reduce a city's carbon footprint – that spurred Mr. Buckland to bring Cape Farewell to Toronto.
"David was the C40 chair, and I was so impressed with him," says Mr. Buckland. "He not only understood that art has the ability to get people to embrace science, but that solutions come on a local, city-size scale."
Mr. Miller is now chair of Cape Farewell North America's board of directors. "While nations talk, cities act," he says. "Citizens are well ahead of their governments on these issues … and the leadership is often provided by cities because city governments are closely connected to their residents."
"As much as I enjoyed going to the Arctic, climate change is about the way we live, and that's largely an urban existence," says Mr. Buckland, who chose the name Cape Farewell for two reasons. "When you say 'farewell' to someone, you're wishing them well, but you're also saying goodbye, for good. It's a watershed moment. The other thing is, if you're a sailor, and I am, and you're off a cape, you never hang around; it's a dangerous place to be, so you've got to decide: Are we going left or right? That's what Cape Farewell represents, a dynamic need to make positive decisions now."
Immediately following the Climate Is Culture concert, Cape Farewell North America will embark on a new form of expedition called Carbon 14. "Rather than an artist travelling to somewhere remote, directly experiencing climate change, and then returning to create a piece of art inspired by the experience, Carbon 14 will take the opposite approach," says Ms. Taylor. "An artist might embed himself on Bay Street as a way to understand climate change through an economic lens, for example."
"Climate change is about the way we live and adapt," says Mr. Buckland. "So you don't just put artists and scientists together, but also economists, architects, theologians. Sustainability isn't just about energy, but also things such as the economy. What is a sustainable economy?"
Mr. Buckland, an artist himself, got the idea to form Cape Farewell after working alongside a group of climate scientists who couldn't get the public or media's attention. "If the planet warms by two degrees, that's a crucial piece of information to a scientist, but it means nothing to most people," says Mr. Buckland. "You need an artist to bring the science back to the way we live, to a human scale."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Climate Is Culture Concert, Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. $35 ($30 for students). Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W. Tickets at 416-408-0208 or online at rcmusic.ca