Sharing fears and truths about climate change

Crookes Professor Sean Holman (right) with Writing student Sandra Ibrahim

Recent climate-related disasters—from heatwaves and wildfires to floods and hurricanes—make it clear that we need to prepare for climate change, while also trying to prevent it. Journalists and scientists must work together to do that. By improving media coverage, the public can make the best decisions possible about the most pressing problem of our time. To help support this work, humanitarian and political activist Wayne Crookes funded a professorship in Environmental and Climate Journalism in UVic’s Department of Writing through a gift of $1.875 million.

Sean Holman, who assumed the role in September 2021, says the power of the professorship is the marriage of both teaching and research. It allows him to “involve students and members of the broader community in this research in very direct ways, so that they can take action on climate change.”

Establishing a baseline for good climate coverage

One of Holman’s first accomplishments as Crookes Professor was to co-lead the first ever Canadian study comparing perceptions of climate change coverage in three groups: journalists, climate scientists and the public. The resulting Climate Coverage in Canada Report was published in November 2021, shortly after the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. The report offered recommendations for how climate change reporting could be improved, including how scientists and journalists could better work together.

“Until now we haven’t had a baseline to establish what good climate coverage should look like,” says Holman. “Now, as a result of this survey, we are getting a better idea about what climate scientists would like to see in the news media and how they would like the media to reflect the scientific evidence that surrounds climate change.”

Climate Disaster Project

Crookes’ gift extends beyond the professorship to fund other research and outreach initiatives such as the Climate Disaster Project. In the project’s manifesto, Holman writes: “We are already losing countless lives and livelihoods to climate change. That means we are all climate disaster survivors. But we don’t see ourselves in that way, so we feel alone in our experiences.”

The project brings together students at UVic and several partner universities to collect and share the stories of people who have lived through climate change-related disasters. Those stories will be published and broadcast by the project’s media partners and then added to a publicly available memory vault. The vault will also serve as a launchpad for investigative solutions journalism projects about climate disasters and a virtual gathering place for anyone who has experienced them. APTN  (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) aired the first set of stories highlighting the work of the Climate Disaster Project on June 3.

So much of the narrative about climate change has been around ‘can we stop it?’, without acknowledging that it’s happening. The hope is that by creating these stories, we can build community, and by building community, we can create hope.”

—Sean Holman

Trauma-informed journalism

UVic student Sandra Ibrahim participated in the project through her undergraduate writing class. To prepare for interviewing climate disaster survivors, students in the class learned trauma-informed interview techniques and practiced them with each other. This way of interviewing relies on gradually building trust between the interviewer and interviewee. Practices such as informed consent, providing interview questions in advance, sharing transcripts after the interview and self-care are built into the process to help the interviewee feel comfortable and confident in sharing their story.

For Holman, one of the most fulfilling aspects of the donor-funded professorship is teaching a course that combines classroom experience with a pioneering real-world project. “I’ve always wanted to be able to teach this kind of transformative course, a course that doesn’t just have an effect inside the classroom, but also outside the classroom—and is grounded in both research and social change.”

Reflecting on the class, Ibrahim says: “One of the things Sean said that I’ve taken to heart is, ‘What if the truth was a gift?’. What if sharing pain, insecurities—or grief, in my case—what if sharing that was a gift, even if it makes us feel vulnerable?”

Shifting focus

Holman believes the project could create a perceptual shift for those sharing and hearing stories. For example, for students in his class, the collective realization that they weren’t alone in their fears about the future helped foster a sense of community. Ibrahim described the process of sharing in community as “absolutely healing. It may not solve the problem of climate change, but it solves the problem of loneliness and despair and grief about climate change.”

Perhaps that’s the crux of why Crookes’ visionary gift is so important, not just to UVic, but to the world. It permits the sharing of truth—a truth belonging as much to one individual as to humankind. It shifts the focus from data and temperature percentages to empathy and shared experience, from the enormity of prevention to the reality of adaptation.

All this would never have happened without Wayne Crookes. It was his visionary concern for the humanitarian cost of climate change and his belief that society can be mobilized around this experience that made this possible.”

—Sean Holman

—Sarah Tarnopolsky

Related Links

Latest ONC collaboration focuses on data sonification

How do you use music to address the climate crisis? If you’re Colin Malloy, you fuse your current status as a PhD candidate with both the School of Music and UVic’s Computer Science with your background as a percussionist and apply to become the latest Artist-in-Residence with Ocean Networks Canada.

An award-winning percussionist, composer and audio programmer specializing in contemporary solo and chamber percussion and music technology, Malloy is also a multi-instrumentalist who performs on steelpan, guitar, bass and the Japanese koto.

Update: Hear works created during his 2022 artistic residency when Colin performs on January 26, 2023, at UVic’s School of Music

He also appeared as part of the Art and Science” webinar with Science and Society Dialogues in July 2022, where he joined Sara Black (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) in discussing their work at the intersection of art and science.

Data sonification

As the third Artist-in-Residence with Ocean Networks Canada, part of a continuing partnership with Fine Arts, Malloy frequently incorporates nature sounds into his practice as a composer, so it’s a natural step for him to tap into ONC’s vast hydrophone arrays of underwater microphones to create “data sonification” during his residency.

“We’re all familiar with data visualizationwhere you take data and turn it into a visual image that can be interpreted,” says Malloy. “Data sonification is when you take data and turn it into a musical aspect.”

And while most people only hear the steelpan as part of their summer soundtrack, Malloy is looking further back to its origins from actual steel drums used by the oil industry in the early 20th century. “People think of it as a really bright happy instrument from the Caribbean, one that everyone associates with very fun, festive music,” he says. “But a lot of the music I perform on it really subverts that image.”

The arts and the climate crisis

Much like previous ONC Artists-in-Residence Dennis Gupa and Colton Hash, Malloy is passionate about using his artistic practice to make change in the world. “Hearing things that represent what’s going on in our environment can really create a different level of engagement for people, because it’s not just an abstract musical sound it,” he says.

Back in May 2022, Malloy was one of four faculty members who participated in the Fine Arts Creative Futures webinar “Documenting the Climate Crisis” (which you can watch via this YouTube link).

“It’s important to get your message out to people who need to hear it,” says Malloy. “For me, I want my music to go out to people who are either uninspired or a little skeptical . . . you want the listener to have an emotional reaction that makes them want to do something.”

Malloy actively seeks ways to incorporate environmental concerns into his creative practice.  “We can all sit around and agree that climate change is an issue but, if we’re not doing anything about it, then we’re not actually helping or making a change,” he says.  

“I’m a very action-oriented person. Small steps can really add up to a long journey, but if we’re not taking those steps, then we’re not actually helping or making a change.”

Best in her class: Victoria Medal winner Caitlin Wareing-Oksanen

Caitlin Wareing-Oksanen with Dr Allana Lindgren, Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts 

Students come to UVic for a variety of reasons: some because it’s close (or far) from home, others because of a certain program or faculty member. For outstanding Art History & Visual Studies student Caitlin Wareing-Oksanen, UVic had a different appeal when she first heard about it from a recruiter at her Comox high school on Vancouver Island.

“UVic honestly seemed more fun than the other BC universities,” she recalls. “The recruiter talked about having glow-in-the-dark dodgeball, which was a major selling point for me.”

But while Wareing-Oksanen may have come for the fun, she’s leaving as the best in her class: as the recipient of the undergraduate Victoria Medal, she graduates with the highest GPA in the entire Faculty of Fine Arts.

“I cried when I found out about the award,” she recalls. “I got an email from the Dean saying she wanted to meet with me and I thought I was in trouble. It was very overwhelming, but incredibly touching: it felt like all my hard work was really coming together.”

A vibrant intellectual curiosity

AHVS professor and Associate Dean of Fine Arts, Dr. Eva Baboula, wrote the award citation for Wareing-Oksanen that was presented at convocation on June 15.

“Some students stand out for their academic talent, potential and personal fortitude,” noted Baboula. “Cate brought a vibrant intellectual curiosity to each one of her classes. An experienced traveler with a keen eye for intercultural connections, she is a model community builder and natural leader, and has become an ideal ambassador for the study of art history.”

Not only was Wareing-Oksanen a top grade-earner, but she also

All of which is doubly remarkable, considering she left UVic after her first year to care for her mother, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “When I came back, the faculty was so supportive,” she recalls. “Professors welcomed me and remembered my name.”

A great place for a co-op job!

One elective can change your life

While she entered UVic unsure of the specific direction her studies would take, Wareing-Oksanen quickly realized AHVS was the place for her after signing up for one art history elective in her first year of general studies—taught, in fact, by Dr. Baboula.

“I feel so lucky to have had her as my first instructor,” she says. “She sold me on art history right away. She was engaging and interesting, and she really encouraged the insights of all her students . . . I realized this was a department that was encouraging of questions and was interested in helping you find the answers, wherever they may lead.”

Her experiences in the department and position as an events and engagement assistant at the AGGV led her to realize the importance of breaking down the perceived barriers of museums and art galleries. “So many people say they don’t understand art, but they engage with images on Instagram all the time,” she says. “When you digitize art collections and make them available online, it helps people can connect on an emotional level in their own space.”

The future looks bright

After being offered post-graduate placements in multiple prestigious institutions in both Canada and the UK, Wareing-Oksanen has accepted a place at the University of Edinburgh to study for a Master’s in Global Premodern Art. While it was flattering to have multiple graduate offers, she feels the U of E was ultimately the right program for her.

“This is a way of pushing myself outside of the Eurocentric narrative. It’s so important that we look at art history through more than just a western lens. We need to look at world art history not just as examples but as having their own canon in the context of their own cultures.”

Following her Master’s, Wareing-Oksanen hopes to work in the UK before embarking on a planned PhD. “I’d like to get more curatorial experience, work towards getting people more engaged with art,” she says.

Wareing-Oksanen in Portugal

The last word

Looking back on her time at UVic, does she have any advice for future students? “Always ask your professors for help: 10 minutes at office hours can make all the difference. It’s important to build a relationship with them, so they know who you are.”

Finally, only one question remains: did she ever play glow-in-the-dark dodgeball?

“No,” she says with a bright laugh. “I was too busy studying!”

Public talk by Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander’s “The Scroll” (vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, and tea on hand-prepared wasli paper, 1989-1990)

The Visual Arts department invites you to a public lecture by Shahzia Sikander, a candidate for the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Decolonization and Transformational Artistic Practice.

Please join us at 7pm Tuesday, July 12, in room 103 of UVic’s Fine Arts building (masks encouraged) or via Zoom:

A pioneering Pakistani American artist, Shahzia Sikander is widely celebrated for expanding and subverting pre-modern and classical Central and South-Asian miniature painting traditions and launching the form known as neo-miniature. By bringing the traditional and historical into dialogue with contemporary international art practices, Sikander’s multivalent work examines colonial archives to readdress orientalist narratives in western art history. Interrogating ideas of language, trade, empire, and migration through imperial and feminist perspectives. Sikander’s paintings, video animations, mosaics and sculpture explore gender roles and sexuality, cultural identity, racial narratives, and colonial and postcolonial histories.

Recipient of the MacArthur genius grant and US Medal of Art, Sikander’s work has been exhibited and collected internationally including at MoMA NY, Whitney Museum, Guggenheim Bilbao, MAXXI Museum Rome, MOT Japan, Asia Society HK, and Jesus College, Cambridge, UK. A traveling survey of her early works opened at the Morgan Library and Museum New York in 2021 and traveled to the RISD Museum and closed in June 2022 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

If awarded, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Decolonization and Transformational Artistic Practice will establish locally and globally impactful innovations through interconnecting artistic, Indigenous, and global perspectives across a program of transdisciplinary research and creative work.

From a ragged edge, Daniel Laskarin explores possible futures

An artist and a professor with the Department of Visual Arts, Daniel Laskarin’s practice is object based, materially and philosophically rooted; it investigates our experience of images as a form of thought and of objects as other bodies, which in art may give sensory experience to consciousness. 

His approach encompasses diverse media, drawn from industrial materials and processes, sometimes incorporating photography, video, optics, robotics, installation and sound. As well as both national and international gallery exhibitions, he has been involved with set design, public image projections and large scale public art commissions around the Pacific Northwest.

This year, Laskarin’s work was featured in the prestigious Dean’s Lecture Series with UVic’s Division of Continuing Studies. His talk, titled “From a Ragged Edge: Possible Futures,” offered insight into how research and creative practice continually reshapes the way we live and think. 

“With memory as image and sculpture as the abstract body, time and physical experience may give form to uncertainty as a positive force,” he explains. “This talk frames my practice in terms of memory, collapse and art that offers imaginative prospects for a future not yet determined.”

When it comes to viewing art, Laskarin encourages people to not fall into the trap of assuming art always refers to something else or something outside of itself. 

“Art proposes a different kind of knowledge,” he says. “I would hope people can find a way to approach art the way they would if they came across a beautiful flower or a rock in the forest: a thing that is its own self. We might have a lot of questions about that thing, we might find resemblances to other things in it­—but, as viewers, we’re still confronted with the thing itself.”