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Art to create empathy with the Arctic


Environmental artist Kat Austen, who developed her multi-media performance The Matter of the Soul in conversation with researchers at the Priestley International Centre for Climate, has performed the iconic work at the UN climate conference in Poland.

Kat, who was Cultural Institute Fellow in Arts and Science 2017–18, used her time at the University of Leeds to explore the capacity of art to engender empathy with the process of climate change.

The Matter of the Soul, which combines music, sculpture and video installation, was performed in Katowice, Poland, on 1 December, accompanied by three dancers with choreography by Kasia Witek.

Kat Austen said: “Time is short to act on climate change. I’m honoured that The Matter of the Soul can contribute to the discourse, and thrilled to have worked with Kasia Witek to realise this work at Greenpeace’s Climate Hub at COP24.”

“Playing” Arctic water

The Matter of the Soul uses water from the Arctic to highlight the effects of climate change. Austen explores the changes to ocean chemistry caused by the melting of Arctic ice using hacked lab equipment to transform them into musical instruments.

The culmination of her fellowship was the premiere performance of The Matter of the Soul as a symphony performance at Opera North’s Howard Assembly Room in Leeds. Austen “played” samples of Arctic water in a live performance of a three-part work based on field recordings from a trip to the Canadian High Arctic, accompanied by pianist Matthew Bourne and cornet player Alex Bonney (below).

Telling the story of changes to the waters around Baffin Island in the Canadian high Arctic, the symphony incorporated snippets from interviews with people living in the region as well as visitors to it. Austen also highlighted the role played by socio-politics and culture in the Arctic’s physical changes.

An emotional relationship to the environment?

Following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report urging drastic changes to how we live in order to avoid catastrophic global warming, Austen saidː “I’m asking again the questions that inspired this work: in the face of insufficient action on climate change to date, can art prompt an emotional relationship to the environment, and can that motivate us to act differently?”

“The Matter of the Soul combines music with sculpture to engender empathy with the process of dispersal and transformation in the Arctic. I wove together narratives of human migration, cultural changes and the movement of water from ice to ocean in this fragile and iconic region as a way to emotionally engage with the complexity of climate change.”

  • Kat Austen is a Berlin-based artist and Cultural Fellow in Art and Science at the University of Leeds. She is 2017–18 Artist in the Arctic for Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute, sponsored by Bonhams and OneOcean. She lectures on art and citizen science at University College London’s Art and Science BASc
  • Research for The Matter of the Soul was supported as part of the Artist in the Arctic programme by Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute, One Ocean Expeditions and Bonhams. The scientific instruments were donated by the Chemistry Department of University College London, and the symphony was also supported by Ice Alive.

Main image: photo by F. Glowinski