Still from Flood Barrier by Catherine Yass
Courtesy of the artist
In this monthly column, Louisa Buck looks at how the art world is responding to the environmental and climate crisis.
On the evening of 31 January 1953 a devastating flood caused by the lethal combination of a high spring tide and a heavy storm surge in the North Sea wreaked catastrophic damage and loss of life in Scotland, England, Belgium and the Netherlands. The North Sea flood was one of the major peacetime disasters of the 20th century and it resulted in a radical rethinking of coastal defences when it became evident that the majority of deaths could have been avoided if proper provision had been in place.
Being built on a flood plain, London was especially vulnerable and the Great Flood, as it was also known, prompted the construction of a high-tech flood barrier across the Thames at Woolwich. In addition, another colossal concrete structure was also built as additional support a few miles further east downriver at Barking. This Barking Creek Barrier was unveiled in 1983 on the site of the village of Creekmouth, a village destroyed by the deluge of 1953.
Portrait of Catherine Yass
Photo: Jimmy Lee
Now, as our climate emergency tips into climate catastrophe and rising sea levels pose a greater threat than ever before to coastlines around the UK and worldwide, this dire situation has thrown this year’s joint-70th anniversary of the Great Flood and 40th birthday of the Barking Creek Barrier into sharp relief. These days we don’t need a freak surge to cause devastation: year on year, thanks to current weather conditions, the Thames and Barking flood barriers are already being subjected to many more activations than they were originally designed for, an overuse which will inevitably impact their lifespan and effectiveness.
The dramatic Barking Barrier with its pair of 40-metre-high towers holding aloft a 320-tn horizontal gate has the starring role in a new film by Catherine Yass. Flood Barrier has been commissioned by Create London as part of Breaking Waves, a programme of art and community activities exploring issues around climate change by marking the dual anniversaries of the barrier and the event that brought it into being. Over the course of Yass’s film the barrier slowly—and somewhat ominously—descends while seagulls swoop around and through the colossal concrete structure. “To me, it looks like this massive guillotine that signals all of our collective guilt,” Yass says, adding that "it seems quite clumsy and outmoded, and the fact that it’s closing doesn’t necessarily make you feel any safer".
Still from Flood Barrier by Catherine Yass
Courtesy of the artist
Sometimes filmed using a drone, sometimes shot on analogue film on a vintage Bolex 16mm wind-up camera, this east London landmark is presented from dramatically different angles and perspectives—at times even flipping upside down. We are given a wheeling, swooping seagull’s-eye viewpoint, with Yass observing that "for the birds, the barrier is of little consequence. They fly through the barrier, they have a completely different relationship to it". Rather less lyrically, she points out that the large local seagull population is due to a proliferation of insects attracted to the nearby Beckton sewage works, while also noting that the adjacent Roding River, a tributary of the Thames, apparently has the highest number of "forever chemicals" of any river in England. "These birds may look like they are just swanning through the barrier but their life is actually being threatened by their environment and all these manmade toxins."
An additional sense of disquiet and disorientation comes from the footage being punctuated by intermittent flares of vivid red and yellow, which is mainly caused by light leaking into the old fashioned camera. Yass sees these colour flashes as analogies for the way that the birds might view their surroundings, having found out that avian eyes have four colour cones, whereas humans have just three. "Birds see thousands more colours than we do," she says.
Some of this coloured footage has also been shot using special filters by local Barking and Dagenham students with special educational needs, and in places they have also contributed ambient recordings to the sound track. For while Yass wants Flood Barrier to raise awareness about the climate crisis and “our hopeless strategies to deal with its effects rather than addressing the causes”, she is also keen for the film to challenge standard perceptions and viewpoints and to be a point of discussion around the concerns of all Barking Barrier’s surrounding populations, human, animal and avian. As she puts it, “the climate emergency is in great part coming about as a result of a normative and capitalist point of view, whereas if we start listening to diverse voices, that’s when you can do something about climate change."
Harun Morrison's Fibre Glass Seahorse in Greenpeace Garden (2023)
Photo: Harun Morrison
Rising sea levels and threatened coastlines also lie at the heart of another ambitious series of projects taking place just a few miles north of the Barking Creek Barrier in Southend, as well as down to the west on the coast of Cornwall. 70 years ago, the Essex seaside town of Southend was also badly hit by the Great Flood, and now Southend’s Focal Point Gallery is collaborating with Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange in Cornwall on Storm Warning, a programme which invites a range of artists to work with a number of specialist organisations who are directly engaging with the impact of pollution and climate change on these coastal communities. "We set about challenging ourselves to use this exhibition to promote climate action rather than just commenting on the situation," says Focal Point director Katharine Stout. "We’re trying to work with specialist organisations to engage practically with what’s actually happening."
Storm Warning projects include the activist artist duo Something & Son joining forces with Cornwall & Essex Wildlife Trusts who are conserving existing seagrass beds and restoring new seagrass meadows in both regions. This collaboration has resulted in the artists developing a new, sustainable seeding gun that will be presented in the gallery and available for further use, along with a series of prints that offer a reimagining of the South Essex and Cornish coast armed with a natural rather than a man-made sea defence system.
The artist Harun Morrison has worked with coastal environmental activists and scientists—including Greenpeace and Surfers Against Sewage—to create a range of works that proposes the "coast as commons" in opposition to marine pollution, and pays particular attention to the role of the seahorse as an indicator species; while a sound piece by Rebecca Chesney and Lubaina Himid sends out “a message of urgency” that emanates from special benches on Southend Pier and around Penzance’s Mount’s Bay.
Still from Joey Holder's Model Organism (2023)
Other works range from a sea shanty composed by Heloise Tunstall-Behrens and poet Ella Frears with Cornish locals and scientists in response to rising sea levels, to Joey Holder’s large wallpaper print and film highlighting the importance of plankton, and a video work by Angela YT Chan made in partnership with Southend’s Catchment to Coast project to explore pioneering nature-based safeguardings from flooding and coastal erosion. "We want these works to be relevant to our immediate local audiences and to draw attention to all these crucial organisation-partners who are at the forefront of climate action but whose work can be quite invisible to the communities they are serving," says Stout. "Artists do things in different ways and they can open people’s eyes to what is going on and what they can do."
With many coastlines and cities across the globe facing the prospect of submersion in mere decades—Bangkok, Miami, Amsterdam, Basrah, Georgetown, Kolkata, New Orleans, Tokyo, Sydney and Shanghai to name but a few—these local collaborations and artistic engagements with very specific situations and circumstances yet again demonstrate how art and artists can play a crucial part in engaging, inspiring and empowering populations to reconnect with their surroundings and the very real threats they now face. "Artists see and do things in different ways and this can have unexpected results," says Katharine Stout; and, as Catherine Yass also believes, new and different viewpoints are now desperately needed to help safeguard our future.
Flood Barrier premiers at a free outdoor screening in Valence Park, Dagenham on 22 September; with screening events at the ICA in London on 14 November and Turner Contemporary Margate on 18 November. It can also be seen at Valence House Museum Dagenham 26 September- 21 October before touring to Eastbury Manor House, Barking in October.
Storm Warning: What does climate change mean for coastal communities? Focal Point Gallery and Big Screen Southend, 4 October-6 January; Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange, Penzance, 18 November 2023 to 13 April 2024