Climate experts in collaboration with artists

At Utrecht University, climate modellers from the IPCC are collaborating with two artists. “We are practising diplomacy, so artists are taken seriously in academic institutions.”

"And what happened to capitalism?”, asks someone from the audience. “I think it died”, says Fatima Denton, a sustainability expert from Ghana, on the podium in Utrecht. Applause. Utrecht University’s academic conference ‘Pathways to Sustainability’ is no average conference. The symposium, which took place earlier this month in TivoliVredenburg, felt more like an incubator for radical ideas for a better world. The hundreds of scientists and other delegates spent the whole day as if they were looking back in the year 2060 on a successful ‘transition’ to a fossil-free planet.

Professor Beatrice de Graaf, an expert on terrorism from Utrecht University and an NRC columnist, for example, read a poem about a revolution in 2027. After another year fraught with natural disasters, the people rose up and overthrew the established order. I think the likelihood of a revolution is greater than of a gradual transition”, said De Graaf coldly during the forum discussion that followed.

During this atypical academic symposium, imagination and art took centre stage. Nynke Laverman sung songs from her album Plant (2021), in which she voiced her fear for the future on an overheated, depleted planet. During the lunch break, delegates could vent emotions around climate that could not be discussed in the conference hall itself in the Climate Confessional. In the Time troublers installation by artists collective Loom, a sort of large ‘clock’ made of triplex, delegates could break away from accepted views on progress.

The symposium is not a one-off experiment: collaboration between art and science has been a permanent feature at Utrecht University since 2016. That was when Professor Maarten Hajer, former Director-General of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, founded the Urban Futures Studio. With a grant from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, this considers “social views of the future” and imagines alternatives to them. Involving the creative industry “in major social challenges” is government policy, as set out in the coalition agreement.

Part of the afternoon programme in Utrecht was devoted to ‘art-science collaborations’. During this workshop, which was organised in conjunction with the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, delegates explored a radical suggestion: giving artists a permanent place in or around the leading UN panel on climate change, the IPCC, i.e. at the heart of climate science. This was done in a light-hearted way – the presentations on a fictitious ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Art and Climate Change’ lasted 30 seconds each, there was singing and crumpled up pieces of paper were metaphorically thrown around. But this was prompted by a fundamental discussion that artists have been having over the past year with climate scientists, said artists Ekaterina Volkova and Julien Thomas (who, by the way, also had the idea of the climate confessional) during the workshop.

A workshop during the symposium in Utrecht explored artists' collaboration with the IPCC. Photo Jelmer de Haas

Our residency helped scientists to think about things in different ways

During a six-month residency at Utrecht University, they had meetings with scientists about their climate models, which are used in the influential reports of the IPCC. “We asked scientists whether there was scope for feelings and subjectivity within the institution”, said Volkova. “Our residency helped scientists to think about things in different ways”, said Thomas.

It was a residency at the heart of climate science. The Image team of Professor Detlef van Vuuren, with whom Thomas and Volkova ran sessions, is one of the six groups of scientists globally who produce computer calculations of future CO2 emissions for the IPCC. These calculations form the basis of the comprehensive IPCC reports that are published every six to seven years (the latest edition was published in March) and, as a result, for every political discussion on climate policy. These models are fed with dozens of alternatives around how a sustainable future could develop. Whether wind turbines or nuclear power stations are built on a large scale, for example. Whether large numbers of crops are grown for biofuel. And whether the prosperity of the poor will increase to such an extent that they will buy cars on a large scale. How much meat the world’s population will eat. Which variables are included in these models is a choice. It’s hard for scientists to compute a political revolution such as that portrayed by Beatrice de Graaf – it’s too unpredictable. Critics within the field of climate science therefore feel that the computer models appear, incorrectly, to be objective, and give too limited an insight into the future. “Computer models actually just tell stories”, said the German climate scientist Wolfgang Knorr recently in the NRC newspaper.

Volkova and Thomas met with the Image team on multiple occasions and then produced the artistic A Future Manual for Future Models, which aims to broaden the perspective of modellers on a sustainable future.

Can we expect to see artists in the world of climate science more often from now on? This was the topic of conversation between NRC, the two artists and Professor Detlef van Vuuren after the conference, in a café in Utrecht.

Why did you, as a professor, want to work with artists?

Van Vuuren: “We scientists can’t calculate what will happen in 2050. We make assumptions – and it’s useful if other people also get involved in making assumptions, because it’s not just up to scientists to find solutions to climate change. I also think artists can help visualise sustainable alternatives. Seven years ago the Urban Futures Studio started with a major, visual installation that Maarten Hajer had created, on wind turbines in the North Sea. He was convinced that this had contributed to the acceptance of plans in this regard. Some people are more convinced by emotionally charged images than by statistics.”

But Volkova and Thomas didn’t want to be used to visualise scientific data.

Volkova: “No, when we responded to Utrecht University’s vacancy for their residency, we made that clear straight away. We had no interest in creating a beautiful display of the outcomes of scientific research for the general public. We wanted to look at the inside of this kind of climate model.”

How did the Image team respond to the collaboration with artists?

Van Vuuren: “Generally speaking, they were positive. Many people in the team are scientists and economists. Some of them found it interesting to reflect on their work. But some people lost interest when they realised that it wasn’t about scientific visualisation.”

Doesn’t allowing artists access to that scientific process make science vulnerable?

Thomas: “We don’t do science. We just want to know in which ecosystem the facts are created.” Van Vuuren: “Everyone in society should be able to have their say over which future scenarios are appealing. But when it comes to calculating the consequences of specific scenarios, that is better done by us as scientists.” Volkova: “We wanted to find out which futures had not been considered. Scientists have a whole jargon for talking about futures, whether they are possible, useful, plausible or feasible. Then someone said that no scenario was being calculated in which the use of coal stopped in five years' time because it wasn’t useful. We were shocked. What do you mean not useful?” Van Vuuren: “I would have said exactly the same. It’s not feasible and it’s also unfair. People in India depend on coal-fired power stations.”

Is the result of your research into the interaction with these future scenarios, the Future Manual for Future Models, an artwork?

Volkova: “We have wondered that too. The scientists thought it was a strange artwork because it contained so much text and so few images. And artists also find it strange. But I think it was a kind of artistic research.”

Volkova and Thomas are currently continuing this research as residents at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht. During the conference in TivoliVredenburg, Ekaterina Volkova was asked whether climate researchers have also been involved in the art academy. Volkova hesitated. “We haven’t been that successful so far”, she said. “A scientist wants to know what the result of the collaboration will be. Then we say: ‘No no, it might start to resonate after a long time, and you may find something out about yourself too, but don’t expect efficiency. It’s a constant struggle.”

Are the artists ultimately happy with the collaboration with academia however? “Our work is not over”, said Julien Thomas after the conference in the café in Utrecht. “We are practising a form of diplomacy, so artists can be taken seriously in academic institutions. “The world is rapidly becoming a real mess, it’s starting to look more and more like science fiction. So why shouldn’t scientists be able to talk to artists, or to science fiction authors, to broaden their ideas on the future? If they look at our Manual they’ll see that collaborating with artists is a good thing to do.”


Canadian Julien Thomas (1986) and Russian Ekaterina Volkova (1992) have been collaborating for some years now. From 2014 to 2016 they both studied for a Master’s in ‘designing democracy’ at the Sandberg Institute of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam.

Before becoming an artist Thomas studied peace & conflict studies in Vancouver. Volkova trained as a graphic designer in Russia.

Volkova and Thomas became interested in sustainable future scenarios when working on a social design project for the Municipality of Amsterdam. They talked to residents about the highly criticised plans for wind turbines in the city.

This article was written by Hester van Santen and appeared in the NRC on 19 April