Connor Hamm: The Art of Survival: Creative Responses to Global Warming and Climate Migration in the Pacific Islands

The Taiwanese artist Vincent Huang recently partnered with the government of the small island nation of Tuvalu to plant the world’s largest QR code out of mangrove trees (Fig. 1). When completed, the mangroves can be scanned from Google Earth and will provide information on how low-lying Pacific islands are especially susceptible to the ravages of climate change. Huang’s site-specific work activates the collection of mangrove trees as both a functional graphic and a form of environmental remediation. In so doing, the artist attempts to inform about and intervene in Tuvalu’s environmental precarity in order to extend the livability of the threatened island and prevent Tuvaluans from becoming some of the first permanent climate migrants in the world. Over the past couple decades the governments of Tuvalu and other Pacific islands such as Kiribati, Fiji, and Hawaii have increasingly utilized art as part and parcel of their global warming action plans. This project considers how low-lying Pacific islands utilize artforms and cultural expression as mediums of political response that can contend with the existential problems posed by climate change. Blending visual and environmental analysis and bringing to bear methodologies of art history, cultural studies, and social geography, I examine how such islands’ exercising of creative agency strives to affirm cultural integrity and maintain the habitability of their homes. Questions guiding my project include: How are low-lying Pacific islands and the wider Transpacific uniquely threatened by global warming and the threat of climate migration? How has Pacific island cultural expression historically negotiated environmental pressures? In what ways do the oceanic, archipelagic, and littoral aspects of such sites relate to the heavily landlocked, bordered, and arid social geography of migration in other parts of the world? How does such state-sponsored creativity challenge international humanitarian discourse regarding the politically invisible subject of the climate migrant? And most fundamentally, what are the various ways in which artists, citizens, and state-actors marshal knowledges of tradition, adaptation, and place-making as creative strategies of survival?

Connor Hamm is a second-year PhD student in the History of Art and Architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. Working at the intersection of visual, environmental, and cultural studies, his research focuses on contemporary art in a global context, and is especially concerned with the social and political functions of contemporary art exhibitions. Current projects include an examination of the visual culture of sunlight in the Sahara and a study of curator Okwui Enwezor’s outsized role in developing “global contemporary art.” Connor has worked for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem, and is currently research assistant to the artist Charles Ray.


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