Scheduled to coincide with Arizona State University’s Frankenstein Bicentennial culminating in 2018, the research and curatorial project A Year Without a Winter calls attention to the catastrophic ‘year without a summer’ of 1816 during which Mary Shelley conceived one of the most influential parables of modernity. According to her own account, Shelley was inspired by the backdrop of extreme weather, darkness and a dawning atmosphere of horror as seasonal disruption compromised harvests across the northern hemisphere. Only after a century had passed was it understood that this climate crisis was caused by the April 10, 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus registered in compelling narrative form cultural responses to central scientific, technological and political conditions of the day, from the life sciences to colonial exploration of the Arctic. The power of this story to shape our encounters with emerging science, technology and environmental issues is well known—sometimes even overwhelming.
Today, in the face of anthropogenic climate change, we again confront and increasingly chaotic weather and the disruption of seasonal patterns and climate dependent socio-economic conditions as a consequence of rising global mean temperature. Many scholars, activists and policy makers claim that climate change has thus far failed to capture contemporary cultural imaginaries in a way that is adequate to motivate the level of political, economic and technological responses required for adaptation and mitigation. Rob Nixon insists that there is an “urgent imaginative challenge currently facing both the humanities and the sciences, namely how writers and visual artists can embody environmental disasters in literary narratives and images, thereby making imaginatively perceptible and tangible to a broader public what scientists are establishing.” New visions and narratives are needed in order to harness the power of our scientific knowledge and intervene constructively in the course of the future.
A Year Without a Winter proposes to seize this bicentennial moment to enact and inhabit imaginatively a plausible fictional scenario of climate catastrophe, and to collect creative responses thereto in a series of workshops, gallery and online exhibitions, and scholarly and creative publications. Re-enacting the time frame of the year without a summer, (a global cooling event that actually lasted for three years) as well as the creative incubation period of the novel, this project was announced at ASU on April 10, 2015 and will build up over the next three years to events around the world in 2018. The project’s conceptualization figures Phoenix as a proxy for the volcanic eruption, a site that embodies many of the explosive tensions associated with climate change, and a site from which a dust cloud is transfigured as a cloud of ideas that will manifest different implications as it circulates around the world. As befits a “wicked problem”, the project will bring together a wide range of scholars and practitioners from different disciplines, institutions and countries, and yield outcomes in multiple forms and media.
A first step to realize the potentially transformative effects of A Year Without Winter is to establish the mantle, the communicative and resource infrastructures for originating collaborations and co-producing scholarly work. This includes inventing a web portal to incite and track projects and ideas; seizing opportunities for knowledge sharing at conferences and through scholarly outlets; convening multi-disciplinary teams in generative dialogue; hosting local lecture series; and coordinating the wellspring of activities sparked from this narrative. A Year Without a Winter incites many different and far-reaching artistic and scholarly projects. With Arizona State University serving as the eruption site, new forms of curation, research, pedagogy and scholarly-artistic practice are sparked and catalogued on this portal in the hopes that they will catch wind and spread to other places.