ELINAS Kolloquium: Lectures on Science and Literature

Erlanger Zentrum für Literatur und Naturwissenschaft (ELINAS) // Center for Literature and Natural Science, Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

A Year Without a Winter: Curating a Collective Thought Experiment

Dehlia Hannah, Research Curator/Assistant Research Professor, School of Arts, Media+Engineering, Arizona State University

Abstract: This paper presents a new research and curatorial project that uses historical and literary narrative to reframe contemporary imaginaries of climate change. On the occasion of the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), the project calls foregrounds the environmental conditions under which this profoundly influential novel was conceived. The year 1816 is remembered as the ‘year without a summer,’ a year in which unseasonal frosts and precipitation swept over much of the northern hemisphere, causing famine, epidemics, political and economic upheaval. Inspired by this atmosphere of sublime terror, Shelley and her companions weathered the storms in playful competition to tell the best horror story—‘the dare,’ as they called it. We now know that the summer of 1816 was the beginning of a three-year episode of global cooling caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian Island of Sumbawa, on April 10, 1815. The largest volcanic eruption in human history, Tambora caused vast destruction locally and spewed ash and sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. Circulated around the globe by stratospheric winds, the gases and particulate matter blocked sunlight and disturbed weather patterns for years to come.

This historical episode now inspires Promethian ambitions to cool our rapidly warming planet. We now confront the fearsome prospect of A Year Without a Winter—a future in which the luxury of escaping to sunny beaches for the holidays is transfigured into a nightmare of global seasonal arrhythmia. In recognition of the profound cultural responses to a climate crisis endured by a smaller and less globalized world two centuries ago, A Year Without a Winter takes the years 2016-2018 as a period in which to gather artists, scientists, humanists and policy makes to reflect critically on our past, present and possible climate futures. The project assembles a diverse collection of artists and scholars to inhabit a collective thought experiment—a fictional, yet all too real, scenario of climate change. Against the tendency to aestheticize dramatic extremes and events, the project invites comprehension of the vast scale and incremental pace of environmental violence with the aim of provoking new narratives and exemplary visions for the Anthropocene. This presentation articulates the philosophical motivations and curatorial approach underpinning A Year Without a Winter and describes some of the scholarship, workshops and art exhibitions through which the project will be realized over the next three years through collaborations with institutions worldwide.