If you’re wondering what that bronze dumpster is doing inside Kitchener City Hall this September, or why a streetlamp in the downtown is wilting like a dying flower, think of them as expressions of hope and fear – artistic responses to the spectres of environmental and cultural suicide.

The Contemporary Art Forum, Kitchener and Area, (CAFKA) opens its 2011 biennial exhibition of art in public spaces beginning September 16 to October 2 throughout Waterloo Region. CAFKA.11: SURVIVE. RESIST. is an exhibition featuring the work of 20 artists responding to our public spaces and issues affecting our common future.

Artists are sometimes described as barometers of change – sensitive and responsive to the tenor of the times. The artists who make a profound intellectual and emotional impact on us are often the ones who have an ability to speak to the times we live in through their art.

As Andy Warhol’s paintings of Campbell Soup became icons of an emerging consumer society in the 1960s, a recurring image among many contemporary artists is that of a society and environment damaged by a culture of excessive consumption. 

The CAFKA programming committee is comprised of local artists. In May of 2010, the programming committee began sifting through applications by artists from across Canada and around the world. One hundred and seventy-five artists submitted proposals to animate the public spaces of Waterloo Region with their art. At the same time, committee members were also deeply engaged in their own research, looking around the world for works of public art that could catch the imagination. Surviving and resisting was a recurring theme.

Issues such as climate change and peak oil have, in recent years, made us all reflect on the sustainability of our communities and our way of life. Questions such as these have a profound psychological impact on all of us and challenge the way we think and behave in our world. Artists are no less affected by these questions than the rest of us – and maybe more.

Every year the programming committee looks for work by artists that is original and thought provoking. And each year, the ideas and subjects that provoke us change a bit. As we reviewed the submissions and compared notes from our individual researches, we began to perceive common themes. Guest speakers to CAFKA’s ongoing Big Ideas in Art and Culture lecture series such as Ivan Morrison and Mary Mattingly influenced the committee with their dystopic and post apocalyptic visions. These are artists thinking through our common future, expressing their subjective responses and imagining adaptive solutions.

Artists exhibiting in SURVIVE. RESIST. include Montreal artist Roadsworth, (a.k.a. Peter Gibson) who has used his graffiti style art in the past to protest the connections between foreign wars and our dependence on oil. He will be using the tire treads on an adapted bicycle to print a helical ribbon of multi-hued impressions over a designated stretch of the Iron Horse trail. The project, called Bike DNA, is a celebration of the aesthetics of cycling.

Windsor, Ontario, artist Zeke Moores’s bronze dumpster may make us pause to consider the value and the amount of waste in our disposable economy. Waterfall, an interactive public art project that will be installed at the Charles Street Bus Terminal, was designed as a reflection on the force and fragility of water in the natural environment. Lucy Howe’s gently bowed and flickering street light, Wilt II, stands in contrast to that former icon of progress, the brightly illuminated city skyline. Her wilting and flickering lamppost may be a reminder that the life of all cities is subject to dwindling resources and limits to growth.

Some artists in CAFKA’s 2011 exhibition have chosen to re-engage the natural world as a way of commenting on our relationship to the environment. Kitchener artists Mike Ambedian and Sheila McMath are re-creating well-known earthworks in the RARE Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge. Mary Catherine Newcomb, also of Kitchener, has sculpted a sphinxlike rabbit of earth and grass, reminding us of a more ancient, animist approach to living in the world.

Art has always been a balm to the soul in troubled times, and for artists the ability to make art and turn feelings into forms is a mixture of both pleasure and therapeutic release. In many of the artworks we looked at, planetary survival, as well as personal survival, has become both the medium and the message. However, if “survival” was a constant identifiable theme running through our conversations, at no time did the artists or the art they created express to us a feeling of victimization. These artists were not meekly submitting to common fate but actively, inventively, and morally pushing back. 

If the main question the world faces today is survival, then these artists are answering with resistance. They are resisting the willful ignorance of climate change deniers and the blandishments and narcosis of consumer culture. Their art states clearly: SURVIVE. RESIST. 

Gordon Hatt is the Executive Director of the Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area.