Climate Changing: Playlist for a changing planet

Dan DiPiero, Ph.D, Lecturer at Ohio State University

Feb 01, 2021

Artist Carolyn Lazard's Pain Scale, a series of round simple drawings mimicking the pain scale graphics used in hospitals, but in this case all faces have brown skin and all wear the same smile

DiPiero is a member of the advisory committee created for Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment. In November, long before installation began in the galleries, DiPiero completed a playlist to accompany the show, long after he set to work. Below, he shares his thoughts from the time, while Climate Changing was delayed due to COVID-19 closures, and the selections that went into his list. A link to the playlist is at the bottom of the essay.



As a part of the exhibition Climate Changing, Associate Curator Lucy Zimmerman convened an exhibition advisory committee to talk through some of the exhibition’s themes, and to organize satellite projects around it. I was glad to be included in that conversation, which raised many productive questions and themes that run through this dense, inexhaustible show. After our discussion Lucy suggested that, given my research in popular music, I might think about creating a playlist to accompany the show. 

I first started working on this project in February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, back when the year seemed to stretch out before us and spring was on the way. Now, I sit here looking through my notes from that time, thinking of that other world, which no longer exists, and yet not fully understanding what has happened in the meantime. It is November 15, some two weeks since the presidential election which signaled that another massive shift is coming, a reorienting of the world and of its spatial, relational possibilities, and which is as yet held in abeyance by the president’s refusal to concede. So much has happened and will yet that it is almost impossible to understand where we are now. The climate is indeed changing, and the gerund form of the word is more salient than it has ever been: we have not yet discovered what the world will have looked like, because we are caught up, right now, in the middle of several movements that differently and mutually promise to transform everything.

Since I started writing, the world has witnessed not only the pandemic’s devastating effects (socially, economically, politically) but also the revelation of every fault line in our institutions, the pressure points that are so well-embedded that their being revealed, incontestably, during this crisis has only just allowed us to finally begin some public discussions about where they originated and what might be done to address them. We have also witnessed the #BlackLivesMatter uprisings that occurred all around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, where more mainstream attention has been brought to the institutional and systemic dimensions of suffering, unevenly displaced on people of color and Indigenous communities during the pandemic. In that wake, institutions of all sizes and varieties have been forced to at least nominally grapple with the persistence of systemic racism and its structuring effects on everyday life. In light of such developments, some of the central questions of the Climate Changing exhibition—for example, what a museum should do and for whom—become newly and urgently animated. 

Navigating our way toward other worlds, whatever comes next, will require improvisation, no matter where we are or how we might feel (in)capable of affecting the outcome. It is as yet unclear what will happen to Trumpism, white nationalism, and other far right extremisms in this country when and if his administration leaves the White House. It as yet unclear what kind of administration Joe Biden will run, as it is unclear whether or not he will be empowered to pass their agenda. As I write, the runoff elections in Georgia are not yet finished. The point I’m trying to make is this: almost all of the critically important issues raised by the long crisis of 2020 are still moving through midair—not one has coalesced into a conclusion that we can think about or know what to do with. We are still in the middle of it. 

A detail image of Torkwase Dyson's mixed media abstract monochrome drawing Liberation Scaled, from the Bird and Lava series

Torkwase Dyson, Liberation Scaled (Bird and Lava), 2020. Charcoal, arcrylic, oil stick, graphite, and collage, 102 x 91 in. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

[Image description: An abstract mixed media work that includes various geometric forms including cirlces and semicircles, trapezoids, triangles. A small trapezoidal shape under a circle is repeated many times in the composition.]

This is what I’m thinking about as I try to pull together music that seems to resonate in some way  with Climate Changing. A few words about the playlist itself: first of all, it might feel a bit difficult. My hope is that if that’s the case, it is difficult in the same way that Climate Changing is, which is to say, in the way that is rich, engaging, and ultimately rewarding. Secondly, the playlist tries to feature a variety of moods, because difficulty isn’t valuable in and of itself; we also need to have fun and to be joyful. Third, the playlist both does and does not have anything directly to do with the exhibition. It does in some broad ways touch on certain themes present in the exhibition, and which I’ll leave listeners to think through on their own. 

But more often than not, these connections are oblique. Literal, lyrical references to certain topics are only one way of “relating” to a given topic, and the most limited way that music does so. Rather than relating directly, music can sometimes relate to disparate topics simply by virtue of our own listening, as if by the hinge of our attention. Music can set a mood in the background, can make us feel pumped up or contemplative, can attune our attention in a different way, can affect our bodies in certain infinitesimal or otherwise unmeasurable capacities. That doesn’t mean that music has nothing to do with art, but only that this relationship might exceed our ability to describe in words. I make no effort to do so here, and hope that resonances emerge through people’s individual experiences of listening. It’s less about relating directly and more about placing two things in proximity, to see how they vibrate each other.

In putting together a playlist to accompany this exhibition, I began in the same place where I began thinking about the show for the first time: namely, with Torkwase Dyson’s statements about improvisation. In a 2018 conversation with scholar Christina Sharpe, Dyson speaks about her work in relation to Sharpe’s, and in doing so often invokes improvisational language to describe what she’s after. 

For instance, in reference to the discussions of trans-Atlantic slavery in Sharpe’s In the Wake, Dyson says:

"The work becomes a way that I... I bind myself to these histories to get at an otherwise. To get at a sort of understanding of the critical moment of the now, the then, the future, the kind of understanding of senses and sensoria around these histories that I think are paid so little attention to...sort of Black sensoria, the haptic, and what and how we know through touch and feeling and immediacy and improvisation."

Improvisation can carry many meanings, purposes, and effects—consider here the way in which it is invoked as a method of sensing, of touching-feeling and otherwise coming into contact. 

Or again later, speaking about Sharpe’s notion of “the weather,” Dyson asks:

"So what does it mean to tune both improvisation within the picture plane, also tune a kind of technique around perspective drawing and the nature of the hinge in an architectural moment, but let these things sort of fuse a kind of pictorial space that’s truer to this notion of changeability, improvisation, and the otherwise?"

Contrary to its most colloquial meaning, improvisation can involve features often assumed to not belong to it, such as intentionality, repetition, deliberation, or what Dyson refers to above as “tuning” and “composition.” Dyson helps me to think improvisation outside of its stereotypes, insofar as she uses improvisation in her process of “Black compositional thought.” Such a process, which involves deep research, and the emergence of specific reference points (the square, the curved line) helps us think improvisation as a slow kind of movement, so slow that it becomes polemical to call it an improvisation. 

Improvisation as I read it here is not necessarily the space of “free play” but the encounter that occurs between Dyson (with her histories, with her embodied knowledges), the research she conducts, and her artistic materials, and the processes of self-reflection and editing that emerge through these encounters. This kind of improvisation might require revision, or slowing down, or critique, deep processes of reflection that are not made “in real time.” That does not mean that such processes are not improvisational; they still come about through a collision between artist, context, history, and medium. 

Improvisation is both a starting point and a kind of throughline in this playlist, though one that is not always obvious and is never consistent. For instance, improvisation is most obvious here as an aspect of the Great Black Musical tradition, that energy of the changing same that Amiri Baraka pointed to (1967), and which is audible in different forms from Wadada Leo Smith through J Dilla. Less obvious is improvisation considered as a relational force, as something that solicits entanglement and connection, which responds to contingent circumstances through contingent responses, and is therefore present in all music no matter what. 

The idea of improvisation as relationality returns us to the exhibition itself: Climate Changing, it seems to me, is more than anything concerned with the ongoing navigation of contingency, of our circumstances, where navigation is not a means to arrive at any end-point but simply the mode of how we live. Active or passive, toward or away from social justice, equity, and an inhabitable planet, we are all implicated in this shifting moment, invited to consider how we want to move from here, confronted with only possibilities, uncertain outcomes, and music.

Listen to the Climate Changing playlist on Spotify.


Citations/Recommended Reading

Ahmed, Sara, 2006, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Duke University Press

Baraka, Amiri, 1967/2010, “The Changing Same (R&B and the new Black Music).” In Black Music, p. 175-205, Akashic Books

Gandesha, Samir, 2020, “Posthuman Fascism,” The Los Angeles Review of Books, August 22

Hartman, Saidiya, 2020, “Saidiya Hartman On Insurgent Histories and the Abolitionist Imaginary,” Artforum, July 14

Richard A. Oppel Jr., Robert Gebeloff, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Will Wright and Mitch Smith, 2020, “The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus,” The New York Times, July 5

Torracinta, Simon, 2020. “Extinction Event: Given what is to come, schools of every kind are now at risk,” n+1, July 8 


Top of page: Carolyn Lazard, Pain Scale, 2019. Vinyl; overall: 148 × 12 inches, 6 parts, each: 12 × 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York

[Image description: Installation view of six identical round vinyl decals of a brown smiley face icon, adhered to a white gallery wall in a horizontal row, evenly spaced apart.]

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