Loren Snel | on Radical Solidarity with Nature
Still from uploaded video on climate protestors at Schiphol airport 2022
The radical art of slowing down. How The Future Library grows solidarity
In the face of a pressing crisis, acting slowly sounds counterintuitive. And yet, pacing ourselves in response to global warming may be a more fruitful form of activism than we give it credit for. One surprising argument for this is the successful continuance of an ecology-adjacent art project that, curiously enough, did not start out with an activist agenda.
The Future Library, a project initiated by artist Katie Paterson plays with time, trust, imagination, and value. It revolves around the creation of an anthology of 100 books to be printed in 100 years using trees growing for that same amount of time outside of Oslo, Norway. A board decides which world-class authors will get involved, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood is the first to hand in a manuscript in 2014. The nine manuscripts thus far added are kept unread in the library of Oslo. In the summer of 2022, the City of Oslo signed an official document promising that the project and woodlands can count on the city’s care and support for the rest of its 100-year continuance.
The project has acquired worldwide notoriety and sprouted a substantial following. Paterson had never predicted that the project to which she has bound her life would sprout an ecology-focused community. “The artwork hasn’t changed,” she commented, “our responses to what it is and what it evokes in us have.” The work appears to be an accidentally idealistic and activist piece of slow art.
The project’s slowness and success are striking, considering that most climate activists and those who support them heed the spur: ‘act now’. Despite our limited – for very human – capacity to imagine the future, we try to do what we can now in solidarity with each other and future generations. Meanwhile, oil, airline and farming industries fail to step up to the same task and our governments are failing to hold them accountable. Establishments are not acting quickly enough to meet climate agreements. Often, anger and frustration ousts a sense of control. And with it, the hope and energy one needs to maintain solidarity.
In response to this ensuing despair, climate activists may take to disruption to force the hand of decision-makers. Extinction Rebellion recently disrupted air travel at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands by sitting under private jets, preventing their taking off. And in the 2021 book, We Are ‘Nature’ Defending Itself, artists and activists Isabelle Fremeaux and Jay Jordan unpack their experiences when they joined the defense of the ZAD de Notre-Dame-des-Landes (zone to defend) in France in 2008. This illegal occupation of wetlands was aimed at preventing the building of an international airport. After a decades-long struggle, the movement was victorious in 2018, when the airport plans were shelved .
Kicking the white cube
Fremeaux and Jordan’s primary incentive to join the ZAD was their disillusionment and anger with the art world. Even their fellow artists were, in their view, still only “representing the world rather than transforming it” ; keeping the status quo in its place.
The idea of a self-affirming art world rhymes with how, these days, art inspired in social justice movements seems in increasingly high demand in museums, biennales and subsidy programs. Artist Yvonne Lake unpacked the phenomenon in Areo Magazine: “Criticism of the status quo is exactly what is expected of today’s artists.” She echoes the pessimism of Fremeaux and Jordan. It is a representative, rather than transformative art world that some would rather exit.
Yet, as The Future Library project shows, self-excommunication is not the only way to Rome or to art activism. As a long history of art and activism shows, change is not only brought about by kicking the white cube from the outside. Research has shown that activists often look down upon those who, in their eyes, do nothing. Meanwhile, those who do not dare to act, look up to those who do. Pessimism about self-affirming dynamics in the art world may be substantiated. However, it appears that pessimism of the sort expressed by Fremeaux, Jordan and Lake risks pre-emptively killing the preciously sourced solidarity needed for disruptive and collective action.
Taking time, growing trust
Back to The Future Library, for two conditions under which the project thrives oppose the kind of art as activism represented by aforementioned artists. First of all, rather than acting and demanding change now, the idea of an anthology is projected onto a 100-years away future. As many have pointed out, the pace and length of time are seminal to the project’s success. Kirsten Moegerlein observes that it is its time frame – long enough to invoke monumentality, short enough for us to be able to imagine it – that imbues every action involved and thus the project as a whole with significance. Susan Signe Morrison points to the Future Library as an example of how slowness allows for more long-lasting impact and increases awareness of environmental awareness. The projects represent a sub-human challenge to the imagination, community, trust, and solidarity. And yet, thanks to its time-based symbolism a communal solidarity emerges, one that is needed to realise its goals manage and enlarges the work’s chances of getting finished and the new forest being protected.
The second way in which The Future Library successfully breaks with traditional ecological activism is how, rather than challenge the project collaborates with institutions. In order for a library room to become dedicated to unwritten books, and for these to be printed on protected Norwegian trees, Paterson had to gain the long-term trust of different parties representing various established practices to the project. The City of Oslo, the Library in Oslo, the annual authors and possibly their publishers, to name but a few. Anne Beate Hovind, the cultural producer by whom Paterson was originally invited to propose a project, said: “When Katie told me about [The Future Library], it confronted me with my own mortality. […] I have to trust that future generations will continue this project, and they also have to trust me, trust that I will take action now so that they can actually have a future.”
Reaching over a century
It becomes clear that, through the support of parties that give it the power of outreach, The Future Library reaches and emotionally moves people into action. “[M]ighty alliances”, commented the Guardian, “of pragmatism, imagination, and custodianship are vital as the world wobbles towards an uncertain future.” Trust and solidarity, whether they be in, with, or despite the establishment, are vital ingredients in the face of a global crisis. This is not to say that other, perhaps more disruptive experiments are inferior. Art as activism is too vital in times like these to allow for comparison to damage solidarity. Nonetheless, the accidental activism of The Future Library sets an inspiring example.
So far, Paterson’s tireless community demonstrates trust and solidarity are best bottled and aged over time. Enthusiasm and support for the project have only increased. Will its powers stand the test of time; in the next 91 years? How much of its planted ideals and solidarity may be harvested in 2114?
So far, at least, The Future Library has managed to fix our eyes on the horizon and to truly keep us imagining the future up ahead. We emulate the 100 authors, writing for the readers of 2114. Unlike science fiction authors, currently thinking up dystopias for their readers, the Future Library authors have to harness their full capacity for empathy, language, and communication, and reach over a century to hold a stranger’s hand. When our time capsule of books opens up, what do we want them to say?
The Guardian (2022, June 21). The Guardian view on Oslo’s Future Library: Hope in practice https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/21/the-guardian-view-on-oslos-future-library-hope-in-practice Retrieved April 12, 2022, from
Video Transcript of Interview with Katie Paterson. National Galleries, uploaded by National Galleries
NOS (2022, November 5). Ruim 200 klimaatactivisten gearresteerd op Schiphol, alle actievoerders weg. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://nos.nl/artikel/2451147-ruim-200-klimaatactivisten-gearresteerd-op-schiphol-alle-actievoerders-weg
Fremeaux, I., & Jordan, J. (2011). We are ‘Nature’ defending itself: Entangling art, activism and autonomous zones (p. 138). Pluto Press.
Dunlap, Alexander. “Book Review of Isabelle Fremeaux & Jay Jordan. 2022. We Are ‘Nature’ Defending Itself: Entangling Art, Activism and Autonomous Zones.” Journal of Political Ecology, vol. 30, no. 1, 2023, p. 3, https://doi.org/10.2458/jpe.5522. Accessed 12 Apr. 2023.
Fremeaux, I., & Jordan, J. (2011). We are ‘Nature’ defending itself: Entangling art, activism and autonomous zones (p. 138). Pluto Press, p. 20.
Lake, Yvonne. “Art Activism: The Assault on Art from Within.” Areo, 24 Jan. 2019. https://areomagazine.com/2019/01/24/art-activism-the-assault-on-art-from-within/
Kutlaca, Maja, et al. “Friends or Foes? How Activists and Non-activists Perceive and Evaluate Each Other.” PLoS One, vol. 15, no. 4, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0230918. Accessed 12 Apr. 2023.
Moegerlein, Kirsten. Co-designing Rituals for Transitional Times. 2005. RMIT University Melborne, PhD. Nordic Design Research, p.4
Signe Morrison, Susan. “Slow Practice As Ethical Aesthetics
The Ecocritical Strategy of Patience in Geoffrey Chaucer’S The Clerk’S Tale.” Ecozon@, vol. 11, no. 2, 2020, pp. 118-127,
Bio Loren Snel
Loren Snel (b. 1992) is a writer, essayist, translator, and editor. She has published at Hard//hoofd, Seizoenszine and rekto:verso magazine, among others. In 2022, she was nominated for de Prijs voor de Jonge Kunstkritiek (The Prize for Young Art Criticism). Her debut novel Muze will be published in September 2023. Website of Loren Snel