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Q&A with Dr Becca Voelcker, 2024 BBC New Generation Thinker

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Becca Voelcker was announced as one of 10 BBC New Generation Thinkers and talks about the her research and ambitions in this new role.

Dr Becca Voelcker portrait

Patrick Edwards: The BBC New Generation Thinkers Scheme is fiercely competitive with only 60 applicants chosen from initial applications and a strenuous full day workshop with BBC producers, which is then whittled down to 10 ‘winners’. What on Earth possessed you to apply for the scheme?

Becca Voelcker:The opportunity to translate my academic work into public broadcast for a global, not just a British, audience, was immensely exciting. I want to test, share, and develop ideas and take them beyond the academy. The selection process was intense and involved, but each stage taught me more about this act of translation from my ideas and academic language into content that is approachable, and that will grab people's attention.

Skills that I honed during the BBC workshop (the organisers were keen not to call it an audition!) such as writing a compelling pitch, speaking off the cuff about my research, taking part in a live radio debate about a topic outside my expertise, are really valuable – not only for using inside the broadcasting studio, but also for the classroom, lecture theatre, and at my writing desk.

 I've always listened to radio and podcasts from around the world. I love having interesting voices in my ear. The opportunity to get behind the mic is a dream come true.

PE: One of the key areas used to assess prospective New Generation thinkers was not just their area of research but the case you made for it being unique, interesting and challenging to current thinking. Can you tell us about your research in this light?

 BV: I’m a historian of film and visual culture. I look at history through a lens that that is coloured by the present. Photographs and films often seem to present themselves as evidence in straightforward ways i.e. this happened, here is documentation of it. In my research, I’m putting on a journalist’s hat to ask questions of these images. When, where, why, and by whom was this image made? Whose perspective are we seeing and whose is being left out? Every image is a perspective, a narrative, a politics, and a demand. I want to encourage audiences to develop a toolkit of critical questions so that they can analyse images better. In our contemporary moment, when the media landscape is saturated by leading images and disinformation, developing this kind of visual literacy is crucial.

PE: In the public debate about climate change, is it right to say that arts and culture have been invisible? Why is this, and what do you think including these perspectives can bring to the table?

BV: There are exceptions, but often it's as if scientists, politicians, and policymakers bring artists into the debate as an afterthought, akin to hiring an advertising agency to promote concepts and ideas. Arts and cultures are too often demoted to the role of illustrating extractivism’s worst effects without informing the public that alternatives do exist. I’m not sure that all the images produced under a banner of ‘green’ or ‘ecological’ are serving us well. Think, for example, of the kinds of shiny, large-format aerial photographs we often see in exhibitions about capitalism and climate. While such do important work in alerting audiences to the presence and scale of open-pit mines or oil fields, they also anaesthetise through their aesthetics, offering disaster-movie style spectacles. They’re presented as if inducing a feeling of anxiety or concern in an audience is action enough. And meanwhile, the images themselves are often produced in really energy-intensive ways and circulated in art markets sponsored by the very industries that they purport to be criticising. Again, I want to promote greater criticality among audiences to detect this kind of greenwash, by asking basic questions about images, their perspectives, and production.

 

Open cast lignite mine in Germany

PE: How can art and visual culture reframe the way that climate change is conveyed in the media, in meaningful ways?

BV: I often come back to Amitav Ghosh’s idea of the climate crisis being a crisis of imagination. In other words, we need a cultural shift in mindset, which can only come about through changing the way we think about the world and what constitutes a good life, in order to relinquish our terrifying dependencies on extractive forms of consumption and waste. I love history because it contains clues and precedents for what we need to do now, and what images might be capable of doing it to motivate action. In historical moments of crisis, the arts have not only contributed to debates, but also created them. For example, in the mid 1980s a collective of anonymous artists called Guerrilla Girls began making posters informing the public about misogyny and patriarchy in the art world. Also in the 1980s, a collective called ACT UP deployed graphic design and performance-based media to demand rights to care and respect during the AIDS crisis. These collectives used visual methods, and cultural arenas, to bring underrepresented issues to the table and create change. I think there are clues in what they were doing that we could learn from today in addressing climate injustice.

PE: What opportunities do you think being a new generation thinker provide in shaping public policy and programming and how are you going to seize these?

BV: I’m learning already that programming at the BBC happens at different speeds, so I can propose longer form, essayistic programmes based on my own research at the same time as preparing a last-minute piece responding to a current event in the news that will go on air live tomorrow. Whether working fast or slow, I hope my contributions to the BBC will help nurture conversations about visual literacy and climate justice, perhaps feeding into curatorial developments in the museum and gallery sector or policy and curriculum development in educational contexts. The key is in getting the conversations going.

PE: Why is it important for us to learn to laugh in the face of the climate crisis?

BV: My latest research is investigating how artists and filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s used humour to address experiences of crisis. I want to know what we can learn from them as we face climate breakdown today. Part of the reason for this work is that my students often express compassion fatigue, anxiety, or a sense of dread when they're viewing images of climate crisis. We urgently need other kinds of images that can engage people's critical, political, and creative capacities. We don’t need more disaster images if they don’t teach us something new or move us to action. I think laughter can be very powerful in shifting moods and encouraging us to look from a different perspective. In comedy, ‘punching up’ is a term to describe jokes made at the expense of perpetrators, rather than victims. I'm interested in looking at images made by artists and filmmakers of the past who punched up by provoking or disregarding authority. Through satire, absurdity, or playfulness, images can empower audiences and subvert stereotypes. Images can both represent a problem and resist it. Images can leverage levity to do something really profound.