Yearly Archives: 2019

Wild Authors: Octavia Butler

Mary Woodbury 

Octavia Butler, an African American science fiction writer, was born in 1947 and died in 2006. A Hugo and Nebula award winner, she wrote fairy tales as a young girl. By the time she was a pre-teen she got her first typewriter, ignoring her Aunt Hazel telling her, “Negroes can’t be writers.” (Source: Butler, Octavia Estelle. “Positive Obsession.” Bloodchild and Other Stories. New York, Seven Stories, 2005. 123-126.) Octavia’s series include the Patternist, Xenogenesis, and Parable (also called the Earthseed). In addition, she wrote two stand-alone novels, two short story collections, and several essays and speeches.

It is the Earthseed series on which this spotlight focuses, but her other works are relevant and recommended. Earthseed contains two novels: Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. A third in the series, Parable of the Trickster, was not completed before her death. Sower opens in 2024, which once seemed so futuristic, even in the year 1993 when the book was published. But time marches impossibly on, and for those of us who clearly remember 1993, the vacuum that has sucked out space from then to now seems both eternal and too quick. If you look at a timeline of climate change, you’ll see that global warming had, by and large, become agreed upon by scientific opinion by 1977. And by the early 1990s the first IPCC report stated that warming was likely.

Talking about the Earthseed series as a very “real” tale should not drown out the story itself. Octavia helped usher in the genre of young adult dystopian fiction. She wrote powerfully, imaginatively, and creatively. The worlds she built were beautiful, harsh, and grim. Her protagonists were stoic and inspiring. Despite tackling multiple issues – politics, environment, segregation, religion, social injustice – her prose was concise. Her stories, powerful and believable.

The number of authors tackling the subject of climate change in fiction has risen in the past few years, but as stated earlier in this series, many authors were writing about it before it became more mainstream. The reasoning may be that today, climate change is more accepted and obvious around the world. And, of course, writers naturally take on what they see around them. But we should never forget adventurous authors like Octavia Butler who were innovative for their time. She went against the odds on many levels: gender, skin color, and story subjects. And she blew us all away.

Though a few terms have been introduced to describe the subject of climate change as a genre in fiction, one phrase that is often ignored is Afrofuturism, which, according to Inverse, is a type of cultural aesthetic that explores the intersection of African culture with technology and futurism. Inverse calls Octavia Butler the “Mother of Afrofuturism” and describes four themes used in her books: critique of modern-day hierarchies, violence, survival, and diversity. The Earthseed series seems to accurately envision the near-future world’s downfalls, brought on by climate change and economic disparity, which have resulted in growing populism and demagoguery around the world. In African Arguments, Bolanle Austen Peters states:

The term Afrofuturism, coined in 1993, seeks to reclaim black identity through art, culture, and political resistance. It is an intersectional lens through which to view possible futures or alternate realities, though it is rooted in chronological fluidity. That’s to say it is as much a reflection of the past as a projection of a brighter future in which black and African culture does not hide in the margins of the white mainstream.

Note that climate change is a historical, present, and future concern. Perhaps this future is something Octavia could envision as a child in a world where a critical dystopia didn’t seem that unimaginable, existed in some form already, and had signs of continuing, though it is reasonable to suggest that in her novels, Octavia created hopeful heroes. Perhaps she imagined herself as one such type of protagonist, and rightly so. Octavia spent her childhood in Pasadena. Her mother worked as a maid and her father a shoe-shiner. According to the New Yorker:

In one of Butler’s first stories, “Flash – Silver Star,” which she wrote at the age of eleven, a young girl is picked up by a U.F.O. from Mars and taken on a tour of the solar system. Butler ignored the received idea that black people belonged in science fiction only if their blackness was crucial to the plot…She later made a habit of explaining, as here to the Times, “I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing. I can write my own stories and I can write myself in.”

In Parable of the Sower, there are signs of climate change, such as drought and rising seas. The main character, who tells her story through journal entries, is a 15-year-old black girl named Lauren Oya Olamina, who, as the New Yorker points out, is wise enough to determine that people have changed the climate of the world. The title of the series, Earthseed, comes from a Darwinian religion that Lauren makes up. She also has hyperempathy, which makes her keenly attuned to the pain that her fellow residents in southern California experience in their impoverished life behind a wall of segregation made of brick and steel. Issues of skin color, violence against those perceived as different, political movements against science, and class divisions growing wide sound all too familiar.

In Parable of the Talents, which opens in 2032, further oppression of women, designer drugs that let people numb out, mutilation of body parts, and slavery are common. Cities are privatized, and literacy is decreasing. The Earthseed series tells of what we have, are, and will continue to experience. Electric Lit points out: “As Gloria Steinem wrote in 2016, in an essay celebrating The Parable of the Sower’s 25th anniversary, ‘If there is one thing scarier than a dystopian novel about the future, it’s one written in the past that has already begun to come true.’”

Indeed, the current political climate in the United States reflects some of what’s going on in this novel, including news briefs (think Twitter), where a bulleted note about war and a comment about Christmas lights might carry the same weight in 25 words or less, but most frightening is:

The Donner Administration has written off science, but a more immediate threat lurks: a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to “make American great again.” —The New Yorker, ibid

According to Wired Magazine, Gerry Canavan, who wrote the biography Octavia E. Butler: An Outsider’s Journey to Literary Acclaim, said that the presidential character was actually inspired by Ronald Reagan, but it reeks of the current president as well – two decades after Talents was published – who uses the exact phrasing of “make America great again.” Maybe what Octavia was concerned about was that we need to make it great someday, but we cannot make anything great by disregarding scientific facts, civil rights, ecological and economical sustainability, forethought, and equality.

Climate change doesn’t really fit in to either reality or fiction in a compartmental sense. It looms over society and is a result of many other root issues, such as greed and capitalism. Octavia Butler recognized this and world-built her stories by looking at what wasn’t, isn’t, or won’t be “great.” Her novels lie on the path of “If we continue this…then.” If society sees a natural resource it can make money off of, capitalism provides a path for that. Eventually, with too many resources taken, not only is the climate itself altered but the same kind of root greed doesn’t disappear, such as in Parable of the Sower, where water is scarce and thus is finally controlled by the government – and is not as available for those behind the wall.

Getting back to Afrofuturism, for a young, black female growing up in America in the 1950s, who had the kind of imagination and wisdom to write various award-winning speculative novels, it seems that the cultural diaspora in which she lived, along with the lack of civil rights and the extreme (then and even now) mistreatment of people, guided her writing to be visionary; she used creativity as a tool for expression and black liberation. The Earthseed series documented and unfolded the uncertainty of the future of the world. If the parables had been reality, we would now be living in “The Pox” (short for apocalyptic), a chaotic time period lasting from 2015-2030, but having roots before 2015. While the first two books in the series cover Lauren’s life, Talents jumps six decades ahead, in the end, where the Earthseeders are carried off planet Earth to escape the Pox. Jerry Caravan, in the LA Review of Books states:

The epilogue sees a very aged [Lauren] Olamina, now world-famous, witnessing the launch of the first Earthseed ship carrying interstellar colonists off the planet as she’d dreamed. Only the name of the spaceship gives us pause: against Olamina’s wishes the ship has been named the Christopher Columbus, suggesting that perhaps the Earthseeders aren’t escaping the nightmare of history at all, but bringing it with them instead.

I leave you with this quote, from Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler:

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

(Top image downloaded from LA Times.com)

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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COAL Prize 2019 – Call for entries open till 9 September

For its tenth edition in 2019 the COAL Prize will, in collaboration with the Platform on Disaster Displacement and DISPLACEMENT: Uncertain Journeys, tackle an essential subject:  displacement related to disasters and climate change.

Since 2009, an estimated one person per second has been displaced following sudden-onset disasters. Disasters such as droughts, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis have left many victims without shelter, clean water and basic necessities. Meanwhile, slow changes, such as desertification and sea level rise, also force people out of their homes. Environmental factors are often intrinsically linked to the same political, economic and social factors that cause migration. Consequently, we find ourselves facing an “ordeal common to all: the ordeal of finding oneself deprived of land. […] We are discovering, more or less obscurely, that we are all in migration toward territories yet to be rediscovered and reoccupied” (Bruno Latour, Down to Earth, 2018). 

A World Bank report released in March 2018 indicates that 143 million people around the world could be displaced by 2050 as a result of these impacts if nothing is done to halt climate change. 

However, significant progress has been made in recent years to address the gap in international law for cross-border disaster-displaced persons and to improve protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to disasters and climate change. The challenge lies in ensuring the political commitments made in the Global Compact for Migration, the Global Compact for Refugees, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, the UNFCCC Task Force on Displacement, and the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda turn into concrete action in the areas most impacted by climate change.  

In September 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivered a passionate speech calling upon world leaders and policymakers, who for too long have “refused to listen,” to come out of denial. He emphasized that they have the power to change the game. 

Tackling the enormous challenge we face begins by making it visible. Thus the COAL association, in this special edition of the COAL Prize, invites artists from all over the world to share their testimonies and visions for a world more respectful of ecological balance and climatic justice. Through their creations, they can encourage policymakers to understand and act on the reality of displacement caused by climate change. Presented at COP25 in Chile, the COAL Prize will be present at the negotiating table to help ensure that political decisions translate into concrete changes for a shared and livable Earth. 

With the support of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition and the sponsorship of the Ministry of Culture, the Museum of Hunting and Nature, the François Sommer Foundation, the Platform on Disaster Displacement and its cultural program DISPLACEMENT: Uncertain Journeys.

DOWNLOAD THE OPEN CALL

Address any questions to : CONTACT@PROJETCOAL.FR

Image credit : Alex Hartley, Nowhereisland, winning project of 2015 COAL Prize.

The Climate Museum: Taking Action

Nolan Park at Governors Island
New York City, June 1-October 27, 2019
 

Young people around the world are demanding that society confront the climate crisis with a new level of urgency—the urgency required for them to have a future they can hold in their minds without dread. They are demanding intergenerational justice. Their voices give us all an opportunity to rethink and recommit.

This new youth movement inspires our next exhibition, coming to Governors Island on June 1. Taking Action features hands-on learning about solutions for the climate crisis; a space to understand barriers to their implementation; and a concrete invitation to meaningful civic engagement and collective action.  

Taking Action will be staffed primarily by high school students. It will be open 11am-9pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 11am-5pm on Thursdays and Sundays prior to the end of the public school year, with extended hours during the summer months. The exhibition was highlighted by The New York Times in its recent article on climate arts.

This show extends our previous focus on elevating youth voices. Our Youth Advisory Council organized a large contingent at the youth-led Zero Hour march last summer (New Yorker); with Yuca Arts, we created a program for teens to design and paint a climate mural at their school (Grist); and on June 14 at the Apollo Theater, high school students from across the city will perform spoken word pieces on climate in our inaugural presentation of Climate Speaks, organized in partnership with the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Sustainability and with special thanks to Urban Word NYC (click hereto receive notice of the ticket presale).

Taking Action is an important step for us as an organization. We hope that it can also serve as a catalyst for many of you.

Sincerely, 
The Climate Museum team

An Interview with Artist Sabrina Diaz

by Amy Brady

This month I have for you a great interview with Sabrina Diaz, a Miami-based artist who works only with found and donated materials to create her art. (She discusses why in our interview below.) She’s also a member of Fempower, an artist collective led by queer, black, and brown artists whose work focuses on systemic oppression – including the ways in which climate change makes life worse for the world’s most vulnerable.

Your work incorporates all kinds of materials, both man-made and natural. Do you have a favorite material to work with? Do you have a favorite medium to work in?

I didn’t plan it, but textile and fabrics have revealed themselves as themes in my work. I’ve used clothing, bed sheets, and scrap fabric that were all donated to me to make rope, giant rag dolls, and macramé nets. It really has proven itself to be a mutable material. I always add an earthly element like sand, leaves, or dirt to my pieces as well. Earth acts as a multifaceted symbol, but one message that has remained consistent in every piece – and I hope resonates – is the feeling of shared healing and home.

You don’t purchase any of the materials you use in your work. Why is that?

Many reasons, but the main reason is that I’ve been a student my whole life, have had a minimum of two jobs since I started working and have been paying off debt, mostly medical, and credit cards, since I was 18. Purchasing supplies often means contributing to that debt. That being said, I have to acknowledge that I have one of the more privileged circumstances. As an able-bodied, white-Latina, I’ve always had a job, a place to sleep, and a support system. My position is often seen as a best-case scenario while living in the US, a world powerhouse, but such an equation just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m trying to imagine a world past capitalism, which specifically thrives on exploitation. Making art that I feel stands in opposition of our current system means challenging myself to work outside of its means of control. Most often that means reaching out to my community for resources and skills.

We live in a culture that glamorizes resource hoarding for the ego stroke that is “doing things on your own” but that’s the biggest illusion. I literally wouldn’t have been able to make anything without the support of those who contribute material, ideologies, or skill sets. Our interdependence becomes more apparent through this process. The purchasing of a product or service allows you to be disconnected from the labor that goes into it by real people whose livelihoods are reduced to the value of these items. Connecting with friends and strangers reminds me that our survival will depend on each other, and my art-making allows me to engage with that truth more directly by activating communal skill sharing.

Tensión Palpable is a sculpture made of re-purposed fabric and tree trunk. This piece stands in solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico post-hurricane Maria. More than a year later, the island continues to struggle and overcome. The piece re-imagines the tension between Mother Earth and the people of Puerto Rico, a US occupation. The colors of the fabric create a confusable interplay between the Puerto Rican and American flags. Its torn state reflects the strain of Puerto Rican identity in the midst of crisis. The interlaced fabric propping up the log imitates the people of PR tending to their land and healing communally.” —Sabrina Diaz

What first drew you to the subject of climate disaster, and why do you pursue it in your art?

I’ve lived in Miami my entire life, and we see better than anyone else anywhere in the US the effects of the climate crisis. I became unhealthily obsessed with the life changes I could make as an individual to contribute less to climate disaster and remember losing my mind on social media one day about the water crisis when Niki Franco, Fempower political educator and friend, recommended I read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. That’s when I started to understand that my efforts were futile if I didn’t begin to combat the wealthy people not only contributing to climate disaster on a massive scale but using it as a tool against marginalized communities.

As summers become unbearably hot and sea levels become noticeably higher, the poorest in Miami are affected first through climate gentrification, increased health problems due to longer heat waves, and more powerful hurricanes, which put those living on the street and in less stable houses at higher risks of injury or death. Maintaining a livable environment on Earth sounds like a cause we should all be able to get behind but we have to start speaking truth to the elite that are trying to get rich at our expense. My art ultimately points the finger of climate disaster at the powers that be, those who consistently put profit over people.

Tell us about the art collective you’re a part of. What are their goals, and how does your art connect to the other work they’re creating?

Fempower is a queer, black and brown-led artist collective that fights against systematic oppression by centering the needs of the most vulnerable. Through community education, activism, art, music, healing and shared joy, we are changing Miami’s political landscape. We have free programming like the Femme Fairy garden, which brings people together to tend to the Earth and learn environmentalism, herbalism, and activism through self-sustaining farming practices. Liberation book club provides free education on topics like decolonization, abolition, eroticism, and environmental justice. The knowledge learned in Fempower spaces has strategically been inaccessible by other means because it gives power back to the people: Fempower’s ultimate goal. Much of the book club readings have sparked the concepts behind my work. I attempt to create a visual language that’s as critical as the theory we’re learning and can act as an alternative method of seed-spreading.

What do you hope viewers take away from your art?

I’ve been stunted recently, because I’ve been trying to find ways to send messages of hope. I think hope gets people closer to imagining something new. Until then, I want to leave people feeling uncomfortably burdened. My pieces are bigger in scale and normally heavy for that reason – I want people to feel crushed by the weight of knowing until that weight breaks their apathetic facade. We need people to start deeply caring for each other.

When it comes to climate change, are you hopeful for the future?

Being active in my community keeps me hopeful. I think being unconditionally supported eventually makes you a more supportive person. Over all, I stay grounded knowing that if we do die off, Earth lives on, flourishing – I’ll stay fighting until then.

(Top image: Photo by Joice Gonzalez. Instagram handle: @joicegonz.)

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Green Arts Competition: Winner Announced!

This spring we hosted a competition for Green Arts Initiative members to find creative, innovative and exciting idea springing up across the Green Arts community. Now we’re revealing our community winner!

The Competition

Earlier this year, Creative Carbon Scotland was a runner-up in the Sustrans Scotland ‘ Scottish Workplace Journey Challenge‘, coming runner-up in the category of organisations with less than 20 employees. As a runner-up, we won the opportunity to donate £50 to a charity of our choice! We discussed it as team, and decided we wanted to use the donation to help support the sustainability work of the cultural sector.

We decided to run a small competition for the members of our Green Arts Initiative – all Scottish-based cultural organisations committed to reducing their environmental impact – asking for submissions of ideas which tackled environmental sustainability in a small or a big way!

The Winning Idea

We had some really interesting and innovation entries, but after a serious deliberation process in the Creative Carbon Scotland office (voting rounds, people defending their favourite submissions – it was almost a European election!) it was Lisa, Green Champion at The Beacon Arts Centre, whose idea triumphed:

“The Beacon are looking for some seed-funding, quite literally! We want to buy bean seeds to supply to local schools, encouraging them to participate in a green class project. Once the seedlings have grown into ‘mini beanstalks’, we will host a green arts workshop and showcase for all local schools involved at the end of the year, in-line with our panto, Jack & the Beanstalk!”

Although it was a close call, there were a few reasons why we chose this idea from those submitted:

  • We liked that their green work was integrated into their creative programme: identifying green opportunities within regular or special programming is a great way to align sustainability with the identity and activity of your organisation!
  • We thought it was an innovative way to engage audiences: combining schools engagement with activities such as growing and the concepts behind the production and the process sounded like fun! Public-facing initiatives have the potential to impact our wider society’s approach to climate change.
  • We thought it was something which could inspire others: although each organisation is distinct, many of the planning cycles and traditional seasonal events (e.g. the panto) are common the cultural sector, or sub-sectors. Thinking ahead and seeing where green arts can fit in in the coming months and year is a great way to make it ‘green business as usual’.

You can keep up to date with the progress of the show on the Beacon’s website.

Thank you to all those Green Arts members and Green Champions to entered the competition! There was such a range of fantastic ideas, and it was hard to choose. We’ll be in touch if we think there are other ways we can help to make them a reality.

Our Green Arts InitiativeThe Green Arts Initiative 6

The Green Arts Initiative is a networked community of practice, made up of over 225 cultural organisations in Scotland committed to reducing their environmental impact. Free to join, the community is working on everything from reducing their carbon emissions, to engaging staff, to producing artistic work that tackles climate change head-on.

We provide monthly updates for members on the news, events and opportunities which support their work as Green Champions, as well as programming our annual Green Arts Conference (this year on Tuesday 8 October 2019) and providing year-round advice. Find out more (and join!) on our Green Arts Initiative project page.

The post Green Arts Competition: Winner Announced! appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.

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Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:

Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland

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Using Comedy to Unpack Climate Justice

by Peterson Toscano

Some people in the US believe there is a conflict between their faith and accepting the reality of climate change. They look to the Bible to give them guidance and inspiration. After chatting with Evangelical Christians about the question, What Does The Bible Say About Climate Change? I decided to revisit a popular Bible story and give it a climate twist.

Character Tony Buffusio from the Bronx, NY tells the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph lives in Egypt during a time of temporary regional shifts in the climate. Not only does he predict changes in weather patterns, he develops a plan for how to look after the people. As a Bible scholar, I have a passion for looking after the welfare of people who are affected by extreme weather events.

Coming up next month,  circus artist Eliana Dunlap grapples with how to do circus in a time of climate change. She sees circus with its high stakes and need for cooperation as the perfect metaphor for climate change and climate action.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloud, Podbean, Northern Spirit Radio, Google Play, PlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

This article is part of The Art House series.

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As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Towards a Sustainable Aesthetic Theory: Climate and Rasa

by Erin Mee 

photo: Ammanur Madhava Chakyar in a kutiyattam performance of Bali Vadham. Photo by Erin B Mee.

If theatre is going to fundamentally change the way we think about climate change – and the way we relate to our planet and other species on it – we must change the way we make theatre so that it embodies new ways of sustainable thinking. Aesthetic theories reflect and shape ways of thinking, being, and interacting. Aesthetic theories are not, then, politically neutral; they require particular dramaturgical structures that are in turn political. In order to make theatre that embodies a politics of sustainability, I suggest we replace the aesthetic theory of catharsis – and all it implies and entails – with the Sanskrit aesthetic theory of rasa.

The term “rasa” has been variously translated as juice, flavor, taste, extract, and essence. According to The Nātyashāstra (The Science of Drama), the Sanskrit aesthetic treatise attributed to Bharata, rasa is the “aesthetic flavor or sentiment” savored in and through performance. It’s the mixing of different emotions and feelings that arise from different situations, which, when expressed through the performer, lead to an experience, or “taste” – the rasa – that is relished, or “digested,” by the partaker.

The metaphor is important: this relishing is multisensory in that taste always involves touch and smell, and it is internal and embodied: to taste something you have to put it in your body-mouth – or at least on your tongue. Eventually, as you digest, what you put in your mouth becomes part of you. So the metaphor of “tasting” performance posits aesthetic experience as interactive, embodied, sensual, tactile, multisensory, internal, and experiential. It allows us to think about becoming one with what is around us, with our experiences, rather than remaining separate. If we want to save the planet, this cognitive shift is crucial, and rasa can help us make it.

Like rasa, Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, which takes place in the teatron, or place of seeing, is one of emotional response; productions evoke this reaction in spectators. Unlike rasa, though, which asks partakers to relish emotion, catharsis is designed to purge excess emotion (the ancient Greeks privileged moderation). As noted classicist Edith Hall points out in her book Aristotle’s Way:

Emotions pre-exist in people, but they can be stimulated by an external force in a way that makes them susceptible to katharsis. An externally applied ‘treatment’ (music [or theatre]) actually creates a homeopathic response within the listeners [spectators], in that the arousal of a strong emotion to which they are predisposed leads to a lessening of the grip which that emotion has on them.

The central idea of catharsis – and productions that have been influenced by catharsis and/or embrace catharsis as a central goal – is that it “cures” excess emotion. Catharsis devalues emotion by asking us to experience it only in moderation – and to purge, or remove, any excess. It also asks us to maintain a distance between ourselves and that which we encounter and experience. This is the mindset that theatre needs to address, but before it can address it through content, theatre needs to address the political implications of its aesthetics.

The central metaphor of catharsis (sight) distances us from the world around us; that of rasa (taste) connects us to it. Words and metaphors are powerful because they not only reflect the way we think, they shape it. As catharsis and rasa govern modes of thinking and interacting on stage and in the auditorium, they therefore have implications on the way we interact with each other, with other species, and with the planet itself.

Catharsis demands a linear dramaturgical structure that builds to an ultimate release of tension or excess emotion in the form of a climax: A leads to B, which builds to C, which builds to D, and so on until the climax is reached. A, B, and C are not valued in and of themselves, but for what they add to the build of the linear narrative. Linear narratives also teach us to believe in causality (A causes B, which causes C) and are closely associated with notions of progress. So catharsis asks us to see the timelines of history in terms of progress and causality. Catharsis is also closely associated with agon – conflict, contest, competition. The plot moves forward because two characters enter into conflict with one another; there are winners and losers. All of this to say: catharsis reflects and constitutes notions of progress, linear (rather than cyclical) time, conflict, and dominance. These modes of thinking are detrimental to solving current climate issues, but they are embedded in Aristotelian theatrical structures.

In contradistinction, rasa requires a nonlinear, flexible dramaturgical structure that allows the partaker to linger in and with particular moments and to “wander around,” exploring numerous sensorial stimuli that give rise to emotions that can be savored. Rasa asks the partaker to value tributary streams, stories, and feelings. Rasa depends not on conflict but on association and elaboration. To return to the metaphor of food: an amuse bouche is an experience to relish in and of itself; it is not a prerequisite for the appetizer. Nor is the appetizer a prerequisite for the main course. Although vegetables are often considered to be a prerequisite for dessert, dessert is not the “goal” of a meal. A meal has things that come before and things that come after, and certain tastes complement or interact with each other, but D does not depend on C or B or A. You can still understand and appreciate a main course if you have not had an appetizer; in a non-linear structure, A, B, and C are valued in and of themselves, as a means to an end.

Rasa allows for multiple experiences and interpretations, it eschews causality and linear notions of time and progress. I believe the ways of thinking embedded in the aesthetic theory of rasa can be helpful in rethinking our relationship to the planet and to climate. It can help us think about time as cyclical (like the seasons), relationships that are not based on conflict, and interactions that do not determine winners and losers. If rasa suffuses our theatre, rather than catharsis, it will teach us different modes of interacting with the planet and each other.

For the most part, performances that offer catharsis are viewed on the proscenium stage, where much of the theatre in the United States takes place. This setup invites “the male gaze,” which describes the (male) spectator’s act of looking, or gazing, in order to fulfill his fantasy of controlling the (female) other. Even when the spectator is a woman, performances are constructed, consciously or unconsciously, with the male gaze in mind. The classic statement of the gaze is explored in feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey draws on Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of identity formation (the mirror phase, when an infant sees themselves in a mirror and is able to ask the question, “Is that image me?”). According to Lacan, the recognition of “myself” by the infant is overlaid with misrecognition and leaves the young person with a fundamental ontological-identity insecurity. It also initiates lifelong scopophilia, or love of looking, where the pleasure in looking “has been split between active/male and passive/female” such that the male look (or gaze) “projects its fantasy onto the female figure,” who becomes a bearer rather than a maker of meaning.

Ammanur Madhava Chakyar in a kutiyattam performance of Bali Vadham. Photo by Erin B Mee.

In Ways of Seeing, art critic and writer John Berger links the male gaze to landscape painting – which allowed land owners to display paintings of the land they owned on their walls to impress their guests – and to the rise of capitalism. He also links the male gaze to the invention of perspective, which puts the human viewer at the center of the world that is viewed, and implies that “man is the measure” and everything is laid out for his viewing pleasure. This creates a human-centric view of the world, and the notion that humans own what they see. Thus, ways of seeing are political. The male gaze, built into the structures of seeing set up by the proscenium, encourages us to see the world as though it is laid out from and for our own perspective, and to use each other for our own benefit. A viewing practice that encourages us to take what we need and discard the rest teaches us a mode of engagement that is not sustainable.

Ways of seeing rasic productions are built on darshan, which in Sanskrit means “seeing.” Darshan refers to the “visual perception of the sacred,” and, more specifically, to the contact between devotee and deity that takes place through the eye. In contradistinction to the male gaze, darshan is an exchange: the devotee goes to see the divine and to be seen by the deity in order to take in a superior perspective – maya, or illusion. In other words, sight becomes insight, a revelation occurs, and the spectator is transformed into a seer.

Most dance-drama in India is performed in the round, or in a three-quarters thrust. Many ritual performances are environmental and/or processional. In these circumstances, the spectators’ gaze cannot be possessive of its “desired object” because there is neither a central place of performance nor a central place from which to view and experience the event. The male gaze – the notion that everything is laid out for the viewing pleasure of the viewer as a commodity – is disabled. Darshan offers a way of seeing and a mode of engagement that is about partnership, about co-creation. No one dominates; it’s about growth. This way of seeing is more useful for theatre that seeks to address the causes of climate change and shift our ways of interacting with our planet.

Catharsis invites a distant, commodified, competitive approach to theatre that allows us to dominate, to take what we want, and to discard the rest. In contradistinction, rasa is a more sustainable approach to theatre, to ways of seeing, to modes of engagement, to each other, and to our planet. Most importantly, it is co-created: it teaches us to work together. If we want to make theatre that is itself sustainable, but that also embodies and teaches us sustainable ways of thinking and being, I urge us to create rasic rather than cathartic theatre.

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on March 26, 2019.

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Erin B. Mee has directed at the Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, SoHo Rep, HERE, The Magic Theatre, and The Guthrie Theater in the United States; and with Sopanam in India. She is the founding artistic director of This Is Not A Theatre Company, for which she directed Pool Play (in a swimming pool), A Serious BanquetReadymade Cabaret, and Ferry Play – a smartphone play for the Staten Island Ferry. She is the author of Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage, co-editor of Antigone on the Contemporary World Stage, co-editor of Modern Asian Theatre and Performance 1900-2000, and has written numerous articles for TDRTheatre JournalAmerican Theatre MagazineSDC, and other journals and books. She is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow of Dramatic Literature at NYU. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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