Yearly Archives: 2020

Climate Storytelling Collaborative Practices: an Artful Process and Adaptation

By Peterson Toscano

Jennie Carlisle and Laura England are both part of the Climate Stories Collaborative at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.

“The Climate Stories Collaborative is our response to the growing call for more transdisciplinary and creative approaches to climate change communication,” they explain. “Our mission is to grow the capacity of our faculty and students to be more creative and compelling climate storytellers.”

While many of the students finish with completed pieces of art, Jennie stresses that the process required to produce the art is their primary goal. Of course, they also want to reach out to the wider world whenever possible.

At the end of the school year, the Climate Stories Collaborative hosts a showcase for the student artists. This provides them with an opportunity to engage with the wider public in a large gallery space. Laura explains that in the past, students, faculty, and community members would mingle in the gallery to view the art and see performances.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school closed and the showcase had to be cancelled. But like so many others, they adapted and took the showcase online. As a curator, Jennie initially worried about creating a virtual showcase but quickly saw multiple benefits, including seeing viewers become deeply engaged with the art and the artists through their comments. The Climate Stories Collaborative now reaches many more people all over the world through this Instagram online showcase.

Taking this step to go virtual also models an essential part of climate action – resiliency.

Next month, creative non-fiction writer, Elizabeth Rush, reveals how seeing a stage adaptation to her award winning book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, helped her see her own climate grief in a whole new light.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, 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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘Observation may inoculate us’

By Jennifer DorrellKathleen BergenRoss RichardsonSherry Bokser

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

NATURAL COMFORT

Mom itched to return to NYC, so on March 13th I rented a car and headed to Florida. Thirteen hours in, an epiphany: “We’re safer in Orlando. Lower population density, more hospital beds per capita, more living space for us.” She acquiesced, but ten weeks later she remains homesick. Masked and gloved, we take daily walks; I extol the sunshine, blue skies, blooming magnolias, swaying palms. I point out the hawks and herons, egrets and ducklings, and occasionally an otter who plays in the ponds. I do this with a joy I pray is as contagious as the virus.

— Sherry Bokser (New York, New York)

A great white egret greeting us at the first pond on our mile walk.

* * *

IS YOUR SKYLINE LIKE MINE?

Having a houseguest for two months was one oddity. Normally, she would take road trips to South Lake Tahoe or to The City. But not this time. Because all but the natural rotation of the Earth stopped, my friend was waylaid in my home. As a pre-coronavirus germaphobe, using masks, hand sanitizer and gloves was not too far from her errand-filled routine. My life, unchanged mostly, danced on the edge of depression. My commute, an eerily fast step each morning into a surreal workday, was essential. On the way, I could see the crisp city skyline. The news was the pollutant.

— Jennifer Dorrell (Folsom, California)

(Top photo: It’s a small world after all!)

* * *

FRAGMENTS OF THE SELF

Sunlight seeps through the windows, pooling at my feet in bright silver puddles. The puddles slowly slither along the ground, their form seamlessly stretching and contracting. They climb the four walls that contain me, before gradually withering away and evaporating into the cool winter air.

Outside the windows, clouds sheepishly cross the sky. My eyes follow them. I watch as they sail across the great expanse. I’m envious of their freedom, of their naivety. But I watch them dance all the same. Then the sunlight sinks into the soil, and I’m bathed in darkness once again.

— Ross Richardson (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia)

Fragments of the Self, original artwork.

* * *

TWO DAUGHTERS: WHAT IS COVID?

Leah, psych major, says COVID is karma – mental health’s reprisal for its public stigma. Fear of sickness, fear of going out – they’re not so crazy now, are they?

Madeline, poet, says COVID is a media metaphor. Tech disconnect has sickened us socially. The cure lies in noticing. Hummingbird on wire still or delicate petal snow-fall. Slow down, look up, breathe, pay attention.

I think the answer lies in between these disparate views: perhaps COVID is a reminder that we cannot prevent all ills, but observation may inoculate us from the myopic view of the screen. Protect yourself.

— Kathleen Bergen (Santa Monica, California)

Slow down, look up…

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

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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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Indigenous Theatre and the Climate Crisis

By David Geary

Ko Taranaki tōku maunga / My mountain is Taranaki
Ko Hangatahua tōku awa / My river is the Hangatahua
Ko Kurahaupo tōku waka / My canoe is the Kurahaupō
Ko Taranaki me Ngāti Pākehā tōku iwi / My tribe is the Taranaki Māori Nation of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pākehā (non-Māori settler/colonial nations of England, Ireland, and Scotland; and I’ve been a Canadian citizen since 2008)
Ko Ngā Mahanga tōku hapu / My sub-tribe is the Ngā Mahanga
Ko Etahi Taputai me William Geary tōku tīpuna / My ancestors are Etahi Taputai and William Geary
David Geary taku ingoa / My name is David Geary
“Ua Tawa ! Ua Tawa! / “Purple Rain! Purple Rain!”

This pepeha is how I introduce myself on formal occasions. When asked by Chantal Bilodeau (co-founder of Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA)) to write about the intersection of Indigenous issues and the climate crisis in relation to theatre, my pepehawas my first thought. It’s a monologue Māori perform to embody our place in the world wherever we might go. We introduce our mountain and river first because they are the natural world we all come from. They are part of Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother. In Te Reo, the Māori language, the word for land and placenta are the same: whenua. Some words just don’t translate and the poetry is lost.

A disclaimer: I’m aware of the dangers of speaking for other Indigenous artists in writing this article. However, here goes. I feel that for many of us the land we belong to is where all our art comes from. The climate crisis is just the latest effect of colonialism disrupting our relationship to our land. How we respond to that depends on the individual.

One of the most visible responses in early 2020 was the blockades set up across roads, railways, and city streets in Canada. They were in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who didn’t want a gas pipeline across their land. I see this as street theatre. The barricades are the set. Drum songs and dance celebrate the people of the land. Speeches are made to the audience (the public, via the media), and also to the reluctant audience (the police). It serves as educational theatre for Canada to learn the difference between the elected band council chiefs who approved of the pipeline, hereditary chiefs who don’t, hereditary chiefs who do, and how the Indian Act continues to divide nations.

Vancouver street blockades in support of the Wet’suwe’ten Hereditary Chiefs. Photo by TravisStump2020.

In my pepeha I also acknowledge my great-great-grandmother, full-blooded Māori Etahi Taputai of Taranaki, and my great-great-grandfather, William Geary. He was an Irish labourer convicted of stealing two bushels of wheat in a Nottingham court in 1834. His punishment: eight years transportation in Australia. Once released he became a whaler in Otago, New Zealand. After some shady transaction with a sack of spuds (potatoes), William and Etahi shacked up, and here I am. They are part of my whakapapa, my bloodline.

The whakapapa section of a pepeha can go on for some time as we acknowledge many ancestors. But it also gives listeners a chance to see if we are related or if they know our relatives. There is a legend that a visitor once asked a Māori Elder who he was, and the old man started to trace his whakapapa back seventeen generations to a Polynesian canoe that had arrived from the Pacific, then back to the islands, and eventually up into the stars. He was still telling his story the next day… Maybe you feel a bit like this now?

The point is that after our land and our canoe, our whakapapa and whanau, family, is of greatest importance. Our tīpuna, ancestors, are with us all the time. They are woven into us as part of our Indigenous DNA. So how can we honour them? And if the climate crisis threatens what our ancestors were guardians of, how are we defending Papatūānukunow?

Ko tuatara toku tipuna. The tuatara, an ancient reptile, is also my ancestor. A tuatara was the lead character in my first short play for Climate Change Theatre Action, Morehu and Tītī. The gender of tuatara is dependent on the temperature of the ground in which they bury their eggs. Global warming has meant more males are being born than females. It’s put the tuataras’ world out of balance.

Sketch of Tuatara by David Geary.

Tuatara are some of the oldest creatures on Earth and only exist in Aotearoa, New Zealand. They whakapapa back to a reptile species that flourished 240 million years ago. The cats, dogs, and rodents of colonisation almost wiped them out, but a few hardy populations survived on offshore islands. I include them as my ancestors because they were of the world humans evolved from, and my Taranaki iwi, my tribe, includes them in our stories and carvings on wood and stone. They can be messengers of death and disaster. They can also indicate tapu, the border with the sacred and restricted. For example, there are stories of wahine, women, having them tattooed near their genitals.

The tuatara’s name means “spiny back” but to hold them they feel like vinyl. I had this privilege only after I had convinced some breeding program scientists that I wasn’t a rare species smuggler. One of the tuataras’ most remarkable features is the remnants of what might have been a third eye on top of their head. Some speculate this was to detect birds of prey above, but other stories say it was an eye to see the future.

One thing they do have an eye for is free room and board. A tuatara is the worst sofa surfer you could ever imagine. They gatecrash and move into the burrow of the sooty shearwater bird, crap everywhere, and if peckish eat an egg or chomp the head off a chick.

In my play the tuatara and bird are a slob and a neat freak, in a parody of the ancient American comedy The Odd Couple. They’ve had to abandon their island due to rising tides and temperatures. They make a raft to travel to Antarctica so the tuatara can lay their eggs in colder ground and restore the gender balance. In a madcap musical moment, Al Gore floats by on an iceberg to say, “I told you so!” then sings an operatic agitprop remake of “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen.

My approach to the climate crisis is a satiric one. I see it as honoring the tradition of tricksters who are essential to the survival of Indigenous Peoples. Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Jojo Rabbit this year, is the latest and greatest trickster manifestation. Taika started in theatre with comic and satirical shows. He likes to be known as a filmmaker first and foremost, one who just happens to be Māori. (When I first met him he was Taika Cohen, his mother being Jewish.) In Jojo Rabbit, he brings the trickster’s cheek and chutzpah to his portrayal of Hitler as the imaginary friend of a naïve Nazi youth. He whakapapas back to Mel Brooks’ Hitler in To Be Or Not To Be, and in Jojo Rabbit Taika is set on mocking and exposing a new generation of wannabe white supremacists. Where does the climate crisis fit into this? Well, let’s start with the white supremacist idea that Indigenous traditional knowledge isn’t up to the level of Eurocentric science.

Design idea for David Geary’s play Science Is Dead! by Patrick Rizzotti.

Not that I don’t respect Western science. In fact, my second play for CCTA was Science Is Dead!, which lampoons those who deny that there is any science behind the climate crisis. In a brainstorming meeting, modern Madmen-type spin doctors jam ideas on how to discredit science and scientists. It ends in a tribute to playwright Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist with the “scientist” being thrown out a skyscraper window. When the underling questions how they’ll explain this act to corporate, their superior quips, “We’re downsizing.”

There was nothing ostensibly Indigenous about Science is Dead! However, I saw it as the work of the trickster to mock and expose those who refuse to see the facts even when they’re right in front of them. Those people who then construct a whole new reality where anything goes in the name of progress, including murder, and Indigenous Peoples understand that all too well.

My third play for CCTA was OWN NOW! It went a trickster step further to imagine a future where a righteous self-help guru and author considers climate change a God-driven natural process. “We’re going to capture the rapture in my next chapter,” he rejoices. He goes on to demonize those who bring foreign diseases into his homeland, celebrates that journalism is dead, and looks forward to the day Jesus returns. When he’s confronted by the actual return of Jesus, it turns out to be his stooge of a wife, and it all ends happily ever after with more ebook sales and everyone dancing to Blondie’s “Rapture.”

This brings us back to the pepeha. Mine ends with: David Geary taku ingoa, my name is David Geary, and Ua Tawa!, “Purple Rain!” The big waiata, song, at the end honors both the Western musical but also how we finish a pepeha. It comes after you finally tell everyone your name, right near the end to emphasize your lowly place in the order of things. Your land, ancestors, tribe, and family are far more important than you. Their needs come before yours. You must serve them, whether it be by doing the Marae committee accounts, cleaning the toilets, or writing plays that lift community spirits. The song is to support your pepeha and hopefully add entertainment value. A traditional waiata is usually used, but I like to mix it up, hence Prince or….

Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think… I’ve said that community comes first, but a lot of what I’ve done here is talk about my work and myself. I would like to do some shoutouts.

Bruce Hunter (left) as Angu’juaq and Jani Lauzon as Huumittuq in The Breathing Hole. Stratford Festival, 2017. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reneltta Arluk, the Inuvialuit, Dene, Cree director, playwright, actor, and artist, who is also the director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, made one of the biggest splashes for Indigenous theatre and the climate when she directed The Breathing Hole at the Stratford Festival in Ontario in 2017. The play is an epic saga of a polar bear named Angu’juaq, born in an Inuit community in 1534, who encounters the doomed explorer Franklin in 1832 and lives on to experience global warming today. Though the play was written by Colleen Murphy (a well regarded non-Indigenous playwright), Arluk and Murphy worked with Qaggiavuut!, the Iqaluit-based theatre collective. Hailed as a breakthrough for its use of four different sorts of puppetry (and extensive consultation and collaboration with Indigenous theatre artists), it is also darkly satirical in the spirit of the trickster.

Kim Senklip Harvey premiered her play Kamloopa in 2019 at the Cultch in Vancouver. It’s a riotous celebration of matriarchy and the search for Indigenous identity, but doesn’t mention the climate at all… Or does it? Kim became exhausted as an actor performing in Indigenous productions where she was always having to “cry or die”; several Canadian plays about the intergenerational trauma from residential schools, and the tragedy of murdered and missing women, fit this bill. They’re important in terms of witnessing, but, like Kim, I’m interested in the evolution past “trauma drama” to the transcendent.

Kim Senklip Harvey

Truth and reconciliation are big buzzwords in Canada, and the telling of “the truth” will be an ongoing project. These stories need to be told, heard, and held, but there needs to be healing. As Kim says: for every tough truth-telling story, there also needs to be a celebration of Indigenous resilience, survival, and humor. Kamloopa has this in spades. It’s ultimately also a story of going back to honor the land, with ceremony, as the three young women leave the city to journey back to participate in a powwow.

Reneltta and Kim have both worked with a leading light in Indigenous dramaturgy, Lindsay Lachance. She is the Artistic Associate of Indigenous Theatre at Canada’s National Arts Centre. Lindsay’s dissertation for her PhD at the University of British Columbia, The Embodied Politics of Relational Indigenous Dramaturgies, features land-based, place-based and community-engaged dramaturgies. It provides a foundation and inspiration for all those working in Indigenous theatre.

Lindsay, Reneltta, and Kim are examples of a new generation of Indigenous artists making theatre that engages all our humanity, including our relationship to the land. They prove we’re not sitting back being victims – people can save their white tears for poverty porn. We Indigenous theatre creators want to tell hard truths but we also want to celebrate the power, passion, and humor of our people (for more trickster satire, check out Walking Eagle News). We want to tell the full story, to laugh, sing, and dance on and with the land that created us and that we will one day return to. Yes, the climate crisis is real, but we are strong and our theatre can help the people and Papatuanuku heal.

As the Indigenous rapper JB the First Lady sings: “We’re still here!” despite multiple attempts to erase, assimilate, murder, and muffle us. So any time an Indigenous artist represents, in any way, it’s an act of artistic resistance. Climate change began as soon as colonial ships arrived to survey our lands. It was decided our forests would make great masts for more ships, our lands were ripe for extraction and fine real estate for the tide to follow, but we’re still here. Kia Kaha! Mauri Ora!

(Top image: Vancouver street blockades in support of the Wet’suwe’ten Hereditary Chiefs. Photo by TravisStump2020.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on April 29, 2020.

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David Geary is of Māori, English, Irish and Scottish blood. His iwi/tribe in New Zealand is the Taranaki. He grew up immersed in the Polynesian trickster tales of Maui and is now honoured to live, work and play in the lands of the Coyote and Raven tricksters of Turtle Island/Canada. He is an award-winning playwright, dramaturg, director, screenwriter, fiction writer and poet. David works at Capilano University in North Vancouver, Canada. He teaches screenwriting in the Indigenous Digital Filmmaking program, documentary, and playwriting. 

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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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘A wild peacock shows up’

By Eileen E. SchmitzNoa HickersonRachel HeymanYumiko Yoshioka

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

THE FACE ALWAYS GIVES IT AWAY

When the pupil in her right eye shakes subtly and the skin beneath her eyes turns red, she’s hurting. When she catches herself mid-smile, she’s happy but afraid of weakness. An abstract movement, an uneven blink, or a sharp smile always gives it away. She trapped me in lies that I unknowingly took onto myself. People take attention. Attention that I failed to acknowledge before I found fear in the way my hands clung to one another, or the way I bit my lip on the right side. I learned to read feeble movements because they are fragments of forgotten stories.

— Rachel Heyman (Pacific Palisades, California)

Wooden pier, Venice, Italy.

* * *

STILL MOVING FORWARD

At first I think outside is empty. It’s hard not to as I walk along that barren sidewalk. I see rows of houses with flickering TVs inside big windows. Outside is empty and we’re all trapped inside like zoo animals, cages so close together but lives separated.

A bird flew and rested close to me. I almost held my breath as I watched it, free and unaware. In the silence of my birdwatching, I heard it. The wind blew through the trees in an ancient melody as birds sang along. Outside isn’t empty. It’s alive, moving forward, with or without us.

— Noa Hickerson (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Pencil sketch of a bird.

* * *

WHERE IS MY SPRING?

Ever since I was forced to return home from college in the United States, my life has been moving very quickly. Everything has changed and the life I knew has suddenly disappeared. I was anxious about the situation and very scared to go home on an airplane. But honestly, I was missing home and looking forward to graduating as soon as possible. 

There was one thing I missed from campus: spring at Gustavus. I see beautiful cherry blossoms here at home, but they make me sad all the same. 

Where are my lovely flowers?

— Yumiko Yoshioka (Japan)

Flowers on campus.

* * *

HOME TO ROOST

Gold and green, with an iridescent blue head, nowadays a wild peacock shows up, infatuating me with full plume, feathers down, then helicopter leaps onto the rooftop, resting beside the front door, eating the proper birdseed – banana when I have it. He doesn’t care for apples. Absolute supermodel material.

In an organizational fete both cultural and digital, I discover photographs of his visit last autumn. Could explain why housecats yowling is reserved for raccoons on the deck.

The unnamed peacock’s telling begins: Strawberry blonde, midlife, nowadays a friendly human shows up, seems she was a workaholic, now birdfeeder slash photographer.

— Eileen E. Schmitz (Sequim, Washington)

(Top photo: Between online meetings, it’s feeding time.)

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

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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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘That release will be harder’

By Dana SimsonJessica YaminLisa PatersonXanthe Muston

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

MY PLACE

2020 was supposed to be my time to explore more and wonder about my place. My country. My being. My life. I was to embark on living overseas, in a new career, moving from health into education. But instead of imagining riding the Oxfordshire countryside into a classroom of young faces, my reality: preparing to work in the ICU with ongoing COVID updates. What 2020 has brought forward is that my place is based on my assessment and appreciation of a situation, then my choice in my action to improve it. I feel lucky to have learnt this useful life lesson.

— Jessica Yamin (Melbourne, Australia)

This is one of the art activities, based on my studies in education, that I organized for my workplace to bring mindfulness into the hospital during this time.

* * *

TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS (A REMIX)

On the 62nd day of isolation, COVID-19 gave to me:

176 coffees drunk
64 dog walks
17 board game nights
9 books read
7 TV seasons binged…

Some viewed this as an opportunity to get fit, to order their lives, to revel in uncertainty. For me, reality has paled in comparison. No great novels were written. No entrepreneurial businesses were created.

But I’ve never been more thankful for health, for simplicity. I didn’t realize how little I call my grandparents. Or how peaceful the city looks with no one around, with only the sky dragging its weary feet until nightfall.

— Xanthe Muston (Sydney, Australia)

(Top photo: A watercolor I painted of an empty Town Hall.)

* * *

ADRIFT IN A TIMELESS SEA

The world quiets. We pull back into ourselves. This too is medicine for what shadows our health. Waking each day to a gift of time and the news that for others time is up. We have been heedlessly poisoning our planet for our convenience and comfort. Now we are ill and she breathes easier; skies clearing across the globe. Nature rises and blooms for us. It is time to return the gift. We can change for the better. The future is now.

— Dana Simson (Maddux Island, Maryland)

“Adrift in a Timeless Sea,” from The Animals Are Innocent.

* * *

YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN

An “empty nester” no more, my twins back home. I’ve gotten good at crises. Facing fears and unknowns. My children just four when their dad was murdered in the 9/11 attacks.

This plight is tougher. They should be out socializing, working, finding more of themselves. It’s a pandemic, where else should they be? Precious time back for us three. Re-bonding. My privilege to show up, yet this crisis is really testing my proclivity to keep my energy upbeat.

Playing together each day, till I can resend them into the world. Again. That release will be harder than the first time.

— Lisa Paterson (Hudson Valley, New York)

Having hope on our hikes.

______________________________

This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

———-

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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I Am the Damage We Have Done to the Earth

By Hanna Cormick

INTERSECTIONS OF THE CLIMATE CRISIS AND DISABILITY

For some of us, the crisis isn’t coming, it’s here: air we can’t breathe, water we can’t drink, food and resource scarcity, sun that blisters our skin, pollution so thick that everything becomes a poison. I have been living inside a sealed room for five years, disabled by the environment that we have created through our actions.

I have a rare immune disease, but the systems of my body are not wildly different from a regular person, just accelerated, amplified. My cells, ravaged by the effects of humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels, have mutated, and through the damage done to my body by the toxic environment we have created around us, I feel the damage we do to the planet. I may be in the vanguard for humans, but I’m alongside a host of other early climate casualties that don’t usually have a voice: animal and insect species going extinct, glaciers melting, coastlines disappearing, and bushland aflame.

I wasn’t listening to the tremors that were running through my cells
that were the same tremors running through the coral, the sea-bed, the roots
that we are not on the Earth, but of it

– The Mermaid

I’m especially susceptible to air pollution, though what classifies as a pollutant is perhaps more broad than you realize: if someone walks past me with a coffee, I’ll have a seizure because of the way the dairy particles pollute the air; I can’t open the window of the single room I live in because if a neighbor has hung their laundry out, the petrochemicals in the fragrance of their laundry powder will trigger my mutated white blood cells to mount an allergic response, causing respiratory distress. To need an EpiPen because of the fossil fuels in someone else’s perfume or the odor of their takeaway meal is an observably direct example of how our little – and what we assume to be personal – actions affect those beyond us; your lunch invades my cells, the planet is inside my veins.

My performance artwork uses my body as a metaphor for the damage we do to the Earth. But it isn’t really a metaphor. We are indivisible from the planet; the damage we do to it we are also doing to ourselves. Our environment shapes us, our function and identity, as surely as the organs inside our body and the thoughts in our head. The social model of disability interprets disability as the barriers that are created by the environmental and social structures we find ourselves within. This is in specific contrast to the outdated medical model of disability, which interprets disability as stemming from something being “wrong” with one’s body.

Hanna Cormick in her performance artwork, The Mermaid. Photo by Daniel Boud for the Sydney Festival.
RADICAL VISIBILITY

The Mermaid, my first performance artwork after a three-year art-hiatus, debuted in 2018 at Art, Not Apart, a festival in Canberra, Australia, with later remounts at Ainslie + Gorman Arts Centre for I-Day 2018, and Sydney Festival 2020. This work was my “coming out” as disabled; for years, I had been hiding my illnesses from my colleagues and friends with a subterfuge of vague excuses and radio silence, but with this work I claimed my new identity in a public act. I put my body at risk to speak out and be seen – a radical action against the shame borne of internalized ableism and the cultural invisibility that facilitates us hurting each other and our planet.

The character of the mermaid is a symbol of the social model: in the water the mermaid moves freely, but on land she presents as disabled; it is the environment, not her body, that creates the barrier. The Mermaid asks us to consider what our shared resources are and how our pollution of those resources disables the people, creatures, and systems around us.

Placing my real mobility and medical aids – a wheelchair, oxygen tank, full-face respirator, saline IV drip, and body orthoses – against the image of a mermaid, I spoke of my experience of disability, illness, and climate in the same space as the public. This sharing of space, however, meant sharing the air, and it ran the risk of triggering serious allergic events, including anaphylaxis, seizures, dystonic storms, and episodes of paralysis, which could “interrupt” the work at any moment, any number of times. The audience found their places inside the ruins of the abandoned coal tunnels of the Coal Loader – an old coal processing station, now turned sustainability center, on Sydney Harbour’s edge – but, if they were wearing fragrance or cosmetics, they were asked to move to an upstairs area or the rear of the space. Segregation, something routinely experienced by the disabled, affected their access and framed their experience.

This risk variable was built in to the structure of the piece with a kind of dark and irreverent humor. For example, a mast cell seizure, which left my body thrashing about on the floor in a state of complete vulnerability and lack of agency, would result in very loud surf rock music playing as assistants held up cue cards and reiterated through a megaphone that I was having an allergic reaction, what it was potentially triggered by, and the audience’s complicity in that event. These medical events happened ten times over the two years in which the work was performed; sometimes not at all, sometimes multiple times in one showing.

Why expose myself to this danger and put moments of such fragility and trauma on display?

Invisibility is the mechanism that allows us to continue to operate in a mode of “business as usual,” safe from the threat of retribution or the crush of guilt; if someone, or something, isn’t acknowledged, you don’t need to acknowledge its rights, or the suffering that your actions cause it. We also create a system that perpetuates that invisibility through the mechanism of stigma and shame. These are true for many forms of oppression and exploitation, not just victims of the climate crisis. And I knew that giving in to those internalized feelings of shame would only facilitate further oppression.

Invisibility doesn’t make the problem go away; I am at the mercy of these systems whether I am in public or not. Shining a light on my own situation is also a means of shining a light on other people, species, and ecosystems, especially those who do not have the capacity to speak out or the privilege of a platform, as I do.

SICK PLANET

On the ride back from the hospital, I saw the rocks peeking from the mountainside
and I felt like I looked at the ancient face of the country
And I said: “help me, I’m sick”
And it replied: “me too”

— The Mermaid

The Sydney Festival season of The Mermaid in 2020 coincided with the catastrophic bushfire emergency in Australia. Enormous swathes of land had been destroyed by mega blazes, fire tornados and pyrocumulonimbus storms. The air was thick with a bright orange haze and the taste of ash. Suddenly, people were wearing respirators to go outside, like me. They had to seal the cracks where the air seeped into their houses, and they could smell smoke particles from an event miles away that blew into their bedroom. They started to realize how the air could hurt them. Their experience was catching up to mine, the Earth was starting to wear her sickness visibly.

As I write this, COVID-19 is sweeping the globe, and other people’s lives are again starting to mirror my own; a hyper-awareness of the vectors of transmission between us, our safety at the mercy of how others use our shared spaces, and the loneliness of being excluded because of a hostile, contaminated environment. We are starting to understand that we are all participants in this global event, and we need to work collectively to prevent the contamination of the air in our lungs, the fluids on our skin, and the people around us.

CANARY IN THE COAL MINE

In contrast to the embodied practice of The Mermaid, my work Canary, a short-form piece commissioned by the Arctic Cycle for Climate Change Theatre Action 2019, highlights the absence of my body. I was interested in the way privilege can be leveraged in activism – particularly the sort of activism that puts one’s body on the line. I drew inspiration from the way allies encircle and protect marginalized protestors at Black Lives Matter marches so that they would be arrested instead of their peers, or the way the often-denigrated white middle-classness of Extinction Rebellion protestors (or of outspoken protestor celebrities) affords a kind of safety. Protestors with privilege can go out there and champion their message, and if they are arrested, it ends up as a slap on the wrists, whereas for other marginalized people, that same arrest for that same action could result in incarceration, unemployment, deportation, violence, or murder. It is the responsibility of those with privilege to use it to protect the planet.

Madeline Charne in Canary by Hanna Cormick, presented as part of Waste//Land at Yale Cabaret, September 19-21, 2019. Photo by Emily Duncan Wilson.

As someone who is vulnerable to harm in situations that implicate my body – though predominantly through immunologic rather than carceral channels – I became intrigued by the use of a surrogate to participate in civil disobedience. Not as a replacement of one voice for another (always something to be wary of), but as a conduit for the marginalized voice to be present without risk. I wanted to see how this could be extended to my protest-art; if, as a performer, my body could be manifested through someone else.

Canary asks another body to stand in for my body, an activism by proxy in which my absence becomes the illustration, and, like The Mermaid, asks the audience to be aware of their complicity and their responsibility in making the space inaccessible for me and those like me. The text weaves my own medical story with that of a revenge-fantasy uprising of coal mine canaries. A dark humor is again present in these tiny bolshie birds who strip themselves naked and propose to revolt against a world who used their suffering as an exploitable tool to assist fossil fuel extraction. It challenges us to reflect upon all the different “canaries in the coal mine” – those we have relegated to being our early warning signal, the climate casualties who pay for our safety and convenience with their lives – and how we might instead leverage the privilege of our own bodies to protect theirs.

And they are almost forgotten
In the silence of their absence
Forgetting also
That their silence
Is the warning

— Canary

Our minds are formed and reformed through the medium of culture – that is to say story, which means text but which also means image and movement and shared experience. My performances committed the subversive act of telling the stories that society is trying to hide, of showing things we try to avoid – our own fragility, our culpability as oppressors – for us to sit in the discomfort required to instigate change.

These artworks are not just stories but actions: the act of placing one’s body in a state of precarity to illustrate a hidden reality, the act of transforming a moment of real private suffering into a public political message, the act of standing in or speaking for beings who cannot, the act of breathing air with an audience and making them aware of what is in that air, the act of creating a visible image for the invisible effects of our actions. The process of creating these artworks was also an action of revolt against the unsustainable systems that I, as an artist, was guilty of perpetuating.

THE SHOW MUST NOT GO ON

Just as healing the climate crisis requires not individual solutions but an overhaul of our current social and economic system, creating these artworks revealed to me that accessing these stories within my body would require entirely new modes of working. Becoming disabled forced me to become aware of not just how my body was a stage on which our damage to the planet played out, but how the “extractivist” mindsets of our culture underpinned my relationship with my body and my art. I used to treat my body as if it were a limitless resource for me to use to achieve my aims; I worked grueling hours and pushed myself until I collapsed, I believed I could mold my body into a machine in which any weakness was to be conquered through trying harder. While I preached the need for sustainability, social justice, and relationships between ourselves and our planet that prioritized communal and interdependent care, my most intimate of relationships, and perhaps therefore the most honest – with myself – was championing these capitalist, hyper-extractive ideals.

Hanna Cormick in The Mermaid I-Day Virtual Exhibition. Photo by Shelly Higgs, Novel Photographic.

In the past, if a task was too large, a hurdle insurmountable, a deadline too close, I’d dig in and push through, and accomplish the “impossible.” I was willing to burn up every part of myself in the service of my art – and quite specifically in service of producing proliferate results from increasingly scarce resources: time, sleep, food, headspace, energy. But this new awareness forced me to embrace attributes I would previously have derided – slowness, incapability, surrender – and to preference a sustainable relationship with my body over productivity; to treat my body as I would want to treat the Earth, and to admit that, sometimes, the show must not go on.

Exhaustion, overwork, proliferative output, and stress are lauded in theatre; how many artists are in multiple projects at once, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, demanding impossible hours and physical/ mental/ emotional energy from their bodies without adequate physical, mental, or emotional nourishment? But when I became disabled, that “resource” of energy was suddenly precarious and finite, and I had to admit that I was not capable of doing everything alone – whether that meant getting in and out of my wheelchair, feeding myself, or making artwork. The web of connectivity that we exist within became tangible and necessary to my survival.

I dug deeper and deeper into that dwindling reservoir of energy
With no thought for how or if it could replenish
I wanted to take my health back by force

— The Mermaid

We fetishize strength and independence, and label weakness and dependency as things to be conquered – but it is precisely this conquering narrative (how industrialist, how colonialist…) that prevents us from learning how to work in cooperation. We do not need to conquer and mold nature, and we do not need to conquer or “cure” our bodies. We need to work with them.

Interdependence is our resilience. Radical connectivity is our rebellion. An inclusive sustainable design of our spaces and society needs to reject the anthropocentric attitudes of modern human culture – our societal structures should also cater for animals, plants, and complex ecosystems in recognition of how we are all connected as one planet.

And so, in this climate crisis life, my art and the way I made it have had to change. I still struggle. It will always be a struggle so long as I am within an industry that idolizes extractive behavior, in an environment that is built for a very particular type of species with a very particular type of body. But if our stories change, what we value changes – and then our practices can change too.

(Top image: Hanna Cormick in The Mermaid. Photo by Sydney Festival, Daniel Boud.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on April 28, 2020.

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Hanna Cormick is a performance artist with a background in physical theatre, dance, circus and interdisciplinary art. She is a graduate of École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq and Charles Sturt University’s Acting degree. Cormick’s practice has spanned many genres and continents over twenty years, including as a founding member of Australian interdisciplinary art-science group Last Man To Die, one half of Parisian cirque-cabaret duo Les Douleurs Exquises, and as a mask artist in France and Indonesia. Her current practice is a reclamation of body through radical visibility.

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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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘The virus of greed persists’

By June ArderneKeni FineRubySilvia Peláez

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

HUGS IN THE DISTANCE

Every Mother’s Day, I take my Mom to her favorite restaurant. She smiles, embraces me, and shows her happiness through the brightness in her eyes. This May, I just send her roses and lilies and we have a face-to-face call. I can see the fear and sadness she hides. 

We begin talking about the coronavirus, but as the conversation progresses, we relax, appreciate the opportunity to connect through technology. We laugh and feel close thanks to the hugs and kisses thrown at the screen. When we say goodbye, we have hopes to get together again.

— Silvia Peláez (Mexico City, Mexico)

Roses and lilies in the distance.

* * *

THANK YOU, SUNRISE

Although we may be living in a sad, boring, and confusing world right now, there are still ways to stay happy. I would like to thank the youth-led Sunrise Movement for bringing me happiness and motivation during the coronavirus crisis. The climate crisis is still happening, people! Sunrise is an incredible movement and it is what keeps me going. I now feel I have the power to make change in a world where, unfortunately, most don’t feel that way. Listen to the youth. They know what’s real. Thank you Sunrise, for giving me courage during these unprecedented and scary times.

— Ruby (Ithaca, New York)

Sunrise, in sidewalk chalk.

* * *

TUNING IN TO NATURE

I sweep up the leaves that have turned red and dropped, aware that the seasons are changing as I am. I focus on the garden and my daily visitors. A bird hops onto my bird bath and a praying mantis is spotted on the wall. I welcome these joyful new friends and hope they have come to stay. The vegetable patch is developing and other creatures make holes in the leaves. I am trying to accept and thrive instead of battling to survive. By tuning in to nature, I let my mind flow like water and reflect it like a mirror.

— June Arderne (Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa)

A praying mantis is spotted on the wall.

* * *

THE VIRUS OF GREED

Trumpish billionaires are especially thriving in quarantine. How?

The richest New York City billionaire landlord does it through wanton disregard. Disregards a court order to fix chronic leaks until the ceiling collapses. Catastrophic flooding destroys a sweet lady’s apartment. She loses belongings, furnishings, and her thirty-plus-year rent-stabilized home.

Sickened from mold, immune compromised, homeless for over two years, with zero compensation from the billionaires, she’s vulnerable, quarantined in yet another friend’s house.

Papers arrive! Settlement? Finally? No, billionaire landlord’s still suing for thousands of dollars in “back rent” – for when she was homeless.

The Virus of Greed persists. Superspreader President, no vaccine.

— Keni Fine (Astoria, New York)

(Top photo: Skylines: Deconstructively Evicted.)

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

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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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