Artists and Climate Change

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Revitalizing Rural China with Art and Design

by Yasmine Ostendorf

I’m writing this from the misty mountains of Qingliangshan National Forest Park, a stunningly beautiful natural area in Zixi county, Jiangxi province, in rural China. The closest railway station (Nan Cheng) is over two hours away. It doesn’t just feel remote here, it really is. Though the soil is fertile, the people friendly, the air fresh and the water clean, the area is facing other difficulties: the last school closed last year because there were no students left, and the (aging) population is declining as the remaining young people trade rural life for city life. Family fragmentation and depopulation are the unfortunate consequences of a generation in pursuit of an urban lifestyle.

Local landscape of Qingliangshan

Rural life is not appealing to this generation of Chinese; the prevalent attitude toward the countryside is that if offers no desirable work opportunities (farming is too physically straining), it’s low-tech, it’s full of bugs and snakes, there are no good hospitals and no prestigious schools. Even if Chinese youth was interested in a more simple life in the country, no Chinese parent would endorse this plan.

My workshop during the Lucitopia Rural Design Challenge

So it was a bold move when Lucitopia Town Limited Company, in collaboration with C-Platform, Xiamen MeXdia Creativity & Technology, and Creative Cooperative decided to organize a “Rural Design Challenge.” They brought over 60 international design students and volunteers to spend a week in the mountains of Qingliangshan, doing field research and interviewing locals, in order to come up with informed proposals to re-invigorate the area.

The aim of the Rural Design Challenge is to encourage students to come up with ideas that can be implemented and benefit the local community – bringing people in, creating work opportunities, and feeding the local economy. The area was coined Lucitopia Town in order to brand it and its possible products for an international audience. I joined the group for a week as lecturer, mentor, and as a member of the jury, selecting the winning proposal(s). A task not to be thought of lightly as the founders of Lucitopia Town are ambitious and hope to actually implement some of the best design ideas.

Lucitopia could potentially serve as a model, a best practice example for other remote villages as exodus to the city is a problem occurring across China (and to some extent across the world). It is clear from the marketing language, with terms such as “Design Creation,” “Mountain Stories,” “New Rural Lifestyle,” and “Future Fantasy,” and from Lucitopia branded honey, tote bags, and other products, that they are aching to be launched into the world even though the site is hardly established.

We sleep in containers (very much resembling Shoreditch Boxpark in London) that look alien in the leafy green bushiness of the region. I guess the aspiration is to look like a hip-ish eco-village, but it looks more like a construction site. Because of recent heavy storms, the (rain and mountain) water storage tanks are clogged with sand and leaves and there is no running water.

In addition to being a design challenge, this becomes an immediate social challenge: some of the students (and even teachers) find it very hard to cope without running water for 24 hours. For many, this is their first time in Asia, or even their first time away from the city. They are confronted with cultural differences and/or are lost in translation, on top of having to deal with jet lag. Stress, chaos, and tears abound. It’s a proper baptism as it becomes apparent how detached city people are from rural life. However, the situation has the benefit of pointing students toward possible design challenges/solutions concerning the site.

The local church with surrounding farmland

Over the the next few days, we explore local villages and farms in small groups and it all becomes crystal clear why we are here. Lucitopia proves an excellent base for further exploration: the area is largely undeveloped (which is not a given in China), the small-scale organic farming practices are inspiring, and the most incredible natural resources grow abundantly around us. We come across high quality fresh green bamboo, raspberries, honeysuckle, shiitake, peanuts, tea plantations, spring water, wild herbs used in Chinese medicine, and bees raised for honey. The whole area is teeming with life and potential. The students are excited and pick up on the many possibilities immediately.

What is also interesting about the area is that the local inhabitants are comprised of two different groups. In 1959, a dam was built in Qiandao Lake, Chun’an County in the neighboring Zhejiang Province. The construction of the reservoir displaced local people who were brought to Zixi. Completely dispossessed, they had to start their lives from scratch again, starting with building their own house. Their architectural style and ways of living and farming are very different from those of the people who had been there for generations, making the landscape diverse on multiple levels.

The students are buzzing around for brainstorms, surveys, and prototyping, interrupted by the occasional identity crisis. Some ideas seem naive and Western to me, some so good that they are more likely to lead to mass tourism than conservation of the area – which is actually my biggest fear with this project. Occasionally they strike a nice balance, ranging from foraging walks and site-specific recipes, to a Renewable Energy Light Festival and culinary school with the local ladies.

On the evening before the final day, the volunteers organize a “Chinese evening.” We sing and dance, learn about paper-cutting, calligraphy, tea ceremonies, and there’s a contest picking as many peanuts as possible with chopsticks in one minute. When I go outside to cool down from hysterical peanut picking and admire the starry night, I get talking to one of the students who is still grappling with her proposal. She has plenty of ideas but still isn’t convinced there is something that would bring people to travel so remotely.

Yet look at us, I think. We are a group of over 70 young (some would say talented) people, from 18 different countries, coming from educational institutions in Singapore, Russia, China, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, France and Germany. We are dancing and drinking tea with the locals of Qingliangshan, showing our dedicated interest, and using all our energy to come up with creative ideas. From where I stand, the so-called middle of nowhere looks like the centre of the universe. Perhaps the best idea has already been implemented.

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Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.

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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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On the Enduring Beauty, Power and Fragility of Water

American sculptor and installation artist Nancy Cohen is passionate about water, so much so that much of her work for the past 12 years has focused on the topic. Her large-scale installations are the product of significant research on the history and ecosystems of individual waterways that have been damaged by human interventions and climate change.

I spoke to Cohen recently about her motivation for addressing the nature of waterways, her choice of materials and her fundamental approach to creating what she called, “beauty with an edge.” 

Why Water?

Cohen has spent most of her life observing the rivers near where she has lived and worked, both as a child and as an adult. These include the East and Hudson Rivers in New York and the Mullica and Hackensack Rivers in New Jersey, where she now resides. As a result of this day-to-day exposure to rivers, Cohen began examining “what was going on in the water” and addressing in her work the changing ecosystems of the waterways around her. At times in collaboration with environmental scientists and landscape architects, she witnessed the causes of the changes (industrial development, overbuilding, overfishing, littering, chemical waste dumping, dredging, etc.) as well as their consequences (polluted water, loss of habitats, loss of species, invasive species intrusion, flooding, salt water intrusion, etc.). 

Although Cohen clearly acknowledges the negative, man-made impact on waterways, her installations, sculptures and drawings are filled with a sense of awe at the ability of some plants and animals to adapt and survive in their altered conditions, as well as recognize both the strength and fragility of water. Despite her tendency to focus on nature’s remarkable capacity for adaptation and to create works of immense beauty, Cohen admits that she is “not a blind optimist” when it comes to the future of the environment. She is making artwork that has an “edge,” and though alluring, often receives responses from viewers suggesting that her installations appear to be dystopian habitats.

Materials

Cohen’s installations and paintings are comprised primarily of paper and glass that she makes herself, along with other media chosen to serve her vision for the pieces. Her decision to use paper and glass as the foundation for her work is based on her commitment to materials that reflect a connection to water and to the waterway sites themselves. Cohen explains:

Water is an intrinsic component in making paper. During the paper-making process, the artist is literally immersed in water. Paper also allows for the reflection of water’s movements and color changes and can accommodate grasses and other natural materials that are embedded in the paper itself. In addition, many of the waterways I have addressed, such as the Mullica River in South Jersey, have had a long history of paper-making along their shores. Similarly, sand is a major component used in glass-making, which also took place in factories along these waterways.

Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics

Cohen’s installation Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics is part of an exhibition entitled “Summation and Absence,” on view through August 16, 2019 at the BioBat Art Space on the Brooklyn waterfront in New York. According to the curators, “each installation opens a fresh portal into what is at stake for life on this planet, inviting the viewer to reflect on the beauty and complexity of life within a vulnerable ecosystem.” Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics was originally created in 2008 for the Holland Paper Biennale at the CODA Museum in Apeldoorn, Netherlands.

The installation reflects Cohen’s understanding of the current state of the Mullica River in the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey. As she described it, 

In coming to know the Pine Barrens –  from readings, from conversations with marine biologists and environmentalists and, more directly, from a winter boat ride through the marshes – I began to feel the fragile ecosystem as a fragile presence in itself. As in our own lives, elements hang in the balance, each one necessary, vulnerable, beautiful and above all, interdependent…

I am struck by the endless planes of both still and undulating water and the deep equilibrium and balance of the place. As just one example, the waters of the estuary are of many kinds, distinct but intermingled. The browns and blues – and yellows and greens – of the gradual progression from river to sea find their way into sculptural forms of handmade paper that look as if they might have been stained by the passage.

More generally, the waterways are in slow and constant evolution, much as we are. Form, space and color are never static. In its movement the water changes what it touches – it quite literally moves the environment that gives it form. And, lastly, the nature-in-itself of the estuary does not exist alone. A man-made world impinges and is impinged upon. But the necessity of evolution, of impact and especially of inescapable but perilous interaction – this is what each of us confronts in every moment of our lives. In its moods and modes, I have found the ways of the water very human. 

Nancy Cohen, Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics. Handmade paper and wire, 47 x 11 x 8 inches, 2008. CODA Museum, Apeldoorn, Netherlands.

Works on Paper

Not confining herself to installations and sculpture, Cohen is a prolific creator of mixed media works on paper. Her most recent paper images, along with mixed media glass sculptures, were shown at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City from March through May of this year. The seven works on paper were based on waters observed during two artist’s residencies this past summer in Samara, Dominican Republic and in Eastport, Maine. The images shown below and at the beginning of this article are based on Cohen’s examination of the shoreline of Eastport, Maine. Both pieces address what’s left of the fishing and canning factories, which have been abandoned as a result of overfishing in the area and have since fallen into the ocean. Underside depicts how the water is reclaiming the architecture; Remnant reveals the remaining pieces of the wooden piers that supported the factories and have become covered with “seaweed creatures.”

Cohen’s process in creating these works incorporates water at every stage. She first made the blue background paper from the fiber of abaca, an herbaceous plant similar to the banana plant. Then, using wet pulp from various fibers, she formed the surface imagery, which leaves the impression that it has been stitched. Even the irregular, undulating quality of the paper evokes the intrinsic movement of water.

Nancy Cohen, Remnant. Paper, pulp and handmade paper, 54 x 54 inches, 2018.

Hackensack Dreaming

Hackensack Dreamingis a monumental installation inspired by the post-industrial landscape of the Mill Creek Marsh, a highly polluted section of the Hackensack River near a popular mall in Secaucus, New Jersey. Cohen described her first look at the site during the winter of 2014 in the following way:

A few steps from the shopping center parking lot, we entered a quiet space where pools of flat, still water gave way to the tops of wooden tree stumps that seemed to break free from thin sheets of ice while simultaneously appearing to encapsulate them as they ruptured the surface of the pale blue water. The stump forms are inexplicable, magical, sculptural. They seem to embody fragility, perseverance and a caught moment. Conceptual ideas I have been moving around in my work for years were suddenly presented to me besides the New Jersey Turnpike.

Crafted from handmade glass, rubber, metal and handmade paper, Hackensack Dreaminghas been exhibited in a number of venues including the Visual Arts Gallery of the New Jersey City University in Jersey City, NJ (2015) and the Agnes Varis Art Center at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, NY (2016). In a review of the installation for ArteFuse, an on-line contemporary art blog, A. Bascove described his impression of the room-sized piece:

This is a dream of thousands of years ago, before mammals walked the earth, when these waters teemed with trilobites, brachiopods, jellyfish, early crustaceans and sea sponges, the earliest forms of life…

Cohen’s skill and virtuosity are in full command as she finds the poetry in the ruins and memories of a forgotten, once vital, living body of water. The passage of time, the impersonal destruction by human encroachment never entirely supersedes the recognition of sublime beauty and the pulse of life in the most unexpected places.

Nancy Cohen, Hackensack Dreaming. Handmade paper, glass, rubber, monofilament,  
2014-2015. Detail.

After reading numerous articles and looking at many images in preparation for this article, I was impressed by both the evolution and clear focus of Cohen’s work over the past twelve years as she developed a body of work on the enduring beauty, power and fragility of water. It was also clear to me that Cohen has perfected her craft in papermaking and glassmaking to the point where it effectively evokes the state of our environment today. As she told me in my interview with her, this is, as a human being and as an artist, her contribution to the critical conversation on climate change, the most important existential issue of our time.

(Top image: Nancy Cohen, Underside. Paper, pulp and ink on handmade paper, 25 x 50 inches.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme. 

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides, our new plastic seas and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.

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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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Crystalline: Hidden Monuments

by Maeve Mulrennan

Irish visual artist Siobhán McDonald’s recent exhibition Crystalline: Hidden Monuments at Limerick City Gallery of Art explored geology, archaeology, human intervention, time and climate change through a series of interconnected bodies of work. Running from February 1 to March 31, 2019, the solo exhibition unfolded over several rooms in LCGA, beginning with the artist’s 2017 work Crystalline. The final room of the exhibition was a multimedia enquiry into the Black Pig’s Dyke, an Iron-Bronze Age linear earthwork/monument in the north midlands of Ireland that is currently the subject of an archaeological research project which uses radiocarbon dating as part of its process.

The heart of the archaeological enquiry is to determine the function(s) of this dyke, which was a bank roughly nine meters wide and in some parts six meters high, with ditches of roughly three meters depth each side. Excavations in 1982 revealed evidence of a palisade lining the bank. The dyke crosses five counties, which are now the border counties between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. McDonald was commissioned by Monaghan County Council and Creative Ireland in 2017 to research and create new work with the Black Pig’s Dyke as her starting point.

The artist’s practice naturally finds interconnectedness everywhere – particularly when looking at human interventions into nature and the consequences of these interventions. In this exhibition, interconnectedness was highlighted in part through the bringing together of explorations of Black Pig’s Dyke and a formerly hidden monument revealed in the land by a drought in Ireland in 2018.

Sound Inscription Score, 6-meter drawing on antique paper. Following a seam of geology and gold across Ireland. Linear earthworks circa 2000 BC. Photo by Kevin Lim.

Much of McDonald’s work is framed by the relationship between Humans and Nature, and most notably by her interest in mapping time: geological time, personal time and how events can repeat, reoccur, echo or act as reminders, signaling to us and being reinterpreted in new contexts. For example, the burning of the Palisades signaled war, crisis point, something being concluded; are we at this point now again? We are in a time of great need: needing to change the impact of multinational industry and demanding that governments support meaningful change – it is not just about individual-consumer impact. The archaeological, scientific and artistic interest in the Dyke shows that after centuries of myopia, our society is willing to look beyond our own time and needs, and investigate the time and needs of others before us.

What is known about the research on the Dyke is that it will not lead to one simple, conclusive answer as to why this was made and then partially destroyed. The Black Pig’s Dyke Regional Project Phase One Report Summary states: “It is evident from the research carried out to date that the linear earthworks can no longer be reduced to just one interpretation.”

An artist will often ask questions knowing that there may be no answers, and scientific research often yields more questions than conclusions. However, our acceptance with not knowing, or our recognition that the Dyke was numerous things at numerous times, is acceptable to us. We can simultaneously know and not know, something that seems at odds with our social media-led culture where someone or something is either held up for praise or mercilessly judged, with no in-between.

Palisades, a row of charred wood, lined the gallery wall, creating a border and leading the viewer to the 4-minute video Future MonumentsPalisades references evidence recorded in an archaeological investigation of Black Pig’s Dyke, which shows that the bank was lined with a wooden fence or palisade that was burned, presumably during a time of war. The artist chose not to present us with images of an intact structure or a wall of flames, but with what is left.

In the center of the square gallery space, the circular charred wood sculpture work What Remains anchored the gallery. Like Palisades, it spoke of what is left: the mark of human intervention on the planet. It showed that nothing ever really “ends” or disappears; things move on and change, usually carrying echoes, scars or memories that inform what happens next. Working with carbonized wood positioned this exhibition in the realm of archaeology and science rather than myth. McDonald unraveled myth from fact but did not destroy the presence of myth: she created a porous context and a liminal space that allowed for these multiple layers to be seen clearly.

While working with the archaeologists in charge of the research project, the artist’s process involved looking at facts, what remains, and what the traces of humans and the rest of nature leave for us to see as evidence. The evidence of the palisade being burned speaks clearly of an “ending.” This is not to say the dyke ceased to function after the burning, but maybe its function, or its meaning, changed.

Palisade, pyrolysis (burnt in an environment without oxygen). Dimensions variable. Future Monuments, 4-minute film. On-site interventions on The Black Pig’s Dyke on Winter Solstice 2018 and New Grange during the drought in July 2018. 

However, this “ending” is viewed by the artist as the ending of one thing and the beginning of another: What Remains is circular – a motif that was repeated several times in the gallery space and in other works throughout the rest of the LCGA exhibition. This circling, or cycling, was shown in the Future Monuments video by the revealing of a crop circle during the Summer 2018 drought: this echo of the past reveals the damage we are doing through global warming, and reminds us that our time, in comparison to historical time or geological time, is minimal. The contrast between how long humans have been on Earth and the amount of damage that has been done in that short time is explored and presented in a way that we can relate to in our own lives by exposing the cycles, meanings and values within that time, and how they connect to our history and the land we inhabit. We are not apart from nature, despite our constant attempts to distance ourselves from it. We are a threat from within it.

There is a sense that time (in the widest possible interpretation) is running out in Future Monuments, which was filmed in mid-summer in Newgrange and mid-winter at the Black Pig’s Dyke – the Summer and Winter Solstices. These Solstice points remind the viewer of the importance of measuring and mapping the sun in prehistoric eras – and perhaps one of the functions of the Dyke was to measure and track the sun’s activities in relation to place. Future Monuments’ audio gives a suspenseful, cinematic quality to the non-narrative video work. The video itself was displayed on a small screen, with the viewer having to turn their back to the large circular What Remains in order to view it.

This scale could be interpreted as benign as a minimal intervention; rather than leaving her own mark to add to the many layers of human interventions, the artist attempted, in her practice, to leave minimal traces. This was echoed in her minimal interventions into the two locations in the video. The soundscape, however, filled the gallery space and seemed to be the sound piece for the entire space rather than just the video, endlessly signaling and messaging. The gallery became a place for relic, prophecy, consolation and warning – the viewer was at once made calm and uneasy.

We are in a time of great need.

Hidden Monuments will open in Monaghan, Ireland on June 27, 2019. The show will run until July 30. McDonald is also exhibiting some of the works at the International Art Fair: VOLTA Basel 2019, June 10-15.

(Top image: Lunula24-karat gold, whole calfskin and smoke using a seismograph to inscribe earth signals onto paper surfaces. 120 cm square. What remainsfloor installationbirch, oak and willow. Dimensions variable.)

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Maeve Mulrennan is the Head of Visual Art & Education in Galway Arts Centre, a multidisciplinary public space in the West of Ireland. She has written for Visual Artists Ireland NewsLetter, Paper Visual Art, CIRCA and Billion Art Journal and contributed several essays for exhibitions and artists publications. She has an MA in Visual Art Practices from IADT Dún Laoghaire, h.Dip in Arts Administration form NUI Galway, BA in Fine Art from Limerick School of Art and Design, and BA in English Literature, Sociology / Politics & German from NUI Galway.

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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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Environmentalism Behind the Scenes on Broadway and Beyond

Sustainability and Broadway are two words that, on the surface, might not go together. Sustainability is a complex concept that seeks to ensure the natural environment is able to meet current and future needs, while Broadway is a cultural hub where theatregoers can escape and immerse themselves in the worlds of plays and musicals. But sustainability and Broadway are much more interconnected than you might think.

Ten years ago, more than 250 theatre professionals gathered in New York City to discuss the growing climate crisis. David Stone, the producer of Wicked, had just seen the documentary An Inconvenient Truth and, like many others, realized how imperative it was to take action. Stone and his team hosted a Town Hall at the Gershwin Theatre, bringing together theatre professionals interested in making, or already working to make, theatre more environmentally friendly. After an inspiring keynote speech from Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Wicked team and participants discussed ways to make theatre greener.

One of the actions discussed at this Town Hall was to form a committee that would act as a central resource on environmental issues for the theatre community. So, in November 2008, the Broadway Green Alliance (BGA) was formed as an ad hoc committee of the Broadway League.

Collecting electronic waste at the BGA’s Fall E-Waste Drive in September 2018

Since its inception, the BGA’s mission has been to educate, motivate, and inspire the entire theatre community and its patrons to adopt environmentally friendlier practices. This is a seemingly immense undertaking. But the BGA’s work is built on the recognition that environmental issues are caused by the cumulative effect of millions of small actions and that effective change comes from each of us doing a bit better every day. We don’t aim to be fully “green,” but rather work to be “greener” than we were yesterday.

One of the BGA’s main objectives is to communicate information to our members and the general public in order to encourage everyone to make environmentally responsible decisions. We host several events a year, including an annual Town Hall for the theatre community and beyond on issues like plastic pollution and green energy, as well as four collection drives – two for electronic waste and two for textiles – in Times Square. Our collection drives have diverted over 20,000 pounds of e-waste and hundreds of bags of textiles since 2016. We also circulate written materials to educate individuals on more sustainable practices. BGA newsletters frequently contain new eco-friendly initiatives that can be implemented within the theatre community and beyond, and we create guides and resources on things like e-waste recycling and how to close a show in a greener manner.

Buyi Zama backstage at The Lion King Gazelle Tour, encouraging company members to go green.

In addition, we run the BGA’s Green Captain program. One person, or several people, involved with a production, organization, or venue serves as the go-to person(s) for questions, ideas, issues, or problems about sustainability. Green Captains work behind the scenes to make their productions or venues greener, with support from other Green Captains and BGA members. There are no specific requirements – the BGA just asks that individuals do what they can, when they can. Some Green Captains make an effort to stay informed, educate their casts and companies, and post information about greener practices backstage. Mara Davi, a former BGA Green Captain on The Play That Goes Wrongexplains that some of the basics of the role include providing green tips to company members and collecting recyclables backstage. Other Green Captains have specific passion projects to which they dedicate their time. For example, Satomi Hofmann, from The Phantom of the Opera, was searching for a sustainable way to dispose of used NYC metrocards. She found an artist in Williamsburg, Nina Boesch, who uses them to make collages. Now, thanks to Satomi’s dedication, the BGA collects metrocards from all Broadway shows and sends them over to Nina, keeping them out of landfills.

Since 2008, over 300 individuals on Broadway have volunteered to be Green Captains on their productions. This program has since expanded to include Off-Broadway venues, college theatre departments, and touring productions and venues.

Members of the Broadway community often share information, through the Green Captain program and other means, about greener practices, which leads to sustainable improvements. One of the most visible ones was the upgrading of marquee and outside lights at Broadway theatres to energy-efficient LEDs and CFLs. This one action has saved energy and money, and has reduced Broadway’s footprint by seven hundred tons of carbon a year. Another example of environmentalism behind the scenes was the switch to rechargeable batteries. Since Broadway began using microphones, productions have needed batteries. To be certain that microphones wouldn’t fail during a show, the standard Broadway practice had been to put new batteries into each microphone before every performance. Wicked switched to rechargeable batteries, reducing annual battery consumption from over 15,000 batteries to less than 100, saving money and the environment without compromising the performance. Many other productions around the world, including in Australia and London’s West End, have made this switch – often after hearing of the Wicked team’s success.

Mara Davi, former Green Captain on Dames at Sea and The Play That Goes Wrong, sorting items for recycling in the BGA office.

Other improvements include using environmentally friendly cleaning products and dilution centers, more extensive recycling programs, running Energy Star appliances, switching to energy-efficient indoor lighting, aggressively insulating heating pipes, installing bike racks, and coating roofs with reflective paint to reduce heat absorption.

The actual carbon footprint of Broadway and the greater theatre community is modest, especially considering how traditional practices have improved over the last ten years. But, as we share our eco-friendly successes, we continue to see positive changes. And because theatre’s cultural influence is far-reaching, when we show the hard work being done to reduce our environmental impact, it encourages others to take action.

The BGA’s members have shown over these past ten years that sustainability and Broadway can, and should, go hand in hand. Most of the success we’ve seen backstage began with an individual or group trying something new, which ignited similar actions and improvements by others. We can’t wait to see what the next ten years will hold.

(Top image: BGA Textile Drive, November 2017.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on March 28, 2019.

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Alice is a sustainability advocate with a strong interest in all things theatre. Alice joined the Broadway Green Alliance in October 2017, effectively combining her professional background and her interest in the arts, and is currently the Assistant Director of the organization. She works on a variety of programs to ensure that theatre across the country is being done in the most environmentally responsible manner. Alice’s academic background is an MA from the Climate and Society program at Columbia University and, following that, she worked in Canada, the US, and South Africa on issues of environmental justice and sustainability. 

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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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Wild Authors: Kathleen Dean Moore

by Mary Woodbury

This month’s feature on authors who explore global warming in fiction covers Kathleen Dean Moore. Moore’s background in environmental activism and nature writing is abundant, though this article will also spotlight her newest novel Piano Tide (Counterpoint, 2017), winner of the 2017 Willa Cather Award for Contemporary Fiction and short-listed for the ASLE Environmental Creative Book Award.

Kathleen is best known for her books of nature-focused essays – Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water, winner of the 1995 Pacific Northwest Book Award; Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World, recipient of the 1999 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award; The Pine Island Paradox, winner of the 2004 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction; Wild Comfort, finalist for the same award; and Great Tide Rising (Counterpoint, 2016).

Kathleen explained Piano Tide to me when we first chatted:

In a remote boardwalk town in maritime Alaska, we meet Axel Hagerman, who has made a killing by selling off the salmon, the herring, the yellow cedar, the spruce. But when he decides to sell the water from a salmon stream, he runs headlong into Nora Montgomery, just arrived on the ferry with her piano and her dog. The clash, when it comes, is a spectacular and transformative act of resistance.

Reviewers compare Piano Tide to Ken Kesey’s Sailor Song and Ed Abbey’s Monkey-wrench Gang. Bill McKibben says it is a “savagely funny and deeply insightful novel of the tidepool and rainforest country she knows so well,” and Dave Foreman says it is “about putting a spear into the ground and saying, “‘I will defend this place however I can.’”

Piano Tide is her first novel.

I asked Kathleen about some of her thoughts when writing this novel as well as creative nonfiction.

How do you think people can explore global warming, or really any environmental “character” in fiction, and try to be fresh from tired dystopian tropes?

I don’t read dystopian literature. I’m already frightened enough, but it’s more than that: Meeting the climate and extinction emergencies will require the greatest exercise of the human imagination the world has ever seen. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment, requiring writers to race to their stations to do what they know best how to do. Yes, it is important to warn, and the dystopian literature has an essential role here.

But the harder work, the next work, is to imagine a better world into existence. How will we find the courage to stand against the corruption that is on track to irredeemably destroy the life-sustaining systems of the planet? How, exactly how, will we live on Earth without wrecking it? Who will we have to become, we humans? What are the sorrows, what are the beauties, of that transformation? These are the stories I want to read.

If writers are so worried and worn-down that we can’t even envision a better world, how can it be created? But if we put our very best imaginative minds to the challenges, we at least have a chance to create a new narrative for humanity. That’s what fiction is – imagining a story with a different ending, maybe a surprise ending.

How different is it to write nonfiction and fiction?

I think that nonfiction and fiction have the same elements – the setting, the characters, the challenge/question/seeking. The writer puts the people in place and poses a problem. Then, in nonfiction, the writer provides the answer through reportage or reflection or argument. But in fiction, the characters have to do it themselves. Here they are, all in their costumes and all in their places, maybe holding a dog on a leash or cooking baba ghanoush, and then something astonishing happens. They come to life. It’s a “hold on to your hat” moment for a fiction writer. What will they find inside themselves? What will they stubbornly refuse to understand? How do they act out who they are, in that place and time?

That distinction made, I am all for blurring boundaries. Clearly, the world needs a new human narrative – not a narrative of business-as-usual or a narrative of disintegration and despair. As Joanna Macy points out in Active Hope, the necessary new human narrative is a story of radical transformation, new answers to the most fundamental questions: What is the world? What is the place of humans in the world? How then shall we live?

I love to explore the diversity of storytelling voices when it comes to this literature, so any thoughts on that would be welcome.

This may require new narrative forms or hybrids. In an ASLE editorial, I suggested a bunch of new forms of story-telling – The Drumhead Pamphlet, the Apologia, the Radical Imaginary, the “Broken-hearted Halleluiah,” the Indictment, the Witness.

For myself, I am working hard to create a new genre that I call the “Lyric Polemical.” All around me, beautiful writers are abandoning what we used to call “lyric prose,” musical prose, in favor of the argumentative piece. That’s a natural response to all that is awful. But I wonder if we writers can do both: I wonder if we can write beautifully about moral outrage and clarity of thought.

“Write as if your reader were dying,” Annie Dillard advised. “What would you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” Now we must write as if the planet were dying. What would you say to a planet in a spasm of extinction? What would you say to those who are paying the costs of climate change in the currency of death? Surely, in a world dangerously slipping away, we need courageously and honestly to write a better ending to this story.


Kathleen reveals a refreshing thought process when it comes to writing about climate change and weaving in stories, or reflections, about the subject. The lyrical polemic seems a brilliant idea. In Orion Magazine, Kathleen wrote about those who are fighting Canadian oil sands pipelines. And in Piano Tide, the author fictionalizes similar acts of resistance as characters try to preserve natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, home to wild rainforests, endangered species, fresh water, and fish. A man named Axel Hagerman, well-known as the “town father” in the remote Alaskan village, makes his living – and more – by selling the needed resources: rainforest trees, herring, halibut, and now he wants to export fresh water from a salmon stream. Nora Montgomery, new to the village, and a woman with a piano looking for an isolated place to make her new home, clashes with him when he wants to start a bear pit.

With Kathleen’s knowledge of local culture, fauna, and flora, she builds a sometimes serious and sometimes humorous novel that is both believable and magical.

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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The 2019 Artists & Climate Change Incubator – New York

New York City
Monday-Friday, July 22-26, 2019
10am-5:30pm
Fee: $385
Leader: Chantal Bilodeau

Calling all artists, activists, scientists, and educators who want to engage or further their engagement with climate change through artistic practices! Join The Arctic Cycle for the third year of the Artists & Climate Change Incubator, July 22–26, 2019 in New York City. All disciplines are welcome and individuals from traditionally underrepresented populations and communities are encouraged to attend. The Incubator is an inclusive environment that supports diverse perspectives.

During this 5-day intensive, participants interact with accomplished guest speakers from fields such as environmental humanities, climate science, climate change activism, and visual and performing arts. Work sessions allow everyone to dig deep into the challenges and concerns of working at the intersection of arts and climate change such as embracing activism without sacrificing personal vision and artistic integrity, letting go of the idea of “product,” and bringing the arts to non-traditional audiences. Group exercises and discussions cover a range of topics including:

  • How to think about climate change as a systemic issue
  • How to effectively engage communities
  • How to take the arts out of traditional venues to reach underserved populations
  • How to develop collaborative projects with non-arts partners to achieve specific goals
  • How to reframe climate change narratives to energize audiences

Limited to 20 participants. 

All sessions will take place at The Lark, 311 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036. Availability is on a first come, first serve basis. Participants are responsible for their own travel and accommodation. For more information, visit the website or contact The Arctic Cycle at: info [at] thearcticcycle [dot] org.

The Incubator will also be offered in Alaska in May. For more info, click here.

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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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The Greatest Story of the 21st Century

Last week’s most important news story – the biodiversity crisis that threatens our own existence – was buried by celebrity coverage of royal births, Met galas and throne games. In the United States, it was simply not reported at all by the majority of prime-time networks.

This week, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceeded the 415 ppm threshhold for the first time in human history.

And just a few days ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond said the unspeakable: “The chances are about 49 percent that the world as we know it will collapse by about 2050… Which means that by 2050 either we’ve figured out a sustainable course, or it’ll be too late.”

In our lifetimes.

For the first time in years, I am not able to focus. American comedian Jimmy Kimmel joked that “If pizza were in danger of going extinct … we’d ban together to protect our national pepperoni reserves.” But the extinction of one million of our shared planets’ eight million species due to human influence? Meh.

The haunting score to Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 film, Before The Flood, fits my mood perfectly:

Overwhelmed by feelings of existential angst and rage, I turn to my favorite women writers for words of wisdom. Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities has long been my go-to. But today, I am particularly drawn to Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s sublime Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

I flip through the dog-eared pages, hunting for sapience. I re-read, then meditate upon, my favorite passage in Kimmerer’s book:

When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.

So say the lichens. I love you, Robin. Your words feel like medicine. Thank you for sharing your Indigenous wisdom. We need it desperately. Braiding Sweetgrass should be required reading for… everyone.

But later, I cried when I read poet/writer/activist Emily Johnston‘s remarkable essay Loving a vanishing world, published last week following the release of the UN’s landmark biodiversity/extinction report:

We cannot undo what we’ve done simply by being nice and Earth-friendly people  – or by killing ourselves, for that matter. And we can’t leave this world better than we found it  –  it will be lesser for a long time. But we can change the path that it’s on now, and we know how to start making up for what we’ve done. We have beautiful work to do before we die.

I am reminded of a similar quote by Paola Antonelli, curator of the 22nd edition of the Milan Triennale: “Our only chance at survival is to design our own beautiful extinction.” This was the shocking opening sentence of a fascinating interview with Antonelli about Broken Nature, the title of the 2019 triennale that explores restorative design in the Anthropocene.

According to Antonelli, who is Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture & Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City,

What’s broken cannot go back, but forward into something new. So it’s not at all final. The only thing that I consider final is our own extinction. We have, however, the power to postpone it a bit, and make it better.

The poet Johnston explains in a short essay why “making space for hope” rather than “giving people hope” should be our main objective. “We know that things will get worse… but if we dedicate ourselves to the task, we can make sure that the arc of our physical universe bends towards life, and not destruction.”

photo, Joan Sullivan, geese, Saint Lawrence, fleuve, river, Quebec, Canada

Johnston continues:

That’s why I say that we are more powerful than humans have ever been: we know now that if we simply continue on the existing path, then there is little chance for humanity, and much or most of all animal life will be wiped out too  – yet it is still within our grasp to change this, to be the people who decided not to let the fossil fuel industry kill the world. And because we can, we must. Our moral choices are stark: we are either among those who rise to this occasion, and do all we can do to love this world and right the wrongs that we have unwittingly inflicted on it, or we are among those willing to allow the world to end because we feel overwhelmed, or powerless.

And because we can, we must.

Emily Johnston

So I turn, as I often do in existential moments like this, to another woman writer for a jolt of caffeine. Solitaire Townsend‘s 2018 Forbes article, “The Epic Story of Solving Climate Change,” never fails to get me back on my feet.

Townsend explains why climate fatalism is the enemy of action. According to her,

The climate-Frankenstein story is creeping into people’s psyche, sucking the will to act from them. Today’s tragedy of climate change, with the moral that man is the real monster, is so narratively satisfying it’s become dangerously believable. For many environmentalists, giving up this story would be a wrench. Even those who understand the dangerous psychology of fatalism struggle with their own addiction to the ‘it’s all our own fault, and we deserve what’s coming’ narrative.

So how do we change the dominant climate narrative? Townsend’s answer is simple: “Only a story can beat a story.”

She explains:

Every 8-year-old knows how to kill a monster. Harry Potter knows it, Dorothy in Oz knows it, Beowulf knows it, James Bond and Sam of the Shire know it. It’s the story that killed Dracula and blew up the Death Star. At its most simple – it’s the hero’s journey.

This “overcoming the monster” story often works best when a new generation, the youth, rally against the threat created (or allowed) by the old. You have told, read and watched this story all your life. The small against the big. The downtrodden against the overlord. Plucky humanity against the growing darkness.

Here’s where Townsend gets specific:

The magic elixir of the heroic story has always been guile. Tricking the monster, inventing a solution, spotting a fatal flaw and exploiting it. From Indiana Jones feigning zombiedom in the Temple of Doom, John McClane taping a gun to his back, or Eowyn revealing her gender on the battlefields of Gondor, heroes invent and misdirect their way around insurmountable odds. This is the most crucial part of our new climate story – and we’ve already found that magical way to trick ourselves out of the jaws of doom. Electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines are just the start of the innovation explosion coming from carbon constraint. Renewable energy is the ultimate cheat of the climate monsters’ plans.

How I love this quote!

Renewable energy is the ultimate cheat of the climate monsters’ plans.

Solitaire Townsend

According to Townsend,

We must teach our children this new “heroes’ journey” story of climate change. And it’s not a small story, nor a short one. This is an epic. We face a gargantuan, enormous and near impossible task. We need our Henry V before the battle of Agincourt declaiming, “We few, we happy few”, Frodo holding the ring and nervously offering, “I will take it, though I do not know the way” and Ripley rising in her rig and shouting, “Get away from her, you bitch!”.

Townsend concludes with possibly the most quotable quote of the Anthropocene, guaranteed to inspire generations of artivists and activists:

We need swashbuckling daring, bravery and courage, guile and desperate invention, unlikely friendships and alliances forged in fire. So that solving climate change becomes the greatest story of the 21st century.

Amen.

And Amen to all the women scribes with the grit, courage and guile who dare to shine a light in the darkness. Homo sapiens needs more women who climate.

(All photos by Joan Sullivan)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to keep our eyes on the prize – a 100% clean energy economy in our lifetimes. Joan is currently working on a documentary film and book project about Canada’s energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on ElloTwitter and Visura.

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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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Climate Change Theatre is LIT: A Study on the Performing Arts and Climate Change Engagement

by Carolyn Reeves

Like many of us, I’ve spent a lot of time feeling disturbed, depressed, and defeated as the climate crisis grows. I’ve done a lot of soul searching to understand how I can transform my despair into something meaningful. Having long been fascinated and compelled by the power of art to command attention and inspire people to care about things, I wanted to study how this power could be wielded to encourage people to care about and act upon climate change. As a graduate student, I attempted to do just that. Ironically, the most significant thing I learned is that the true power of art isn’t something that one “wields” at all.

While enrolled in the Arts in Medicine master’s program at the University of Florida, I developed a keen interest in the arts in public health—an emerging field that promotes arts-based health communication strategies as a way to enhance health behavior engagement. Here’s an example of how that works: after watching a play in which a character’s life is destroyed by drug addiction, a person may be more convinced to make relevant healthy choices than if they’d attended a non-artistic lecture about substance abuse.

What about the arts leads to this kind of impact?

The answer may seem intuitively obvious, but I wanted to explore the concept through scientific inquiry. I chose to focus on the performing arts, with an emphasis on theatre. Specifically, my inquiry would address climate change—an issue that poses a public health crisis. I conducted my research in two ways: by reviewing academic literature and by interviewing professionals who work in theatre with climate change content. Gathering data from the field was incredibly valuable to my research, as the body of published work on climate change and the performing arts is small (but growing!).

Climate Change Theatre Action performance at the University of Colorado, fall 2017. Photo by Beth Osnes.

Findings from the Literature

A substantial amount of research has been done to understand why individuals and groups aren’t motivated to care about or act upon climate change. I looked at the most common barriers to climate change engagement alongside fundamental qualities of the performing arts that may be suited to address them.

1. Climate change is perceived as a distant, impersonal threat.

Many people don’t care about climate change because they don’t perceive it as a risk to themselves or the people they know. Considering the rise of floods, fires, and other climate-related disasters around the world, it likely won’t be long before this barrier is erased completely. In the meantime, how can the erroneous low-risk perception of climate change be addressed? Emotionplays a major role in the development of risk perception about climate change, and theatrical content about the issue can bring it to life in an emotionally evocative way. If theatregoers feel the risks and implications of climate change by becoming engrossed in a gripping narrative or experiencing empathy for a relatable character, they may develop a higher risk perception and become more engaged overall.

2. Climate change information is too abstract/complex to easily comprehend.

The causes, effects, and recommended responses to climate change can be confusing and difficult to grasp. People are unlikely to become engaged with issues they don’t understand. Due to their universal nature, the arts have a marvelous capacity to simplify complex information and overcome education and literacy barriers. In the theatre, audiences can relate to scenes of climate change and its implications via their own humanity, circumventing the need for the ability to grasp complex scientific concepts.

3. The issue of climate change is presented through a frame that is perceived as dissonant with an individual’s identity.

A person’s perception of climate change is influenced by their culture, attitudes, values, and beliefs. Information about the issue is unlikely to have an impact if it comes through a channel that misaligns with a person’s political, religious, or cultural identity. The most effective communication about climate change happens when the message is tailored to a target audience, and the arts offer a unique opportunity to do just that. With its rich use of cultural symbolism, theatre can channel climate change content through frames that resonate with specific audiences. The result can be a disarming of identity-based resistance to the issue and a greater potential for engagement.

4. Climate change engagement is not supported by social norms.

Social learning theory tells us that individuals come to adopt new beliefs and behaviors through observing and imitating others within their society. Throughout the world, behavioral engagement with climate change is not modeled as a social norm. In fact, most people don’t even talk about it! In the United States, the primary way people learn about climate change is through conversations with friends and family. However, over half of the Americans who consider climate change to be important rarely or never talk about itwith friends or family.

Theatre, on the other hand, sparks dialogue. Theatre with climate change content may therefore encourage conversations about climate change that would not otherwise happen. Additionally, by modeling examples of adaptive and mitigative responses to climate change, theatre can help to establish the social norms that are so sorely lacking in today’s society. Art has a rich history of reflecting and influencing the early stages of social change.

Julie Jesneck performs Whale Song by Chantal Bilodeau at the UArctic Congress in Helsinki, Finland, 2017. Photo by Veikko Somerpuro.

Findings from the Interviews

I interviewed pioneering professionals who create and/or produce theatre with climate change content, including: Chantal Bilodeau of the Arctic Cycle; Beth Osnes of Inside the Greenhouse and Shine; Jeremy Pickard of Superhero Clubhouse; and Peterson Toscano, a playwright, performer, and host of Citizens Climate Radio. The objective of the interviews was to gather information about the participants’ perspectives on why the performing arts may or may not be well suited to promoting climate change engagement, based on their unique experiences in the field. My analysis of the interview data suggests that there are three qualities of the performing arts that might lead to them promoting climate change engagement: that they are live, interpretive, and transformative. In other words, the performing arts are LIT. (I love saying that.)

Live

All participants spoke to the power of live performance to promote engagement with climate change, primarily due to the increased likelihood of emotional connection with content and empathy/identification with characters. One participant put it this way: “You’re literally watching physical bodies in play coming up against these challenges, solutions, ideas, disasters, whatever. So, you live the experience vicariously through the character.”

Some participants noted that live performance creates a shared experience for audience members, and that emotional engagement is amplified when it is experienced collectively.

Interpretive

According to the interview participants, in order for theatre to have the greatest possible impact in terms of promoting climate change engagement, it must remain interpretive and avoid being prescriptive. Audiences are resistant to content that urges them to think, feel, or behave in a specific way. There were several protests when I asked participants about the “message” they hoped that climate change theatre would impart to audiences.

One person said: “We do not try to convey messages, because that will not get you art. That gets you an advertising campaign.” Another said: “I don’t think anybody wants to go to a play where you’re going to be told how you need to feel. For one thing, it’s insulting because it assumes that you’re not thinking the right thing to start.”

Most participants didn’t want to define objectives for their work other than to inspire some form of critical thinking in audiences. It was mentioned that “using” theatre as a tool for behavior change is antithetical to the fundamental essence of art. Attempts to engineer the audience’s interpretation of artistic content can present an interference that diminishes pleasure, discourages critical thinking, and minimizes the very power that makes theatre engaging to begin with. When I asked about measuring and evaluating the impact that a piece of theatre has on an audience, one participant responded: “That would be like making out and being asked to take a survey afterwards.”

Yeah. I guess it kind of kills the magic. And, according to these pioneers in the field of climate change theatre, it’s that intangible, uncontrollable, and unpredictable magic that will bring about the miracles.

Transformative

About those miracles: although the participants were clear that they, as artists and producers, do not intend to prescribe ideas or behavior through their work, they heartily acknowledged the power of live theatre to have a transformative effect in the way that people perceive, think, and feel about climate change. One of the ways this can happen is when audiences experience a visceral encounter with previously abstract concepts. According to one participant: “Theatre can transport you to a different place—it can help you to imagine situations that you’ve never actually experienced yourself, or a future that doesn’t yet exist. Both dystopias and utopias.”

By making climate change and its implications real (or at least less abstract), theatre may provoke novel understandings and convictions, perhaps leading to increased engagement with the issue.

Participants spoke to how the performing arts can uniquely challenge and transform a person’s deeply seated values and beliefs by presenting ideas in a way that doesn’t trigger typical resistances. One person said:

The arts can communicate about climate in a way that’s more engaging—in a way that’s going to find unlikely inroads that hopefully won’t put people’s backs up against the wall in these kinds of normally identifying ways that put people in a binary of [either] pro or against.

Transformations in feelings, thoughts, and beliefs act as precursors to behavior change. So, while none of the participants work with the explicit goal of changing the behavior of their audiences, they acknowledge the unique power of the performing arts to promote the process of behavioral engagement with climate change.

JUPITER (a play about power). Created by Superhero Clubhouse. Produced by Superhero Clubhouse & Kaimera Productions.  Presented at La Mama, 2016.  Pictured (L-R): Jonathan Camuzeaux, Sarah Ellen Stephens, Jeremy Pickard. Photo by Theo Cote.

The Surprising Finding

Coming from an arts-in-public-health perspective, I figured my research would help define best practices for using the performing arts in climate change communication strategies. It’s true that the majority of my findings can be applied to the strategic or instrumental use of performing arts—except perhaps for one. The “interpretive” theme represents a resistance among artists and producers to use theatre as a medium for strategic communication. This distinguishes the work of those I interviewed from various forms of applied theatre that are specifically crafted in service of educational or behavioral objectives.

While I am still enthusiastic about the benefits of applying performing arts approaches to communication strategies, my findings suggest that it may be the absence of outcome objectives that gives theatre its greatest power to promote climate change engagement. There is a beautiful mystery to this power, and intentions to analyze it may be doomed from the start.

However, in the face of the climate crisis, we can’t afford to ignore powerful agents of change just because we can’t dissect their mechanisms. I hope my research makes a compelling argument that theatre has the potential to motivate people to care about and act upon climate change. Further research might explore how to maximize this valuable potential. Yes, climate change communication strategists should absolutely recognize that the performing arts can enhance their engagement strategies, and they should craft their efforts accordingly. And perhaps there is a need for innovative alliances between theatre artists and climate change engagement strategists. For example, strategists might support and promote the proliferation and accessibility of climate change theatre rather than dictate what it should convey and achieve. Maybe the key to maximizing the engaging power of the arts is to trust the artists and the art itself. It would seem that doing so gives us the best chance for the miracles we so desperately need.

(Top image: Flying Ace and the Storm of the Century! Created and Produced by Superhero Clubhouse, 2013. Pictured: Jeremy Pickard. Photo by Marina McClure.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on March 27, 2019.

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Carolyn Reeves holds an M.A. in Arts in Medicine, with a focus on Arts in Public Health. Her work includes: “Truth Comes Out”, a storytelling event for LGBTQ health equity; “Passionate Waters”, a performing and visual art show in celebration of World Water Day; and “Sunday Morning Soul”, a weekly dance event to promote individual and community health. Along with her academic and administrative affiliations with the arts, Carolyn is an actor and a singer/ songwriter. She lives in New Haven, CT.

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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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Wild Authors: Jaimee Wriston Colbert

by Mary Woodbury

Jaimee Wriston Colbert is the author of six books of fiction: Vanishing Acts, her new novel; Wild Things, linked stories, winner of the CNY 2017 Book Award in Fiction, finalist for the AmericanBookFest Best Books of 2017, and longlisted for the Chautauqua Prize; the novel Shark Girls, finalist for the USABookNews Best Books of 2010 and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year; Dream Lives of Butterflies, winner of the IPPY Gold Medal Award for story collections; Climbing the God Tree, winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize, and Sex, Salvation, and the Automobile, winner of the Zephyr Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including The Gettysburg Review, New Letters, and Prairie Schooner, and broadcast on “Selected Shorts.” She was the 2012 recipient of the Ian MacMillan Fiction Prize for “Things Blow Up,” a story in Wild Things. Other stories won the Jane’s Stories Award and the Isotope Editor’s Fiction Prize. She is Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY, Binghamton University in the United States.

interviewed Jaimee in 2016 when her book Wild Things was published. In our interview, we discussed the nature of Wild Things – a literary exploration of extinction and remnants of the wild things left on our planet. Reviewer Pam Houston had said of the novel (a collection of related tales):

Jaimee Wriston Colbert has written a book of deeply affecting elegies to the scattered remnants of wilderness, the some few wild things we still live among: blackbird, brown trout, reef shark, teenage girl.

Jaimee and I discussed how to live within this eulogy/elegy – and how writers chronicle our times. Her newest book, Vanishing Acts (March 1, 2018, Fomite Press), is the story of three generations of a troubled family, in the shadow of the Vietnam War to the 21st century perils of climate change, set in a Hawaii that is both fantastical and gritty in its portrayal of life down under the tropical dream. There was a time when sixteen-year-old Buddy’s life felt normal. Then an affair derails his parents’ marriage and his mother, with Buddy in tow, uproots their life in Maine to return to her childhood home in Volcano, Hawai’i, and care for her aging mother.

Madge, a former go-go dancer, is losing her grip on reality, as is Gwen, Buddy’s mother, who indulges in a steady cocktail of wine, Xanax, and Jesus. Meanwhile Buddy has become obsessed with one of his classmates, Marnie, whose fervent dream is to escape her broken family (and a damaging secret) to pursue a modeling career. She convinces Buddy to run away with her to Honolulu and live with her drug-dealer uncle. To find her son, Gwen grapples with the ghosts of her past and present, including her father, whose love of surfing and obsession with Houdini allowed him to become the ultimate escape artist.

See an excerpt of Chapter 20 at Dragonfly Library.

The author “had me” at Hawai’i, an area where I have hiked through old botany-rich volcanoes and snorkeled and swam and bathed in the warm waves for hours on end beneath golden skies. I talked with Jaimee, who spoke of the beauty of this land, in terms of its mountains and deeply hued, sparkling seas, and a temperate climate that attracts visitors year round. Jaimee lived in Hawai’i years ago and has noticed the changing climate when she visits. It is getting hotter each year, with some areas now experiencing a persistent drought, and there are also warmer seas and dying coral. I recall snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, a nature preserve on Oahu. Before hitting the beach, everyone had to watch a short documentary about preserving coral. We were surprised to discover that much of the coral had already bleached and some was dead. According to Jaimee:

Hawai’i is known as “the extinction capital of the world,” because it is home to a vast diversity of flora and fauna that appear nowhere else on our planet, and more native species of plants and animals disappear there daily than any other place. Much of this is due to the ongoing threats of invasive species, but the higher temperatures and sea-level rise have subjected many native species to huge amounts of stress.

She describes this fragile world as home to her novel, and one that parallels the delicate world of her characters. The physical environment is a palpable part of their world, not just a backdrop, and as Jamiee says, “It is as essential to their stories as the air they breathe.”  Not only does water dry up but so do, sometimes, the spirits of her generational characters. This is a story of ordinary people going through loss and change, much like the planet does, and within this evolution are fractures and vanishment, illusion, freedom, and transformation. The evocation of hummingbirds and butterflies is not lost. The nod to earwigs, cockroaches, lice, empidids, even, is something to consider.

Jaimee notes:

As humans our own stories are inevitably part of the immediate world we are living in, and so too as a writer setting is never just a backdrop to my character’s lives – it is as essential to their stories as the air they breathe. Thus, in the excerpt [at Dragonfly Library], drought has left the lush Volcanic rainforest, “normally pungent and dripping with moisture, beads of it like sweat in the fronds of ferns… shrinking, turning in on itself in the strange Hawaiian winter heat.” The excerpt further reveals that Madge, one of the characters battling both dementia and a strong desire to be free, has escaped into the night and turned on the spigot to the water tank that serves their home (this area of Hawai’i island is on rainwater catchment), leaving it dry. Gwen, Madge’s daughter, had earlier described the affair that ended her marriage, marooning her and Buddy, her reluctant son, back in Hawai’i, inviting comparisons to the dried-up land.

The author tells me:

Freedom and transformation in parallel to the environment is shown in the on-going metaphor of the Monarch butterfly’s metamorphosis. We see this motif in the first chapter and it continues through Madge’s chapters, her memories of her husband’s quest to find a way to transform a life of regrets into something greater, and how he looked to the metamorphosis of the Monarch as “perfection.” Madge, who as a child collected Monarch caterpillars to watch them cocoon and transform into a butterfly, is haunted by how she brought her jar to her mom one day to show her this magic, and found her mom dead from a possible poisoning, from the milk of the crown flower bushes that Monarchs in Hawai’i feed off of. Ultimately, the Monarch butterfly itself is imperiled, its habitat disappearing, pesticides killing the milkweed it needs to complete its life cycle. Buddy, who besides his longing to have sex with his girlfriend, immerses himself in entomology and points this out to his mom in several crucial scenes in the novel.

A land where the long-erupting volcano contributes wonder and wildness, a culturally-rich mythology and unpredictability, along with the poisonous sulphuric vog that blows across the island, killing parts of the native kipuka forests, the setting of Vanishing Acts is a reminder of both the power and beauty of our world, and its deeply imperiled plight under the stresses of climate change.

Vanishing Acts is a very good example of a modern literary novel that arouses the reader’s mindfulness to global warming, extinction, and the loss of biodiversity, meanwhile mirroring the planet’s demise in our personal relationships and downfalls. In both planet and person are beautiful and complicated systems, strength, failure, and intricate but fragile relationships. The novel is a brilliant journey in an exotic land, with flavorful characters and prose as lush and verdant as the volcanic rainforest’s.

The novel’s use of metaphor draws highly from the natural world, and it’s refreshing to see the infusion of literary eco-fiction in modern storytelling, where a tale does not forget our connection to, or parallels with, the landscape and ecosystems and climate crises surrounding us. In fact, the natural world doesn’t just shadow the characters, it looms around the story, alive and imaginative.

There’s something else going on in this story, too, beyond the scope of the beautiful Hawai’i-scape and page-turning drama of the characters. The underlying concept of illusion haunts the prose. Not everything we see is what we get. And what we get doesn’t always last. I love the idea of a surfer disappearing into a curling wave and though the surfer may still be there, traveling the tube, the surfer may not be present to our eye. These kinds of illusions shadow the story and provide literary commentary about our world – whether about the way it’s vanishing before our eyes or about the awkward ideations underlying deception. And it’s a story about love too, which guides relationships and transforms us.

(Top photo downloaded from pressconnects.)

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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An Interview with Artist Tali Weinberg

by Amy Brady

This month I have for you a fascinating interview with Tali Weinberg, an artist who utilizes weaving, sculpture, thread drawing, and works on paper to visualize climate data. As she says in our interview below, weaving “is a way to speak beyond binaries.” She understands “big data” to be “a relatively patriarchal, capitalist, colonial form of knowledge” and weaving as a way to reinsert knowledge from women and indigenous peoples. The resulting artwork – Woven Climate Datascapes – is a thought-provoking and multi-dimensional way of asking questions and seeking answers about the world that goes beyond straightforward scientific inquiry.

Please tell us about your ongoing project, Woven Climate Datascapes. What inspired it?

The Woven Climate Datascapes project encompasses several series I’ve been working on since 2015, growing from an exploration of the ways we come to understand climate change: data, journalistic narrative, and embodied and affective experience. I weave climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into abstracted landscapes and waterscapes. I code the data and materialize it with plant-derived fibers and dyes and petrochemical-derived medical tubing.

Each series within the project starts with a different set of questions, but the overall impetus is this: Weaving the data is simultaneously a reification and an abstraction, a respect and a critique. Data is valuable in its capacity to condense a vast amount of labor, knowledge, and time into a form that can be consumed quickly. But its value as an abstraction is also its shortfall. It obscures its material origins and the violence climate change truly is. On the one hand, weaving draws attention to this illegibility and limitation. It becomes a space to reflect on what we do not see, whether that is the injustice of climate change or our personal relationship to a place. Further, a number of the pieces reflect on the ways the data has been aggregated – the process of breaking and dividing we go through when trying to understand – and that there are politics and assumptions embedded in these aggregations. On the other hand, through the act of weaving, I am building up information, weft thread by weft thread, thereby reinserting time and labor and reconnecting with the material and embodied knowledge from which the data was produced.

What draws you to the use of textiles and weaving in particular? 

Because data is a relatively patriarchal, capitalist, colonial form of knowledge, in this project weaving becomes a way to (re)insert other forms of knowledge – knowledge that is embodied, gendered female, indigenous, and relational more than representational.

At the same time, weaving, to me, is a way to speak beyond binaries. It is cerebral and embodied knowledge; material and relational; high and low tech; object-making and social practice; math and art; political and personal; tied to capital and care, domestic and industrial production.

I also draw on the long history of textiles – and weaving especially – as a subversive language for women and other marginalized groups. In this context, especially given the current political climate, the project could be seen as a sort of subversive, feminist archive.

As an artist, do you also see yourself as a kind of climate change communicator?

I see my work as a form of inquiry. It’s a way to engage with the world and pursue questions that are usually some combination of social/political, scientific, and personal.

I view the datascapes more as interpretations of and personal engagements with data, rather than as data visualizations. Their compositions are determined as much by elements of landscape and the body, by my own embodied and affective experiences of place, as they are by a data-driven understanding of climate change.

Given the politicized nature of climate change (at least in the United States), your work could be seen as a kind of activism. Do you see yourself as an activist?

I do think art has a role to play in the cultural shifts necessary to address the climate crisis. There is value in what art can do to focus attention, create space and time for shifts in perspective and perception, and hopefully evoke feelings of care, love, and empathy.

At the same time, I don’t want to compare art-making to the incredible, risky, vital efforts of those on the front lines protecting our water, air, land, and health – especially the indigenous communities and communities or color taking on extractive industries and fighting for environmental justice.

Who is your ideal viewer? Someone who already believes in climate change, or someone who doesn’t? Or perhaps someone in between?

Ideally, the datascapes have the potential to speak to those with varied perspectives on climate change. For those already engaged, I have seen the work act as a focal point for grieving and reflection. For those who would rather ignore climate change, the work is a way to open up conversations and make the crisis personal.

What’s next for you?

Thanks to a grant from Tulsa Artist Fellowship, I am currently finishing up Bound, a sculpture that traces multiple forms of entanglement in the face of anthropogenic climate change. Bound is comprised of over 300 sets of climate data which is materialized as 1500 feet of medical tubing wrapped with threads dyed with plant and insect-derived dyes.

It is a project that explores the relationship between the damage done to the earth and the damage done to our bodies by the petrochemical industry, even as our lives are reliant on and seemingly inextricably intertwined with this industry. Petrochemical-derived medical tubing is a pipeline that runs through and around our bodies, used in medical interventions for illnesses that often have the same causes as ecological destruction. This summer Bound will be in a group show in New York and in the fall, it will be in a solo show in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Extending from Bound, my research for new work is focused on the knot that is climate change, extractive industry, illness/toxicity, and displacement (and more broadly, home, loss of home, our multivalent relationships to place).

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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