Artists and Climate Change

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The Top 10 Most Exciting Art/Sustainability Initiatives in…Chile!

By Yasmine Ostendorf

In recent months, Chile has received global attention, but for different reasons than initially expected. The capital city of Santiago was supposed to host COP25, the United Nations meetings where world leaders discuss how to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. But instead of being the proud backdrop for the political groundwork needed to usher us towards a more sustainable future, Santiago was all over the news because of its social uprising.

On a superficial level, the protests seemed to have been triggered by an increase in subway prices, but the reality was much more complex. The country had been a ticking time-bomb, fueled by built-up anger and frustration over its unfair social systems, extreme neoliberalism and increased privatization – remaining legacies of the Pinochet dictatorship. Even though the media tried to prove otherwise, the protests were mostly peaceful, full of music, art and other forms of creativity. They only became violent when the police started responding with extreme violence

As the protests escalated, COP25 had to be moved to Madrid. Still, the majority of the Chilean protesters had shown their courageous and creative side. Song, graffiti and street-art brightened the streets, and the whole world was introduced to “Un violador en tu camino,” the powerful Chilean anti-rape anthem initiated by Lastesis, that went viral and fueled a movement of feminist protests across Latin America and beyond. Another personal favorite is the work of Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, whose statement on the protests can be read here

Cecilia Vicuña, Violeta Parra o Violenta Vid. Oil on canvas, 1973. Collection of the artist. Vicuña: “I decided to paint a portrait of Violeta Parra for the series of Heroes of the Revolution, because not all the heroes have to be leaders, thinkers or guerrillas, we also need heroes of being, painting and invention.”

Creativity proved once again to be central in the fight for a better future, so the time is ripe for another personal list of Top 10 Most Exciting Art/Sustainability Initiatives, this time in Chile (as always, in random order). Because of its long shape and 6,000 km coastline, Chile has some of the most (bio) diverse and astonishing landscapes in the world. The country stretches all the way from the dry Atacama desert in the north to the volcanoes, glaciers, and ancient forests in the south. Its natural environment is of incredible beauty and importance, and the art initiatives listed below admire as well as address that.

Biomaterials at Labva

1. LABVA

This innovative and experimental biomaterials lab is located in Valdívia in the south of Chile. Occupying an old building constructed in 1906, Labva is essentially an independent and self-managed community laboratory and kitchen, where artists cook up biomaterials, grow biomaterials and research local and circular economies. Labva aims to bring science closer to the community, focusing especially on new materials or open biomaterials. 

Mar Adentro

2. FUNDACIÓN MAR ADENTRO

Fundación Mar Adentro is the steward of Bosque Pehuén in Auracanía Andina, Chile, a 882-hectare Natural Reserve sitting between the Villarrica vulcano and the Quetrupillan vulcano – a stunning area known for its abundant biodiversity. Fundación Mar Adentro founded this private conservation initiative in 2006 with the belief that “to preserve, one should understand,” conceiving the place as an outdoor research lab. Ever since, they have been developing multidisciplinary and collaborative initiatives in art, education, and nature that encourage recognizing the value of the Chilean natural and cultural heritage.

UCT students at Valley of the Possible

3. VALLEY OF THE POSSIBLE

Valley of the Possible is an independent cultural non-profit that offers artists, scientists and other thinkers and makers a place to connect with nature, time for research, and space for artistic development. Located in the stunning Cañon del Blanco valley in La Araucanía Andina, the place is surrounded by ancient volcanic landscapes with abundant biodiversity and a strong Indigenous presence. The works and narratives that are created as part of the projects and residencies encourage thinking and acting ecologically. The founders believe it is essential to support the parallel development of ecological and economical shifts that re-addresses the wisdom, tradition, and culture of Indigenous people and the importance of their cosmology. 

Museo Del Hongo

4. MUSEO DEL HONGO

This nomadic museum of art and science has one obsession: mushrooms, and anything to do with mushrooms. Museo del Hongo even operates in mycorrhizal ways, spreading its spores across Chile and beyond through fungi-inspired performances, fashion, magazines, exhibitions, and educational workshops. And, like mycelium, it has a central role in a vast network, connecting people, resources, and knowledge. Museo del Hongo collaborates closely with many partners, including the Chilean Fungi Foundation. It functions with the versatility and resourcefulness of the fungal ways of living and working. 

Lawayaka Current’s Desert 23°S, Atacama, Chile 

5. LAWAYAKA CURRENT

La Wayaka Current is an artist-led initiative whose main focus is to develop ways to engage people with the pressing environmental and philosophical questions of our time through self-reflection, arts, and culture. This is in response to the increased loss of connection between humans and the natural world, and the global socio-political and environmental problems that have arisen due to this distancing. Since 2015, La Wayaka Current has orchestrated alternative residency programs in various remote natural biomes, often in collaboration with indigenous communities. Participants connect to the rich biodiversity, culture and ancestral knowledge of a place, in order to recognize and value these things in light of the present ecological crisis. The aim is to investigate the potential to form new perspectives through creative practice and critical thought. 

Magma Lab

6. MAGMA/LAB

MAGMA/Lab is an artist-run space for creative experimentation, located in Pucón in the Araucanía region. The artists work in various disciplines, including ceramics, engraving, graphics, visual art, design, and furniture, always taking nature as point of departure. Programs include workshops, design services, as well as projects on sustainable solutions for various local challenges. The founders believe that local commerce and respect for nature don’t have to be at odds with each other, and they seek to strengthen the creative industry of the beautiful Araucanía region, without harm to the environment.

Whale research with the community at MHNRS

7. THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM OF RÍO SECO (MHNRS)

The Natural History Museum of Río Seco (MHNRS) is a space of convergence between disciplines related to arts and sciences that assimilates and reflects on the natural and cultural heritage of the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctic region. This space was created with the purpose of embracing and disseminating knowledge regarding the southern Pole through the development of collections, which mainly relate to the natural and material history of the extreme south of Chile. Through community experiences, academics, professionals, specialists, students and visitors from diverse backgrounds are invited to think critically, and develop an understanding of the challenge of inhabiting a territory where the natural environment is key to cultural development. 

Smell test, Ensayos Tierra del Fuego

8. ENSAYOS TIERRA DEL FIEGO

The nomadic research collective Ensayos Tierra del Fuego‘s practice is centered on extinction, human geography, and coastal health. The members of the collective honor the Indigenous Selk’nam, Yaghan, Kawéskar and Haush peoples on whose ancestral lands and waters they conduct research and learn – mostly in Tierra del Fuego (the southern tip of Patagonia) and other archipelagos. The land is rich in fungi and plant species and home to unique Patagonian wildlife. Ensayos Tierra de Fuego believes that understanding environmental change requires sound science. Through their work, they underline the fact that making choices about Earth stewardship involves ethics, aesthetics and critical geopolitical perspectives.

Image from the Art and Science Biennale of Concepción, as published in Endémico magazine, media partners of the Biennale. 

9. REVISTA ENDÉMICO

Revista Endémico is a bi-annual magazine and online platform that creates spaces for art and environment. From issues on the mysterious world of oceans and the challenges to preserve marine ecosystems, to interviews with artists who have participated in projects and residencies, Revista Endémico publishes superb images and top-notch writing. The platform is a great resource to learn about both environmental and artistic practices in Chile. Revista Endémico is an initiative of  Hola Eco, a group of bloggers who converge on an essential point: their mutual quest for a more balanced lifestyle with the planet and themselves. 

Ciudad Abierta

10. CIUDAD ABIERTA

Picturesquely tucked away in a national park in Ritoque, north of Valparaíso, one can find Ciudad Abierta – the Open City. Covering 270 hectares, this landscape is home to an extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna, wetlands, cliffs, dunes, and gorges, and dotted with an impressive array of architectural interventions. Founded in 1970 by a group of poets, philosophers, sculptors, painters, architects and designers, it still functions as an experimental architecture school, with several workshops and workspaces for artists, designers, and architects. Several of the founders still live on site and all decision-making processes regarding new architectural and experimental interventions are made collectively and democratically during “Heart Open” table discussions. 

Valley of the Possible and Cookies research trip, 2019. Photo by Federico Martelli.

In addition, I should mentioned the Tompkins Foundation and CAB Patagonia, which are doing incredible work in nature and cultural conservation in Chile; curator Rodolfo Andaur has been taking artists around Chile, researching the different geographies of the country through the critical and reflective lens of contemporary art; and The Pearl Buttonis a beautiful film about the relationship of people with the water in Chile. 

I express my deep gratitude to Valley of the Possible for the incredible research trip in Chile in December 2019, which formed the foundation for this list. 


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.

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An Interview with Mary Annaïse Heglar & Amy Westervelt

By Amy Brady

I am thrilled to bring you this month an interview with climate justice essayists and podcast hosts Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt. With their podcast, Hot Take, both writers/hosts are approaching climate change in a way that so many artists and novelists do: through emotional, heartfelt storytelling. The podcast examines trends in climate storytelling across mediums, and future episodes will possibly feature novelists, poets, and other creatives. The podcast launched late last year but has already made waves among writers and media types. In this interview, we discuss what inspired the podcast and why allowing emotional responses to the climate crisis into the public arena is just as important as making space for scientific research. 

What inspired you both to start the Hot Take podcast?

Mary: Amy approached me about a podcast a couple of times. First, the idea was to develop a podcast on my own, which felt a bit overwhelming, but I did throw around ideas about climate messaging and intersectionality. A little later, she mentioned that she was going to start a podcast on climate news, and wondered if I would be a co-host. Then, the wheels got to turning about combining that with the ideas we had for the solo show. That turned into ideas for a media criticism show and as the concept developed, we grew more and more excited and were asking ourselves, “omg, how has no one thought of this before?”

Amy: Yes, exactly! The idea sounded sort of narrow at first, but the more we talked about it, the more we realized we had a lot to say on the subject and a lot we wanted to explore, and we felt like a lot of people wanted to talk more about climate storytelling but there was no place to really do that. 

Your first few episodes are dedicated to reviewing the last four years’ worth of climate coverage. What major trends have you seen in journalistic storytelling? Did any of them surprise you?

Mary: [Climate storytelling] got so much more emotional. I think for a really long time, the climate conversation had been wedded to the idea of a very strict set of best practices: you must be hopeful, you have to emphasize individual actions, “we” are responsible for this. All of that got thrown out of the window in the past couple of years. Sure, there are still messages of hope, but there’s also fear and anger and sadness. In other words, there’s more honesty. The conversation had been largely democratized. It used to be that you had to have a certain level of access to know how bad our situation is, but now everyone knows. I don’t know if I’m surprised by [these increases in emotional responses and accessibility] so much as I am simply delighted. 

Amy: We recently finished working on the 2019 episode, the last of the recap episodes, and were bowled over by how, for the 2016-2017 episode, we had to really hunt for stories, but by 2019 we had more than we could feasibly include. So just in terms of quantity there’s been an explosion in climate coverage, which is great to see. It’s also gotten so much more diverse both in terms of who gets to write about climate and what counts as a climate story. I don’t remember reading many, if any, personal essays on climate five years ago, for example – climate storytelling was often confined to either policy stories or science stories. Now the media is starting to deliver on the idea of climate as a lens and not a distinct issue (which coincidentally is how I think we need to approach acting on climate: holistically, systemically, and not just tackling the energy source!) 

This newsletter is dedicated to art and literature, but journalism is also a kind of storytelling – a vital one that largely shapes how we discuss the climate crisis. Any predictions for how the climate narrative will unfold in 2020?

Mary: We also plan to weave in more fiction as we continue, and I’d say that most personal essays are literary, and those have exploded on the climate scene in recent years. I think we’re going to begin to see way more of that. I also think we’re going to see more usage of different mediums. For one thing, there’s a lot of room for more podcasts and a desperate need for more climate storytelling in video format. I think the tone is going to continue to get bolder and stronger. The climate movement is done with being polite. They’re ready to go to the mattresses. 

Amy: I predict we’ll see more and more narrative approaches on climate. Drilled, the other climate podcast I do, is still one of the only narrative podcasts on climate, which seems nuts to me given how many climate stories are unfolding all the time. Given Hollywood’s growing interest in climate and the desire for character-driven narratives there, I think we’re bound to see more of those sorts of stories. I am also thrilled to start seeing the first inklings of humor and satire being used effectively on climate, and I suspect (hope!) we’ll see more of that, too. Sarah Miller’s piece in Popula, about Miami real estate and sea-level rise, is a great example. So is Katy Lederer’s piece on the COP climate negotiations in n+1

A subject that comes up often on your podcast – and in both of your writing – is the validity of intense emotional reactions to climate change. Why is allowing for an emotion response – as opposed to a purely rational and scientific one – important?

Mary: Because the scientific one hasn’t worked! If we had rational leaders in place who wanted to solve the problem, then sure, all we need to do is present them with the evidence and go on our merry way. But, that’s not where we’re at. This isn’t a war on “facts.” This is a war on “power.” And power doesn’t surrender to simple “facts.” It never has. If it did, it would never have existed. To challenge power, you have to make noise, and to make noise you have to feel something. But also because I don’t want to be the one who watches my world slip away with cool detachment. I’ve seen people get furious about missing a green light or a subway train and then laugh off Camp Fire or Hurricane Maria as “well, what are you gonna do?” I don’t want to be that person. 

Amy: Because climate change is a trauma inflicted on humanity by a few humans. And you cannot process a trauma and get to action without experiencing and confronting a whole range of emotions: grief, anger, shame, guilt, sometimes all at once. And because we can’t accept others’ emotions if we don’t accept and process our own. I think that work is really critical to moving past the various blockers to climate action. 

What voices and stories would you like to see more of in the climate conversation?

Mary: I want way more people of color and women. To get real specific, I want to hear from more Indigenous women. Their experience is critical, and when they speak, I want everyone to listen. The same goes for the disabled community. I’ve learned so much from voices from that community over the past year and it’s been really instructive. 

Amy: Dammit, the exact same! Indigenous women, disabled people, and I’d also like to hear more from Latinx writers, particularly from those who are connecting the dots between climate change, eco-fascism, and immigration. 

What do you have planned next for Hot Take?

Mary: Ha, I think that’s hard to say since we just got started! But already in 2020, we’re going to start taking listener’s questions and inviting guests onto the show, with priority given to climate storytellers. We feel like there’s already a lot of spaces for experts like scientists and policy analysts to talk about their craft vis-a-vis climate, but precious few of them for climate storytellers. I’m really excited to get those conversations going. I think they’re going to be cathartic. 

Amy: Yes! There’s an element to the show that I don’t know if we totally planned for, and that is the therapeutic catharsis stuff. Talking through our own emotional responses to the problem, looking at all the different ways the story has been told, it’s kinda the thing that we both say about the need for emotion in this space. Looking at it from a variety of angles actually really helps to process and get to a place where action is possible. We hope to do that for other climate storytellers, and our listeners, too.

Any other projects you’d like my readers to know about?

Mary: Not so much for me. Amy? 

Amy: I do! Drilled season three is launching January 21st, and we’ll also be launching a new climate accountability reporting project that same day, which will include a website for both reporting and essays, two newsletters (we’re sponsoring Climate Liability News and Heated), and a handful of audio projects, too. We’ll be working with various partners to collaborate and amplify as well, including HuffPostNew York Magazine, and some others I can’t talk about yet. When I say “climate accountability,” I mean we’ll be digging into all the various reasons for delayed action on climate. So the role of the fossil-fuel, automotive, and manufacturing industries for sure, but also less obvious things like how the language we use impacts action, how different messaging frameworks have or haven’t worked, why the IPCC kept social scientists out of their process for so long, really trying to examine all the big blockers. 

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.


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 at 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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When Water Speaks for Itself

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

For over four decades, New Mexico-based environmental artist Basia Irland has created projects about water that focus on rivers, waterborne diseases and water scarcity. Her extensive body of work includes sculptures, installations, books, essays and videos that have connected with, engaged and educated local communities in Africa, Canada, Europe, South America, Southeast Asia and the United States.

In our recent phone conversation, Irland admitted that she is obsessed with water. She describes it in her artist’s statement as “marvelously mysterious” in all of its gaseous, fluid and frozen states, complex in its science and behavior and endlessly nourishing to her soul.

Irland’s interest in water began as a child growing up near Boulder Creek in Boulder, Colorado. She would often go to the creek for solace and contemplation, and developed a deep personal connection to water that continues to this day. Similarly, on visits to her grandfather’s farm in Texas, where a water pumping windmill drew the family’s only available water from the ground, Irland observed in real time what happens when drought occurs and access to water dries up. Although these experiences informed her work, she insists that the water itself was the greatest influence on her career as an artist. For a 2018 interview in Interalia Magazine she explained, “I am a humble student constantly learning from tiny rivulets, dammed streams, wild and scenic river systems, or major waterways.”

Since Irland is such a prolific artist and doing justice to all of her work would require a full-length book (Ireland has already written two comprehensive books on her career: Reading the River: The Ecological Activist Art of Basia Irland  (2017) and Water Library (2007)), I’ll focus here on three projects that represent her commitment to integrating art with science, her method of successfully engaging community participants and her ability to imagine how water would speak for itself.

ICEFIELD. 2000jpg.jpg
Ice Field, detail. Petri dishes; test tubes; vials; glass beakers; glass ice; water, etched glacial deposit stones from the Athabascan Glacier, Alberta, Canada; rocks from the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior; and river stones painted with constellations, 2000 and 2015.
Ice Field

Ice Field, one of Irland’s early projects, anticipated by many years the more recent alarm over glacial melting. Twenty years ago, when climate disruption was a non-issue for most of the world, Irland spent time hiking on a number of glaciers, including those at Lake Louise, a lake fed by meltwater from nearby glaciers in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Inspired by these hikes across glaciers and her observations of meltwater, Irland began thinking about a future when there would be no more glaciers on the planet and meltwater would be the only way scientists could study them. Knowing that meltwater contains microbial populations, nutrients and metals that escape from glaciers and feed downstream ecosystems, Irland developed an installation entitled Ice Field. She used some of the instruments of scientific research – petri dishes, vials, test tubes and flasks filled with water and stones – as both an artistic interpretation of a future scientific study set in a pristine lab and an ode to the melting glaciers themselves. A second version of the original Ice Field was installed in 2015 as part of a major retrospective of Irland’s work at the Museum De Domijnen in the Netherlands.

C3. Launching BOOK XXXI into Rio. Photo by Ben Daitz.JPG
Basia Irland (in the water) and volunteer launching Ice Book XXXI by the banks of the muddy Rio Grande. Photo courtesy of Ben Daitz and Basia Irland.
Ice Books

In 2007, Irland was invited to participate in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art entitled “Weather Report: Art and Climate Change.” The exhibition was curated by renown American activist, feminist, author and art critic Lucy Lippard, who asked the participating artists to create new pieces about climate change in collaboration with scientists.

Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of what is now more accurately referred to as climate disruption or climate crisis, Irland wanted to do something that would both call attention to an important environmental issue within a positive framework, and promote activism. A sculptor at heart, she chose to carve a 250-pound block of frozen river water into the shape of an open book in honor of the nearby Arapaho Glacier. The glacier is melting rapidly and, along with the snowmelt, provides drinking water for the town of Boulder. Imbedded into the ice book was its “text,” comprised of the seeds of plants native to the Boulder Creek ecosystem.

Irland worked with a local botanist to determine which seeds to use. Ultimately, the seeds of mountain maple, columbine flower and blue spruce were selected. (See image at top of this article.) As Irland describes, “the seeds form the ecological language of the book and just as we learn from books, we can learn from the river.” Once the ice book had been carved and the seeds had been added, the book was released into the water with the participation of the local community. As the ice melted, the seeds would implant themselves into the riverbank to restore the ecosystem as they traveled downstream.

That first book in 2007 became the prototype for an on-going series of ice books, entitled “Ice Receding, Books Reseeding,” which Irland continues to make in consultation with stream ecologists, river restoration biologists and botanists. In several locations, Irland imbedded other materials into the ice books instead of seeds when local river conditions would benefit from that change. For example, she used chunks of limestone at Deckers Creek in West Virginia in order to reduce the high level of acidity in the river water that had been caused by acid mine drainage. She also incorporated krill into the ice book released into False Creek in Vancouver, Canada so that smaller fish that ate the krill would attract salmon into the river again.

The creation of subsequent ice books always included participants from the local communities around the globe where she had been invited. Whenever possible, Irland also partnered with Indigenous tribes in the area. Participants assisted with implanting the seeds into the books and launching them into the water. In recognition of their gift of participation to the project, Ireland provided gifts in return, such as seeds, maps of the river’s watershed and other items of relevance. The video below provides an overview of Irland’s innovative global Ice Book projects.

River Essays

In 2014, Irland was invited by Sandra Postel, director and founder of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow at the National Geographic Society, to write an essay on her Ice Books for the Society’s blog “Water Currents.” That first essay led to a series of 17 additional pieces that she wrote for the blog from 2015-2017, entitled “What Rivers Know.” (Irland has written additional essays in the series not published in “Water Currents”).

Each of the essays is written in the first person from the point of view of a particular river. The essays give a voice to the rivers and the sense that they have knowledge, memory and mythic powers equal or greater than our own. An excerpt from the February 2016 River Essay on the Ping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand and the video “What Rivers Know” below provide examples of the river as subject/speaker:

On the night of the twelfth lunar month during the full moon at the end of the rainy season, communities gather along my banks to pay homage to me, and my water spirits. They thank the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha (พระแม่คงคา), which is the Thai form of Ganga, the Hindu goddess of the holy Ganges River, India. It is also a way to beg forgiveness for polluting and abusing me during the past year.

This festival of lights is called Loy Krathong (ลอยกระทง). The name is translated as “to float a basket”, and refers to the tradition of making krathong or buoyant, banana-stem sculptures that are decorated with folded banana leaves and contain flowers, incense, candles, and coins (an offering to the river spirits). These sculptures are floated on my moist skin in the evening forming a candle-lit parade dancing downstream. Lights hanging from trees and buildings, and a multitude of hot-air lanterns rising up into the night sky reflect on my body, creating a myriad of new constellations…

Basia Irland is a pioneer in addressing the complex issues affecting water. Before many artists and certainly the general public were focusing on climate disruption, she was already thinking about the eventual absence of glaciers and the interconnectedness of our global waterways. All of Irland’s work encourages each of us to become better recipients of the deep knowledge our rivers have to offer. It is her personal commitment and passion for the wonder of water, though, as well as the impact of her work on local communities all over the world that should inspire us all.

(Top image: TOME 1. Ice and seeds of the mountain maple, columbine flower and blue spruce, Boulder Creek, Colorado. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs and videos are courtesy of Basia Irland.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption 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 and writer. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the US and she has received numerous grants and commissions. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and drawings have focused on water and climate change. She co-created a national, interactive public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – dead trees that have been exposed to salt water as a result of rising tides.

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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: Rajat Chaudhuri

I was thrilled to talk with Rajat Chaudhuri, author of The Butterfly Effect (September 3, 2018, Olive Turtle, Niyogi), which Scroll.in describes as a novel that “blends mystery, eco-fiction and a Russian doll narrative.” Truly this story is a wild ride, with brilliant and Ballardian descriptions and actions of a future world that I don’t think we want to be in, but which are vibrant and alive as well as deadly. The story jumps around the map, beginning in India.

A self-obsessed Calcutta detective who goes by his last name, Kar, an enigmatic internet cafe hostess in Seoul, and a hotshot geneticist laboring away on a top-secret corporate project: these are just a few pieces in the puzzle that need to be put together to explain a world sucked into the whirlpool of the butterfly effect.

In the decaying capital city of a near-future Darkland, which covers large swathes of Asia, Captain Old – an off-duty policeman – receives news that might help to unravel the roots of a scourge that has ravaged the continent. As stories coalesce into stories – welding past, present, and future together – will a macabre death in a small English town or the disappearance of Indian tourists in Korea help to blow away the dusts of time? From utopian communities of Asia to the prison camps of Pyongyang, and from the gene labs of Europe to the violent streets of Darkland – riven by civil war, infested by genetically engineered fighters – this time-traveling novel crosses continents, weaving mystery, adventure and romance, gradually fixing its gaze on the sway of the unpredictable.

The genre-blurring tale left me hanging on edge as I discovered a new world through Rajat’s imagination, and I would recommend this book highly. I talked with Rajat about his new novel. He explained that The Butterfly Effect is a transcultural novel, which crosses borders while also switching back and forth in time. The major settings of the book are India (present and near-future Calcutta), England (London and southern England), South Korea (Seoul and other places), North Korea and China (minor setting). 

Rajat Chaudhuri

What motivated you to write this novel?

The book has an eco-dystopian theme centered around the dangers of genetically modified (GM) crops and the inherent threats of this technology.  It also has a climate change backdrop in a near-future setting. The double whammy of climate change disaster and a GM experiment gone horribly wrong is what triggers the disastrous circumstances portrayed in the book.

I have been an environmental activist for many years now. I have been a climate change advocate representing civil society groups at the United Nations in New York, and have spoken and written about climate and environment issues in international and national forums and publications. I am also a past contributor on sustainable consumption issues to the World Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Program in New York.

This activist background motivated me to translate my learning to my creative work, especially through the vehicle of a novel. The so-called realist novel, because of its debt to the Enlightenment, has shied away from engaging with Nature and issues involving large collectives, and focused instead on what John Updike calls an “individual moral adventure”. This focus, Amitav Ghosh points out in his seminal work on climate change, The Great Derangement, has ghettoized all other kinds of writing, placing them in genre fiction.

I, like some others, feel the time has come  to change this as climate threats have been growing in exponential proportions and dangerous technologies are being pushed into our lives and food plates without proper testing and without the use of the “precautionary principle,” which is a foundational principle of the Biosafety Protocol. There are, however, writers in the West, like Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Liz Jensen, Ian McEwan, Barbara Kingsolver, and others who have been engaging with climate environment and disaster issues. In my country, these issues are rarely handled in creative fiction.

All of the above influenced me to write The Butterfly Effect. Above all, the challenges and difficulties of creatively engaging with the unimaginable aspects of worldwide disaster caused by human actions in the Anthropocene have driven me to write this book.

This book is not far-future science fiction about intergalactic wars, nor will you find teleportation here. Rather, this is speculative fiction of a very possible future, amplified for the purposes of creativity and dramatization.

How do you feel climate change and/or environmental crises play a part in the places in your novel – and how do you feel that they might be unique compared to the rest of the world?

My setting is both the developing and developed worlds (India, Korea, UK, etc.). Each of these places will be affected by a runaway bio-technology disaster (as in my book), but impact will vary according to preparedness. Climate change, which is a backdrop for the book, will affect all these places in similar and different ways. So in my book, we find hot summers in England, fertile crop-growing regions in Tibet, the disappearance of island nations like Sri Lanka, and the flooding of Japan. These are backdrops in the story. As we all know and have begun to see with increasing regularity, climate change will have unpredictable consequences from increased storm activity, desertification, extreme temperatures, and crop failures, among several other crises.

The uniqueness of the affected region in my story is that it covers large parts of Asia and essentially constitutes the developing world. Because of a lack of preparedness, vulnerable populations, limited resources, corruption, the business-as-usual mentality, lack of awareness, and the attraction of high-consumption life styles, these regions will definitely be worse off once a worldwide disaster begins to unfold.

I also want to mention Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan incidents, which are rare (hard to predict) incidents of devastating consequence. A Black Swan incident – such as the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster – is very hard to predict but can be understood in retrospect. Just as the Fukushima disaster and meltdown was the result of a chain of incidents that were too rare for the designers of the reactors to foresee, so in this book we find a concatenation of rare and almost unpredictable events. The bottom line is: Change high-consumption lifestyles and stop employing dangerous and unpredictable technologies, even if for welfare. There are always simpler solutions.

Is there anything else you want to tell us about the story?

Environmental disasters are often borderless, and so is my story. This is why the plot travels from one place to another and the characters are drawn from many countries.

The book benefited from a number of international fellowship grants (Korea, UK, Scotland) which helped me research these places and people and set up the scaffolding of the novel. There is a long section in the book which has to do with North Korea, and important characters from that country, and I feel what the story is telling us is that risky technologies become bigger threats when they are contested by powers which lack the checks and balances of a functioning democracy – corporate power and totalitarian regimes to give you two examples.

This book is also about the tug-of-war between reason and faith, or reason and its absence. This duality is portrayed through the character of the detective Kar, who is a man of reason led into strange circumstances where faith and magic fight a losing battle with the all-consuming power of science. It is in the character of the detective that we find a reflection of this age-old contest.

Thank you, Rajat, for the in-depth background of The Butterfly Effect.

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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Brave New Decade

By Joan Sullivan

This is our decade.

By “our”, I mean everyone: all consumers, all professions, all industries, all nations, all beliefs. As Roddy Clarke articulated so passionately in his recent Forbes article The Twenties – The Most Important Design Decade Yet, “We have one common denominator: the power to create change. And, through courage, collaboration and co-operation, we can achieve this.”

Clarke describes, among other things, the Duke of Cambridge’s recently announced The Earthshot Prize, the multi-million pound prize that will be awarded to five winners per year over the next ten years. By 2030, the Earthshot Prize intends to provide at least 50 solutions to the world’s greatest problems.

According to its website, the Earthshot Prize wants:

to motivate and inspire a new generation of thinkers, leaders and dreamers. Our prizes will reward progress across all sectors of industry and society, not just technology. The prizes could be awarded to a wide range of individuals, teams or collaborations – scientists, activists, economists, leaders, governments, banks, businesses, cities, and countries – anyone who is making a substantial development or outstanding contribution to solving our environmental challenges.

The Earthshot Prize is inspired by the concept of moonshots, in reference to U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 moonshot speech about “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” before the end of that anxious decade. This historic speech unleashed a decade of unprecedented innovation and collaboration that inspired a whole generation. Despite technological challenges, political obstacles and naysayers, Kennedy’s audacious dream was achieved within nine short years, even though he did not live to witness its moment of glory.

Kennedy’s generation achieved the impossible, in less than a decade. We can do the same. We must do the same. This is our decade.

Which is why, for my inaugural post of this brave new decade, I am inspired to write about a woman whose audacious vision has the potential to radically transform our lives and our homes before the end of this anxious decade.

Meet Dr. Rachel Armstrong, the pioneering architectural designer, synthetic biologist, and sustainability innovator who is blurring the lines between art, architecture and science in her quest for alternative technological platforms to solve third millennium challenges.

“The fundamental units of design must be reconsidered,” Armstrong argued during her 2019 talk at Design og arkitektur Norge in Oslo. “The fusion of biology, technology and art speaks of different kinds of beginnings, where we can imagine, build and explore futures that may one day entirely wean us off our umbilical attachment to fossil fuels while diversifying the metabolic richness and flourishing on earth.”

Originally trained as a medical doctor at Cambridge, Armstrong earned a PhD in Architecture at University College London. She is currently Professor of Experimental Architecture at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University, where she founded and directs the Experimental Architecture Group. She is also Coordinator of the multi-country Living Architecture Project, funded in part by the European Union. Her collaborative work has been exhibited widely, including major installations at the Venice Art and Architecture Biennales, the Tallinn Architecture Biennale, the Trondheim Art Biennale, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, among others.

Known by her popular Twitter handle @LivingArchitect, Armstrong believes that “we are in the midst of a transition from an industrial to an ecological paradigm of architectural practice.” This transition involves, among other things, embracing permeability to allow chemical exchanges between buildings and the natural world, as well as within our living spaces.

The concept of permeability is anathema to the dominant Victorian top-down architectural philosophy, which favors the use of “hard” inert construction materials – masonry, aluminum, glass – to hermetically seal our buildings. Architects choose these energy-intensive inert materials to prevent the outside environment (heat, cold, precipitation, dust, pollution, disease) from getting inside.

“Impermeability was, and is, the driving goal,” Armstrong wrote for FastCompany. But impermeable design has a major flaw: it requires a one-way transfer of energy from the outside environment into our homes and cities, followed by a one-way transfer of unprocessed waste products back out into the environment.

New research suggests, however, that these waste products can become a source of renewable energy for buildings. Armstrong and her Living Architecture colleagues propose an alternative technological platform that can holistically recycle, re-use and reintegrate household waste products in a variety of new contexts. This technology has been around for 3.6 billion years: life itself.

“We are blind to the incredible work that nature does!” Armstrong exclaimed during her Oslo talk. She is convinced that the only way “to construct genuinely sustainable homes and cities is by connecting them to nature, not insulating them from it.”

In its earliest stages of experimental evolution, the Living Architecture project successfully demonstrated the potential of using semi-permeable “living bricks” (see image below) to catalyze radically different approaches towards how we think about the nature of our homes, our relationship with microbes, sustainability and resource management.

In an email, Armstrong describes these living bricks as different “species” of bioreactors, e.g., microbial fuel cell, algae bioreactor, genetically modified bioprocessor. When “fed” by human liquid wastes (notably urine and grey water), the resident microbes living within the different bioreactors are programmed to perform different “household chores” such as removing organic matter from wastewater, generating oxygen, making usable biomass (fertilizer) and producing clean electricity.

Moreover, since each bioreactor performs a different task, their end products can feed each other. For example, the production of electricity within the microbial fuel cell can be boosted by oxygen from green algae in the photobioreactor system. These products can either be fed back into the household system, or released as nutrient-rich streams back into the natural environment to increase soil fertility in our cities.

Future iterations of “living brick” technologies could transform our homes and commercial spaces into environmentally sensitive, renewable production sites. For example, interior wall partitions in our bathrooms and kitchens could be replaced with bioreactor walls (see video below) that can “recycle detergents from domestic wastewater, produce fertilizers for the garden, and synthesize new, biodegradable detergents – just from grey water, carbon dioxide and sunlight,” Armstrong wrote. In these scenarios, cleaned water will be recycled back into our bathrooms and kitchens to reduce overall water consumption, while zero-carbon electricity will charge our portable devices.

According to Armstrong,

Future bioreactors could generate bioluminescent lighting, produce nutrient-rich food supplements, and remove problematic estrogen-mimic compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from drinking water. In commercial spaces, these living walls could recycle water, fertilize green roofs, and purify air to make building interiors healthier and more like natural environments.

“The home of the future isn’t smart, it’s living and green,” claims the headline of a recent article in the SingularityHub. Another article describes five ways that buildings of the future will use biotech that may ultimately wean us off fossil fuels: 1) buildings that grow; 2) buildings that heal; 3) buildings that breathe; 4) buildings with immune systems; 5) buildings with stomachs.

For example, Living Architecture researchers intend to install integrated bioreactor walls – designed to function like a cow’s stomach – in real homes by 2030.

It may all sound like science fiction, but these are the kinds of bold, cross-disciplinary, solutions-oriented initiatives that will surely be recognized by the Earthshot Prize in the coming decade.

In my next post on this same subject, I will explore the role of artists collaborating with Living Architecture scientists to re-introduce microbes back into our homes, our buildings and our cities.

(Top image: Rachel Armstrong and Cécile B. Evan’s installation “999 years 13sqm (the future belongs to ghosts)” at Whitechapel Gallery’s Is This Tomorrow 2019 exhibit. All images from the Living Architecture project reprinted with permission by Rachel Armstrong.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. She is currently working on a documentary film and photo book about Canada’s energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan shines a light on global artists, designers and architects experimenting with renewable energy as an emerging art form. You can find Joan on TwitterVisura and Ello.

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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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How Object Puppetry Confronts Climate Change

By Caroline Reck

I want to tell you a story about a Styrofoam cup, and how, in giving voice to this one cup, many others were saved from a wasted life.

I’m the artistic director of Glass Half Full Theatre in Austin, Texas. Our company creates new works of theatre using the precise physical language of both humans and puppets – through clowning and object puppetry, in which existing objects are manipulated as characters – to confront global issues of environmental and social justice and explore imaginative solutions. In 2018, we presented an original stage production called Polly Mermaid, Apocalypse Wow!, based on a “walk about” persona that Indigo Rael, a company member, had created. Polly, whose purpose is to help people rethink their interactions with “disposable” plastic, has been an in-demand persona at live events such as Earth Day ATX and the San Marcos Mermaid Festival, and even has a short film detailing her origin story.

Indigo and I co-wrote the script for the stage production, which features live actors and object puppetry. While some of our company’s work is for all ages, this one is aimed at adults. Polly Mermaid is “polymer-made,” a mermaid who, sometime after the demise of humanity, evolved from the plastic trash in the ocean. She reigns over numerous species of sentient sea creatures, including schools of flip-flop fish, crabs made from discarded prescription bottles, and jellyfish created from plastic umbrellas. Polly loves plastic – can’t get enough of it, really – and couldn’t be more pleased that humanity (long extinct) has gifted her ocean with so much plastic garbage.

In this eco fable, an incidence of time travel propels a Styrofoam cup, named Cup, from our present time into this imagined future. Cup describes to the ocean trash puppets how her entire life – from being molded into shape, to waiting to be selected in the store, to being filled with hot liquid – is just the preamble to the shining moment of being brought to the lips of a human woman who is about to take a sip. This magical, sexy moment, this fulfilment of Cup’s life purpose, is so brief, and so honestly performed by puppeteer Gricelda Silva, that the devastation Cup feels once she is discarded after only seconds of fulfillment is legitimately heartbreaking. The other plastic trash commiserate; they too were used only temporarily before being tossed away. They mourn their brief instant of utility and languish, unloved and devoid of purpose for hundreds of years, outliving their “people” ten to fifteen times over.

Part of the value of this scene is that it is slightly ridiculous yet oddly compelling. In our experience as clowns, it’s easier to gut-punch an audience once they’re laughing. Cup is just a small part of the show, one of many that ask audiences to reverse their perspective on patterns of behavior. Yet in the year and a half since the production, so many people in town have come up to me and the other performers telling us how that moment changed how they viewed and used disposable objects. They tell me how they’ve stopped using plastics. They are fixing things that break rather than discarding them. They are buying fewer products. They’ve stopped relying on recycling as a solution. They are enforcing new rules in their households and communities.

Theatrical moments like these put people in the position of empathically recognizing their own ecological impact, which results in them actively changing their daily habits.

In the spirit of climate justice, Glass Half Full Theatre has set a goal to reach people less actively engaged in the battle against climate change, people who might be enticed by a sci-fi play, or a clown show, or a revisionist bilingual Don Quixote. We devise in a variety of sophisticated puppetry and physical theatre forms, but we often return to object puppetry because it is such an effective tool to help audiences reenvision the mundane world.

The Global Arena featuring Adam Martinez, Marina DeYoe- Pedraza, Connor Hopkins, Rommel Sulit, and Indigo Rael. Photo by Jefferson Lykins.

I believe this imaginative reenvisioning is key to breaking open the complex work that must be done to reverse climate change. As a society, we don’t pay attention to the small objects that surround our day. Most of us buy things and dispose of them almost without thought. It isn’t just carelessness; we are compelled by advertising and planned obsolesce to consume and dispose without imagining where the object came from or where it will go when we are done with it. We were raised to demonstrate our own value through the value of the objects that surround us, and that means regularly buying new things for ourselves and our loved ones to show we value ourselves and others.

If climate change is a result of our cultural values, then it follows that we can fight it by reevaluating those values, by championing the future over the present, the givers over the takers, and the collective over the individual. Inherent in object puppetry is a sense of cosmic equality: every object can become the protagonist in its own story. Once an audience accepts this, they can begin to undermine the prevalent assumption that humans are the inalienable protagonists in the story of planet Earth.

Glass Half Full Theatre’s productions often point out that humanity (more specifically, dominant Western culture) hasn’t been the best steward of the planet, and that humankind’s current pattern of behavior does not indicate that we’re well suited to saving the planet. Many of our company’s futurist narratives include the demise of humanity and the survival of a resilient Earth. Our intent is not to be pessimistic. Rather, we provoke audiences to defend humanity’s place on Earth through a reevaluation of lifestyle.

Another of our shows, The Global Arena, features WWF-style wrestlers representing climate change solutions (“Carbon Capture,” “Alternative Energy,” “Rubber Man”) fighting against “Mz. (mass) Extinction” to save the planet. It’s exhilarating to participate in a live theatre experience where the audience is yelling and screaming in support of lifestyle change, propping up the potential solutions against the seduction and ease that is represented by Mz. Extinction. Audiences leave the experience pumped up, looking for action and accountability, rather than depressed by the statistics that occasionally make even the staunchest environmentalist want to curl into a ball and sob.

We want people to feel energized, to be reminded of what we are fighting for. We don’t want audiences to feel judged or that we are somehow holier-than-they for caring about these things. To that end, we are trying to set impossible goals with the likelihood that we will fail miserably and publicly. We plan to produce a show this season with a zero-dollar materials budget. It will mean more time, more labor, more creating, but we’d rather put every cent we can into the hands of the creators and performers, and openly show how much harder it is to avoid buying new. When we fail, because we break down and buy batteries, or gaffe tape, or lighting gels, we’ll share our failures audaciously on social media and as part of the show.

Climate change is such a monumental problem that it can feel like we’ve all already failed, and nothing can be done. So let’s be open about striving hard and failing big. Our cultural narrative is full of characters we love and admire who achieve glory in striving for the impossible. It’s Don Quixote tilting at giants, Luke confronting Darth, David fighting Goliath. It’s time to get comfortable with the likelihood of failure, and practicing terrifying realities onstage is the dominion of the theatre artist.

One There Were Six Seasons featuring Connor Hopkins, Katy Taylor, Rommel Sulit, and Noel Gaulin. Photo by Gricelda Silva.

Cup will be making a return, this time to a virtual reality video experience Glass Half Full Theatre is creating, which will be available on the internet or as a live installation in 2020 in Austin. It’s called Trash Trial/Trash Trail. The year is 2050, and zero-waste practice is strictly enforced. Random audits are performed in landfills using DNA analysis, and the user of any improperly discarded item is brought to justice. Audiences experience this 360-degree movie from the point of view of the defendant on trial. Every disposable cup they’ve ever used, and every hairbrush they’ve tossed out, becomes both evidence and witness in a case against them. Babies fill the jury box and preschoolers are the judge and prosecutor. Our audiences took the planet away from these young people, and now the audience has to pay. Luckily, trash mutant Polly Mermaid is the lawyer, and she’ll be able to get their sentence reduced if they participate in a live event called Trash Trail, a trash hunt where convict-participants collect trash from the park.

The point of the hunt is to expose participants to new ways to view trash. They can collect items and find a new use for them with the help of artists, who will be on hand, to envision that future. Or, they can dispose of it and learn, through our team of experts, how to be more detailed in their sorting. We hope that Trash Trial/ Trash Trail can be replicated in other localities by interested artists to reinforce the “think global/act local” practice that is so important in environmental justice.

In a spirit of joy, hope, and accessibility, Glass Half Full Theatre moves forward into the widening jaws of climate crisis with the recognition that while not all individuals are responsible for this crisis, we must all be responsible for its resolution if we want to stay in it at all. We are always looking for new ideas to make the solutions more palatable, possible, and potent, and we welcome outreach from other groups and individuals in pursuit of this goal.

(Top image: Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow! featuring Indigo Rael.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on October 3, 2019.

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Caroline Reck is the Producing Artistic Director of Glass Half Full Theatre, an Austin, Texas based theatre that creates new works of theatre using the precise physical language of both humans and puppets to confront global issues of social and environmental justice. Caroline is a graduate of Ecole Jacques Lecoq (France) and teaches Physical Theatre at St. Edwards University in Austin. She curates The Austin Puppet Incident and has performed with Trouble Puppet, The Rude Mechanicals, and Ballet Austin.

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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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Apollo Meets the Climate Youth Movement on Indigenous Ground

“Looking back at my home from space, I heard voices: the soft whisper of stories and songs from across time and space, rising up from the surface of the Earth, like rain falling upwards into the sky.”

Devi from The HomePlanet

Secretly, I had been dreaming of writing a play about space exploration for over twenty years – ever since I encountered Kevin Kelly’s 1991 book The Home Planet, published by the Association of Space Explorers. The photography taken from space, which is set beside personal reflections about space travel from astronauts around the world, is mind-blowing. I wanted those photos on stage, and huge. I wanted the astronauts’ compelling words to be heard.

Earlier this year, in the lead-up to the anniversary of Apollo 11 and all the media attention that came with it, I longed for more views that contemplated the larger picture Kelly’s book suggests: With all the beauty and wonder, why we are not doing more to safeguard the planet, which scientists tell us is both unique and rare? I decided to write the play I had long wanted in order to explore the tension between the forces of competition and aggression that gave rise to space exploration in the first place, and the sense of love and commitment to home, family, and place inspired by the photography that came back. In other words, as the character of twelve-year-old Millie in the play demands, “If we can go to the moon, and now to Mars, why can’t we fix climate change?” I stole Kelly’s title, The HomePlanet, but deleted the space to use visual language to underscore that our home and planet are indivisible.

What interested me was how the Apollo 11 anniversary and those gorgeous photos could call attention to the climate crisis and give voice to the youth activism that regularly saturates my climate theatre class. I live in Eugene, Oregon, where the first lawsuit by twenty-one youth plaintiffs – Juliana v United States (also known as Youth v Gov) – was filed in Federal court in 2015. The case is making its way to the US Supreme Court as I write, and the Youth Climate Movement has exploded. Young people around the world are challenging the systems that have treated our planet as a stockpile of resources for wealth extraction rather than as a home. I wanted my play to also show how tending to our relationships with family and place is also a form of activism.

As a settler-descendent artist who regularly collaborates with regional Native tribal communities on plays that deal with issues like water rights, it was important that the play include Indigenous voices and perspectives. As a white Euro-American artist committed to allyship, I was also determined that the play include a diverse and international cast of characters.

The HomePlanet is the story a Native family of three generations of women: a mother, who is a US astronaut, who must decide if she can commit to being part of Apollo’s Moon to Mars mission; her daughter, a climate activist; and a grandmother, who navigates the conflict between them by reminding them both of the story of Sky Woman, the Indigenous creation story the grandmother had learned from her elders. The play moves back and forth between home place, outer space, and the astronaut training facility in Houston, Texas. The words of international astronauts are woven throughout, providing a vast spatial and historical/temporal landscape. But, ultimately, it’s a play about coming home, about our collective responsibility, and the concerns of young people whose futures are at risk.

Astronauts Gus and Mira dress Devi in preparation for her trip to Mars.  The HomePlanet by Theresa May at University of Oregon.

During the play’s development, I worked with two groups of students over six months, workshopping ideas and generating significant parts of the play through improvisation and creative processes (Viewpoints, Laban, Element Work). Students also did research on the Apollo missions, focusing in on the environmental and social issues that concerned them the most, and they responded to writing prompts and wrote songs, poems, and stories. They interviewed family members, exploring their own histories to feel the stories they carry in their bodies, and considered where they came from, who they are, and where they are going. Students read the plaintiffs’ manifestos and biographies from the Youth v Gov lawsuit – which alleges that, through its actions, the government has violated youth’s constitutional rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – created composite characters based on the plaintiffs, and wrote their own stump speeches. These became part of the play, and composed a full-on climate protest scene that moved into the audience at the end of act one.

I turned to an Elder in my community, Marta Lu Clifford (Grand Ronde), with whom I have collaborated for several years, to help us explore the possibilities for an Indigenous viewpoint in the story. She shared her counsel and perspective on the topics of home, climate, stories, and space. We dove into the many varied tellings of the story of Sky Woman: a creation story told throughout the Great Lakes region and shared in print by many Indigenous authors, including Thomas King and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Marta felt that the story of Sky Woman had a place in the play.

Apollo 11 was preceded by Apollo 8, which looped around the moon in December 1968. Astronauts on that mission read from the book of Genesis and ethnocentrically wished the world a Merry Christmas. We wanted to link this back to Sky Woman, so decided to flip it by asking: “What are other creation stories, what would others read?” Because of the students’ conversations with their parents, grandparents, and elders, our play included narratives from across the globe, such as the Chinese creation story Pangu and the Norse creation story of Yamir and Odin. We used movement-based devising to explore their sometimes-fantastical imagery, and we talked about the different values each story imparts.

“A moon of my own” from The HomePlanet by Theresa May at University of Oregon.

Sky Woman teaches that humans make and remake the world in partnership with the animals, the water, the wind, and the sun. In Kimmerer’s retelling, she invites us to consider the Native concept of “seven generations”: from our present-moment vantage point, we must look back three generations and account for what we have done, and look forward three generations and imagine the impact of our choices going forward. In contrast to the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, the story of Sky Woman reminds us all that we are responsible for maintaining right relations with the planet that sustains all lifeways. The story of Sky Woman, and Marta’s participation, gave us a central spine on which to hang the many heritage stories, the astronauts’ reflections, the youth climate movement protests, and the international concerns over water, resources, and environmental justice.

Developing the play with students and guest artists over six months enriched my writing process in ways I had not anticipated. While not technically a “devised” play in the sense of complete collaborative decision-making, the process resulted in major portions of the play being drawn from students’ creative work. Many of these students continued into the rehearsal and production of the play in spring 2019 and felt a sense of ownership and accomplishment, as well as involvement in the subject matter that would not have been possible without a collaborative process.

The result was The HomePlanet, a story-weaving that served as a meditation on the meaning of the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, but also on the power of stories to shape our relationship with one another and our home. The journey of the three generations of women is literally brought home in one of the final scenes when Blue, the mother and a Native astronaut, returns to find her daughter asleep on the couch having a nightmare. “I thought you were going to Mars, I thought you were never coming home,” Millie sobs. “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to move to another planet. I like this planet!” Blue holds and rocks her, saying, “I do too. We’re not, we’re not moving. People aren’t moving to Mars. It’s just science right now.” Then, she says: “Even if I go, I’m always coming home. What is it you always say, ‘There’s no planet B’? Well, there’s no planet B, and there’s no plan B. We’re here to stay. We live here. This is our home.”

These lines have a dual effect, asserting not only a human commitment to Earth, home, and family, but also an Indigenous assertion that this is still Native land and that “we’re still here.” After telling Blue about the Sky Woman story she learned from her nana, Millie asks, “But are you going back to space?” It is the thing Blue has worked all her life to attain. She tells her daughter the truth. “Yes, probably. But I’ll always come home. I’ll always come back for you.” Similarly, in the face of climate change, there are no easy answers. But when we know what is at the center – home, family, kinship with the land – those choices can be made with awareness.

(Top image: The Story of Sky Woman. The HomePlanet by Theresa May at University of Oregon.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on October 2, 2019.

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Theresa May is a director/devisor and ecodramaturg concerned with how the stories we tell shape the environment we share, and faculty at the University of Oregon where she teaches courses in Native  theatre, Latinx theatre, Eco-theatre/Theatre of Climate Change, and Site-Specific Theatre/Embodiment. She is Artistic Director of Earth Matters on Stage (EMOS) Festival. Currently she collaborates with Native tribal communities around traditional ecological knowledge and climate change in the Pacific Northwest. Her community-based play, Salmon Is Everything,  developed in collaboration with tribal communities on the Klamath River in response to the 2001 drought and salmon crisis, was published in 2014 (2019 second edtion) by OSU Press. 

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

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Fire & Ice

By Daniel Ranalli

Growing up along Long Island Sound in Connecticut, I developed a close relationship with the seacoast early in life. By the 1980s, I reconnected with my love for the ocean and managed to spend long stretches of time on the Outer Cape in Massachusetts. Fortunately, the Cape Cod National Seashore has preserved much of that coast and prevented considerable oceanfront development. Until that point, my work as an artist had largely focused on abstraction using photography to make large cameraless (photograms) images. As I began to walk the tidal plain along the bayside in the towns of Wellfleet and Truro, I started to think more deeply about the ecology and natural history of the region – and my relationship to it. I made temporal works in the tidal plain using seaweed and stones and shells that would be erased by the next cycle of tides. I combined photo documentation of these sites with my own texts, building a kind of personal natural history. 

Most importantly, I began to pay attention – to look closely on those daily walks – at the shape of the beach, the erosion on the dunes, and everything that I stepped over and on. In 1995, I began a long series, that continues to this day, using snails (Atlantic periwinkles) to make drawings in the wet sand as the tide receded. I would arrange the snails in geometric patterns and wait as their movement carved drawings on the sand, presenting a pair of images of their start and the subsequent results of their travels.

In addition, for long stretches over the past ten years, I have walked each morning to make a photograph from exactly the same spot, overlooking the bay, at 7:00 am. This past summer, I did this for 115 consecutive mornings. It has sharpened my awareness of the infinite variety of combinations of bay and sky that present themselves. It also serves as a kind of secular prayer or meditation to begin each day. 

The Fire & Ice Series, which I have been working on for several years, incorporates NASA satellite images of major wildfires, glaciers and glacial calving, hurricanes, and floods. For many years, I have been fascinated by satellite images of both astronomical phenomena and our own planet. There is an extraordinary formal beauty to these photographs, but also a powerful inherent tension between that beauty and the reality of the catastrophic or life-threatening weather, fire, or geological events they depict. There is also something about viewing our earth from that perspective that reminds us of our delicate beauty. The 1972 “Blue Marble” image of the Earth from Apollo 17 has sharpened our understanding of how fragile our planet is.

I am now, in my studio practice, deeply motivated by the current global catastrophes of climate change and rising sea level, and the failure to take serious remedial action. Every year, we set new records for heat waves, observe more powerful storms, struggle with massive floods, and watch as thousands of square miles of the planet are scorched by wildfires. As an artist, I feel compelled to respond in some way that is both personal and meaningful. We have all become inured to the continuous stream of images of floods, fires, tornados, hurricane destruction, and famine. With this series, I am hoping to make connections on another level of consciousness. Can art that seeks to generate insight on such a subtle level make a difference? I don’t know the answer to that.

Each piece is the result of pairing two or more high resolution satellite images of fire, ice and/or hurricanes, and then adding a third element utilizing my own photographs. In these works, smoke can become clouds, clouds morph into massive storms, and glaciers become abstractions of dark and light. I hope to reference geological history in some way. There are photographs from my Beach Deaths series – made over many years along the Massachusetts coast – of the remains of birds, fish, and cetaceans that had come to rest on the beach. In Fire/Water/Nests, I also reference birds and their nests, riffing on the formal similarity with hurricanes. Birds, being the direct descendants of dinosaurs (having spanned over 150 million years), are a way of linking the imagery to both species longevity and species extinction. We have also learned that bird populations in North America have dropped by as much as three billion over the past half century.

In Russian Fire/Icelandic Glacier + Big Bang-Yin Yang, I draw from my Found Chalkboardsseries, photographed in empty classrooms when I was teaching at a nearby university. The chalkboards are slightly altered and occasionally combined digitally with hand drawn elements. 

In a number of other pieces, I have included the molted shells, tails, and carapaces of horseshoe crabs. For years, I have collected the shells along the shore. I am fascinated by their beauty, and using them in this series, I am referencing their 450 million years of unchanged existence. I don’t see our species as managing such a longevity record. In Cape Cod bay, where high tides now swamp their egg laying areas, these oddly beautiful animals are losing habitat and falling in numbers. In a few pieces in this series, I have also used physical objects such as fragments of whale bone, an animal we once hunted and now hope to save from extinction. 

Pinned to the wall in front of me as I write this is the Robert Frost poem Fire & Ice:  “Some say the world will end in fire,/ Some say in ice.” It plays often in my subconscious as I worked the ideas through.

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Daniel Ranalli’s work is in the permanent collections of over thirty museums including the Museum of Modern Art (NY), Museum of Fine Arts Boston, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and National Gallery of American Art (Smithsonian). He has had over 150 solo and group shows in the U.S. and abroad, and has been the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and multiple fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Situated within the medium of photography, Ranalli’s work can often be characterized as conceptual and/or environmental, and is frequently rooted in the balance between control and chance. Daniel lives in Cambridge and Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

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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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Ecotopian Art amidst Climate Crisis: An Interview with Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Nikki Lindt

By Jena Pincott

An Ecotopian Lexicon is a book that introduces readers to 30 environmental loanwords “that should exist in English, but don’t.” These terms, intended to “help us imagine how to adapt and even flourish in the face of the socio-ecological adversity that characterizes the present moment and the future that awaits,” come from speculative fiction, activist subcultures, and other languages. The book contains artwork created in response to these loanwords, by fourteen artists from eleven countries. I spoke to co-editor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and painter Nikki Lindt about the book, and the role of language and art in this time of climate crisis.

We live in an age of anxiety. Matthew, in the introduction you and Brent Ryan Bellamy write, “As the scale and fallout of climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction and other processes become increasingly undeniable and unavoidable, we will need to change our cognitive maps of the world.” How can language – including and especially the words introduced in this lexicon – help ease some of our anxiety?

Matthew: Novel terms and concepts can help us acknowledge, understand, and respond to the changes that are happening around us. But I don’t know if they can – or should – ease people’s eco-anxieties. Most of these anxieties are generated by deep-seated structural problems – extractivism, capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, etc. We need to channel those anxieties into action. We hope that this book might help people find or develop the vocabulary to describe what’s happening and to move towards collective action to address these structural problems.

There’s another passage from the introduction that struck me: “‘Another world is possible’” is a worthy maxim, but without elaboration, it’s shrouded in mist.” We need to move from “knowing” another world is possible to “imagining” that world and how to create it; a shift from passive to active mode.  How can art help us make the leap?

Matthew: Art can help us see the world anew, which is what we need to be doing right now. It can also develop or crystallize feelings or desires. And art can remain with us for a long period of time – a lifetime, even. I remember seeing Nikki’s painting “Solastalgia” for the first time, and was deeply moved by the figure bowing down in a green field, her arms seemingly rooted to the ground. “World-opening” is the phrase that comes to mind. Art has that potential.

Nikki: I agree, art does have that potential and it can be very useful as the existential threat of the climate crisis is so overwhelming and scary. It is tempting to look away rather than face this reality. Many artists are good at getting at and digesting these kinds of uncomfortable nooks between human emotion and larger issues. It is really going to be the collective force of these kinds of projects that will help propel our thinking forward.

Some people see a connection between the loss of biological diversity and the loss of linguistic and cultural diversity. In nature, more species = greater resilience. In culture, the same seems to apply: We need every tool in our conceptual toolkit to cope with change and adversity. Fortunately, we have An Ecotopian Lexicon!  Ideally, how might some of the loanwords in the book start to propagate in Western culture?

Matthew: Some of the terms already have, such as “solastalgia,” which was coined by ecopsychologist Glenn Albrecht in the early 2000s and is now being used widely. We hope that these terms stimulate critical thought, creativity, and action, and of course it would be fun if some of them went on to become widely used. Language can be a playful way for people to think and talk about climate change and culture change. Ultimately the terms and ideas that resonate with people are the ones that will take root.

Sehnsucht, in the Midst by Nikki Lindt 

Nikki’s painting was inspired by the word “sehnsucht,” meaning (loosely) the experience of pining for something lost mixed with a hopeful anticipation of something better; somewhere between dystopia and utopia.  (The text by Andrew Hageman beautifully describes it, “like vision human beings get at dusk when the photoreceptors of their retinas toggle uncertainly. We may feel as if we can’t see what we expect to see clearly, yet new colors and contours come into view.”) You portray a figure at that “pivot point” between the void and the great green yonder. She seems to be blending with the void but her head is in the clear, and she appears to be looking up and outward. Is this you? Can you tell us what she’s feeling?  

Nikki: Yes, it is me! After I made the piece I realized the same as you; in the painting my head is in the clear while the rest of me is being pulled to the darkness. There is simultaneously a sense of balance between the two opposing forces but also definitely a struggle. 

Working on An Ecotopian Lexicon and collaborating with Matthew led to a change in my thinking, which in turn led to this piece. When I first joined this project I assumed my imagery would accompany “solastalgia,” a term (also in this book) that had been the subject of my work for years. Solastalgia describes the feeling of loss caused directly by environmental change. 

As I was reviewing the words that would be included in this book, I realized that many terms were completely up-ending my thinking and presenting me with a much wider and more nuanced view of the climate crisis, and I felt more hopeful.

I ultimately chose the term “sehnsucht,” because it mixed anticipation and hope with a deep sense of loss. The word itself transported me forward; for the first time it hit me that I could dare to tie hope to my view of the future of climate change. At that moment, I realized how valuable a tool the Ecotopian Lexicon really is. 

Can you tell us of an occasion in your fieldwork or research when you’ve felt sehnsucht?

Nikki: I have been traveling annually to northern Alaska to document the dramatically changing landscape due to thawing permafrost. The landscape is amazing, so vast and completely untamed. At the same time, in this very remote spot, the fingerprints of climate change are so extreme they take on a surreal quality. Last spring, I was returning to a site with a very large Thermokarst Failure (a sinkhole of the north) caused by melting ice and thawing permafrost. The site had already been monstrously large the year prior but had since doubled in size. Adult trees were dangling upside down into the craterlike hole and some of the fallen trees I had seen the year prior were now buried under hills of collapsing dirt. A large cavern directly in the permafrost had also been created by the thawing. I spent a long time standing in that cavern. I could see but also smell and hear the thawing of the layers of permafrost. The way wet permafrost shone in the light looked like slowly smelting metal. All of my senses were keenly aware of the horror I was witnessing but also its transcendent beauty. Around me, I heard bird songs; there was an undeniable insistence in the lush growth surrounding me. I was transfixed by the duality of such a deep sense of loss coupled with such a strong force of life – sehnsucht. 

What do you see as the upside to this feeling?

Nikki: I associate this feeling with the creative process. Contradictory feelings are especially interesting as they make you think about and continue to process a situation long after you have experienced it. 

Ideally, what do you hope a viewer might take away from your work, Sehnsucht, In the Midst?

Nikki: I would like a takeaway to be that it is okay to have conflicting feelings about a changing world. And since the changes are so extreme and fast, the feelings that go along can be very intense. But the opposing creative forces of life are also very intense. We will need to get more comfortable with these feelings in order to confront our situation in a proactive (productive) way. 

Dàtóng by Rirkrit Tiravanija 

The term “sehnsucht” is a great upgrade from, say, a clunky phrase like “melancholic optimism.” Because words shape our values and perceptions, some environmentalists have argued for replacing terms like “reserve” or “National Park” with language that is more inspirational or in keeping with environmental values (e.g. “National Sanctuary”). Is there a common environmental term (e.g. environmentalist, eco-activist, climate change) you’d like to replace with another from the lexicon or elsewhere?  

Matthew: Too many to list! I’ll say that I found Karen O’Brien and Ann Kristin Schorre’s entry on “ildsjel,” a Norwegian word that translates as “fire soul,” to be especially compelling. The terms that we use for activism and politics are so clinical – “activist,” “political actor,” even “change-maker.” If we want to tell a story of engagement, mobilization, and transition that is as inspiring and gratifying as any love story – that is its own kind of love story – we need more poetry. I like the idea of describing the people that make things happen as “ildsjel,” whose burning energy can spread and ignite a social and political conflagration. Change is nonlinear, and it’s helpful to have a word that acknowledges that fact.

Nikki: I found the entry on “apocalypso” in place of apocalypse to be very strong. I love the idea of replacing a word that relays a cataclysmic scenario leading to despair with “apocalypso,” a word which references the joys that working together in the face of a trying situation can bring.  

I also recently discovered the German word umwelt,” which describes the individual experience of the world from one human or animals’ point of view. Though I would want to expand the meaning to include all living things such as plants and trees. Our collective umwelt is really the puzzle of how we co-exist: A grand interlinked network of our shared experience with all living things on this planet.

The linguist has a role in tackling climate change and so does the artist. Nikki, what do you see as the role of the artist? What have you observed in your field?

Nikki: Art takes so many forms that it is hard to generalize, but I would say that artists can bind ideas and emotion together in order to engage people. Also, art is not tied to rules or conventions. There is a tremendous amount of freedom that is useful for reaching towards an unseen future.

The immensity of the problem paralyzes many of us or even makes us apathetic. How should we all keep ourselves awake and active?

Nikki: This problem really can feel paralyzing and this is a completely normal feeling to have. I would say it is important to find our own way of being part of a positive push forward. There are endless ways to get involved and we may even be surprised by how much better we feel once we do.

Matthew: The interconnected socio-environmental crises we face can be overwhelming, for sure. But there’s also a sense of possibility and opportunity, if we’re open to it. There’s literally an ongoing struggle for the future of the planet and humanity, and we have the opportunity to write and be part of a new script, to join with hundreds of millions of people around the world to do all we can to maintain a livable planet and create a better and more just future. It might not have been the life people expected, but there can be a deep sense of purpose, connection, and joy in choosing to be part of this movement in whatever way we can.

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Jena Pincott is a science writer with a background in biology, and the author of eight books, including Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: The Surprising Science of Pregnancyand Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes: The Science of Love, Sex & Attraction. She writes about science and psychology topics that fly under the radar, from microbes in breast milk to the mysteries of working memory; from the biology of attraction, in humans and other species, to the psychology of the inner critic; from cutting-edge developments in medical technology to the scientist-activists who are transforming women’s health and medicine. 

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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 Amy Howden-Chapman & Abby Cunnane

By Amy Brady

Meet Amy Howden-Chapman and Abby Cunnane, two artists who founded and edit The Distance Plan, a journal that includes art, essays, and experimental writing on climate change. The journal is an offshoot of The Distance Plan organization, a collective of artists and writers who produce exhibitions and participate in public forums on climate. In the Q&A below, we discuss what inspired them to launch the journal and what they hope readers will take away from it. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

The Distance Plan journal is published by the Distance Plan organization, which is a collective of artists, writers, and activists. Can you describe your organization’s mission and the type of work you create and promote?

We founded The Distance Plan in 2011 because we felt that discussion about climate change wasn’t happening in humanities contexts that we knew. While there were people working on the issue in various fields, especially in the sciences, we wanted to bring them together with artists, activists, and writers, and to provide a platform that would present these interdisciplinary conversations to a broader audience. Today a lot of people understand that the response to the climate crisis will require a mobilization in the arts; we need to represent the problems of the past and present and imagine a better future, and telling stories that reflect the diversity of our experience is important in these regards. But back then, knowledge about climate change was relatively siloed within a few academic spheres, and the way this knowledge was communicated to the public involved equally remote images and narratives. All those photographs of polar bears and melting arctic ice!

The Distant Plan journal, issue #5: “Charismatic Facts”

The journal contains gorgeous poetry and prose about climate change. What do you hope readers take away from each issue?

Our most recent issue, “Charismatic Facts: Climate Change, Poetry and Prose,” focuses on the ways language can be used to circulate powerful pieces of information about the climate crisis (one example, borrowed from David Wallace-Wells, is the fact that humans have emitted more carbon in the last thirty years – since the premiere of Seinfeld – than in all prior history). For other issues, we’ve invited artists and scientists to produce images of local climate impacts: things happening within their various communities. The idea is that this may inspire others to attend to the more immediate effects of climate change while also acknowledging the global scale of the problem. The hope is that readers will take away an anecdote, image, or feeling – something that relates to their own sphere of life and work and enables them to imagine possibilities for climate action within their own practices and political endeavors. We want people to get involved. 

The “Lexicon” is a project you are exploring both in print and in your exhibitions. What is the “Lexicon” and how did it come about?

The Distance Plan “Lexicon” is a collaborative glossary of terms (each accompanied by an image) that describe aspects of the climate crisis, providing language through which we can address problems or giving names to under-represented categories of experience. One example is “Gendered Climate Impacts,” a Lexicon term that refers to the way global warming affects women and non-binary folk differently from others, often with disproportionately negative outcomes. Another term is “Real-Time Attribution,” which is a relatively recent phenomenon within climate science wherein extreme weather events are now being linked to anthropogenic warming, even as they are happening.  

Why are narrative and artistic responses to climate change important?

Climate change is a cultural problem as much as it is an economic, scientific, and political one. We need to radically transform our societies and social ideals (at least our contemporary capitalist ones) in order to meet this challenge. Historically, art – and especially storytelling – has played an important role in mobilizing social movements, critiquing wrongdoing, and envisioning positive change. But because the climate crisis is transcultural, the visual arts and other non-verbal forms are increasingly valuable as we seek to activate a global response. It’s wonderful to see Extinction Rebellion using creative modes of performance and a strong graphic-design identity to speak to people around the world.  

Large presses have given us several novels and poetry collections about climate change in the last couple of years. But what kind of freedoms does an independent zine allow you? Do you feel that there are ways in which you can discuss climate change in the journal that you may not be able to elsewhere?

Well, to begin with, we’re not subject to the constraints of a for-profit publishing model. But our independence also means that we can be more nimble and mobile when it comes to what we do and the audiences we engage. The Distance Plan is run between Aotearoa New Zealand (where Abby Cunnane is based) and New York City (where Amy Howden-Chapman now lives). The project has represented the work of contributors from all over the world and we value the ability to turn our attention in each issue to different places and concerns. 

What’s next for you both?

We just participated in the Our Futures Festival, which was associated with the UN’s Climate Week, and also hosted a discussion with Janine Randerson, a climate artist and writer, and Albert Refiti, an architect and researcher who studies Pacific spatial and architectural environment. Stay tuned for updates about more Distance Plan events in New York. And we’re working on the next print issue. Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed about everything and to receive our next call for submissions. 

How can my readers get copies of the journal?

Within the US and Europe the journal is available for purchase directly through our website. If you’re in New York City, you can find the latest issue at Printed Matter. There are a number of bookstores in New Zealand that stock our issue and they are listed at TheDistancePlan.org.

(Top image: The “Lexicon” on view at an art festival on Governor’s Island.)

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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