Artists and Climate Change

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The Birth of a Climate Commons for Theatre and Performance

by Lanxing Fu

On a weekend in June, I sat in a blackbox theatre for three days with a group of mostly strangers.

We talked. We ate. We laughed. We challenged. We listened.

I heard the same refrain over and over again those three days. Wow, I’m so happy to be with others for once. It’s nice to be… un-lonely.

The Theatre in the Age of Climate Change Convening, hosted in Boston on 8-10 June 2018 gathered people together around a common purpose: to galvanize the community around making theatre and live performance in the age of climate change, to dissect and challenge the present ideas in this emerging field, and to distill all this talk into concrete, positive actions. Our earnest surprise at feeling seen and the joy of solidarity in people who felt they had spent years, decades, their entire lives talking into a void about the intersection of performance and climate are testament to how needed this convening was.

After we took some time to understand the landscape of this intersection of climate and performance, we broke off into groups to develop ideas for action. There were hard questions to ask and attempt to answer. Whose voices were not represented in the room that needed to be there? How can we use our collective power, and the many twisting, interconnected arms of this work to nourish our communities and our non-human brethren? What kinds of shifts in thought do we need to undertake ourselves as we work to shift larger consciousness? How can our collective action outrun the changing atmosphere? It was rich. It was inspiring as hell. The breadth of skills and knowledge expanded my mind like crazy. The voices in the room were beautifully articulate at calling in others who were not. It was far from smooth and sometimes contentious. We all fought the urge to perform when the microphone was in our hand and the cameras were on our faces. Some got lost in the language. Others struggled to be heard. We were as human as can be, as human as any group of humans trying to do something together— the weight of our own egos held in taut balance with strong, strong passion for our collective goal.

The weekend had started off with a cold splash of water to the face. We learned in our opening conversation that The Guardian’s Carbon Countdown Clock gives us just over eighteen years until we exceed the IPCC’s 2C carbon budget, if our emissions stay as they are now. Eighteen years to figure this mess out. Eighteen years to put systems in place to take care of people as the effects of climate change get worse and worse, to shift radically the way we relate to each other, our economy, and the land. In the same span of time as it takes the average American kid to journey from infanthood to adulthood, we need to “fucking save the planet.”

Lanxing Fu and other convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

From this urgency, this joy of togetherness, this friction of brains and bodies meeting, grew an idea like a sprig of bamboo racing towards the sun. One working group, though I cannot separate this group from the work of the group at large, seeded the idea of a Climate Commons for Theatre and Performance. An expression of our desire for horizontal connectivity, the Climate Commons takes its shape from mycelia, the underground, branching, threadlike fungal colonies that can grow to the size of 1600 football fields. We imagine that this is a network of interconnected nodes of activity at the intersection of performance and ecology, sharing knowledge, strategies, resources like mycelia share sustenance, across vast distances and through all forms of terrain. These nodes could potentially consist of geographic clusters of people already present at the conference; Miami, Boston, New York City, New Orleans, DC, Los Angeles, Standing Rock, Amherst, São João del Rei, London, Abu Dhabi. And it should necessarily expand to include people and geographies not present in the conference, in the Global South, in rural communities, in the Arctic, in the East. You can visit the HowlRound Theatre in the Age of Climate Change Convening page for updates on our progress with Climate Commons, and to learn how to get involved as it grows.

Convening participants. Photo by Carolina Gonzalez.

One big statement of intent that came forward is that we want to foster the kinds of imaginations that are needed in the future. We want to specifically examine what live performance can bring to the table in service of that pursuit. How do we tackle such a huge endeavor? Step one, understand what we have to work with. Because we were together for a short, intensive period of time, we left Boston having only scratched the surface of the wealth of knowledge and experience in the room. A few members of this group are leading an interview series, in which we who attended the convening interview each other, to dive deeper into the work we do in our home communities in order to gain a holistic understanding of where we are beginning. We want to uplift each other by tapping into and amplifying the abundance of energy, artistry, resilience, and skill that has been driving these kinds of revolutions for centuries.

Without knowing exactly where we are going, or what our ultimate goal is, we are moving forward with the knowledge that we want to keep connecting. We want to keep connecting because it’s easy to not. It’s easy to silo ourselves off into the narrowness of day-to-day life and keep putting on the lenses that already fit. Because the challenge of a global crisis demands that we be more expansive than we are individually built to be, we hope to establish a body that acts as a broker across distances and differences, bringing people together around the shared goal of using performance to change the story around climate and build a more equitable world.

(Top image: Convening participants having a small group discussion. Photo by Blair Nodelman.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 18, 2018.

For more on the convening, read MJ Halberstadt’s Art on a Damaged Planet: The Theatre in the Age of Climate Change Convening.

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Lanxing Fu is a Chinese-American writer, director, and performer. She is the co-director of Superhero Clubhouse, for which she is program director of The Living Stage NYC and a co-creator of Pluto (no longer a play) and Jupiter (a play about power). She has collaborated on and led interdisciplinary projects on globalization and the environment through research in Sri Lanka, Morocco, Turkey, and the United States through The Center for 21st Century Studies, as previous associate director of Critical Point Theatre, and as an ensemble member of Building Home, working in the New River Valley. She participated in JACK’s “Creating Dangerously” series, led by Virginia Grise and Kyla Searle, has trained with SITI Company for two years, and is an alumnus of Orchard Project’s Core Company. She holds a B.A. in Humanities, Science, and Environment and a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Virginia Tech.

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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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What Gives You Hope?

The least we can say is that 2018 has been challenging – politically, socially, environmentally. At times, many times, it seemed like for every step forward, we took two steps back. Not only did the political pendulum swing dangerously towards authoritarianism this year, but basic civil rights were taken away, and our sense of safety was severely challenged by an onslaught of natural disasters.

The publication of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October, which warned that we have less than fifteen years to lower our carbon emissions and keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, also contributed to this unease. Our window of opportunity for preventing the worst is closing fast and the actions being taken by those in power are still dreadfully inadequate.

But still, life goes on and we have to find ways to push ahead despite the challenges; in fact, we have no choice but to embrace the challenges. So, to mark the end of the year and the metaphorical turning of the page, the Core Team of Artists & Climate Change asked a few people what gives them hope. What makes them get out of bed in the morning? How do they stay positive in the face of so much uncertainty? We invite you to answer the question too, by leaving a comment below. We all need these beacons of light as we embark on a new year and get ready for what lies ahead.

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Eve Mosher

Susan Hoffman Fishman: Eve Mosher is an environmental artist living and working in New York City. Her large-scale interactive, public art projects address cultural and social issues of the urban ecosystem. One of Mosher’s most well-known work is High Water Line | NYC, which she first created in 2007 and has since adapted for the cities of Miami, Philadelphia, Delray Beach and Bristol, England. The project uses art to visualize how climate change will specifically impact individual communities. I chose Eve because I am particularly drawn to the way in which she develops inventive and effective ways of engaging the public in her work.

Eve: I have been closely watching the school strikes on behalf of climate change solutions, which were started by Greta Thurnberg in Sweden and then taken up by students in the UK, Australia and Germany. (and on Friday, December 7th, by young people in New York City). These young voices rising up around the world are speaking their own generation’s truth.

We have solutions, we have the knowledge for combatting climate change, which are available from indigenous people, scientists, individuals working in and with the land and water, etc. but world leaders lack the will (right now) to make these changes. It will take a shift in culture to move more people to action around climate solutions. And the culture shift is already being tackled by many active and passionate cultural producers around the world. Artists, musicians, performers, designers and others are showing us all what is possible.

With a rising up of voices and a shifting of culture around climate solutions, we can make a new world. I read plenty of articles around climate disasters, I am not blind to that, but imagining a world in which the solutions are realized, where there is more justice, better infrastructure and radical ideas that are reshaping our environment – that is what gives me hope.

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Modesto Flako Jimenez

Chantal Bilodeau: Modesto Flako Jimenez is a Dominican-born, Bushwick-raised theatermaker, producer, and educator. He is best known for original productions and three signature festivals – Ghetto Hors D’Oeuvres, One Catches Light, and Oye! Avant Garde Night! – produced with his company Oye Group. In 2018, Flako became the first Dominican-American Lead Artist in The Public Theater Under The Radar Festival with his show Oye For My Dear Brooklyn. He was also a guest speaker at the 2018 Artists & Climate Change Incubator, has worked extensively with Superhero Clubhouse, and is someone I love to turn to for some good, down-to-earth insights.

Flako: To be honest, what gives us hope in terms of climate change at the Oye Group is the younger generations of kids working hard to learn more about our environment and ways to protect it.  When we were kids, we weren’t spending nearly enough time in school learning about how to recycle, compost, or use materials in an eco-friendly way. Now, through our involvement with New York Public Schools, we  are seeing that kids are striving more and more to use things in an environmentally friendly way. It’s inspiring me to make more steps in my life and my art to be more green and hopefully inspire the generations older than us to do the same.  

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Blake Sugarman

Julia Levine: Blake Sugarman is a multidisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, NY. He finds expression as an actor, musician, poet, and activist but is best known for his unusual solo performances which have been described as “spoken word and installation art in a theatrical duet.” Earlier this year, I wrote about Blake’s latest solo piece, Prelude to the Apocalypse (For What It’s Worth). I wanted to circle back to Blake, in the context of his involvement with Sunrise Movement during this midterm election year.

Blake: The thing that gives me hope right now is the radical new leadership we’re seeing emerge in the fight for a Green New Deal. Young people from Sunrise Movement helped get Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez elected and now she’s walking the talk and sticking by our side. Together, Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise made waves last month after a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office and are forcing a more meaningful and urgent conversation around climate. The call for a “Green New Deal” seems to really resonate with people in a way that market-driven climate policies in the past have not. I think the “12 years” slogan (based on the latest IPCC report) could be a game-changer too as it shakes people from the delusion that this is something we can afford to put off. Democrats can no longer just say “climate change is real” and move on to something else – young people won’t let them. Sunrise came back to Capitol Hill in December with even greater numbers. I was able to attend this time and was very inspired. I urge you to tell your representative to “support the creation of a Select Committee for a Green New Deal” in the House. This could be a big moment!

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Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI)

LAGI, Land Art, Land Art Generator, Elizabeth Monoian, Robert Ferry

Joan Sullivan: In my previous post, I explained that “While renewable energy art is not yet mainstream, it is definitely headed in that direction, thanks in large part to the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), whose tagline Renewable Energy Can Be Beautiful speaks for itself.” Founded in 2009 by co-directors Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry, LAGI is a bold multi-faceted, multidisciplinary global collaborative platform to accelerate the energy transition by challenging creatives – artists, architects, designers, landscape architects, engineers and scientists – to design site-specific public art installations that generate carbon-neutral utility-scale clean electricity. It is called solutions-based art: part renewable power generators, part large-scale public art installations. More than any other organization, LAGI is helping us all to visualize – to imagine – what our post-carbon future will look like. And it promises to be beautiful.

Elizabeth & Robert: The thing that most keeps us grounded is the gravity of this time in human history – the great energy transition. The naysayers and denialists are still out there, but it’s easier to remind ourselves of how inevitable the transition is when we see how community groups, municipalities, and businesses have taken up the mantle. Global investors and reinsurers are issuing warnings louder than the climate scientists, pointing to a carbon bubble of soon-to-be stranded assets. The falling price of solar and other renewable energy technologies means not only that their implementation will continue to increase, but that their use can become more democratized as well. It opens up opportunities to use clean energy technology in creative and inclusive ways, and to engage the community in the design of the distributed energy systems and microgrids that power their neighborhoods.

While it may not be so easy to see the forest for the trees (especially when they are burning), we are already living in a new culture of stewardship. The 20th century ways of thinking about systems and infrastructure design through the lens of dominion over nature are falling away. As creatives living during this time, we have an opportunity to help design beautiful renewable energy landscapes that can stand for generations and serve as monuments to future generations, reminding them that, when we awoke to the crisis of anthropogenic climate change, we did our best to respond to the challenge.

What gives us hope are youth climate activists and innovators such as Georgia Hutchinson, age 13, who won the top prize of $25,000 at the Broadcom Masters nationwide STEM competition for middle-school students for her invention – a data-driven dual-axis solar tracker for solar modules that can locate the sun at any time by relying on geospatial information and publicly available databases. Her innovation may have just brought the price of solar down yet again, and we’re looking forward to seeing how her generation will bring forward the heyday of the great energy transition in ways that are equitable and beautiful. 

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Mike van Graan

Chantal Bilodeau: Mike van Graan is the President of the African Cultural Policy Network and an award-winning playwright. He is the 2018 recipient of the Sweden-based Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture Award in recognition of his contribution to the fight against apartheid, to building a post-apartheid society and to the interface of peace and culture both in South Africa and across the African continent. Mike is also one of the 50 playwrights writing for Climate Change Theatre Action 2019 and someone who lives in one of the regions most affected by climate change.

Mike: According to Greenpeace, Africa contributes relatively little to global warming and yet as a region, it does – and will increasingly – suffer the effects of climate change with 180 million Sub-Saharan Africans estimated to die by the turn of the century as the result of unpredictable rainfall patterns, lower crop yields, higher food prices and increasing desertification.

There is an urgent need for changes in
economic structures, political leadership and culture to arrest and reverse
climate change, and the greed, intransigence and selfishness reflected in
societies that currently enjoy globally hegemony tends us towards pessimism.

But my generation has lived through the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the demise of apartheid, the ridding of dictatorships in various Arab countries, not least through sustained active citizenry. History appears to happen in cycles and while we may be in a dark cycle now, through active citizens globally, the wheel WILL turn and, and history will smile on greater humanity.

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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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Imagining Water, #15: When Antarctica Comes to Town

Environmental artist Xavier Cortada is highly passionate about the reality of rising seas, the loss of biodiversity and how the inevitable floods to come will literally “drown” his hometown of Miami, Florida. In response to this urgent existential threat, Cortada has focused much of his recent work on climate change within his own community, including: (1) Underwater HOA, an inventive participatory project using 6000+ lawn signs happening this month in Pinecrest, Florida; (2) Global Coastlines, an exhibition of his Antarctic ice paintings currently taking place at Pinecrest Gardens, a 20-acre park in Pinecrest, and; (3) his ongoing mangrove Reclamation Project now in its twelfth year. Cortada’s commitment to creating art on climate change in general, and rising seas in particular, was influenced by a number of pivotal experiences in his life. In a recent phone conversation, Cortada and I discussed the circuitous path that led him to this moment as well as the conceptual framework behind his work.

To begin with, Cortada did not always make art. With graduate degrees in business and law, he entered the professional world in 1991 working with juvenile delinquents and gang members as what he called “a community-based problem solver.” In subsequent years, as he conducted similar projects in numerous developing countries, he started using art as a problem-solving vehicle that provided participants with a non-threatening way to express themselves and develop connections with one another. At the same time, he was honing his community building skills.

Reclamation Project

Cortada became a full-time professional artist in 1996, but it wasn’t until 2006 that he developed his first large-scale environmental art project. As he explained to me, it was the destruction of his “beloved mangroves” for the purpose of widening the road along an 18-mile stretch connecting the continental US to the Florida Keys that moved him to create the participatory eco-art project entitled Reclamation Project. Serving as breeding grounds for fish and protection against erosion during storms, mangroves are vital for coastal ecosystems in tropical and sub-tropical climates. Today, 50% of the world’s mangrove forests have been destroyed. Cortada’s goal was to invite individuals in the Miami-Dade County to learn about and then participate in addressing the disappearance of this important native vegetation.

For the initial project, community volunteers gathered mangrove propagules (seedlings) and planted them in plastic cups that were installed in a grid format in shop and restaurant windows along Lincoln Road in Miami Beach during the international art fair Art Basel 2006. Three weeks later, when the propagules matured, they planted them at designated areas on the coastline, “reclaiming the place for nature.” This process continued from 2006-2012 until the Miami Science Museum agreed to host the project as its on-going citizen volunteer coastal restoration project, which continues today and follows the original model developed by Cortada. Reclamation Project has also been installed in numerous other sites across Florida and outside the state. Cortada calls the project “art in the service of science” and is so significant that a curriculum on the mangroves has been developed by the Science Museum and taught in every public school in the county.

IMG_3970.jpg
Xavier Cortada, “Reclamation Project.” Mangrove propagules propagating in cups in a wall grid installation. Courtesy of the artist.

 Global Coastlines

 Just as the destruction of a stretch of mangroves in his own neighborhood became a pivotal event in the development of Cortada’s art, so too was his experience as a National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers program fellow in 2006-2007. As he described it,

Sitting in the McMurdo lab, I saw the spectacular mountains and valleys. Scientists brought back sediment samples and natural elements… it was an extraordinary experience to see the micro elements that created the continent.

Cortada began to improvise with the materials at hand and for the first time, created abstract, conceptual pieces, which reflected the melting ice that scientists said would be coming to coastlines all over the world. In all, Cortada made 100 of these images using sea ice, sediment and mixed media. Thirty-eight paintings have been shown in previous exhibitions – the remaining sixty-two have never been seen and are currently on view at Pinecrest Garden, Florida, where Cortada now serves as an artist-in-residence.

astrid.jpg
Xavier Cortada, “Antarctica Ice Painting.” Sea ice from the Antarctica Ross Sea, sediment from Antarctica’s dry valleys and mixed media on paper, 2007. Courtesy of the artist.

Underwater HOA

 In partnership with the Village of Pinecrest, Florida, the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, Florida International University Sea Level Solutions Center as well as Eyes on the Rise, and using the community building skills he has honed over the years, Cortada developed Underwater HOA (Home Owner Association), his latest large-scale, participatory art project. Beginning on December 2, 2018, and coinciding with Art Basel (December 6-9), Cortada encouraged 6000 households in Pinecrest, “to place lawn signs on their properties that designate how many feet of glacier ice must melt before the individual properties are fully under water.” The numbers on the signs range from 0-17. By mapping the town in this way and putting images from his ice paintings on the signs themselves, Cortada is involving an entire community in asking the question, “What are we going to do about this problem?” As he explained to me, he is “making the invisible visible.” He is bringing the reality of melting ice and rising tides to participants’ homes and doorsteps, the personal places that are supposed to feel safe. Cortada’s choice to use what he calls “strange, conspicuous lawn signs,” which call to mind political election paraphernalia, is a nod to the political factors that are holding back solutions to this inevitable danger.

An HOA or home owner association is usually associated with the group of individuals/families who, together, determine the rules and fees that will govern condos or other forms of common property. HOA is part of the project’s title because, beyond the lawn sign installation, Cortada has developed a homeowner association for the families that participated in “Underwater HOA.” It is Cortada’s hope that by creating a vehicle for them to come together to talk with one another about sea level rise, he is creating a “cadre of informed and sophisticated residents” who will work together and with relevant entities to “start problem solving for the future.” Although Cortada admits that he is often depressed, angry and frustrated by the lack of progress towards a solution to climate change issues, he considers himself an optimist and “still believes in the ability of mankind to get this right” before Antarctica comes to town.

(Top image: Xavier Cortada, Underwater HOA sign marking how many feet the sea must rise in order to flood this property, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.)

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

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

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

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Our Renewable Energy Series: Two Years Old and Going Strong

With this post, I celebrate my fourth anniversary writing for Artists and Climate Change, this diverse online community of passionate artists using their collective voice to shift the global climate change conversation from despair to hope, from apathy to action. It has been a wonderful experience – both personal and professional – especially for a photographer like me who lives far from a major cultural center.

Two years ago, I proposed my idea to Chantal Bilodeau, the indefatigable founder of Artists and Climate Change, to write a monthly series that focuses exclusively on renewable energy art and artists. She promptly agreed; it would be the first of its kind on the Internet.

My inaugural post in January 2017 was about the multimedia artist Nayan Kulkarni who transformed the historic center of Hull, England, with the installation of “The Blade”, a massive 28-ton, 75 meter-long (250 feet) offshore wind turbine blade built at the nearby Siemen’s manufacturing plant. Attracting more than one million visitors during its 10-week residency in Hull’s Queen Victoria Square, The Blade seems to have had an incredible impact and stimulated lively debate on the definition of art in Hull and beyond.

At the time I wrote that first post, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to find enough artists experimenting with this new genre to sustain a monthly series beyond the first year, much less a second!

But what I discovered in the process is encouraging: artists all over the world are embracing renewable energy as an art form. While renewable energy art is not yet mainstream, it is definitely headed in that direction, thanks in large part to the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), whose tagline Renewable Energy Can Be Beautiful speaks for itself. LAGI’s work is bold and inspiring; I have profiled them several times in the first two years of this series.

Book cover for one of LAGI’s publications: New Energies (2013).

Over the last two years, I have had the privilege to interview dozens of artists – poets, architects, sculptors, musicians, stained glass artists, textile designers – who are exploring and experimenting with renewable energy in myriad ways. Looking back, I realize that these artists can be grouped into one of three categories:

  1. Artists who use renewable energy to create their art, such as Croatian architect Nikola Bašić’s Zadar Sea Organ and American Anthony Howe’s hypnotic kinetic sculptures;
  2. Artists whose art produces electricity from renewable energy, such as Canadian stained glass artist Sarah Hall and the thousands of architects from more than 60 countries who have submitted proposals to LAGI’s biennial competitions;
  3. Artists who are inspired by renewable energy, such as British poet Matt Harvey who sings renewable energy’s praises better than anyone I know, and Dutch graphic designer Hansje van Halem who invented a whole new text font called WIND. Who would have thought? Not to be overlooked: Berlin-based The Beam‘s genius Solar Art Panel Art Series that sources recycled solar panels for invited artists and then sells the painted panels to benefit Studio Olafur Eliasson‘s Solar Kids School Program in Rwanda.

And let’s not forget the incredible Museo della Bora, the world’s first museum dedicated 100% to the wind! I am proud to confirm that the Museo della Bora has recently acquired six of my wind energy photographs, which were on display in an international art exhibit during the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Thank you Rino!

One thing I have observed while researching and writing this series: architects are at the forefront of this global trend to reinterpret renewable energy as a new form of artistic expression. As Project Drawdown’s founder Paul Hawken recently said, “Never has there been a better time to be an architect.”

I am not talking about slapping solar panels or wind turbines onto the roofs or walls of buildings, almost as an afterthought. No, renewable energy is becoming the primary design driver for a growing number of architectural firms. Readers of this series will know that my favorite, hands down, is Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM)’s Pertamina Energy Tower, currently under construction in Jakarta, which I have written about here.

I’m also fond of Stockholm-based Belatchew Arkitekter‘s concept for an urban wind farm of the future. See video below. Strawscraper is quiet, does not disturb wildlife, and can operate at low wind velocity. This simple technology, using a large number of thin straws attached to the side of both old and new buildings, can transform existing buildings into clean power plants. Imagine the possibilities!

Looking ahead to 2019: I plan to profile the self-described archibiotect Vincent Callebaut whose ambitious vision – to create energy-saving, carbon-absorbing cities that will help reverse global warming – draws inspiration from nature. His signature bioclimatic designs – several of which are currently under construction – incorporate renewable energy and living walls that provide natural ventilation, sequester carbon dioxide, generate clean electricity and produce food. According to Callebaut, La cité de demain sera autosuffisante (Tomorrow’s cities will be self-sufficient). Below is his inspiring vision for Paris in 2050, a smog-less fertile mégapole full of vertical gardens and suspended orchards, and futuristic spiral buildings that produce more energy than required (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal). 

Notre projet #ParisSmartCity2050 à la Une de la Tribune pour des Villes qui Respirent. #BreathingArchitecture #Green #Smart #Sustainability #VincentCallebautArchitectures #Paris pic.twitter.com/F9fn0IL55E

— VINCENT CALLEBAUT (@VCALLEBAUT) November 27, 2018

Artists and Climate Change’s Renewable Energy series is now two years old. I am so proud of what we accomplished to date, and I look forward to our next two years! I hope our readers have learned and been inspired as much as I have on this journey. Thank you for all your comments and feedback. In January, I have a little surprise from Belarus to share with our readers – stay tuned! In the meantime, let me wish all of you Meilleurs vœux from Québec.

(Top image: Close-up photo of the spoilers along the edge of a wind turbine blade, by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to help others visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. Joan is currently working on a photo book about Canada’s energy transition. She also collaborates with filmmakers on documentary films that explore the human side of the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on ElloTwitter and Instagram

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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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Annual Year in Review Part 2: Space for Healing

This year, I had the chance to see many resonant theatrical presentations take the New York stage (see more in Part 1). To send off 2018, the Persistent Acts series looks back at the intersection of performance and contemporary issues, and how these particular productions held space for complexity and spurred reflection. You can revisit my 2016 and 2017 years-in-review, which have sparked my Persistent Acts series.

Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theatre Workshop has been one of my most impactful theatrical experiences this year. Heidi performs her own play, based on her time debating the US Constitution at American Legions for prize money to pay for college. This play is deeply personal and political. It weaves Heidi’s family history to trace the history of women’s rights in the US, all under the framework of one of her high school Constitutional debates. The audience is cast as members of the American Legion (who are mostly middle-aged white male veterans), and Heidi’s presentation is set up by actor Mike Iveson, playing a moderator. Throughout the play, we bear witness to the Constitution’s fraught history, to how this document has been used, or not, to uphold the rights of disenfranchised people, namely women.

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Rosdely Ciprian and Heidi Schreck in What the Constitution Means to Me. Photo by Sara Krulwich.

Toward the end of the play, Heidi introduces a high school debater, either Thursday Williams or Rosdely Ciprian, depending on the performance. They debate the question: Should we abolish the US Constitution? We’re instructed to root and cheer at the points we like, and boo and hiss for the points we don’t. After a couple of rounds and rebuttals, the young debater asks an audience member to name a winner. Rosdely (or Thursday) is positioned to win, as she makes the case that the Constitution has expanded rights for more people than originally intended, because of the way it sets up for amendments and Supreme Court rulings. As I saw this eloquent and poised young woman state her case to maintain our current Constitution, I couldn’t help but be filled with hope. The show ends with Heidi asking Thursday (or Rosdely) where she wants to be in twenty years. Having spent the previous eighty-five minutes on a tumultuous journey with Heidi, it was refreshing to hear a completely different voice – one that doesn’t have Heidi’s life experience, but is deeply aware of today’s inequities and where they come from.

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Thursday Williams, Mike Iveson, and Heidi Schreck in What the Constitution Means to Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I saw the show in the midst of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and despite that disgusting reality, I left the performance with a buoyant sense of possibility. Even though I didn’t say a word during the show (except for cheers during the debate), I felt heard – I felt my voice has a place. This forum for debate and constructive conversation that Heidi and her team open up is vital. We need reminders that we all belong. We need reasons, like the future that Rosdely and Thursday represent, to continue the work for equitable systems.

Another forum I had the privilege to participate in this season was Antigone in Ferguson at Harlem Stage. Theater of War Productions, in collaboration with residents of Ferguson, Missouri, presented a reading of Sophocles’ Antigone for modern times, amplified by original songs performed by a gospel choir. This event was conceived in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in 2014, and has been two years in the making. As noted by the creators, “the performance is the catalyst for panel and audience-driven discussions on race and social justice.”

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The company of Theater of War Productions’ Antigone in Ferguson at Harlem Stage. Photo by Gregg Richards.

After the reading, key players led the discussion. We started by talking about the play itself and its relevance to today. A point that stuck with me is how the power dynamics in Antigone reflect the dynamics between Black people, police officers, and the society we live in. When a Black person is murdered by police, media jumps on the story and the characters involved. If and when the officer in question goes to trial, mainstream media flurries again, and said trial ends in acquittal, like the case with Michael Brown. In this way, white supremacy asserts its power, and Black people are retraumatized and silenced. The dialogue opened up to the root of the event’s conception – the specific murder of one Black man by police – and how the experience has evolved over two years of development and touring. When I went to this show, the Kavanaugh hearings were still going on. New Yorkers in the audience and Ferguson residents in the cast shared grief over the silencing of women and the continued killing of Black people. Women of color led the conversation, and offered responses to a racially diverse room. Young people shared their perspectives. If a comment came into the room and didn’t quite reach the mark of inclusive language, someone offered a more complex perspective. Everyone – through an unspoken agreement – held space for others.

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Theater of War Productions’ Artistic Director Bryan Doerries. Photo by Gregg Richards.

The final theatrical experience I want to recap this year is The Movement Theatre Company’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down. Written by Aleshea Harris and described as an offering, a ritual, What to Send Up is unlike anything I’ve seen in the theatre. In the lobby, where the walls are covered in posters of murdered unarmed Black people, performers tell us that this is a show for Black people. Everyone is welcome, but The Movement Theatre has come together, as artists and people of color, to respond to the deaths of Black people, and offer modes for coping, resisting, and moving forward. After an introduction from one of the performers, we circle up (well, form two layers of circles) in the theatre. We each say our names. We each say how we’re feeling. Everyone listens to everyone else. We set up the ritual. We write a note of affirmation and love to Black people. We sit to watch the rest of the offering, which unfolds as a series of vignettes “highlighting the absurdity of anti-blackness in our society.” Each step of the ritual is an invitation to participate. By the end of the deeply moving performance, Black folks are invited to stay in the theatre for the final part of the ritual. The rest of us move out into the lobby for a final moment together. We are invited to consider our accountability. I felt my privilege, and found new ways to participate in society as a white woman. We need these offerings, these spaces specifically for healing.

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The cast of What to Send Up When It Goes Down. Photo by Sara Krulwich.

These plays are not about climate change. These plays confront deep issues of our time, in ways that hold space for and amplify marginalized voices. These plays are about sexism and racism and systemic violence, and they are each powerful because the people who created these performances and experiences are not only reacting to the unjust world we live in, but offering pathways for healing and alternatives to the oppressive status quo. The forces behind racism and sexism are the same disgusting, greedy oppressive forces that led us to our current climate situation. As I reflect on my year at the theatre, I feel more equipped than ever to receive the offerings of these experiences. I’ve collected more tools to heal my own turmoils, and therefore have more tools to stand up, speak out, and hold space in the path toward a more sustainable and equitable society.

(Top Image: What to Send Up When it Goes Down. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.)

This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.

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Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is the Marketing Manager at HERE and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

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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: Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is an award-winning author of literary and science fiction; he is widely known for his realism in fiction since he bases his stories on modern scientific theories. He is also known for carefully researching climate and other sciences while planning his stories. His academic research and credentials, and his fiction writing, go back decades; you’ll find themes of ecological, social, and economic justice in his literature. Robinson is also one of the pioneers among fiction writers dealing with human-caused global warming.

Before anyone ever came up with a way to label climate change in fiction, he and others had long been tackling it. In fact, scientists knew, and came to a consensus in the 1970s, about global warming. According to the American Institute of Physics (AIP), in 1977, “Scientific opinion tends to converge on global warming, not cooling, as the chief climate risk in next century.” Writers of earlier science fiction had already been speculating about long-term climate change, but finally we had scientists convey what was happening in our world.

I read a good article by Marie Myung-Ok Lee recently in Quartz Media titled “Here are the books you need to read if you’re going to resist Donald Trump,” and while the list focuses more on dystopian outcomes in fiction, if we stay on this path we’re on (Robinson was not mentioned due to it being quite a short list). One quote stuck out to me from the article: “Artists are like deer: They sniff the winds of change long before the rest of us.”

For decades, such writers have warned us of predicaments in which we are now finding ourselves. They warned us in science fiction, other times in literary fiction. And Robinson, among such great storytellers as Ursula K. Le Guin, Ernest Callenbach, Octavia Butler, John Brunner, J.G. Ballard, David Brin, and many other speculative fiction authors, blazed the path for those of us who came later, who are younger but who now see climate change in front of us, along with some of the dystopian themes predicted in early science fiction. Paying homage to those before us – in many cases they are obviously still here – seems to be a worthy cause in this day and age, and one of the reasons I felt this series needed to come alive.

See Wikipedia for a complete bibliography of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books and short stories. Unlike other authors I’ve spotlighted here who may write one iconic book on climate change, Robinson is way more prolific, so this profile will lack the focus on one work in particular.

Because he so often deals with ecological resources, sustainability, and environmental justice (which also go hand in hand with political, social, and economic events), his books about climate change have made a big impact. However, climate change is not one event. It is a hyperobject, as previously alluded to in this series. It is a massive object, tough to write about, and hard to explore in its totality. Global warming is made up of many pieces, and all the pieces are subject to exploration in fiction, including in many of Robinson’s stories.

Robinson said, in an interview with The Atlantic, when asked about using science fiction to portray climate themes:

Science fiction can be regarded as a kind of future-scenarios modeling, in which some course of history is pursued as a thought experiment, starting from now and moving some distance off into the future. The closer to the present the work of science fiction stays, the more obvious it is that it is a way of thinking about what we’re doing now, also where we may be going, and, crucially, where we should try to go, or try to avoid going. Thus the famous utopian or dystopian aspects of science fiction.

Whether Robinson’s stories explore climate change set on Earth (such as Buddhist-environmental themes in Science in the Capital series, what I like to think of as Orange County in three fated acts, the Three Californias trilogy, or in the upcoming New York 2140), or outer space (such as in his Mars trilogy, the moon colonization novel Aurora, and 2312), it is clear that Robinson is both deeply concerned about our existence and is greatly talented at building worlds in fiction. His concerns about the fate of humanity often stake our good intentions against our imperfections, and model our fates. His approaches are diverse, from pure hard science fiction to literary fiction.

The New Yorker asked if Kim Stanley Robinson was our greatest political novelist and stated, referring to the Mars trilogy:

Robinson argues that, now that climate change has become a matter of life and death for the species, it’s time for scientists to abandon their scrupulous neutrality and enter into the messy arena of politics. Essentially, Robinson attempts to apply scientific thinking to politics, approaching it less like pure physics, in which one infallible equation / ideology explains and answers everything, than like engineering – a process of what F.D.R. once called “bold, persistent experimentation,” finding out what works and combining successful elements to synthesize something new.

Another great deer sniff on the upcoming wind, wasn’t it? For now, just over three years after this article came out, we are presented with a new president who is promoting fossil fuels and doesn’t believe in or care about climate change or any other environmental issue. And scientists are becoming more political (such as with the Alt National Park Service and the upcoming March for Science on Earth Day 2017).

Robinson’s newest novel, New York 2140, coming next month, is set in New York City after sea levels have risen enough to drown the city – yet the metropolitan area still seems to thrive, with canals rather than streets. The novel may be fairly sobering… just a warning.

As always, I think that fiction and the arts have a unique place in the narrative about global warming. Fiction writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson are important in using the arts to convey our humanity’s identity in an exponentially changing world. How do we deal with the extinction of an ever-increasing amount of species? How do we find the wilderness again (when any idea of “pristine wilderness” is questionable since we have already altered the planet too much)? How do we cope with recent changes in government that seem to be dystopian and dangerous? How do we deal with a natural world that is dramatically changing to the point our constructed worlds are threatened by sea level rise, long-term climate change, ocean acidification, food security, and so on? How do we ensure stability in the world when a host of changes result in violent terrorism and large refugee crises? Are we coming to a tipping point wherein we’ll lose natural identity and find a fugue state?

I like the saying, “It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness,” which is a quote attributed to many but more likely was an old Chinese proverb. To me, fiction and the arts can be the candles in a seemingly darkening world, especially fiction that is based upon science and realism, which guides us, well, as realistically as possible (with hope or with warning).

Robinson has spent a lifetime writing and speaking about humanity. His fiction knowledgeably considers our cultural aspects – environmental sustainability, technology, economy, polity, and ideology – and artfully helps us find our identities, sense our fates, reflect on our mistakes, and learn how to prepare for the future.

(Photo by Stephan Martiniere. Downloaded from Phoenix New Times.)

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Eco-Fiction.com on February 9, 2017.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Eco-Fiction.com and Dragonfly.eco, sites that explore 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 MagazineEthnobiology 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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This Sentence: How Do We Comprehend the Effects of Climate Change?

Like you, I read thousands of words in a day, online, in books, on my social media feeds. I’m both a writer and a devourer of words: does that make me a cannibal? I love words, can’t get enough–

Yet, I can’t get through this sentence. You try.

Wild animal populations dropped by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012, and we will likely lose two-thirds of all species by 2020 if nothing is done to prevent the decline.

Yeah. No. Hang on, let’s try again.

Wild animal populations dropped by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012, and we will likely lose two-thirds of all species by 2020 if nothing is done to prevent the decline.

Here it is in shorter form. Less numbers, fractions, timelines.

We face a global mass extinction of wildlife.

No, still can’t read it. I can’t at my desk. I can’t on my phone. I can’t in my feed.

Maybe I can face it in the theatre.

In the theatre we have Time and Space and Each Other. And, by God, we are gonna need all three if we are going to get through that.

Or this.

“We ignore the decline of other species at our peril—for they are the barometer that reveals our impact on the world that sustains us,” says Mike Barrett in a recent report from World Wildlife Federation. Be assured that local rates are on par with the global ones. Given the current rate of biodiversity loss, we are facing a future with no assurance of our local ecosystem’s stability to support us.

I gotta sit down for a minute. There. Come sit with me. Come close. There you are. We are at the theatre together. What are we seeing tonight?

Slime.

Slime is a play by Bryony Lavery about the impact of climate change on the animals that make the ocean their home. You join one hundred animals, seven young translators, scientists and suits, and step with them just slightly in the future at a fictional conference on marine extinction. Seated amongst the conference delegates, you might hear an otter swimming down an aisle, a dolphin whistling at your elbow, or a seabird over your shoulder: animals too have something to say. Join the animals to face an insatiable creature, Slime, which, like facebookslime or googleslime, is taking over. Ask yourself, “who is coming to save us?”

It’s a play, so we can take that question.

Slime features scenes, many scenes, of animals speaking in their own languages, which their young translators understand. Our Slime actors became conversant in many languages—polar bear, seal, cormorant, sea lion, dolphin, and a small frog called Atelopus Bomolochus, among them. We hired an animal language librarian to translate the roles written in animal into their languages, and the actors worked and worked and worked to learn them.

We must learn them. If we are to share this great blue-green earth with animals, this is the time…we must listen. And we must understand what to do next.

We previewed the show in June 2018 in Banff, Canada to Alberta audiences. At the Calgary airport, behind the check-in desk I saw a sticker stuck to the drawer that said “I [heart] Oil and Gas.”

The Alberta audiences treated the play as fiction, set in the future, in a world other than their own. There is no ocean that touches Alberta. There is no Albertan polar bear.

The Polar Bear with Teo Saefkow and Sophia Wolfe in Slime. Puppet design by Shizuka Kai, photo by Donald Lee.

On our way to Vancouver to open the show to our home crowd, news hit that the Kinder Morgan pipeline had been pushed through by our liberal Prime Minister. You know the one who created a cabinet position, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and appointed a capable woman, Catherine McKenna, to that position? If that sentence gives you cognitive dissonance, steel yourself for the next one. Kinder Morgan Pipeline (which is still in play) not only supports the tar sands of Alberta, the most energy inefficient way to extract oil from land, but it also turns the British Columbia coastline in Canada into an oil export central, and along the way it decimates marine environments. Especially orca.

You know those guys, right?

You know Tahlequah, from the endangered Southern Resident pod, who gave birth to the first live orca calf in three years? The baby orca died and the orca mother wouldn’t let go of that calf for seventeen days. That activist orca, yeah, her. Well the tanker noise that will result from the Kinder Morgan pipeline spells death for that orca pod, even before the oil inevitably spills…

Phew, that is a whole unreadable paragraph, we are getting behind.

With this Pipeline prologue, we opened Slime in Vancouver. For Vancouver it wasn’t fiction, and it wasn’t future. It was raw and real. When the show was over we saw audiences touch each other, an arm around the shoulder, a hand clutching a knee, a hug.

The animal translators from Slime. (l-r) Sophia Wolfe, Mason Temple, Teo Saefkow, Anais West, Pedro Chamale, Lisa Baran, Edwardine van Wyk. Photo by Donald Lee.

Slime isn’t long. Maybe eighty-eight minutes. But it makes time for the absurdity (come into the smoking area and let the polar bear bum a ciggy, the absurdity is right there). It makes time for the grief (hear the testimony of the bump-headed parrot fish, it’s there). Or be silent and upstanding for creatures who have ceased to exist this year (hear the last words from the O’o bird, it’s there). Stay with it. You can’t click away. It makes time for seven young animal translators, the future leaders, who listen in a new way, as one animal among many…

In eighty-eight minutes of potent theatre, I think we get that one sentence about wild creatures. It has time to land in our hearts, which is where that creature lives that is wild and free in each of us. That we hold dear. That we claim as our own.

Theatre does that. And we do theatre. I do. With a brave team of artists. With a fierce playwright giving us words. One sentence at a time.

(Top image: Edwardine van Wyk and the Seal in Slime. Set and puppet design by Shizuka Kai, photo by Donald Lee.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 17, 2018.

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Kendra Fanconi is a theatre creator of original, often site-specific work. She has created plays in swimming pools, treetops, on working waterways a mile wide, and in a theatre built of snow and ice. Kendra is the Artistic Director of The Only Animal, a decade-old company that is uniquely dedicated to theatre that springs from a deep engagement with place. She specialized in ambitious theatricality. Selected Credits for directing/writing: Nothing But Sky, a living comic book (Jessie winner for Significant Artistic Achievement), NiX, theatre of snow and ice, at the 2010 Cultural Olympiad and Enbridge Festival, Alberta Theatre Projects 2009, (Nominated Betty Mitchell Awards and Vancouver’s Critic’s Choice Award for Innovation); dog eat dog, 2007, (Nominated Jessie:  Outstanding New Play), Other Freds produced by The Only Animal, 2005, (Winner Jessie Award: Significant Artistic Achievement). She is currently developing the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Tinkers, into a sited show in an old-growth forest.

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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 Photographer and Filmmaker Nathan Kensinger

Happy holidays! I hope you all are doing well and taking care of yourselves as the weather changes and the holiday obligations start to pile up. 

The latest in climate change news is of course the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Other climate communicators have already weighed in on the significance of this report, so all I’ll add here is that I, too, was appalled at how America’s national leaders handled its release. And I am as grateful as ever for the scientists, writers and artists, and other climate communicators who continue to make it their life work to bring more awareness to climate change and its devastating effects on our planet. Thank you.

Speaking of climate communicators, I am very excited about the panel on climate change and narrative that I’m moderating at the New York Society Library on December 13th. If you’re in the city, please join us! Otherwise, tune in to the live stream, which you can find on the NYSL Facebook page.

This month is an interview with photographer, filmmaker, and curator, Nathan Kensinger. You may know his work from the twice-monthly photo essay he creates for Curbed NY, wherein he explores New York City’s hidden urban landscapes, off-limits industrial structures, unnatural waterways, environmental disaster zones, and other liminal spaces. Or perhaps you’ve seen or heard about his short documentary film, Managed Retreat, that captures three communities in Staten Island that are being dismantled and returned to nature as sea-level rise becomes a more immediate threat.

Or perhaps you saw him on my “Art and Activism in the Anthropocene” panel that I moderated this past spring at the New York Society Library.

As you can see, Nathan keeps quite busy, so I was delighted that he took the time to do this interview.

Much of your work focuses on hidden and/or abandoned green spaces in urban areas. What attracts you to these places?


I feel like I am drawn to these places for a variety of reasons. It’s partially out of a desire to find some small piece of the natural world, in the middle of our crowded urban landscape. It’s also an interest in understanding how we created the ecosystems we now live in, some of which are terribly polluted. And another reason is that, as a documentarian, my work focuses on exploring overlooked places, and places that haven’t yet had their stories fully told. There are a surprising number of hidden green places in our cities, that have been almost completely forgotten, but that have such important stories.

Please tell us about your recent documentary film, Managed Retreat. What inspired it, and what do you hope audiences take away from it?


Managed Retreat is part of a series of short documentaries I am working on, looking at the uneasy relationship between humans and nature in New York City. The film examines three neighborhoods in Staten Island that are undergoing a “managed retreat” from the waterfront, because of the threats posed by rising sea levels. Basically, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the residents in these neighborhoods asked the government to buy their houses, so they could move to somewhere safer. Their homes are now being demolished and turned back into a wetlands. 

I decided to make the film because I’ve been documenting the impacts of Hurricane Sandy over the last six years, and this “managed retreat” was the most interesting response to the the storm that I’ve seen. It’s the first time that New York has decided to relocate entire communities, because of climate change. And very few people have heard of this process – people are not aware that their neighbors are tearing down their own homes, to escape from sea level rise. I’m hoping the film will give audiences a better picture of what may be in store for many other neighborhoods, in the near future.

The process of managed retreat in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island. Photograph from 2015 by Nathan Kensinger.

Is climate change and/or sea-level rise something you think about beyond your artistic work?


I definitely think about climate change all the time, in my daily life. It’s hard to avoid here in New York City, where sea level rise and storms and flooding are already completely changing the landscape. Sometimes, while I’m walking around the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, I find myself wondering what the city will look like in 50 years, or 500 years, or 5,000 years. What might still be here? What will be underwater? What species will have survived? I’m very interested in which artifacts will survive from our current civilization, for future archaeologists to puzzle over, like the ruins of Carnac. 

What is Chance Ecologies?


Chance Ecologies is an arts project I have been curating for the last few years, along with Catherine Grau of the Queens Museum. It invites artists to consider abandoned post-industrial landscapes in New York City, that have been taken over by other species. Polluted landfills that have become wild-growing meadows and forests, toxic rivers and canals that are also lined by hidden wetlands and bamboo groves. We’ve worked with a whole range of artists, including sculptors, filmmakers, choreographers, architects and scientists, to create a series of exhibits and public events around these forgotten environments.  

Do you think that art and/or artfully created documentaries about climate change can create greater social awareness of the issue?


I definitely think that artists and filmmakers can help highlight the challenges we are facing from climate change. I think artists can be a great conduit, for explaining and interpreting the science of global warming and sea level rise. I sometimes wonder – if you are an artist and you are not looking at climate change in your work, what are you looking at? We are in the middle of one of the biggest mass extinctions in the history of the planet, and artists, filmmakers, and journalists should all be focused on communicating that. 

What’s next for you?


I’m looking forward to sending Managed Retreat further out into the world, and to finishing up work on a couple other short films, about nature in the city. I’m also nearing completion on another project I’ve been working on for the last five years, where I’ve been photographing and writing the story of every river, creek and kill in New York City, and I’ll hopefully be wrapping that up in the coming year. 

Read more about Nathan Kensinger and his work at his website.  

(Top photo by Jason Speakman. Downloaded from Brooklyn Paper.)

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.comand 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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Shaping New Climate Narratives: Why a Journalist/Historian Turned to Theatre for Climate Stories

Earlier this year, taking a front row seat at a church in Gary, Indiana, I watched as a young rapper, local food leader and an arts educator beguiled a standing-room-only audience with a theatrical envisioning of their city in the year 2030.

To the side of the stage, jazz legend Billy Foster and his trio added a lively soundtrack to the performance; a multi-media show reflected the images of their stories in the background.

To be sure, this “Ecopolis” performance was no simple task. After a short period of training, developing the script and rehearsing, the actors had to transform the sanctuary into a pop-up theatre and a community of the future in the minds of the audience.

Requiems for Gary’s demise have been written for years, where entrenched poverty and unemployment have left the city in ruins; where the strong scent of hydrocarbons still sting the cold night air. “The maw of that beast, the steel industry,” actor and urban farmer Walter Jones recounted, “takes up nine miles of lakefront.”

“Love song to the scarred lungs, my people bare,” performance poet Krystal Wilson rapped, “because in my city glocks ain’t got nothing on poison and hostile air.”

Gary Ecopolis. Photo by Jeff Biggers.

Departing on a journey through the Gary woods, on the edge of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, one of the most biologically diverse regions in the nation, the local actors walked the audience on a trip from the city’s past as a once proud Steel City to a futurist rendering of Gary as a “regenerative city” in an age of climate change, re-envisioning ways to regenerate their energy, food, transportation, green enterprise zones and a circular economy, neighborhood by neighborhood, front yard garden by front yard garden, bakery by bakery, character by character.

After the performance, the audience convened for lunch outside, catered by urban farmers, where discussions were led by the actors and community organizers on various renewable energy and local food initiatives. Rarely had I encountered such an energy of determination and excitement for change as I experienced in Gary.

The pop-up theatre took the page to the stage–and into the daily lives of the participants. It literally gave everyone a seat at the table. By providing a vision of a regenerative future, and a roadmap of stories to reach it, the performance galvanized action on climate change in a very real way.

Gary Ecopolis. Photo by Jeff Biggers.

At a performance at the Jane Addams Hull-House in Chicago, upstream designs for a zero waste neighborhood were explained in the voice of Magali, standing in front of his row of veggies in a hoop house that looked like a quilt from Somali; carrots, peas, beans, bell peppers, potatoes, cabbage and cloves—what he called the Chicago Sambusa.

On the stage at Appalachian State University, a character walked us through the future Boone EcoDistrict, where retrofitted homes with green roofs and solar energy moved beyond doing less bad, and actually doing something that enhances rather than harms our environment. To give a new framework and vocabulary to our times – to begin the process of regeneration.

Ecopolis Iowa City. Photo by Miriam Alarcon Avila.

After years of filing hundreds of stories, blogs, and radio stories, writing several books and organizing community events, I founded the Climate Narrative Project in 2014 to ask how can we better inform ourselves on the growing peril of climate change and promote regenerative solutions.

In truth, I created the Climate Narrative Project out of a sense of failure. I had spent years – decades, really – investigating and chronicling the devastation of the coal industry on communities, miners and the environment, as well as its impact on carbon emissions. From Appalachia to Illinois to Black Mesa on the Dinetah (Navajo Nation) in Arizona to Montana and the 20 coal-mined states, a health and humanitarian crisis from the lethal fallout of decades of mining had raged under the auspices of flawed regulatory measures, blatant disregard for civil rights, and media indifference. Coal companies and barons who openly flaunted workplace safety and environmental laws walked away free. The cumulative effect of CO2 emissions from coal had altered our future with climate change.

We had simply failed to galvanize the necessary action to learn from our mistakes, atone for our regulatory disasters, and hold coal mining outlaws accountable. The same can be said for the rest of our fossil fuel industries and the political apparatus and ways that have allowed it to flourish.

In effect, while the science of climate change is clear, and abundantly available on campuses and communities across the nation, the art of communication for more sustainable ways of living, planning and development has yet to take the stage in an effective manner.

Bringing together science, the arts and humanities, I have found myself turning more often to the stage with actors who are also deeply engaged in the local arts, food, biodiversity, environmental justice and community development, in order to find new ways to communicate and galvanize action on climate change. Using local history and stories, we have “rooted” our Ecopolis stories on the stage with actors in major cities like Chicago and San Francisco, working with urban planners and arts organizations, and in small towns and college campuses across the Midwest, the South, Appalachia and the Southwest.

Collaborating with fellow artists in leading workshops in creative writing, film, theatre, visual arts and dance, we have worked with schools and communities to design new frameworks and media arts strategies for presenting climate solutions.

The goal: to shape a new climate change narrative.

“How can you be a catalyst for this regenerative city,” the actors asked the audience? “What is your role—and the role of artists, innovators, engineers, teachers, preachers, and entrepreneurs? What is growing in your garden? And can I walk there?”

It all begins with a vision. And a stage.

(Top image: Gary, Indiana.)

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Journalist, historian and playwright, Jeff Biggers is the founder of the Climate Narrative Project, and author of numerous books and plays, more recently Damnatio Memoriae: Una Commedia, and Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition.

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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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CODAsummit Explores Humans’ Impact on the Environment Through Interactive Art

The art and technology worlds can often feel locked in competition, each prizing what the other inadvertently seeks to curtail: the art world eager to preserve and appreciate natural beauty, and the technology world determined to seek enlightenment and advancement. But they needn’t be at odds – and the inaugural CODAsummit held across September 20 and 21 at the Center For Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico proved beyond any doubt that technology can be used to explore and discuss environmental issues.

Organized by CODAworx, an art collective that serves as a central facilitator to bring together talent from all backgrounds and walks of life to collaborate, CODAsummit was created to allow the various links in the art commissioning chain – primarily commissioners (designers, architects, etc.), creators (artists), and suppliers (fabricators and manufacturers) – to congregate and pursue opportunities to develop new and creative cooperative projects.

A recurring theme throughout the many talks was how art projects can communicate the broader significance of our changing environment in ways that scientific statements and papers never could.

This isn’t the first time that the CODAworx community has addressed these ideas. It produced the #OurChangingClimate project of 2015, which used communal workshops and video compilations of personal stories to reframe the concept of climate change from an issue that seems impossibly large and abstract to something with tangible local effects and experiences that everyone could understand.

Let’s take a look at some of the speakers who contributed heavily to CODAsummit’s environmental themes, considering their styles and discussed projects:

Andrea Polli, creator of Energy Flow

Andrea Polli specializes in environmental art that touches upon themes involving science and technology, and has worked on everything from public exhibitions and mobile media to broadcasts and publications. Her work typically draws from scientific data (something that often fails to prove impactful when made widely available), turning stats and figures from abstract notions on computer screens to arresting and eye-opening visual displays.

Appropriately, she participated in the panel entitled “The Art of Depicting Reality: Data Visualization,” and discussed her Energy Flow installation (pictured at the top) that ran in Pittsburgh from November 2016 to April 2018. Powered by wind turbines attached to the catenary arches of the Rachel Carson Bridge, it lit up in response to wind and temperature conditions, showing the activity of the natural world while demonstrating what can be done without recourse to fossil fuels or external power sources.

Cheryl Maeder, creator of Submerge

Cheryl Maeder is a noted photographer and videographer who has worked extensively on impressionistic projects, most notably inspiring Dove’s well-received “’Real Women, Real Beauty” campaign which made a lot of progress towards changing the media’s perception of beauty and women in general. Her fascination with coastal living led her to create her Submerge art series.

Speaking as part of the “Making Waves: New Technologies” segment, she discussed her Submerge installation (pictured above) for the City of West Palm Beach, Florida. Video projections on the underside of the Royal Park Walkway (the bridge connecting West Palm Beach to Palm Beach), were used to explore the extent to which water defines our connection to the environment: making up most of our bodies, covering most of the Earth, and representing both the serenity and the power of the natural world.

Matt Niebuhr, creator of Sun Pavilion 

Matt Niebuhr is an artist who established the West Branch Studio of Des Moines, Iowa. Trained as an architect, he focuses on public art exhibitions and installations, finding ways to combine his architectural skills with community drives.

Photo by Zahner

Also, part of the “Making Waves: New Technologies” segment, Niebuhr spoke about the inspiration for Sun Pavilion, the project he and fellow artist David Dahlquist worked on for the municipal government of the City of El Paso, Texas. The project combines function and form by giving park visitors a place to seek shelter from the heat while artfully playing upon the area’s storied cultural history through the incorporation of ancient sun symbols – early inhabitants of the El Paso region featured them heavily in drawings thousands of years ago.

CODAsummit as a hub for future discussion

With this first CODAsummit selling out and attracting a wide range of talented and passionate attendees, plans are already underway for future instalments. If CODAworx can continue its good work of bringing the art and technology worlds together, so much can be accomplished to make the issue of climate change more present and urgent in the public consciousness, and to place more pressure on governments and corporations alike to act.

Photo by Annie Watt

After all, what discussions about environmental issues so often lack is that vital context, that emotional gut punch that reminds us of what’s really at stake, and what the consequences of failure will be. The art world is uniquely positioned to do something about this – and with such a passionate community rallying around it, there’s reason to be optimistic.

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Toni Sikes is Founder and CEO of CODAworx, the global leader in commissioned art, serving as a professional network for a wide variety of artists, design professionals, and industry resources.

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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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