Artists and Climate Change

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An Interview with Laurie Goldman

By Amy Brady

This month, I have for you an interview with Laurie Goldman, the Director of Public Engagement at The ClimateMusic Project, an organization that brings together scientists, composers, musicians, and other creatives to compose and perform music inspired by the science of climate change. They were recently featured in the New York Times and have lots of big plans for the future.

I’ve interviewed dozens of artists since this newsletter began, but never someone who creates climate music. What can music communicate about climate change that perhaps other means of communication can’t? Or put another way, what do you hope audiences take away from The ClimateMusic Project’s compositions and performances?

Music has a way of reaching people on a more emotional level. The ClimateMusic Project aims to leverage the power of music to capture hearts and minds in a way that a scientific article or lecture about climate change cannot. We hope, and have found, that audiences gain new insights from our work and ultimately are motivated to action. Our ultimate goal is actually not to create music, but to inspire action. Along the way, we are proud that we create engaging and compelling performances.

How did The ClimateMusic Project come about?

Our founder, Stephan Crawford, was seeking to figure out a way to communicate science in a more engaging manner. He was concerned that while people knew about the issue of climate change, they did not necessarily appreciate the necessity for urgent action or the fact that they could be part of the solution. Stephan has a musical background and understood the ability of music to affect people so he worked on a concept to use the medium of music to convey science. From there he invited a composer and band as well as a few scientists to a daylong “hack” that ultimately resulted in a composition that incorporated compelling music guided by science.

What genres of music does your group create and perform?

We have three current compositions in very different genres. The first composition, Climate, by composer Erik Ian Walker, is an electronic/symphonic piece that portrays the atmospheric impacts of climate change. Icarus In Flight, composed by Richard Festinger, is a chamber music composition that highlights the human drivers of climate change – fossil fuel use, population growth, and land use change. The most recent piece is a jazz and spoken-word piece by COPUS called What If We…? that portrays sea-level rise and its effect on populations and land. What If We…? features a compelling chorus sung by children: “what if we change?” It’s powerful. As you can see, our compositions are quite diverse – people like to listen to genres they appreciate, and we aim to reach as many people as possible using whatever style resonates.

Our goal is to use music to speak to people in the communities where they live. If that involves hip hop, electronic, country, samba, reggae, or whatever, we want to work with composers in those genres. We are looking to build our portfolio by working with environmentally engaged composers around the world to reach local audiences. In fact, we are developing a methodology so that it will be easier for composers to work with us and our extended team of scientists. However, it is important for the compositions to be guided by the science of climate change.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by “guided by science?”

We have a team of scientists who collaborate to ensure fidelity to the data and the scientific narrative we seek to communicate. Composers have creative freedom within a framework set by our science team. It can be as simple as aligning tempo and pitch to the data and narrative we provide (though that isn’t exactly “simple”) or the collaboration can be more creatively complex. Our piece on sea-level rise featured embedded data sonifications, realistic headlines from 2045, as well as a duel between drums and bass with drums representing the ocean. We work closely with our science advisers to ensure fidelity to the science: the process is very much a collaboration where musicians bring creativity and work with the team to make sure the science is accurately portrayed.

Who are some of your collaborators?

We work with a team of scientists from the University of California, Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, and the list is expanding. Our chief science adviser is a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments of climate change (for which the IPCC has been awarded a Nobel prize). In addition, we have an extended team of more than thirty people focused on visual elements, public outreach, partnership, etc. And we have a stellar Leadership Council from sectors such as business, arts, and public policy that advises us on strategy to build upon our work.

One of our top priorities is motivating action, so we have developed a network of organizations dedicated to making a difference on the issue. Our partners include Cool Effect, the San Francisco Department of the Environment, Interfaith Power & Light, the Global Footprint Network, and Re-volv. They help people learn about the issue, form community around the issue, or engage on projects to mitigate or adapt. We are working to add other partners to our network so we can give people options for action. The last thing we would want to do is get people concerned about climate change but not show them a path for action! We ask audiences to get engaged if they are not already, to do more if they are already taking some action, and to bring their friends if they are already leading in terms of their own activity.

The ClimateMusic Project’s performances often include visual elements. What does this add to the performances?

We include visuals to enhance understanding of the narrative. Climate change is complex and some people are visual learners while others are more auditory learners. Visuals can highlight the data elements, or provide historical and future references. Plus they can add beauty or highlight concern.

We also generally have an opportunity for audience engagement after each performance. That takes different forms but usually includes a chance to interact with our science team, our composers, our action partners and our core team. It helps to build further understanding and also to hash out any anxiety that arises about the future. So far, our compositions have featured two scenarios for the future, one that shows the trajectory if we fail to take sufficient action and a more hopeful scenario the demonstrates what we can achieve if we implement the solutions that are already available. We know that we can work together to make our world a better place for all and we strive to communicate that fact.

What’s next for The ClimateMusic Project? 

We have had quite a few requests for engagement, especially since a profile of our work was highlighted by the New York Times last November. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is coming up and we are scheduled to perform in a few places (details to come on our website). We are also working to build our action partner network to get folks more engaged. And, we will have an online methodology so we may work with musicians around the world who want to compose new pieces that will reach broad audiences. We will be reaching out to select composers in the coming year.

We are also about to launch an exciting new project with Los Angeles-based composer and Grammy winner Heitor Pereira that will be geared toward kids and focused on biodiversity and climate change. That project will likely include some new animated elements and a longer campaign that will really engage kids! In fact, we plan to work on a strategy to bring our work to schools and take advantage of their curiosity and interest in action. Stay tuned.

And, of course, we are always looking for support for our work. We are a nonprofit organization trying to make a difference!

(Top image: The ClimateMusic Project at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. Photo by Sven Eberlein.)

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 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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Wild Authors: Anna Burke

By Mary Woodbury

This month, I spotlight Anna Burke and her novel Compass Rose (Bywater Books, 2018), a dystopian high-seas adventure that looks at climate refugees, hanging ocean ecosystems, and ways humanity might adapt to rising, warmer oceans while also following the protagonist as she comes of age in an unforgiving – but highly relatable – world. 

The novel takes place in the future, in the West Indies. Its main character, Rose, was born facing due north, with an inherent perception of cardinal points flowing through her veins. Her uncanny sense of direction earns her a coveted place among the Archipelago Fleet elite, but it also attracts the attention of Admiral Comita, who sends her on a secret mission deep into pirate territory. Accompanied by a ragtag crew of mercenaries, and under the command of Miranda, a captain as bloodthirsty as she is alluring, Rose discovers the hard way that even the best sense of direction won’t be enough to keep her alive if she can’t learn to navigate something far more dangerous than the turbulent seas. 

Aboard the mercenary ship, Man o’ War, Rose learns quickly that trusting the wrong person can get you killed – and Miranda’s crew has no intention of making things easy for her – especially the Captain’s trusted first mate, Orca, who is as stubborn as she is brutal. This swashbuckling 26th century adventure novel is smart, colorful and quirky, yet it manages to deliver a healthy dose of heart, humor, and humility on every single page.

Most of us probably remember Hurricane Irma, which blasted through the Caribbean as a Category 5 hurricane before hitting the mainland of the United States. If, out of concern, you might have watched news of the hurricane a little over a year and a half ago, you might remember as I do the small press coverage given to the Caribbean islands compared to that given to the hurricane landfall in the United States – yet many of the islands were absolutely devastated. Phrases like “horror movie,” “literally under water,” “barely habitable,” “war zone,” and “massive destruction” peppered the news that did cover the islands. 

Shortly thereafter, Hurricane Maria ripped through some of the same areas. Dr. Michael Taylor, a climate scientist in the Caribbean, talked about climate change and these two Category 5 hurricanes in The Guardian. He stated, “Scientific analysis shows that the climate of the Caribbean region is already changing in ways that seem to signal the emergence of a new climate regime.” The new regime, he said, brings up three concepts that newly describe befallen areas like the low-lying islands of the West Indies: unfamiliar, unprecedented, and urgent.

While hurricanes ravage homes, people, coastlines, crops, fishing, tourism, and more, it gets bigger than that. Tied with other (often related) environmental events such as tornadoes, rising seas and temperatures, over-fishing, over-development, death of coral reefs, pollution, disease, and so on, the ecological health of such areas is drastically changing, more so than is happening in many other regions in the world, giving us a glimpse into the horrific reality of global warming. My conversation with Anna Burke, below, talks about these issues, along with her experience living in Saint Kitts, LGBTQ themes in fiction, dystopian futures, weaving accurate science into fiction while still being entertaining with a good story, and world-building.

What was your time like in the West Indies, and what is it like there now compared to the past?

I spent two years living on Saint Kitts in the West Indies, from 2015-2017. The island has undergone a great deal of change in the last fifty years. It gained independence from the British in 1983, and since then transitioned from sugar production to tourism as its major industry. Both sugar and tourism are closely linked to the climate. The links between agriculture and climate change have been explored in depth by many experts, but what struck me most about living there was how dependent tourism is on the climate. I saw the effects of drought, storms, and climate change-driven diseases like Zika on the Kittitian economy while my wife and I were living there. And between sea level rise and the increasing intensity of storms – we were there during the horrific 2017 hurricane season – it is honestly difficult for me to see how island nations are going to adapt and thrive in the face of an increasingly unpredictable climate.

What motivated you to write a novel that tackles environmental issues? How important are novels that deal with climate change, do you think?

I’ve always been passionate about environmentalism. I’ve worked in agriculture off and on over the years and have seen first-hand the effects of climate change on our food systems, but living in the Caribbean really drove home how vulnerable we are. Seeing an entire country at the mercy of not one, but two consecutive Category 5 hurricane will do that! Islands are microcosms of life on earth, and I felt very humbled in the face of nature’s wrath, for lack of a better way to put it. I had to channel those feelings into my writing.

I think novels that deal with climate change are essential. Not only do they raise awareness, but they can also prepare us for what is coming. It seems increasingly likely that we have passed the tipping point for stopping climate change, but rather than dwelling on that, novels can help us mentally and emotionally wrap our heads around something as huge as the climate. Exploring our adaptability, ingenuity, and resilience, along with the technology that we do have, seems to me the best way to move forward. Books have always done that for us, whether it was predicting and fueling space exploration or helping us heal from conflict.

Compass Rose is also a novel exploring LGBTQ issues. Is this still a niche audience, or do you think it’s growing – and can you talk about what’s happening with this in your novel?

LGBTQ issues are still mostly niche, but I do believe that is changing. We’re seeing more LGBTQ characters in books, movies, TV, and now even in our elected officials, and I hope that trend continues because representation is so important, especially for young people. I include LGBTQ characters in my books partly for this reason, but my characters don’t really dwell on their sexuality. It is something that is a part of them and might influence who they are attracted to, but it certainly is not at the heart of the story. I am not downplaying the importance of coming out narratives, but I also think it is important for readers to see LGBTQ people (and people of color) having the same adventures and experiences as white heterosexuals. Sexuality doesn’t have to define their stories, and I think my work reflects that. I have had many straight readers tell me how much they’ve enjoyed my books, which I think is a sign of our changing attitudes towards minorities.

One thing I noticed upon reading was that the novel is both heartwarming and scientific (for example, Rose’s knowledge of stars and the ocean), and I think these two things go hand in hand very well. The story has more impact when messing with readers’ emotions. Do you think so?

I certainly hope so! I like weaving science into my stories, but I know that as a reader I don’t like getting huge info-dumps, especially about complex issues, and so I try not to do that. I also think that separating science from emotion is a mistake. We interpret our world emotionally, even when we think we are being logical, and I like fiction that reflects that. Rose’s emotional connection to her navigational abilities helps her understand them and also helps her tell her own story.

How did you research your novel as far as world-building?

I love research. I regularly check out scientific blogs and research journals to stay up to date, and I love falling down internet rabbit holes. There is so much information out there, from interactive sea level rise maps and Google Earth to in-depth reports on jelly fish populations and 3-D printing technology. I did quite a bit of research up front about Rose’s world, and continued to research as I went along, adding and revising the more I learned. There are days when I wish I didn’t know quite so much about climate change, however, as so much of it is heartbreaking. I also had the benefit of living near the ocean as I wrote, which provided plenty of opportunity for first-hand experiences. Talking to experts is something I try to do as well. Researching a completely new topic is daunting, but an expert can help you focus on what is actually important. For example, I have never been on a submarine and knew nothing about sonar, and so I spoke with a Naval engineer to get the lowdown.

Fascinating! Compass Rose is also a thriller, and hard to put down. One reader described the book as a complete package – and it seems a glorious start for a debut novel. Do you have any other projects that you are working on?

My second book just came out, and it is totally different from Compass Rose, although nature is very much a part of it. Thorn is a wintry fairy tale that deals with definitions of personal freedom and impossible choices, although I did use the research for the book as an excuse to watch an absurd number of nature documentaries about wolves and polar bears. After Compass Rose, I needed a break from hot climates, I think, and so plunged myself into an enchanted endless winter to cool off. I am also working on a prequel to Compass Rose and a sequel, although I do not have any hard deadlines. Working on multiple projects at once prevents writer’s block, and while at times it feels insane to have several novels going at once, it works for me!

Thorn sounds pretty awesome, and I will be checking it out as well as your other novels in the future. Thanks so much for the chat!

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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Painting Grief And Hope

By Lesley Thiel

I feel like I’ve spent most of my life worrying about climate change. I’ve loved the Earth and nature my whole life, and its progressive destruction by humanity has been heart-wrenching. The butterflies, bees, flowers, and small mammals of my childhood have all gone missing from the places where I once played. 

As an artist I process my grief through my work. I have to make talking about our relationship with the planet my focus. Not on a grand scale, but in the beauty and intimacy of small things and in the everyday tragedy of the world we are losing. I know many of us feel this way, but too many others have yet to understand the danger – and we need to use every tool to make them listen. As a contemporary realist painter, that means telling stories in a classical style using symbolism to create a universal message. 

I believe that we do not have the right to destroy the opportunity for life on Earth to thrive. We are committing a crime by destroying the future of our children for profit and convenience. We must change our behaviors in a fundamental way in order to alter our course, and I am convinced that the necessary leadership will come from women and girls. We need new ways of working and thinking about the climate crisis, and women can offer that. And so I started working on pieces that show a young girl in burning and smoke-filled settings that have become all too real to us. I want to show both her strength and her vulnerability, but also to offer hope. More than anything, I want the viewer to see her. I want people to stop and realize that each child is a person whose aspirations are being stolen.

The Heiress

Women and girls all too often struggle to make their voices heard. Society tries to place restrictions on how they should behave, and penalizes them when they “act out,” which often simply means expressing an unwelcome opinion or telling an uncomfortable truth. Today, the restrictions may be more subtle than they were in the past, but they are nonetheless real. In order to illustrate these constraints, I dress some of my young models in collars and ruffs that echo 16th century costumes. 

One example is the painting The Heiress in which Addie, my model, wears a huge and ungainly collar decorated with feathers. She looks straight into your eyes, asking you to see her and not walk away. She holds in her hand a cork, on which is written “espérer” – the word “hope” in French – because hope floats and French is the language of diplomacy. The label says that the future is here — here with this girl, who holds a scepter of dried sea holly, a symbol of independence. 

For millennia, young girls have been used to represent fertility and, thus, renewal. We’ve all seen pictures of beautiful, dewy females wearing garlands of flowers in their hair as they celebrate rites of spring. But now, as we face the prospect of the Earth no longer regenerating fast enough to keep up with our destruction, I see garlands no longer as a sign of regeneration, but as a dried out shadow of their former glory. 

Hope

I’ve painted several pieces with this theme, and will continue to revisit it. However, life has such a strong will to exist that I didn’t want to believe we would happily keep marching towards destruction. And so I painted Hope. Yes, the landscape is burning and that crown is dry, brittle and dead, but Addie holds in her hands rich black earth, and in that earth is a strawberry plant, with both flowers and fruit. The strawberry is the fruit of Venus and symbol of our love for our fellow humans and for the Earth. Addie asks you to look. Look what she can do if you give her a chance.

Living in North Carolina, I am very privileged to be surrounded by the bounty of the natural world. I treasure it because I’ve lived in big cities and felt the loss of nature around me. But I also see how rapidly my area is being developed, the land paved over for housing and endless stores and restaurants. I drive past the piles of murdered trees and raw earth. I see the confused wildlife searching for a new home, and I want to scream at the wanton destruction. It’s what motivated me to paint All Things Bright And Beautiful to make a record of the life that still manages to exist in our neighborhood. At least for now. The stag, who I’ve seen wandering through our yard, now has bottles of water with fish and tadpoles from the creek hanging from his antlers. The squirrel, fox, and raccoon all peer out with watchful eyes. And the girl tells you she’s holding the key as she stands in front of nature – protecting and leading. It may be an obvious piece of symbolism, but in a world where people are asked to see so much, and take in so little, the simple messages are sometimes the best.

All Things Bright And Beautiful

I’ll admit that climate anxiety grips me all too often. You try and tidy up your own life: plant-based diet, reusable bags and baskets, solid shampoos and soaps, no plastic, limited driving, safe spaces for wildlife, even nurturing the bees! You read the science, and then you turn on the news and see the inaction. Worse, you hear nothing about this greatest threat to our survival, because someone considers an ill-considered tweet to be more newsworthy. And sometimes – many times, you despair. That’s how I felt when I painted The Sinking Of The Gaia. The vessel we call home is on fire! And our children will stand on the shore as the water rises, and they will have nowhere to go because, unlike the girl in the painting, they are not selkie. They cannot magically become sea lions and swim away into another world.

I don’t see my work as offering solutions to climate change. But like the brave young girls who speak truth so fearlessly to power, I ask that the people who see my paintings stop and become aware of what we are in danger of losing. I ask them to see the strength and purpose in our young women, and to give them an opportunity to find new and respectful ways of interacting with Mother Earth. I ask people to see that, if we fail them, we will never be forgiven.

(Top image: The Sinking of the Gaia)

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Lesley Thiel was born just outside London, England. After a career in medical research, she turned to her first love: art. Her initial works focused on horses and now encompass figurative realism and portraiture. Since 2005, her work has been featured in numerous international gallery and museum shows, including European Museum of Modern Art; Salmagundi Club; Sotheby’s; Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art; Zhou B Art Center; Mall Galleries; Terminal 5 Heathrow. It is part of the Bennett, and the Fred and Kara Ross collections. She has won awards from Art Renewal Center, Portrait Society of America, and International Artist Magazine.

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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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Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.

By Peterson Toscano

Being a climate advocate can be very difficult. How do you maintain hope in the face of bad news and apathy from those around you? Where do you find encouragement and inspiration? What role can faith play in our climate work? These are the questions Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade and Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, editors of a new anthology of essays by climate change faith leaders, wanted to answer. They bring together 21 climate leaders in the book Rooted & Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.

Contributors include Dr. Katharine HayhoeRev Fred SmallCristina Leaño, and Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman. In his introduction to the book, Bill McKibben argues for the need for a faith-based book about climate action, 

…love, I would suggest, is what finally roots this volume: a love for the world around us, in all its improbable glory, and for the people who alone can bear witness to that glory and rise to its defense. If they are indeed summoned to that calling, it may be in part by fear – by the proper functioning of the survival instinct. But I suspect it will be more by love, the ever-great mystery. This volume opens some windows on that mystery, because the people whose words are collected in it have been powered by that force.

In the Art House this month, the editors speak briefly about the book, and then contributor Dr. Nathasha DeJarnett, a research coordinator at the National Environmental Health Association, reads a portion of her essay The View from My WindowCorina Newsome, from Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, shares how her hope was rekindled through the process of writing her piece The Thing with Feathers. Once she received her copy of the book and read the other essays, she found even more hope.

Coming up next month, Irish author Shirley Anne McMillan, on why she was at first resistant to engage with climate change, and the challenge of doing good art about the climate crisis.  

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

(Top image: Corina Newsome and feathered friend.)

This article is part of The Art House series.

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

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

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Kyoto Forever? UN Climate Conferences as Political Theatre

By Thomas Peterson

Perhaps the most consequential theatrical forums of the moment are the UN climate conferences, or COP meetings, which occur every year in a different city and at which the governments of the world negotiate coordinated attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Or at least they perform diplomatic negotiation and perform commitments to reduce emissions. Global emissions continue to rise as climate impacts worsen, heightening the fictive, performative impression given by these conferences. At times they appear to be nothing but deceitful political theatre.

On the other hand, these meetings have also created platforms for truthful and effective political theatre, such as Greta Thunberg’s speech at COP 24 in Katowice in 2018, or Papua New Guinea delegate Kevin Conrad’s criticism of American obstructionism at COP 13 in Bali in 2007. The conferences have also inspired creative theatrical work, particularly in conjunction with COP 21 in Paris in 2015, which was accompanied by ArtCOP21, a “global festival of cultural activity on climate change.”

In May of that year, 200 students from around the world met at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers outside Paris to simulate an idealized, biospherically-minded version of the COP to come. The project was at once a Model UN conference and a devised participatory theatre piece. It was guided by Laurence Tubiana, who led the French delegation at COP 21 and was a key architect of the Paris agreement, the philosopher Bruno Latour, and the scholar and theatre director Frédérique Aït-Touati, alongside Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers artistic director Philippe Quesne. 

The student participants performed not only the roles of government negotiators, but also those of diplomats acting on behalf of cities, oceans, soils, and other species. They were given three days and one night to reach an agreement, a fascinating experiment documented in the film CLIMAT: le théâtre des négociations (known in English as CLIMATE: Make it Work!), directed by David Bornstein. A fractious process, the conference was nevertheless a thrilling test-run for the progress that might be made that November when world leaders convened in Paris.

Though the progress made in Paris later that year inspired hope, little has changed since then. COP 25 in Madrid was a striking failure, even by the abysmal standards of international climate conferences. While we must do our utmost to inspire action at the all-important COP 26 this fall in Glasgow, the gap between deteriorating climatic conditions and intergovernmental inaction seems ever more absurd. 

The French writer-director-performer Frédéric Ferrer has explored this absurdity through a pair of plays, entitled Kyoto Forever and (with a wink) Kyoto Forever 2, which he created with his company, Vertical Détour, in 2008 and 2015. The plays are a theatrical hybrid existing somewhere between political documentary theatre and the more farcical edge of the Theatre of the AbsurdKyoto Forever fictionalizes a past UN meeting, COP 13 in Bali, while Kyoto Forever 2 imagines a 2022 preparatory meeting for a future COP, numbered 28, taking place on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.

The term “Kyoto Forever” entered the lexicon in 2005, when three European policy researchers published an article in which they suggested that international climate agreements might simply cease to make progress, freezing at the wildly insufficient and yet nevertheless largely unmet commitment levels agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. It is a terrifying theory, but one that seems depressingly astute, given the general failure to comply with or build on the moderately improved (though non-binding) commitments made at COP 21.

I saw Kyoto Forever 2 in Paris roughly a year ago, going on four years after its creation for ArtCOP21, and its representation of the intractability of international climate politics has stayed with me. Actors from France, Sweden, China, Iran, Congo, Russia, and Brazil argued for two hours in ten different languages. They were playing representatives from (mostly) their countries of origin, attending an entirely fictional but nevertheless all-too-real preparatory meeting.

Reflecting on the performance a year on, what alarms me the most is that 2022 is a mere two years away. The picture offered by Kyoto Forever 2 of the state of these near-future UN climate negotiations was bleak: increasingly desperate and increasingly paralyzed. The production was advertised with an ironic tagline: “two hours to save the world.” The delegates were talking about 6 degrees Celsius of warming, an unquestionably catastrophic threshold, but a scenario well within the realm of possibility in the “business as usual” scenario envisioned by this play. 

The delegates deliver the arguments that play out every year at these meetings, but the climate devastation occurring in the background has worsened. Developing countries rightly argue that they should not be subject to the same emissions reduction requirements as the wealthy countries responsible for the crisis. OPEC member states unsurprisingly advocate for carbon capture, refusing to accept the liquidation of their sources of wealth. Russia and China are unwilling to accept restrictions on development. The US refuses to take a leadership role or to cede any ground that might endanger its status as hegemon. The EU scolds but cannot broker compromise. The delegates spend the entire week, played out over two hours on stage, haggling over commas in the introduction to the text of the accord. Meaningless metaphors float around. Absurd debates over a parenthesis here or a digit there strike a tragicomic tone. 

We eventually learn that this preparatory conference had been scheduled to occur on another island nation: Vanuatu. This plan is scuttled when horrible storms and flooding strike the island in the weeks leading up to the meeting. Vanuatu is drowning in the Pacific. Midway through the play, the delegate from Vanuatu calls in, water sloshing in the background. People are drowning. The world isn’t getting saved in two hours; it might already be lost.

Despite the dire circumstances, the play inspired more laughter than I am accustomed to hearing when watching artistic work that engages with the climate crisis. It felt like seeing a play by Ionesco or Beckett, like Waiting for Godot in a conference center: language seemed incapable of describing or resolving this hyperobject of a problem. Kyoto Forever 2 explores this failure of language, of communication, of conventional modes of international politics. At a certain point, it is tempting to throw up one’s hands and begin to laugh. That temptation must be resisted. We have two years to ensure that Ferrer’s projection of COP 28 hews closer to absurdist farce than to tragic documentary.

In the meantime, staging interrogations of these potentially world-altering yet terminally disappointing conferences might help us achieve better outcomes. In staging COP meetings, we can expose the flaws in the process, dramatize the stakes, give voice to the unrepresented, and imagine the possibilities for the world these conferences could create. Staging the COP meetings can create models for success for a process that has heretofore failed. Perhaps we need more theatrical rehearsals, like Kyoto Forever, Kyoto Forever 2, or the student conference at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers, in order to ensure a successful performance in Glasgow this fall.

(Top image: From left, Karina Beuthe, Haini Wang, Charlotte Marquardt, Guarani Feitosa, Max Hayter, Behi Djanati Atai, Délia Roubtsova, and Chrysogone Diangouaya in Kyoto Forever 2 by Frédéric Ferrer. Photo by Samuel Sérandour.)

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Thomas Peterson is a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis. He is an Artistic Associate with The Arctic Cycle, co-organizing Climate Change Theatre Action. He recently returned from a Harvard Williams-Lodge Scholarship in Paris, where he wrote a thesis on the aesthetic of the sublime in the theatrical representation of the Anthropocene. He created Roy Loves America, a multi-form performance piece about Roy Cohn, and is developing an original adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. His engagement in climate activism stretches back to high school, when he led a successful fossil fuel divestment campaign.

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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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Tell Us Your Coronavirus Story

By Chantal Bilodeau

Tell us what you’re seeing, what you’re feeling – in no more than 100 words.

We’re only just beginning to understand how the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) might relate to the climate crisis (thanks to the incredible journalism of InsideClimate News) but it’s clear that our behavior during this outbreak is a rehearsal for more disruptions to come. Whether we heed the advice of scientists, take aggressive action to care for the most vulnerable among us, and put differences aside to collaborate across borders, sectors, and ideologies will determine the outcome of both this global health crisis and our climate crisis.

To capture this moment in time and the lessons we’re (hopefully) learning, and in the spirit of the New York Times Tiny Love Stories, we invite you to send us your true coronavirus story, of 100 words or less, in prose or dialogue form. 

We’ll publish the funny, sad, awe-inspiring, and thought-provoking stories we receive. These will become our collection of Tiny Coronavirus Stories – an ode to our capacity to be resilient in the face of major challenges.

We look forward to reading you.

Note: Stories may be edited for clarity and content. We’ll ask you for a picture taken by you to accompany your narrative.

Tell us your story here

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

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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A Voice for the Earth

By Anders Dunker

Many worlds come together in the Los Angeles-based singer Inanna’s brand new eco-music project, leading up to her album Acrotopia. Middle Eastern darbuka rhythms meet modern electronic soundscapes, dark visions and warnings alternate with dreams of green utopias. With a background in the alternative electronic rock scene of Europe, a career in belly-dancing, and experience working on a collaborative music project about extinct species, Inanna has crafted a fresh new style and mythical stage persona.

According to Inanna, environmental music is still being invented, just as we’re reinventing culture in order to care for Nature and limit our climate impact. Musically, as well as in her activism, she enters the darkness in order to find a way to the light. A sense of mystery and drama pervades her work and, rather than looking back, her music focuses on a greener future, and a sense of beauty and gratitude.

For Inanna, there is no difference between climate concerns, and environmental and animalist topics. Our bond with Nature is what needs to be mended as we move from seeing Nature and animals as our possessions to honoring them as fellow Earthlings.

Her latest song, On Fire – one of the singles of her upcoming album – is about rainforest destruction, seen from the point-of-view of animals. This powerful anthem-song was inspired by a viral video of an orangutan charging at a bulldozer tearing down its forest, its home. At the same time, the song is about global warming, referring to climate activist Greta Thunberg’s repeated phrase, “Our home is on fire.” The visual elements of the music video allow Inanna to further merge the different strands of her project, and deepen the message: Drone footage of factory farms and animal agriculture in the Amazon bring her belief in veganism together with the climate cause in a way that she perceives as increasingly urgent.

Collaborating with environmentalist groups and activist media is as important a part of her project as building her presence. For her videos, she has received documentary material through her cooperation with environmental organizations like Greenpeace. She has taken part in street demonstrations with Extinction Rebellion and in the climate marches of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future. On stage she is tapping into the more mysterious sides of Nature and womanhood. In her stage performance of Heal, dancers swing their long hair to the rhythms of the zaar dance, a legacy of Ancient Egypt, where healing is made into a collective ritual. Dancing and singing for the Earth, with the Earth and on it, invites a deeper connection with the place where we belong.  

The idea behind this environmental music project, as indicated on Inanna’s website, is to give a voice to Mother Nature. Inanna presents a new kind of feminine figure for the pop scene, playing with female archetypes such as the Goddess, the Prophetess and the Queen. Mythology exists to be extended and re-invented: her first music video, Nefertiti XXI, imagines the Egyptian ruler Nefertiti being resurrected as a female green leader for the 21st century. Is there a link between Nefertiti and Inanna, the Sumerian goddess? Certainly since she was a goddess of love and Nature, as well as war. The fight for the environment is truly a war, one in which the defenders are often ignored, even if the Earth they defend belongs to everyone. The love for Nature and our ancient bond with the Earth need to be rediscovered.

We are entering dark times – the Anthropocene – which are reflected in Inanna’s epic song Where We Belong but in her upcoming album Acrotopia, there are also bright and hopeful tracks, such as Twilight of the Dawn inspired by a famous lecture given by H.G. Wells in 1902, where he said: “It is possible to believe that all that the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening […]that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.”

Her album Acrotopia is fittingly scheduled to be released for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020. Among the new songs, she has already premiered Invisible City, a ballad about green cities and a new Arcadia where Beauty rules the day, in concerts. The album title Acrotopia includes the component acro- from acrobatics, meaning “higher” or “above” The acro-topian topos, or “place,” is neither an unattainable utopia, nor is it its negative counterpart, the dystopia we all dread. Acrotopia is a higher place, the sum of all attainable improvements, all that we can do better.

Can music make a difference? I believe so. It can bring catharsis, help us work through emotions, and give us a sense of togetherness, not least with Nature – something we need more than ever. To deal with climate change, we need to change our cultural climate too, and Inanna is part of that change. Her ultimate vision is for environmental and animalist topics to be at the very center of culture – where they belong.

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Anders Dunker is a Norwegian environmentalist, journalist, painter, and philosophical writer who has covered future-related issues for a number of publications in his home country. He reviews documentary films and non-fiction books for Modern Times Review, and recently edited The Rediscovery of the Earth – 10 Conversations About the Future of Nature, published in Norwegian, forthcoming in English. As a landscape painter, he has painted in natural sanctuaries such as the Annapurna range in the Nepalese Himalayas and the Dolomites in Italy.

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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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Welcome to the Anthropocene

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

In her 2002 book, On Writing, acclaimed American short story writer and novelist Eudora Welty noted the importance of establishing a strong sense of place in a story when she famously said, “One place can make us understand other places better.”

Most of the artists whom I’ve highlighted in this “Imagining Water” series over the past two-and-a-half years have created work on water issues attributed to the climate crisis that are affecting a particular place, while at the same time, illustrating a global trend. For example, while Xavier Cortada’s participatory community street-sign art project in Miami specifically indicated where sea waters would eventually rise in his hometown, it also called attention to a phenomenon that will certainly occur in other coastal cities around the world as climate disruption worsens. Similarly, when ten prominent musicians from Cape Town, South Africa created 2-minute shower songs to help limit water use during a severe local drought, they were also contributing to a global conversation on creative solutions for critical water shortages everywhere in the years ahead.

Canadian poet, writer and essayist Alice Major is a master at using references to the history, geography and geology of her place – Edmonton, Alberta in Canada – to evoke a sense of alarm about the future of our planet. When we spoke recently, Major called Alberta the “epicenter of climate controversy” in Canada. With both a heightened awareness of the changes occurring in their own environment and also a dependency on the economic rewards of the area’s oil and gas industries, Edmonton residents are conflicted, as are many communities around the globe, between environmental stewardship and economic prosperity. In her poem, Red sky at…, Major references the growing strangeness of winter in Edmonton, the ability they still have to put their concerns about climate disruption to the side and the ever-present need for fossil fuel to feed their furnaces.

January. Grey dawn sky.
The air is warm, unseasonable

softening the snow that seemed invincible
just yesterday. The ravens kronk

in mild surprise, as if to thank
the god of thaw. The furnace stops

and in its wake of silence, thoughts
sift and stir, like cat hair

shifting in the quieted air.
Thoughts, of course, of gratitude

for ice’s release and the beatitudes
fluted out by chickadees –

“Blessed are we
who have survived the minus-twenty

of the last harsh weeks.” But, gently,
the sky turns red – and that means ‘warning.’

Not right now, not on this soft morning.
Danger is not so imminent

as that. But there are incidents
and auguries that show how change

is in the forecast. The winter’s getting strange.
The future’s birth-cord is being twisted

into being and we are complicit
in the spiral, the furnace starting up again

and I.

river-1052x591.jpg
North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton

In many of her poems, Major refers to the North Saskatchewan River, which runs from the Canadian Rockies, through Edmonton and eventually spills into Lake Winnipeg. Although the city currently benefits from a sufficient supply of water from the river, which is fed by glacial ice melt that flows down from the Rockies, the land itself is dry. Fires in the vast Boreal Forest to the north are an ever-present threat. Home base to the tar sands industry, the forest is vulnerable to the tiniest spark, which can set thousands of acres ablaze. The following excerpt from Major’s poem, Mundus, addresses the city’s conflicted relationship with the oil and gas industries, located downstream of the city.

The city’s hearth burns red
as the blood of trapped animals.
Downstream, Refinery Row
creeps to the lip of the river. The countryside beyond 
dotted with gas wells flaring. We send back
tributes, commodities, we need
their open purses.

In addition to poetry, Major has had a life-long interest in science and math, especially cosmology and physics, which she says “have that poetic mystery,” as well as neuroscience and botany. Constantly exploring the meaning of humanity’s place in the universe, she has often applied her scientific knowledge to the work she has published, which includes eleven collections of poetry, two novels for young adults and a collection of essays about poetry and science.

In her latest book, Welcome to the Anthropocene (2018), Major moves from her own personal locality and world to an exploration of the Anthropocene itself, the era of human impact on the planet. The collection’s title poem/essay is written as a ten-part contemporary response to Alexander Pope’s 1731 “An Essay on Man.” In an excerpt from part three of the poem, Major challenges us to consider the possibility that the corvids (birds of the crow family) or invertebrates could have developed intelligence first and dominated the planet rather than primates. Would the world’s cities have been built at the bottom of the sea? Would the planet be in such a state as it is now if this had happened?

Perhaps it could have been the clever corvids
who got here first, heading up the scorecard
of cognition, using their nimble beaks
to master tools, learning new techniques
for modifying their environment,
working the muscle of intelligent
cooperation. The ravens, who already call
in croaking protolanguage, could evolve
the broader pattern of symbolic speech

Or perhaps our niche
might have been filled by the invertebrates
(who started long before us), and the gate
pushed open by a suckered tentacle,
a smarter cephalopod. Chemical
riffs and rattles, changes, might have loosed
cascading adaptation and put to other use
the scintillation of chromatophores.
Imagine colours used for something more
than flares of anger, urgent camouflage.
Imagine a vivid, silent language
sweeping over skin, instinct’s dictation
translated into willed communication.
And then an ocean floor built up with cities,
herded fish-flocks, the patternicity
of gardens, turrets, standing stones, machines – 
all jointly engineered. It might have been.

In part five of the “Welcome to the Anthropocene” poem, Major begins with a witty dismissal of the animal extinctions occurring at a rapid pace throughout the world, then moves to a serious acknowledgement that fear is “growing in us that we have passed some threshold,” beyond which the bubble sustaining the planet will burst. An excerpt from part five is below.

5.

Atoms or systems into ruins hurl’d,
 And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

To all you entries in the global data base
of life: welcome. Welcome to this hyper-space
during which humanity has hacked
into the planet’s history. In this tract
of ad-hoc coding, we’re running trials
like half-assed systems analysts whose files
have never been backed up, reckless geeks
who don’t know when we’ve pressed ‘delete’
once too often. 

Still, we might be content
on a planet with no great auks or elephants,
polar bears or pandas. How often do we meet
Sumatran tigers on our city streets
(or want to)? We could simply look
at legendary beasts in picture books
or videos. They’re nice-to-haves, not musts
for daily life. As for rhinoceros,
white shark or Orinoco crocodile,
who’d care for living with one, cheek by jowl?

We don’t mourn the passing of the mammoth
every morning, nor the vanished giant sloth,
even if our weaponry inventions helped
to push them off extinction’s sharp-edged shelf.
In fact, we’ve benefitted from the cull
of evolution. We’d not be here at all
if dinosaurs had not turned up clawed toes
and left. Yes, it’s too bad about the dodos,
but there are many other lineages
of pigeon. The earth still manages
to maintain its total biomass. That bulk
may shift from balanced muscle to a pulp
of sagging flab around the waist; it matters
not the least. There are as many creatures
living on the planet as have ever been
– even if a lot them are hens.

But fear is growing in us (like a gas
after too rich a meal) that we have passed
some threshold – that we may be rendering
earth derelict, a disaster ending
not just giant pandas but ourselves.
A fear we’re blocking earth’s escape valves
and bio-sinks. Many will dismiss the question –
they say it’s just a touch of indigestion,
we’ll be fine. Besides, they say, it isn’t us –
one good fart of forest-fire exhaust
dwarfs all the output of our vehicles.
Still, doubt’s sour odour lingers in our nostrils
like effluvia wafting from our garbage dunes.
Our conurbations spread their plumes
of carbon far beyond the city limits,
and our roaring engineering mimics
volcanic-level belches every day.

Major is a keen observer of the river and natural environment around her hometown of Edmonton and the way it is changing as a result of climate disruption. She has the dual ability to engage us in this particular locale as well as transport us to a universal place where we can examine the bigger questions of our time: Will we give up some of our worldly comforts to preserve our planet? Will we come to value the other living beings in our world as much as we value ourselves? And how will the era of human dominance over the Earth, the Anthropocene, ultimately end?

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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Brave New Decade – Part 2

By Joan Sullivan

Following up on last month’s post about Rachel Armstrong, the polymath professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University and coordinator of the multi-country Living Architecture project, I want to take a closer look at the role of artists in this metabolic design project. By definition collaborative and trans-disciplinary, Living Architecture aims to cut our umbilical dependence on fossil fuels by re-introducing microbes back into our homes, our buildings and our cities.

Lamenting that “waste materials do not have a high cultural status” in our society, Armstrong explained in an email that “modern design in the Reign of Hygiene regards microbes as ‘dirt’ to be eliminated by wipe-clean ceramics and household cleaning products.” 

But according to Armstrong, “This attitude needs to be turned around if there is to be meaningful uptake and sustained adoption of systems like Living Architecture that deal with our wastes.” To change the public’s negative view of human and household waste, the Living Architecture project collaborates with artists and architectural designers to “imagine the choreography between humans and microbes.” 

“Waste materials do not have a high cultural status.”

Rachel Armstrong

For those who need a quick intro, here’s how Armstrong described living architecture in a recent interview :

Very simply, living architecture is about constructing spaces that possess some of the properties of living things. I see “living” as also inhabiting, so an environment that enriches the quality of living inside it. Not necessarily by being alive or living itself but by creating the possibility of flourishing and happiness – augmenting positive encounters. So “living” is really the modes of inhabitation within a space as much as it is a technology that connect the structures and choreography to the much broader environment and ecology in which the architecture is situated.

The video below illustrates one of the many possible applications of living architecture: replacing interior wall partitions in our bathrooms and kitchens with self-contained microbial “living walls” that could transform liquid human waste (urine and grey water) into usable products such as electricity, biomass, oxygen and polished water. The latter would be recycled back into our toilets, sinks and showers to reduce overall household water consumption.

To some, this may seem like science fiction. To me, living architecture is the kind of radical transformative thinking required to help us survive – and thrive – in the Anthropocene. Living architecture is part of a rapidly evolving global design renaissance that is demonstrating, in so many exciting ways, the critical importance of a healthy and diverse microbiome in all aspects of our lives: inside our bodies as well as within our clothinghomes and built environments

Living architecture can also be viewed as part of a much broader trend towards regenerative, cradle-to-cradle, circular design in which the concept of waste is eliminated across all industries. No more end-of-life planned obsolescence products to be disposed of in landfills. A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design; all waste products are viewed as valuable nutrients or assets to be re-used and upcycled to create or fertilize something else. According to architect William McDonough, co-author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, “In nature, the ‘waste’ of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients, or re-utilized as high quality materials for new products, as technical nutrients without contamination.” 

In 2019, Rachel Armstrong and her Living Architecture colleagues received an EU Innovation Fund grant to develop a biodigital prototype to change cultural responses to human waste and the presence of microbes in our homes. The Active Living Infrastructure: Controlled Environment (ALICE) project is a collaboration between Newcastle University, the University of West of England and Translating Nature. ALICE will design interactive digital interface cubicles for exhibition at biennials and arts festivals where audiences can see their own waste (urine) transformed by microbial fuel cells into off-grid carbon-free electricity to charge mobile devices or light LEDs.

“ALICE is a first-generation biodigital hardware and user experience that translates the activity of microbes into meaningful encounters with human audiences, establishing a trans-species communication platform,” Armstrong explained in an email exchange. “ALICE is a significant step towards engaging with a microbial era. Using low-power electronics and artificial intelligence, ALICE will generate meaningful outputs that can be translated by data artists into a high-quality user experience.”

Dr. Julie Freeman is ALICE’s lead data artist. Co-founder of Translating Nature, Freeman is a prolific digital artist, curator and TED Senior Fellow, with a PhD in computer science. (“Defining Data as an Art Material” is the title of her PhD thesis at Queen Mary University of London.) Freeman will help design ALICE’s digital interface to generate real-time data-driven graphical animations that will allow audiences to interact and “converse” with microbes. Ultimately, these animations will catalyze constructive conversations about the future of sustainability in homes and public buildings, as well as the lifestyle changes implicit in adopting this brave new generation of utilities.

A graphical visual display of the bacterial “inner life” of ALICE, downloaded from Newcastle University

One of the main challenges for Living Architecture (and other forms of metabolic design) is the perceived “unpalatability” of microbes as a design substrate, for designers as well as the general public. According to Armstrong, “Involving artists and architectural designers creates novel, high quality socio-spatial experiences that drive the appropriation of new technologies by end-users and are catalytic in cultural adoption.” 

To increase the visibility and social acceptance of “living technology”, Armstrong and her Living Architecture colleagues share the results of their work widely in both scientific and artistic venues. The latter include major installations at the Venice Art and Architecture Biennales, the Tallinn Architecture Biennale, the Trondheim Art Biennale, and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, among others.

In 2019, London’s Whitechapel Gallery paired Rachel Armstrong with the artist Cécile B. Evans for the experiential Is This Tomorrow? exhibit. Their collaboration, a first, resulted in the enigmatic installation “999 years 13sqm (the future belongs to ghosts)” which was powered by microbial fuel cells developed by the Living Architecture project (see video below).

According to a review in the Evening Standard, Armstrong and Evans’ installation challenged audiences to consider “a third way between utopia and dystopia – the energy of living microbes rather than the dead, which make up fossil fuels.” 

Throughout this and my previous post, you will have noticed that the key word associated with living architecture is “collaboration.” Armstrong clearly shines when she is working across multiple disciplines simultaneously with her diverse network of colleagues. I found this brilliant quote from It’s Nice That which illustrates just how radical and transformative collaboration can be when used to solve third millennium challenges. When asked about the role of architects in the 21st century, Armstrong explained, humbly:

The 21st-century architect is not going to be the kind of iconic genius designer who makes the perfect form. It’s not going to be all about an individual ego. We’re seeing that also with things like the Nobel Prizes. These are not one-person, egotistic enterprises. These are communities of creatives. The role of the designer is not at the peak of the hierarchy. It’s further down on the infrastructure, it’s actually creating the conditions for events, forms of livability, and experiences of spaces. So, in fact, we are taking ourselves out of the role of God and actually becoming part of the soil of the city.

Amen.

(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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Climate Change Theatre Action 2019: This Is How We Respond to the Burning World

By Thomas Peterson

Since mid-September I’ve been greeted daily by emails, zooming in from all over the world, describing performances of short plays about the climate crisis. Somewhere between one and 700 people attended each of these performances, which occurred not just at theaters but also at universities, in elementary schools, parks, community centers, churches, and public squares, and even on kayaks. The plays were performed in cities, from Manila to Nairobi to New York; in towns like Lamoni, Iowa, and Duino, Italy; and outdoors in places like Lair o’ the Bear Park in Colorado and on Biscayne Bay in Florida.

The emails sometimes tell of disappointments – a smaller audience than expected, a last-minute venue change, park rangers interrupting at inopportune moments – but they also celebrate successes – a sold-out run, demand for a reprise in the spring, requests from local government to bring the plays to schools throughout the city, an invitation to perform at the European Parliament. I’ve learned that audiences often laughed together, shared fears and anxieties about the climate emergency at hand, and then left the performance feeling hopeful, joyful, even motivated. That’s no small feat. It is difficult – difficult, but vitally important – to spend sustained time thinking about global heating without despairing. I’ve been trying to hold on to that hope and that motivation. 

As 2019 began, I was less than a year out of college, studying theatre on a post-graduate fellowship at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. Everything was burning. Massive wildfires incinerated vast swaths of land on nearly every continent as 2018 flickered out. Flares and tear gas erupted in the streets of Paris every Saturday as the gilets jaunes protested the Macron government’s economically regressive attempts to limit carbon emissions with a fuel tax. In a matter of months I would join Parisians in the streets on Fridays, alongside tens of thousands of other students inspired by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” movement. The necessity of rapid, just, equitable climate action had never been more clear to me. 

I started thinking about staging the climate crisis because of a play I had seen at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers near Paris in December 2018. A mostly wordless piece exploring the aftermath of a plane crash near a desert island, Philippe Quesne’s Crash park: la vie d’une île inspired me to read French philosopher Bruno Latour’s latest essay, cited by one of the characters in the play. In the essay, titled Où atterir? (literally “where to land?,” though it has been translated into English as Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime), Latour argues that, to be effective, any political response to the linked crises of climate and economic inequality requires reinvesting in local environmental stewardship and addressing local grievances, all while retaining open and globally-minded ways of thinking and being. 

Latour calls for a re-description of the specific landscapes in which we live in the manner of the cahiers de doléances, the lists of grievances contributed by every community in France in 1789, which constituted a full accounting of the political and environmental conditions of the country. The cahiers offered communities an opportunity for critical evaluation of conditions of life under the government of Louis XVI, and this opportunity for widespread, relatively democratic reflection catalyzed the revolution, which eventually brought many of the reforms called for in the cahiers.

When people were given the opportunity to consider the particular political and environmental grievances of the places they called home, they realized that changes could be made that would dramatically improve their lives. Latour argues that a similar, contemporary political accounting by communities around the world would create the kind of local investment and stewardship that would render climate change a “backyard” issue for everyone, not just the frontline communities that are already fighting extraction operations, rising seas, deforestation, and other threats to their survival. 

Caiti Lattimer, Brandon Curtis Smith, and Adam Basco-Mahieddine in “Setting the Stage for a Better Planet,” the global launch event for Climate Change Theatre Action 2019 presented in New York. Photo by Yadin Goldman. 

As a theatre-maker and director, I wondered if the ephemerality and live-ness of theatre might serve as useful tools to stimulate climate action and environmental stewardship at the community level. What other form could exert a localizing influence in our increasingly globalized art and media landscape? After all, theatre is a medium that must necessarily be local, in some sense of the word, but which persistently examines global perspectives. Theatre could even be defined as “the local reinterpretation of globally accessible texts.” I wondered how to make theatre out of Latour’s ideas about climate and politics. Latour seems to be wondering the same thing.

I set about googling “theatre” and “climate change” and very quickly came upon Climate Change Theatre Action. I learned that this work was already occurring on a global scale: every two years, a New York-based organization called The Arctic Cycle, founded by playwright Chantal Bilodeau, commissions fifty playwrights from around the world to write short plays about the climate crisis. These plays are made freely available so that communities around the world can create place-specific events. Global texts, community-based local events.

The fifty short works are written in a range of forms and on a range of issues: global and local, massive and minute, practical and existential. They include folktales retold for an age of mass extinction, absurd farces on climate denialism and political ineptitude, tragicomedies navigating anxieties about individual and societal environmental impacts. Reading and analyzing the plays was an education in the diversity of aesthetic and representational approaches to the climate crisis. 

I joined the Climate Change Theatre Action team after moving to New York this past summer, stage-managing our launch event in the city before leaping into the herculean organizational task of recording and cataloguing the performances around the world that would follow in the coming months. This is when I started to get the emails, the ones telling of laugher and hope and joy in spite of the challenges at hand. 

Map of Climate Change Theatre Action events occurring globally December 12-21, 2019.

It has been thrilling to see the impact of this Dropbox folder of fifty short plays as feedback has rolled into my inbox. At latest count, between September 15 and December 21, 2019, community-oriented theatre actions took place in 225 locations around the world (a 60% increase from the 2015 edition of the initiative), including all fifty US states and every inhabited continent. These performances engaged 2,892 artists, organizers, and activists, reaching 11,988 live audience members and another 10,415 and counting via radio, podcast, and livestream. The initiative engaged more than 25,000 people, more than double the number impacted by Climate Change Theatre Action 2017. 

But the numbers don’t tell the story of the performance in Lebanon postponed due to ongoing protests against political corruption and economic inequality, nevertheless rescheduled for a few weeks later; or about finding solace in the plays during a horrific wildfire season in Australia; or about a performance in a town in West Virginia with high rates of climate denial receiving coverage from a local TV station (yes, the headline does say that the event aimed to “encourage climate change” – we’ll chalk it up to an editing error!). They don’t tell you about “engrossed” audiences at an event in Mumbai produced by the National Center for the Performing Arts, or about a “galvanizing evening for Calgarian citizens used to being shamed for expressing concern or taking action on climate change,” curated by Ashley Bodiguel and Vicki Stroich in Calgary, Alberta. Nor do the statistics tell you about Professor Alyssa Schmidt’s students at the Boston Conservatory, who “proved to themselves that theatre can be a change agent in sustainable practice and living, as well as a home for those extreme feelings such as deep grief or abiding joy.”

These emails may not answer Latour’s call for contemporary cahiers de doléances, but they do offer evidence of communal perseverance and hope, incontrovertible proof that small groups of people around the world are meeting and listening and planning for a future together on this rapidly changing planet. This is how we respond to the burning world. We unite, gathering for a few hours in our beloved localities to share joy and inspire action. With each Climate Change Theatre Action feedback email, this message becomes a little clearer.

(Top Image: Afua Busia and Marsha Cann in “Climate Change Theatre Action Uptown,” at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) in New York. Photo by Yadin Goldman.) 

Thomas Peterson is a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis. He is an Artistic Associate with The Arctic Cycle, co-organizing Climate Change Theatre Action. He recently returned from a Harvard Williams-Lodge Scholarship in Paris, where he wrote a thesis on the aesthetic of the sublime in the theatrical representation of the Anthropocene. He created Roy Loves America, a multi-form performance piece about Roy Cohn, and is developing an original adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. This spring he will direct Kat Zhou’s adaptation of Boris Vian’s The Empire Builders at the Booth Theatre at Boston University. His engagement in climate activism stretches back to high school, when he led a successful fossil fuel divestment campaign.

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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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