Artists and Climate Change

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The Loneliest Species

“The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Somewhere along the line, we forgot that we are not alone on this planet.

Or, put another way: we forgot that this world is not simply ours for the taking.

The logic behind our isolation is not a new. It emerged in the Renaissance; look at Charles de Bovelles’ Book of Wisdom, in which the order of living and nonliving things on earth are illustrated in this way, from bottom to top: rocks, plants, animals and then man, who stands alone in his capacity for understanding.

Our anthropocentrism has shaped the world around us as technological advantages have surged forward. Our superpredator mindset has supported our endless appetite for resources: trees, livestock, land, all of it is ours for the taking. We’re the top of the food chain, so what’s the problem with humans only looking out for humans?

Extinct, written & directed by Kate Douglas. Photo by Stephanie Crousillat.

The cracks in this thinking are visible not only in the world around us (mass extinctions, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, acidification of the ocean) – but also in our psycho-emotional lives. We have lost our sense of legacy, time and most importantly, how to be part of a community instead of a food chain. A 2018 study by Cigna found that nearly 50 percent of Americans feel lonely – but perhaps there is something deeper at work here.

There is a term called Species Loneliness that Robin Wall Kimmerer describes in her book Braiding Sweetgrass as “a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship.”

For me, there is a profound truth in acknowledging our isolation as a symptom of our anthropocentric culture. It is at this moment when we are teetering on the brink of self-destruction that we need to nourish our relationship with the other living beings on this planet and reckon with our responsibilities.

Extinct, written & directed by Kate Douglas. Photo by Stephanie Crousillat.

I believe art can be a part of this shift in consciousness. My work aims to restore our mindset to the broad inclusiveness of plants as protagonists. Through such tools I hope to promote dialogue about nourishment, connectedness, and respect of humans and nonhumans alike. I believe the impact of creating a culture of people who freely whisper to trees and flowers can change our sensitivities to our impact on this planet in a visceral way.

I am currently developing several immersive theatre works in this vein, as I believe the medium has an enormous capacity for evoking visceral shifts in perspective in audiences. My environmental education and connection has taken place largely outside New York City (I study herbalism in Vermont, and I began my Master Naturalist Training this fall at Cornell University), and I am keen to bring this consciousness into my urban community in an acute way.

The first work I am developing is a children’s show called Middlemist Red. It aims to surprise children of the digital age with an analog mystery adventure in a greenhouse that emphasizes themes of interdependence, recycling, and sustainability. The second work is an uncanny dystopian dance theatre work called Extinct, set in a very strange office where productivity is synonymous with happiness and there is a strange infestation of plants growing up through people’s desks. This surreal work leaves space for audiences to investigate their relationship to nourishment, connectedness, and fulfillment as we enter the Sixth Extinction. My future goals include creating immersive experiences that surprise children with a plant-centric mystery and adventure inside of classrooms.

Key art from Middlemist Red, written & directed by Kate Douglas. Designed by Brendan Duggan.

I am particularly focused on youth as in my previous work with them, I have seen how easily and fluently they interact with plant life: telling them secrets, asking them for permission to pick them, and more. I believe the more we can nurture these tendencies from a young age, the sooner we can shift our culture from one of loneliness to one of environmental stewardship and responsibility for our non-human neighbors. We could all stand to be better neighbors.

This naturalist reverence is inside of us already. It just needs to be remembered and nourished. I hope my work can be a part of reactivating that piece of our imagination.

(Top image: Extinct, written & directed by Kate Douglas. Photo by Stephanie Crousillat.)

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Kate Douglas is a theatre artist seeking to challenge audiences about the limits of their world. Recent works include her immersive piece Extinct, which was awarded a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Middlemist Red, currently in development with New Victory LabWorks. Her work has been performed at Ars Nova, Joe’s Pub, and The McKittrick Hotel, and developed at SPACE at Ryder Farm, Rhinebeck Musicals, The National Theater Institute, and the Writer’s Colony at Goodspeed. As a complement to her artistic practice, she is studying medicinal herbalism and began her Master Naturalist training this fall at Cornell University.

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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 Do Food and Art Have to Do With Each Other?

It’s not often that a blind date works out so magnificently, but in this case it did: two months ago I was contacted by C-Platform, an arts organization in Xiamen, China to organize the Food Art Film Festival with them, an event I have been organizing at the Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, The Netherlands. We didn’t know each other – they found me online through some of my writings for Artists and Climate Change!

Luckily, this was a match made in heaven and I am so grateful; through our many amazing meals and conversations about food, art, and nature, I learned a lot about Chinese culture and customs. It became once again abundantly clear that nature and culture are intricately connected. Nature influences our culture – for example, in how we use it as inspiration or as material (wood, plants for pigments, stone, etc.). But culture influences nature possibly even more. The way we relate to nature determines how we value it and how we treat it. In our modern culture of consumption, we haven’t been treating it very well, leading to all kinds of problems from climate change to pollution of air, water, and soil. We have created a multitude of chemicals to clean with, build with, even to eat and make art with – just think of photographic emulsions and paints. The problems we have created strongly affect the quality of what we eat, as well as our health and well-being.

With the Food Art Film Festival in Xiamen, we, of course, wanted to celebrate good food because we do love good food. But it is precisely because we love good food so much that we want to ask questions about how to keep it great for the future, both for ourselves and future generations. The films  included in the festival ask some of these questions. For example, Chloé Rutzerveld‘s work explores the conceptual idea of eating meat grown on our own bodies. Meat production, especially beef, is one of the biggest sources of carbon emission on the planet, because of the methane released by cows. Whole tropical rainforests – the lungs of the world – are being burned down so we can grow soy to feed the animals that we eat. If we continue like this there will be no forest left, forcing us to ask questions about our meat intake. How about growing meat in labs? Rutzerveld asks: “How far are we willing to go to eat meat?” In her project In vitro Me, she suggests to grow meat on our own bodies, using our own cells. Would we still eat meat if we had to grow and harvest it from our own bodies?

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In vitro Me, downloaded from http://www.chloerutzerveld.com/invitrome

Another key issue artists are engaging with, especially in light of post-colonial discourse, is the cultural history and heritage of the fruits, herbs, vegetables and spices that we eat. This question is central to the work of artists Jonmar van Vlijmen and Ronald Boer, aka De Onkruidenier (an untranslatable Dutch pun). Their artistic practice revolves around the role wild plants play in our life; they bring back the story of unwanted and forgotten plants, highlighting their medicinal, cultural, and historical value, or their value as foods.

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SWEET-SWEAT by De Onkruidenier in collaboration with Rosanne van Wijk.

Through artistic fieldwork, experiments, and learning from forgotten knowledge, De Onkruidenier re-interprets our relationship with plants and nature. One of the artists’ latest research topics is the relationship between sugar and salt. As part of their residency, they asked how we can evolve a salt-inclusive life. With rising sea levels, farmlands and cities are increasingly threatened by salt pollution and flooding. In their performative workshop “SWEET-SWEAT,” they collaboratively re-think the urban metabolism by connecting body, food, and landscape into an intuitive map based on our basic cravings for water, sugar, and salt. This performance is rooted in their discovery that the sugar beet – one of the most cultivated crops in the Netherlands – is able to grow in very salty soil. They were interested in the halo-tolerance of the sugar beet and traced its ancestry back to the beach beet, a sturdy beet that grows in coastal areas.

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Seeds of different beets. The blue one is generally used by farmers (it contains pesticides).

The work of solar designer Marjan van Aubel is also presented as part of the Food Art Film Festival. In collaboration with scientists and architects, she developed a greenhouse that harvests its own energy using solar technology integrated into the glass. This means that every surface of the construction is productive. The energy gained from the solar cells is used to power and maintain the greenhouse’s indoor climate, and a hydroponic system that pumps around nutrient-infused water comprising a mix of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. This reduces water usage by up to 90 percent compared to traditional soil farming.

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Power Plant by Marjan van Aubel.

Furthermore, new technologies in the form of pink and blue LED lights are used, promoting leaf growth and increased vitamin C levels. The light enhances and controls plant growth, allowing for a fourfold yield increase. Using these self-powering greenhouses on top of office or restaurant buildings, for example, could massively reduce global food miles.

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Detail of Power Plant.

Last but certainly not least, there is the hilarious work of artist Ben Hagari. His film Fresh introduces a hypothetical situation wherein a man, covered entirely in vegetables (yet still recognizable as human), resides in a greenhouse – the quintessential hybrid of nature and culture. He interacts with insects, machines, and other humans in encounters that border on the absurd: vegetables are turned into instruments or harvested from his body by a chef, revealing an occasional nipple.

We often speak of the problematic separation between human (culture) and nature when we analyze what’s at the root of environmental degradation. American philosopher Carolyn Merchant has written extensively on this separation, including in her well-known book The Death of Nature, in which she points to the Scientific Revolution as the moment when nature became increasingly viewed as a machine that could be experimented with and understood through reason. This understanding gave rise to unlimited experiments on animals and the objectification all non-human life. Also, the vegetable-man in Ben Hagari’s Fresh is subjected to different kinds of mysterious monitoring, leaving the viewer with unanswered questions about both human health and the ‘health’ of the food we eat. Regardless of the answers to these questions, if this is what is looks like when we stop separating human and nature, it will leave a big smile on your face.

The Food Art Film Festival in Xiamen runs until December 2, 2018. You can download the brochure for the festival here.

(Top image: Still from Fresh by Ben Hagari, 2014.)

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

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

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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From Heaviness to Hope

With the US midterm election still a week away, wariness and cautious optimism hung in the air at our second Salon on October 29th. Before diving into our Fellows’ projects, everyone shared what had been on their minds since the last gathering. From the upcoming election to the emotional and physical impacts of environmental injustices to asking how humans and trees handle the stress of climate change, a common theme emerged: Under the weight of so much uncertainty and trauma, where do we find relief?

This idea of heaviness and hope also runs through the work of our Fellows. Shy Richardson and Karina Yager, who are investigating the displacement of Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria, structure their process around weekly writing prompts focused on key themes or words. This week, they reflected on the idea of “category.” For hurricanes, the category system is used as part of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale which measures sustained wind speeds and assigns ratings. Categories 1 and 2, with top speeds of 95 mph and 110 mph respectively, are said to cause mild to extensive damage. For category 3, wind speeds top out at 129 mph and for category 4 winds can reach 156 mph creating devastating damage. Any wind speed above that is called a category 5 and creates damage considered catastrophic.

These are useful scientific distinctions, but what do they actually mean to people on the ground? When a news anchor calls something a superstorm, a tropical cyclone, or a category 3 hurricane, does that impact our understanding or influence our reactions? The team sought to examine “category” not just in scientific terms, but also through a human perspective. They are looking at wind speed and material damage in concert with resilience, emotion and survival. As they begin their interviews with those affected by Hurricane Maria, the team hopes to learn not only what was lost, but also what was preserved and sustained, and how survivors are finding ways to redefine their lives.

Associate Fellows Aya Lane and Imani Dennison are also engaging with individual experiences as they create their multimedia performance piece, Drexciya, to examine water as a source of both oppression and healing. Aya played an audio recording of an interview Imani conducted with Clarence Roby who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Growing up in New Orleans, he says hurricanes were a part of life. He describes hurricane parties held on cancelled school days in which kids were outside “dancing in chaos.”

Katrina was different. Though a hurricane hit, he says “it was a man-made error that submerged us.” Structurally-flawed levees crumbled, flooding predominantly Black neighborhoods. About 80% of New Orleans was underwater and The Center for Social Inclusion reported that 44% of those residents in areas damaged by the broken levees were Black. In addition to the abysmal federal relief response, Aya referred to the troubling media coverage, where Black people were categorized as criminals and looters while white people were characterized as desperately hoping to provide food for their families. It’s wrong to refer to Hurricane Katrina as simply a natural disaster – it wasn’t just wind and water at play, but also economic inequality, racial segregation and structural racism. Roby recalls meeting up years later with a childhood friend, one he wasn’t even sure survived the hurricane, at Howard University. In his story of destruction, injustice, inequity and displacement, we were left with the beauty of this reconnection on a HBCU campus.

During the Salon, Superhero Clubhouse Co-Director Lani Fu talked about theatremaking as a group enterprise with high risk (due to the vulnerability in performing and creating material for others) taking place in a safe space. She went on to explain that in such a space, great transformation and healing can take place because participants are allowed to change: their minds, their presumptions, their habitual ways of knowing. In a world of heaviness, theatre is a place where we strive to build bridges to new understandings. Our Fellows’ projects are building important connections and engaging in conversations between science, environmental justice, personal and public histories, and creativity. And that’s a cause for hope.

(Top image: Several areas of New Orleans flooded due to the levee break during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA.)

This is the second of seven blogs in a series called “Building Bridges,” about the intersection of environmental justice and performance. These blogs will be responding to a monthly Salon taking place at The Lark in New York where our Fellows, Associate Fellows, and others in the Superhero Clubhouse community are exploring this intersection in their own ways.

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Megan McClain is the resident dramaturg for SHC’s series of Planet Plays, Flying Ace, and other projects and co-leads The Salon. As R&D Program Director at the Civilians, she’s guided the work of over 70 writers, composers, and directors creating original works of investigative theatre. She is also the Accessibility Manager at The Lark. Additional dramaturgical/literary work for Goodman Theatre, Disney Theatrical, Hartford Stage, PlayPenn, Playwrights Realm and more. M.F.A Dramaturgy: UMass Amherst.

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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 is Just around the Corner!

WE’RE DOING IT AGAIN!

Climate Change Theatre Action 2019 is just around the corner. Once again, we’re bringing 50 new climate change plays by 50 international playwrights into the world. We’re lighting the way and imagining together how to create the just and sustainable future we all deserve.

To get the project underway, we need to raise $15,000 by December 13th – our most ambitious campaign yet! – so we can commission our playwrights. We would love for you to become part of this amazing community of changemakers. Can you chip in $10, $25, $50 or more? Every contribution level gets you some cool perks that we have lovingly put together for you as an expression of our gratitude.

This is an all-or-nothing deal: either we reach or goal, or we get no money at all. Please contribute generously and help us spread the word by sharing this campaign with your networks. Are you with us?

I'M WITH YOU

Cultivating a Post-Carbon Vision

“We need a vision for what the post-carbon economy looks like… that is inspiring enough and delivers enough in terms of jobs, in terms of opportunities, in terms of health. It has to be exciting!”
— Naomi Klein

I have always loved this quote by Naomi Klein, from the 2014 documentary film Disruption by Kelly Nyks and Jared Scott. Over the years, I have adopted it as a guiding mantra for my photography, something I think about every time I visit a renewable energy construction site. Surrounded by heavy machinery, noise and dust, I seek moments of grace and beauty, like this sea of wind turbine blades in Québec:

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Wind turbine blades. Port of Cacouna, Québec, Canada. Photo © 2014 Joan Sullivan.

I can’t think of anything more important than trying to inspire others to visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. As Project Drawdown‘s Katherine Wilkinson said recently in an interview with The Regeneration Magazine:

“We also need a clear and credible vision worth fighting for, beyond averting catastrophe.”
— Katherine Wilkinson

So how do we cultivate this post-carbon vision?

By focusing on the positive, on solutions, on the way forward. By changing the mood music, according to Jonathon Porritt. By not talking about climate at all, according to Paul Hawken – “Two degrees Celsius in 2050 is conceptually vacuous to almost everyone.” – and instead, focusing on something much more tangible: dignified, family-wage jobs for the millions of people who will build our post-carbon economy. This is my favorite Drawdown recommendation. It is also the subject of my current pan-Canadian photo project that focuses on job creation and the human side of the energy transition.

We can also cultivate a post-carbon vision by deliberately, consciously choosing to look beyond the doom-and-gloom climate narratives and instead, imagine ourselves in a world we would love to live in – clean air, clean water, living buildings, regenerative agriculture, access to health, housing, education and energy for all.

In the past, it was imagination that propelled homo sapiens forward. In the future, it is imagination that will ensure our existence in a rapidly changing world.

Imagination and inspiration are the heart and soul of the re-conceptualized Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center (formerly Visitor Center) in Seattle, Washington. This wonderful space all but guarantees that visitors will “leave inspired” from their hands-on experience with a variety of interactive exhibits, each of which explores innovative solutions to some of the most pressing global challenges being addressed by the foundation.

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Gates Foundation Visitor Center, now Discovery Center. Photo by Frank Catalano/GeekWire photo.

While stopping climate change does not fit neatly within any of the foundation’s five main program areas, many of the projects funded by the Gates Foundation – family planning, educating girls, clean cookstoves and women smallholders – are listed among Project Drawdown‘s top 100 solutions to reverse global warming. Furthermore, Bill Gates has recently written about his own investments in renewable energy storage and a five-point climate change plan on his blog. As a result, visitors to the Gates Foundation Discovery Center who are interested in creating positive climate narratives will gain valuable insights from the foundation’s best practices for inspiring people all over the world to take action on a host of global problems.

According to Aleen Adams, Curator of Exhibits at the Discovery Center, sanitation is one of the broader multi-pronged funding strategies of the Gates Foundation. “The foundation sees investing in sanitation solutions as a fundamental building block in the efforts to reduce the spread of disease, save lives and improve energy use.” Earlier this month, Mr. Gates traveled to China for the Reinvented Toilet Expo where several sewer-less toilet prototypes were on display, including the Cranfield Nanomembrane Toilet which is a popular interactive exhibit at the Discovery Center (see photo below). “There are few things I love talking about more,” Mr. Gates admitted on his blog. “Sanitation is one of the most important issues we work on.”

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The Cranfield Nanomembrane Toilet, which turns waste into water and electricity, is one of the many interactive permanent exhibits at the Gates Foundation Discovery Center. By opening and closing the toilet’s lid, visitors initiate the turning of a screw that separates liquids from solids. A gasifier converts the solids into ash and heat that is used to operate the toilet. Photo reprinted with permission.

To get people involved, the Discovery Center has created a “Get Involved” gallery, where visitors can take a quiz to discover how their unique skills and talents could be used to help solve a variety of global problems. Visitors are then encouraged to take the next step by designing their own media campaign for a cause of their choice – clean cookstoves, eradicating polio, and off-grid toilets that generate their own water and power, to name just a few.

The “Get Involved” gallery also includes a hands-on workshop where visitors can roll up their sleeves and help assemble kits for Pacific Northwest-based organizations with local and/or international reach. In the past, visitors have helped make menstrual pads for girls and winter kits for homeless youth. The current action project involves making pet blankets for the Seattle Humane Society’s project that helps homeless people and their pets.

A new temporary exhibit at the Discovery Center called Design with the 90% is running from September 13, 2018 through May 11, 2019. Curated by Cynthia E. Smith, Curator of Socially Responsible Design for Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, this important exhibit demonstrates how design can be a dynamic force for social change.

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Eight out of the 26 projects (31/%) in this exhibit address clean energy and/or energy efficiency. Each of these eight projects contributes, in one way or another, to the energy transition, to our post-carbon future, in which communities will become distributed energy producers and consumers, simultaneously. This will help achieve universal access to electricity and clean cooking, as defined by the Sustainable Development Goal SDG 7: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable and modern energy for all by 2030.”

Many of the designers of these energy-related projects come from the country in which the project is implemented. For example, Bernard Kiwis, a Tanzanian electrician and bicycle mechanic, designed the Bicycle Phone Charger, an off-grid mobile phone charger made from scrap bike and radio parts. After several years of developing charger prototypes, Mr. Kiwis finalized his design to be able to charge all mobile phones, which are used by 75% of Tanzanians yet the majority of them do not have access to the electrical grid. Mr. Kiwis’ Bicycle Phone Charger fills an important niche.

In Bangladesh, the architect Mohammed Rezwan has collaborated with local wooden boat builders to convert discarded flat-bottom riverboats into floating schools, libraries, health clinics and training centers for parents. Collectively, these Floating Community Lifeboats  serve 115,000 people per year. The boats’ roofs are outfitted with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, which charge computers, lights, mobile phones, medical equipment and solar lanterns.

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One of the Floating Community Lifeboats, with a solar panel installed on the roof. Photo reprinted with permission.
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In Nigeria, the low-tech Pot-In-Pot helps small farmers to keep their market vegetables fresher for longer without electricity. Photo reprinted with permission.

The Nigerian teacher Mohammed Bah Abba has designed, in collaboration with local potters, the Pot-In-Pot Cooler, a simple low-cost solution that helps rural farmers keep their local produce fresh for weeks (instead of days). Based upon a simple passive cooling technique common dating back to ancient Egypt, the Pot-In-Pot system consists of one small earthenware pot nestled within a larger pot, with the space between them filled with sand and water. When that water evaporates, it pulls heat from the interior of the smaller pot in which vegetables and fruits remain cool without electricity. This simple yet ingenious solution helps rural farmers, especially women smallholders, generate more income for their families.

Founded in Guatemala, the successful Maya Pedal project designs, manufactures and distributes over 20 different models of bicimaquinas (bike machines) made from recycled bicycles throughout Latin America. Originally designed as human-powered agricultural machines, the Maya Pedal project expanded to include a broad range of applications, including a bomba (water pump) and a bicilicuadora (blender) used to make shampoos. The fully Guatemalan workshop supports micro-entreprises, energy independence and sustainable development to improve the environment, health, productivity and the economy of local families.

Kudos to the Gates Foundation for creating opportunities like these that push us beyond “seeking knowledge about a problem” to asking – and acting upon – a more important question: “How can I contribute to solving this problem?” The simple act of asking ourselves this question ignites a spark that is difficult to extinguish by those who would otherwise prefer to make us feel helpless in the face of global challenges. Instead of passive bystanders, we become active parts of the solution. And the beautiful thing we learn in the process is that many of the solutions to some of our greatest challenges – such as the Archimedes screw used in the nanomembrane toilet or ancient passive cooling techniques applied in the Pot-In-Pot – already exist. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we do need all hands on deck.

Go ahead, take the plunge: Get Involved. That’s the critical first step to cultivating a post-carbon vision.

(Top image: Drone photography by Joan Sullivan.)

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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 Ello, Twitter 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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Art on a Damaged Planet: The Theatre in the Age of Climate Change Convening

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

From 8 to 10 June 2018, HowlRound, in partnership with Chantal Bilodeau (The Arctic Cycle), Elizabeth Doud (Climakaze Miami/Fundarte), and Roberta Levitow (Theatre Without Borders), hosted Theatre in the Age of Climate Change, one of four convenings selected as part of the HowlRound Challenge. This effort brought together a collection of artists, activists, scientists, and educators working at the intersection of climate change and performing arts for three days of reflection, strategizing, and sharing. Much of the convening is archived on HowlRound TV.

I accepted my invitation to the convening with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome, insecure with my qualifications as an attendee. Perhaps you feel it too: this sense of confusion and inadequacy about what it means to be an artist-advocate. When HowlRound invited me to be the designated report-writer, I felt a huge wave of relief – this meant I could bear witness to the events of the weekend, participate to an extent, and put my anxieties about being among the incredibly accomplished folks in the room aside. But the event was inviting – it was a place for everyone to provide what they could towards a shared goal. By bringing together folks of different backgrounds, affinities, and – yes – experience levels, the convening was uniquely aligned to create a sense of shared culture and identify next steps. If I have a seat at this table, you do, too.

In this report, I will present a summary of themes and outcomes from the convening. The outcomes, of course, continue to form, grow, and change. Those who are interested should be inspired to affect and support their development.

The “How”

The convening used every possible detail as an opportunity to demonstrate its values – sustainability, equity, and collaboration – from the amenities to the format of the weekend itself.

In their proposal for the event, Bilodeau, Doud, and Levitow wrote,

Up until now, artists and organizations have been working in isolation without an identity or service entity to guide organizing efforts. But we can’t afford to let things emerge organically anymore; we must organize and leverage greater networking and resources to do this work, so that deep thinking can translate to more numerous and impactful projects by a wide range of practitioners.

To that end, the premise of the convening was unique: without hierarchy, every participant’s contributions and experiences held equal weight. Where most traditional conferences are often concerned with showcasing individual accomplishments and applauding progress (whether or not those are stated goals), this convening was concerned with critical reflection, idea-generation, and looking ahead. During her welcome to the group, Doud acknowledged the reality that the convening was conceived by three white women and shared that this element inspired them to connect the dots to racial justice through the weekend’s format. “We deliberately decided not to bring in an outside facilitator; we decided in the end it would be best to call on the wisdom in the room to do the facilitating… to share that charge.” Doud also placed a critical theme of the convening front and center, stating: “The work of undoing racism is paramount to the work of climate and environmental justice, and it feels like we need to have more conversations about that.”

Elizabeth Doud speaking to convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

The format succeeded in decentralizing leadership, providing frameworks for collective thought, and ensuring synergy among artists and ideas. Here’s what I mean:

  • Inner/outer circles: Three discussions were led (“What’s the reality? What’s working?,” “How do we double our impact?,” and “Are we thinking radically enough?”). In each, ten participants began a conversation in an inner circle, while the other participants listened actively from an outside circle. Eventually, the inner and outer circles melded and the conversation continued with all participants invited to speak. This format fostered active listening and discourse.
  • Creation of working groups: The group was invited to share specific and actionable next steps for advancing the goals of climate-concerned practitioners in the performing arts world. Some of the more outside-the-box ideas that came up included:
  1.  An app designed to promote the use of eco-friendly and reusable materials for theatre design.
  2.  A performance-art traveling tent revival focusing on testimonies related to environmental racism and injustice.
  3.  A campaign to inspire theatre companies from around the world to each present a “theatrical season for change.”
  4.  A series of public-facing residencies focused on stories about sustainable lifestyles, particularly food sourcing.
  5.  A curated series of cross-university collaborations of courses in dialogue with each other.

The group identified themes and links among these ideas and grouped them accordingly. Categorizing the ideas was, at times, contentious, but the group ultimately conceded that ideas could touch multiple themes. Participants then divided themselves into working groups, each connected to a theme.

  • Working group meetings: Each working group met three times with the stated goal of identifying actionable steps around their chosen theme. Participants were invited to move freely among working groups for maximum cross-pollination.
  • Open mic night: Participants from the convening and outside guests shared monologues, poems, trailers, videos, and songs demonstrating their own artistic practices – I even got up and read a monologue from my play (We Are) The Antarcticans. While, yes, the entertainment (and libations) made this especially fun, I found the open mic to also be among the most valuable events of the weekend: it was our first opportunity to directly encounter each other’s artistic work and sensibilities. The intimate sharing, opened up to members of the interested Boston public, allowed for interpersonal appreciations that became invaluable for final steps the next morning, and a rewarding opportunity to share our work more broadly.
  • Closing: Participants made pledges of individual goals to the group. While the premise of such an act may seem focused on discrete actions, this discussion led to an examination of our individual skill sets, networks, and resources and, by extension, opportunities to snowball them into collective and cooperative change.

A More Intentional Vocabulary

One of the benefits for a novice like me was clarification about some of the common vocabulary in this burgeoning field. Here’s a quick look at some terms that were unpacked:

“Extraction” was a new term for me; I only thought about “extract” as far as vanilla flavoring goes. “Extraction” may refer to the acquiring of naturally occurring resources – oil easily comes to mind. A movement exercise on Saturday morning led by Annalisa Dias and Jayeesha Dutta invited participants to create images with their bodies to illustrate “extraction” and “regeneration.” (If you’d like to read more about this powerful exercise, please read Dias’s HowlRound article “The Possibilities of Generative Futures and Embodied Practice.”) I won’t presume to quantify (or qualify) the artistic success of the exercise, but I would argue that it highlighted how these terms are rough opposites. The movement exercise seemed to resonate powerfully for many participants, opening up emotional and visceral sensations using a planetary point-of-view. In conversation with Dutta, I learned about StoryShift’s principles and praxis, which highlight ways in which storytelling itself can be extractive and provides frameworks within which storytelling can occur thoughtfully. It’s worth a read.

I always knew “sustainability” in reference to the endeavor of sustaining the environment, and I was surprised to be presented with its logical but contradictory other meaning: when “sustaining” means preserving problematic patterns and practices as they are. Practitioners in the room are largely interested in interrupting current patterns and practices, not sustaining them. For our purposes, “sustainability” was accepted to refer to “sustainable practice,” wherein businesses, organizations, and individuals match all their life practices with environmentally conscious methods.

“Climate change” is a phrase that requires unpacking and examination. “Global warming,” once popular, made way for “climate change,” as “warming” does not adequately describe all of the consequences of human activities that damage the planet, cause sea levels to rise, lead to the accumulation of toxins and ocean desalinization, etc. Because, yes, some regions cool rather than warm. During the Saturday morning reflection, Una Chaudhuri directed the group towards Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, a book whose title resonates with her as a concise description of current affairs. My understanding is the most basic: our climate is changing, and, political implications aside, the term “climate change” endeavors to describe that obvious fact.

“Climate change theatre” was not ever identified in strict terms. In fact, some participants represented disciplines that, though closely related, would not fall directly under “theatre,” including podcasting, filmmaking, television, education, scientific research, dance, and other performative modes. Among the practitioners in the room, there was invitation to challenge the premise of “climate change theatre.” In their own work, many practitioners regard climate change as a lens through which to examine stories whose features are not directly about climate change. Perhaps the term “work at the intersection of arts and climate change” is sufficiently all-encompassing.

Personally, I find this broad understanding of “climate change theatre” hugely relieving. By resisting the temptation to define it as a strict category, it keeps the door open to a plethora of styles, aesthetics, scales, genres, contexts, contents, and interpretations. In other words, nobody can tell you you’re doing it wrong.

Major Themes

1.  Culture and difference

Part of the work of thinking about climate change expansively requires imagining beyond one’s lived experiences. The convening offered opportunities to gain deep insight about culture and difference that illuminated not just the “what” of climate change, but how we understand its realities and how it impacts various communities around the world. We began to see climate change as less monolithic and more nuanced even across the individuals in the room.

Grisha Coleman leads convening participants through a movement exercise. Photo by Carolina Gonzalez.

For example, a series of important distinctions were made early in the convening during an exercise that asked participants to place their bodies on a spectrum between points that represented the statements “My community is directly affected by climate change” and “My community is not directly affected by climate change.” When one participant asserted they felt less affected and vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of their location in a city, another participant asserted that their location in a different city actually highlighted their vulnerability. Later conversations would further underscore the nuances of climate change impact across regions, but the group widely accepted the reality that lower-income communities (including globally) generally feel the impact of climate change soonest and most deeply, and that wealthier communities and individuals have the privilege to “buy” their way out.

During the first inner circle, Meaza Worku recounted the cancellation of the climate change–themed festival Crossing Boundaries because “there was a set of emergencies in Ethiopia, and lack of funding, and also very few applications.” Later, she elaborated, “Most people think, especially in Ethiopia, climate change is a Western issue or it’s a luxury.” This highlights the reality that theatre – or, indeed, any kind of arts – that addresses climate change is a form of privilege. This is an urgent concern, given that developing countries have the potential to contribute an enormous amount of carbon emissions to the atmosphere as they inevitably try to catch up with Western standards of living.

David Dower leads a small group discussion. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

Societal norms are powerful forces, capable of both inhibiting change or promoting change in attitudes, behaviors, and perspectives. Memorably, Xavier Cortada posited that while it may have once been culturally acceptable to spit on the floor, he would likely fail to persuade anybody in the room to do so today. Peterson Toscano did oblige, but the surprise in the room – I was shocked – highlighted Xavier’s point.

2.  Disruption

In her welcoming address, Levitow shared that one of the convening’s intentions was “to look at what lies beyond what’s wrong, and to imagine what’s possible.” The pervasive sense of doom that often accompanies conversations about climate change has kept me from fixating on “the apocalypse.” So, reimagining accepted notions was a welcome portion of the conversation for me.

Several methods of disruption and innovative thought came up throughout the weekend:

  • Dismantle denial: “I hear so many climate presentations where basically it’s saying see, it’s really happening, which is a tremendous waste of time and energy,” complained Toscano. (In the video of this moment you can totally see me nodding enthusiastically.) “And I often wonder,” he continued, “what if there was no climate denial? What would we be doing?” With this mode of thinking, artists could create stories that simply operate within the reality that climate change is happening and begin to strategize about what to do to address immediate threats.
  • Reclaim sustainability as fiscally smart: Opponents to environmental regulations often dismiss advocacy for the environment as costly and fiscally wasteful when, in fact, several methods of cost-effective media production—and energy production, for that matter—can have it both ways. For example, cooperation among theatre designers to support recycled use of scenic elements would be both cost-effective and resource-efficient. (Broadway Green Alliance has emerged as a leader in this kind of effort.)
  • Divest: Annalisa Dias wondered aloud, “What if we in this room could create a call out to the American regional theatre or universities that have theatre departments, that have endowments, that are invested in fossil fuels… Can we call the arts community to divest from fossil fuel interests?” Concern came up that such a plan’s impact may feel numerically negligible in the grand scheme, but it would be an opportunity to make a clear statement even when the content created by performing arts practitioners is not addressing climate change.
  • Employ arts practices towards protest: There is a rich tradition of activism in the arts and performance as protest. Some participants discussed opportunities to directly disrupt the meetings of those whose work reinforces the status quo through artistic demonstration and other forms of civil disobedience.

During the second inner circle, Alayna Eagle Shield commented on the tendency for audiences to feel overwhelmed by the threats of climate change, sometimes to the point of denial or paralysis. She drew a direct parallel to the suppression of Indigenous language education:

Each and every one of you were meant to not know anything about me or my people, and that was intentional. And I think when it comes to climate change it’s the same thing: we were meant to think it was a hoax and not real. I think we’re building the sidewalk as we’re walking, and so we almost have to do how-to… so people aren’t overwhelmed and they can be entertained at the same time.

Thus, as Julia Levine added, theatre can be reframed as a way to talk to audiences, rather than at them.

Worku suggested, during the Saturday morning reflection, that the answer may not involve theatre as we know it. After the final inner circle opened up, Cheryl Slean added: “What we’re all talking about moving towards is the same, and it only seems radical because we live in this insane system.”

3.  Reframing

After the final inner circle expanded, Rob Davies brought up President Eisenhower’s quote, “Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger. I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough, I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.” Along those lines, the group sought ways to think expansively and radically about the problem faced in order to find more expansive and radical solutions.

Eagle Shield looked for opportunities to examine what climate change–themed theatre is for rather than what it is against. Lydia Fort stressed that it may be framed as non-Western and anti-empire, but that it is more inspiring when it seeks to offer an invitation-to instead of—or in addition to—a prevention-of.

During the first inner group, Levitow celebrated the merits of having a wide variety of climate-themed performance works available—especially if we go so broad as to include SpongeBob SquarePants and The Broadway Musical—but offered the following caveat: “Yes, a strength is that the field is burgeoning, that the enthusiasm is growing, that things are becoming more ‘normal,’ that it can be present in the world and seen and received, but, to me, I’m worried that what we’re struggling with is wanting to have an impact that’s greater, broader, and at the tiers of power: political, economic, the media, and the public at large.” Others were similarly interested in the challenges and opportunities presented by broadening impact and scope. There may be an opportunity to employ humor even (and especially) as it shines a light on complicity and hypocrisy. Toscano suggested that a useful way to frame our mission is, in the broadest sense, that we are working towards an “increase in human wellbeing.”

“There’s this regenerative model that nature is giving us that we can apply to the arts,” Georgina Leanse Escobar posited, adding, “We’re [currently] not mimicking nature in how we’re creating the arts, we’re mimicking our social structures.” In their lives and work, many folks in the room are invested in identifying ways in which the relationship between the theatre and science communities could be stronger. I was tickled by the tendency of participants to invent clever science metaphors, and can’t resist sharing a few:

  • Davies likened the potential for change to the phenomenon of creating huge waves using small slaps on a pond.
  • David Dower invited a comparison of the currently disconnected state of climate change-themed theatre to chaos theory.
  • Robert Duffley drew inspiration from Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World while discussing the less commonly seen systems responsible for generating “fruiting bodies.”
  • Marda Kirn discussed how Eastern and Western approaches to medicine are differently necessary and an individual’s health is best supported by those willing to consider both, in the way that embracing multiple approaches to creative problem-solving offers a both/and approach.

4.  Impact

A quick digression: I’ve recently begun a friendship with a PhD candidate in glaciology at UMass Amherst who has been to Antarctica several times; I have a bizarre fascination with the “white continent,” and reached out after her name – Ruthie Halberstadt – caught my eye. During our conversations, I learned that she and I each have something that the other envies: she has a wealth of knowledge about climate change patterns, and I have access to an audience. Both are valuable, but in order for our work to have maximum impact, we each need the other.

As I came to understand, part of the urgency in reframing theatre with a climate lens comes from this longing for urgent and significant impact. The general undervaluing of theatre (in the theatre field in general, academic institutions, city planning, civic budget initiatives, and contexts where more immediate needs are unmet) may lead us to underestimate its potential impact. Lani Fu highlighted her company Superhero Clubhouse’s counterintuitive discovery that audiences are less willing to attend free performances (especially of student-written work) than they are to pay for tickets. This is further complicated, she continued, by a culture that invites theatre artists and students to undervalue the work they do in theatre. If we don’t value our own work, we can never achieve the impact we seek.

Lani Fu speaks to the convening group. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

5.  Ownership

Participants expressed a hope that theatre created in response to climate change do so within frameworks that are restorative and that combat patterns of colonial thought, which have traditionally suppressed certain voices and threaten the environment. As such, the models of theatremaking must challenge ideas and ideals that are popularly associated with “mainstream” theatre, including the prioritization and overrepresentation of white male–centered leadership and story subjects.

Challenging these norms invites ways of reimagining or subverting many phenomena of dramatic storytelling: production methods, distribution models, and even the intellectual property of dramatic texts.

In one breakout group, Escobar described a project in which she relinquished authorship in order for her play to be more easily produced in low-budget venues. This was useful to help sidestep the obstacles presented by attaining performance rights when communication with Escobar was difficult or impossible.

During the third inner circle, Jayeesha Dutta meditated on the ways in which layers of privilege inform an artist’s relationship and accountability to story and subject. “So, for me, radical transformation would look like the people who are the most impacted telling their own stories, visioning the future they want, being given access to the resources that they need to transform their realities.” Later, Dutta brought StoryShift up with the whole group, introducing the extensive work already done in creating the valuable document, which helps guide people in how to make sure that stories are told by the people living those stories.

The idea of “ownership” connects back to climate change, given the implicit presumptuousness of colonial expectation: I can claim this land, and once it belongs to me its resources may be exploited for my own purposes and gain. Grisha Coleman compared the colonization of the planet to the behavior of those who make attempts to claim or own others’ bodies. In that light, resource extraction can be seen as a form of rape, and claiming land as a form of slavery.

Within the idea of “ownership” is the oft-unexamined assumption that humans belong at the center of the story of the planet. Many of the writers and storytellers in the group are interested in interspecies and non-human stories as ways to challenge and subvert this paradigm, and to invite audiences to recognize the singular role humans play among a larger cast of characters. Along those lines, the group invited questions about what the primary value of theatre with a climate lens should be: Is the priority humankind—or is it the planet?

Conclusions-In-Process/Expression of Hopes

Towards the end of the convening, the working groups reported back to the full group to share imagined projects. There was notable overlap in the ideas that were generated, and – at least from where I was sitting – the themes that we had painstakingly identified began to feel rather fluid again. To be clear, this is not a criticism – perhaps it’s just testament to the ways in which progress in one “area” inevitably supports progress in another, and the group’s ability to unintentionally address multiple needs at once.

One group expressed the need for a digital “gathering place” of ideas, individuals, organizations, projects, and strategies. In many ways, this is the natural progression of the convening itself, with an eye towards inviting new voices that were not present in the room. The hope with this would be to generate toolkits meant to support efforts in their early stages.

Another group presented concepts towards a Climate Commons for Theatre and Performance as, similarly, a “location” for ideas to gather and intersect. The major difference was that this group emphasized bringing people together in dialogue with one another, whether remotely or physically. Given the challenges of fostering a widespread community, this group imagined ways of leveraging already existing nodes where the intersection of arts and climate change are presently being examined. Very quickly, individuals in the room suggested ways for their networks to support these efforts, demonstrating the potential for this dialogue-making to expand quickly.

A third group expressed a desire to find ways to participate in divestment and direct action campaigns. Suggestions for doing this involved methods of performance as protest and finding opportunities to interrupt the efforts of organizations that threaten the planet.

Convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

What Now?

The “second act” has already started, including the following developments:

  • Bilodeau’s annual Artists & Climate Change Incubator took place in early August.
  • HowlRound will begin publishing a Theatre in the Age of Climate Change interview series, which will continue to grow over the next six months.
  • Preparations for a thematically similar convening in Brazil (helmed by Adilson Siquiera) are underway.
  • Efforts have begun during Climate Commons group phone calls to support syllabus development.
  • A third biannual Climate Change Theatre Action is in its planning stages for 2019.
  • Plans are underway to coordinate a pre-conference at TCG’s Annual Conference in Miami.
  • An application has been submitted to convene a working group at Hemispheric Institute’s Encuentro in Mexico City.
  • Alyssa Schmidt is planning to spearhead a syllabus exchange where folks who are teaching courses on eco-art—or are looking to incorporate eco-art into existing courses—will be able to exchange resources and otherwise assist each other.

I feel personally empowered as I watch these efforts snowball, and I also feel impatient. Dias articulated a similar feeling about halfway through the weekend when she shared, “I’m having a complicated response, because I’m feeling the collectivity in this room, but I’m also like: But what are we actually doing?” Many of us feel emboldened by that nagging anxiety that comes from the urgency of the problem. As concerned citizens of a damaged planet, we don’t have the luxury of waiting to feel ready to bring forth our individual actions; it’s time to get going now. As a writer and a teacher, I’m excited to try more creative, curious, and risky ways of addressing climate change, now that I know there is a network available to help improve, reinforce, and amplify individual efforts—and then allow me to share with anyone who may find my discoveries useful and thus make them a part of collective actionDuring the final intentions, Alison Carey told the group, “I’m going to talk about climate change constantly, even when people get mad at me.”

“As pioneers in a burgeoning field of theory and practice, we have much to offer and learn from one another,” wrote the convening’s core leadership in their initial proposal. “Face to face, lengthy and in-depth meetings are essential to substantive relationship building, and we believe our individual cultural efforts can coalesce in a way that is timely and mutually beneficial.” In the time since the convening, ideas are marinating, and the seeds have been sewn for meaningful long-term endeavors to flower.

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 16, 2018.

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MJ Halberstadt is a Boston-based playwright who has been honored with the Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding New Script, the Huntington Playwriting Fellowship, and the 2019 SpeakEasy Boston Project. He is an adjunct professor at Emerson College, Founding Playmaker Emeritus of Bridge Repertory Theater, and member of the Dramatists Guild.

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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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Warming Up to the Arctic Through Theatre

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

As a university student in the early 1990’s, my partner, the writer, Glen Retief, took part in the anti-apartheid struggle in his home country of South Africa. Some of the older activists explained to him that by the early 1980’s they saw artists using their art to help the world better understand the struggle. “It was when they artists got involved we knew we were going to win,” one activist explained.

When Citizens’ Climate Education asked me to produce a monthly podcast designed to help climate advocates become better communicators, I knew I had to include a place in the show for artists. As a performance artist myself, I have seen firsthand how audiences come closer to complex and contentious issues when they are artfully presented. It is one thing to know the facts about climate change; it is quite another thing to understand what it all means for us. Artists help the public process the many strong emotions around climate change. Engaging the imagination, artists assist in envisioning the risks, challenges, and successes we must embrace on our rapidly changing planet and civilization.

One such artist is well-known here at Artists & Climate Change.

Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright originally from the province of Quebec in Canada. Her award-winning plays take on climate change. Set in the Arctic, they are beautiful, original, and are moving audiences all over the world. In her Arctic Cycle plays, she has roles for human and non-human characters. Chantal believes live theater experiences create special opportunities for audiences. She joins us for The Art House to talk about her work, the role that art plays in taking on climate change, and the need for community.

In order to address the loneliness and isolation that can come with doing creative work around global warming, Chantal created Artists & Climate Change. Through the website and in-person convening and events Chantal connects artists all over the world and helps make their work known to climate advocates. She is also committed to bringing original quality climate theater to many communities. In The Art House, Chantal talks about her work and Climate Change Theatre Action. Learn how you can easily and inexpensively host a reading of short climate plays.

 

(Top image: Kristan Crawford in the Kansas State University production of Forward by Chantal Bilodeau, directed by Jennifer Vellenga.)

This article is part of The Art House series. 

 


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 will reissue The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org


 

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

Designed by Sapiens, Powered by Wind

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

I was invited by the European Cultural Centre to participate in its TIME SPACE EXISTENCE exhibit in Venice, one of several concurrent international exhibits organized during the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, which I wrote about previously here and here.

Six of my wind energy photographs are on display on the second floor of the historic Palazzo Mora in Venice through November 25, 2018.

Grand merci à @CanadainItaly, @QuebecItalia_it, @StillworkGroup et #EuropeanCulturalCentre pour m’avoir parrainé pour l’exposition Time-Space-Existence, Palazzo Mora, à Venise en parallèle de la biennale d’architecture de Venise 2018, jusqu’à 25 nov 2018 https://t.co/Wd4qV7EhdB pic.twitter.com/vUOCLoFfE8

— Joan Sullivan (@CleanNergyPhoto) June 6, 2018

I am very pleased to reprint below the text from my Venice exhibit for members of our Artists and Climate Change community.

*  *  *

At the dawn of the Anthropocene, there is one constant: everything has changed.

Wise Man has changed. The pale blue dot has changed. The rules of the game have changed. Food/water/energy consumption have changed. Even our DNA has changed in response to all these changes.

Time is ticking… Are sapiens wise enough to halt the further destruction of the fragile ecosystems upon which their very existence depends?

I cling to the belief, with all my heart, that the answer to this question is yes. Perhaps we are not as wise as we think we are, but just wise enough to avoid irreversible climate change for generations, if not millennia, to come. Our clever brains have already designed a multitude of technological solutions to climate change. But we lack the political will to go to scale.

What is holding us back at this existential moment? How can we shift the global climate change conversation from despair to hope, from apathy to action?

I think the answer is right here in front of us, in this beautiful space, in this magical city of Venice. We need… artists!

Throughout history, artists have played pivotal roles challenging the status quo. From medieval court jesters to Lennon/Ono’s masterpiece Imagine, artists have cleverly disguised their lyrics and images as barbs that force our privileged overlords to recognize the truth.

As a photographer, I have found my artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind farms. Surrounded by heavy machinery, noise and dust, I seek moments of grace and timeless beauty. To me, an industrial wind turbine is not an electrified tower jarring the landscape. It is a beacon of hope, designed by sapiens, powered by nature. My intention is to seduce, to inspire others to visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like.

In the past, it was imagination that propelled homo sapiens forward. In the future, it is imagination that will ensure our existence in a rapidly changing world.

It is urgent therefore, for artists and architects and all creative souls to take their rightful place at the table alongside scientists, engineers, city planners, journalists and politicians. Collectively, we must “imagine that which we know” according to the poet Shelley. Collectively, we must design a future of clean abundance and endless opportunity. Collectively, we must immediately start to build this future. A future that, according to architect Alice Guess, not only insures we will persist, but that persisting can be beautiful, comfortable, safe and functional.

The Holy Grail is within reach: a 100% post-carbon circular economy in our lifetimes. To get there, Wise Man needs to embrace the arts, culture and myth. If not, we will lose our humanity in the Human Age.

Joan Sullivan, renewable, energy, photographer, RE, renewable energy, wind, sunset, orange

(Top and bottom photos by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to 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 Twitter and Instagram


 

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

How the World of Pedigree Sheep Breeding Is Similar to the Art World

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

The first thing she cheekily asks me when I enter her stunningly light, stylish, modern house on the south-eastern coast of Ireland is whether I expected to see a traditional farm. Perhaps the expression on my face reveals that I associate sheep farming with dark stuffy barns, thatched roofs hiding swallow nests, and the smell of animal dung mixed with hay. But I should have known better: this sheep farmer doubles as a red-lipsticked artist, a feminist with a keen eye for beauty and style. Naturally, her sheep farm wasn’t going to be like any other sheep farm.

Orla Barry owns a flock of fifty pedigree Lleyn sheep, which can be seen grazing in the lush fields below her house in County Wexford. She’s addicted to her animals, she immediately admits with a loving smile, as they always provide her with a legitimate reason to be outside. “Whether it’s for lambing season (helping sheep to give birth) or to retrieve a chicken escaped from its pen, there’s always something urgent, some animal that needs to be saved,” she states. Being on the farm is in her DNA; Barry’s father was a tillage farmer and her grandmother was a feminist who wrote for the Farmer’s Journal. Barry very much identifies with her grandmother as she too was “learning by doing.” That it was never her career plan to become a shepherd is evident when Barry describes her shockingly small profits selling lambs that end up as meat on our plates: “Scale is the only way to earn money with farming, the market is dominated by big meat factories.” Rather then scaling up, she got hooked to pedigree breeding and proved a keen and curious learner; this “learning by doing” philosophy entails, among other things, learning from her peers, becoming invested in the agricultural community, paying close attention at pedigree sales, talking to a lot farmers about pedigree breeding, and visiting many flocks.

Ireland Lleyn Competition, Tullamore National Livestock show. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The world of sheep breeding has clearly informed her artistic practice. Recent art videos include two performers sitting in a big pile of wool performing a fictional story inspired by her experiences at the pedigree sales, but mixing the perspectives of the buyer, the seller, the breeder and the animal that is being sold. And she doesn’t only play with humans and animals – gender roles and stereotypes are also addressed. “Pedigree breeding is a male dominated world and I have fun reversing some of the roles. Humor is a very important element in my work.” Some of her other videos are rather fable-like: cats turn into women (The Fable Of The Man Who Fell In Love With the Cat Who Became a Woman (And Still Devoured Mice)), people into bees (Humming at the Hive), and sheep talk (Pedigree Sales: Technique, Emotion, Poetry). For Barry, storytelling is an important political tool; it can re-connect people to the land and the animals. “The fact that we have largely lost this connection is part of the ecological problem. We have to become non-consumers and reconnect to things that cost nothing.”

Orla Barry, Breaking Rainbows (still), 2016–17. Video. Photo by Jed Niezgoda

Barry underlines that she is not a “sheep artist” (smiling). Rather, she is someone interested in language and in the relationship between agriculture and culture as well as in the tension between being a farmer and an artist. It is apparent where she gets her inspiration. Overheard conversations and snippets of interviews about the sheep buying-and-selling process constantly re-appear in her videos, giving the viewer a curious insight into this niche world. According to Barry, the art world and the world of pedigree sheep breeding are not too dissimilar. She explains that by analyzing the methods the pedigree breeders use to sell a sheep, she was able to see the art world through another lens: “Both are about storytelling and a certain form of speech. Art is also shaped by storytelling, it’s always someone’s view that is being sold. It’s all about emotion and poetry.” Barry goes on, explaining how she sometimes just falls in love with a sheep and looks for its “aura”, reminding me how art can be a magical yet irrational purchase, indeed similar to falling in love.

Pedigree sales. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Like in the arts, aesthetics play an important role when purchasing a pedigree animal. Barry is always looking for certain criteria so that, through careful breeding, she can build her “perfect sheep.” When I ask her what a “perfect sheep” looks like, she takes me into the field and explains how to judge a sheep. Of course, the criteria are different for different types of sheep but generally it’s about “the back, the pasterns, testicles, udders, and teeth.” As we walk through the field, she lifts one of the rams’ tail to show me what the perfect distance between the butt and the mid-length of the leg should be.

While I ponder over the art equivalent of the ram’s butt, she has already moved on: the chickens need to be treated for lice.

(Top image: Orla Barry, Breaking Rainbows (still), 2016–17. Video. Photo by Jed Niezgoda.)

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


 

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

Wild Authors: Margaret Atwood

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Popular author Margaret Atwood called climate change the “everything change.” Atwood’s novels are generally about the human experience, at times notably the female’s, but she also writes about this everything change. Her genre-busting books range from literary to speculative. Global warming occurs prominently in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (which she calls “speculative fiction”) – Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013) – which describe a post-apocalyptic Earth set in the near future.1

I think it’s interesting that, like Jeff VanderMeer, discussed earlier of this series, Atwood has many close relatives who are scientists. This certainly must have inspired her imagination when bringing the natural world into the intricate human environments about which she writes.

At the beginning of the trilogy, in Oryx and Crake, the reader can tell by the descriptions of the world that global warming is taking place due to rising seas, harshly pounding large waves, incredible heat, and so on. In a holistic way, it is not surprising that the world Atwood created in this trilogy reflects one of corporate greed, dystopian values, genetic cloning, and other human manipulations of nature – a mirror of the world we made ourselves, most particularly where we could be heading. The MaddAddam trilogy, according to Quill and Quire: 2

It’s a story about The End of Civilization As We Know It, but the event is coming up very soon – around the year 2050, it seems, from the hints Atwood provides. That’s close enough to the present for us to be able to recognize the seeds of catastrophe in our morning newspaper. Environmental degradation, global warming, and the resultant floods up the East Coast (Harvard has drowned) provide the backdrop, but the central action involves our most disturbing current headlines: cloning and genetic manipulation, toxic microbes and viruses, and a culture that has handed all the important decisions over to the “numbers people.”

The second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, came six years after Oryx and Crake. Rather than being a true sequel, it is a retelling of the first part of the trilogy from the perspective of two new characters. Using flashbacks and fleshing out the original mythology and narrative, Year of the Flood, like I noted in the Jeff VanderMeer piece in this series, also reminded me – at least in structure somewhat – of the television show “Lost,” which filled in blanks later with new perspectives. Again, in the third part of the trilogy, MaddAddam, Atwood retells the story and builds it with the underlying idea of a “fresh start”. According to LitReactor:3

Even though Atwood gives us a new beginning in each of these novels, it is not until Maddaddam [sic], the final installment of the trilogy, that she truly explores the theme of starting over. And even then, she poses the questions but doesn’t give the answers. Questions about creation, the infallibility of “God,” and the evolution of religion. She does this once again by flashing to the characters’ pasts, focusing on backstory to expand the world’s mythology even further. At this point, the narratives of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood have converged. Jimmy and the Maddaddamites (the survivors introduced in The Year of the Flood) are united in the day to day struggles of dystopian life. The Crakers, however, those Adam and Eve’s of the new world, are more preoccupied with where they came from than where they are going (much like Atwood) and demand nightly stories of life before “the Great Rearrangement.” These remnants of the old world, knowledge of good and evil, taint the Crakers’ so-called fresh start.

“Lost” offered, indeed, one of my favorite mythologies ever, so I am very keen to the idea that in storytelling we can deepen the story by bringing in new characters and new truths later that examine the initial story. New perspectives give a sort of humanities type of peer review and offer the reader a fuller and clearer look into the world being created by the author – often reflecting upon our own world and speculating on what may happen if we continue going at our current rate. I like the “Lost” quotes below, where two of the oldest people on the island (therefore hopefully the keys for the audience to understand the cosmology and existence of the island) are talking about why characters are brought to the island.

MAN IN BLACK: I don’t have to ask. You brought them here. Still trying to prove me wrong, aren’t you?
JACOB: You are wrong.
MAN IN BLACK: Am I? They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.
JACOB:  It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress.

The final line above has some similarities to what happens in our world with climate change. “What happens next?” That’s what readers wanted to know from Margaret Atwood after Oryx and Crake. Well, in fact, the world only ends once. Anything that happens before is just progress. And we can look at this progress through different lenses, but I think Atwood’s treatment of climate change – or rather, everything change – is particularly clever.

Note that Atwood has included environmental themes in many of her books – it’s part of our human condition, after all. And global warming is not some tiny object within fiction that we can hold in our hands – rather it is indeed everything change, with up- and down-stream effects, many of which Atwood has explored in fiction, poetry, and even the graphic novel, whether about overpopulation, environmental degradation, or an assortment of issues that generally play into the reasons behind why our world is warming. And, for sure, those reasons have to do with the human species.

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1. Kirkus Reviews. “Genre and Margaret Atwood,” by Andrew Liptak. August 4, 2015.
2. Quill and Quire. “Oryx and Crake,” by Bronwyn Drainie. 2003.
3. LitReactor. “Starting from Scratch: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdamm Trilogy,” by Joshua Chaplinsky. September 3, 2013.

This article was originally published on Eco-Fiction.com on October 9, 2016. It is part of our Wild Authors series.

(Photo by Liam Sharp.)

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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 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.


 

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