Artists and Climate Change

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Everything is (Dis)connected

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

“Art could help us to question our perceptions and relationships to the climate and its changes. Artistic explorations should not be restricted to illustrating our scientific discoveries, as is done in contemporary climate-change showcases. Art should instead help us to experience and reveal our inner participation with climate, the rupture of its balance and its meaning for our inner world, in the same way that landscape artists reframed the relationship of humans to their environment.”
—Julien Knebusch, The Perception of Climate Change (2007)

I have always loved the idea of using art to advance social causes, to make us reflect and rethink what it means to be human today. My artwork is an ongoing exploration of the unresolved environmental concerns of this century. It attempts to define the world we live in by contrasting aspects of a disintegrating planet with the beauty of all living things. Yet despite this overwhelming beauty, the reality is that we are on a precipice of extinction, balancing on the edge of a global meltdown. The ravages of climate change have already been experienced in the form of more frequent floods, violent storms, drought, and the destruction of wetlands and other natural habitats. All of this has contributed to the loss of tens of thousands of species of animals, birds, and bees. As human beings, we are dependent on Nature for our survival. Everything humans need to survive and thrive has been provided by our natural world: food, water, medicine, materials for shelter, etc. Supplies of coal, gas, water, steel, wood are seen as infinitely available. Technology and industry have distanced us from nature, but our reliance on the natural world is still as important as ever.

A Question of Balance.

How do we make climate change real? Many of us have difficulty recognizing the link between our environmental problems and the way we live. A large percentage of the world’s population doesn’t feel the effects of climate change, unlike the farmer who works the land, the fisherman who harvests the sea, people living in low-lying coastal areas, and inhabitants of drought-ridden developing countries. One of the consequences of urban lifestyles, industrialization, capitalism, nationalism, the global economy, and social divides is that we have lost our connection to the natural world. These deep divisions are preventing us from addressing the problem collectively. We must recognize that because of our carelessness and neglect of our planet, climate change has become the greatest threat to future generations. Those least responsible for the damage will have to carry the greatest burden. Is this really the legacy we want to leave?

What role can the artist play in this debate about the environment?

The informed artist is an observer. The artist can ask questions, help shape our understanding of the world, open up hearts and minds to new ways of thinking, and offer visual interpretations of various global issues. Through my own personal practice, I express my concerns by adopting a balance between realism and surrealism. When attempting to open up people’s perspective, it is important that art be presented in a language that is accessible. Ultimately, I hope I can communicate the idea that if we manifest a positive outlook, protect, nurture, and realize what we have, we  can make a difference. Change needs to be radical, both globally and politically. We need to consume less, destroy less, conserve more, and embrace the abundance of renewable energy resources. If we want to protect future generations, immediate action is required before it is too late.

The Erosion of Eden.

Everything is (Dis)connected and A Question of Balance are part of my “Split World” series. Water divides the images, creating two separate worlds; one above, one below, each with their own message to the viewer. I use water in many of my images, such as in Plastic!, to create scenarios that communicate the devastating effects of rising sea levels, pollution, melting ice caps, etc. The images are messages of beauty presented at the dawning of the apocalypse. They warn of what the future might hold. They question our failure to integrate with the natural world, our failure to realize that we are dependent on our planet to survive, our failure to take responsibility and acknowledge the consequences of our actions.

The Erosion of Eden and Coming Undone make use of the triptych format. Both images depict one scene: a landmass that provides a rich, unkempt, and decaying environment. Both of these eroded landmasses are strewn with “found” objects, some a testament to the throw-away society we live in, others gifts from nature. They serve as symbols of hope, negligence, reverence, destruction, ignorance, awe, and desolation. All reference mortality, impermanence, and the widespread and consequential harm that is being done to plants and animals that are trying to adapt to new conditions. The use of the triptych format differs in both images; The Erosion of Eden depicts one moment in time and Coming Undone portrays different instants, albeit the same location. The panels descend from a heavenly, idyllic scene to a world in ruins. It could be said from heaven to hell!

Coming Undone.

Artists throughout history have made significant contributions to social, political, and environmental challenges by using their creative practice to reflect upon and confront the issues at hand. If we are to alter, even reverse climate change, we need to reach out to people through their emotions to inspire action. Art is one of the ways of doing this.

(Top image: Everything is (Dis)connected.)


Christine Simpson lives in County Waterford, Ireland. She is employed as a Lecturer on the BA (Hons) Design Communications and BA (Hons) Fine Art at Waterford Institute. Outside of academia, Christine is a practicing artist. Recently, the National Museum of Living Treasures in Tokyo purchased The Erosion of Eden, and she was invited to show at The Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin. She has received numerous awards including the Waterford Crystal Arts Award; a Gold Award from Graphis, New York; and The Silken Photo Award, Brussels. She was shortlisted in the top ten for the Sony World Photography Awards. Christine’s work is in many private collections.


About Artists and Climate Change:

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

We Are the Climate

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

The task here is to look at theatre and climate change within the context of the current administration. Yep, that administration. The one that is attempting to eliminate climate consciousness from the national narrative by removing the climate page from the White House website, threatening to slash the EPA by one-third, and green-lighting the Keystone Pipeline project in the face of enormous coordinated dissent. Yep, the one that favors entertainment—heck, the one that is entertainment—but is not at all interested in artworks activating complex, nuanced conversation around current issues, and proposed to eradicate the NEA and the NEH completely from the federal budget. Yep, that administration.

Well, shall we start the way we often do? Theatre is a storytelling, community-based phenomenon that manages to survive, if not thrive, on next to nothing and is the perfect means to effectively counter the current administration’s “alternative facts” and erasure, especially in these divisive times…blah, blah climate blah f*cking Trump blah Pruitt EPA zzz blah NEA slashed z zzzz Betsy DeVos zz zzz education zzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz.

I’m sorry, I fell asleep.

It’s not the argument that’s wrong. It’s just exhausting. Theatre may be the perfect vehicle to keep necessary counter-narratives alive, but has never, under any administration I’ve ever known, been well-positioned to do so. Embedded in the familiar argument about theatre’s potential is the deeper argument about theatre’s worth. I’m tired of endlessly justifying on grant applications, in marketing campaigns, and in fundraising letters the relevance of what we do. On a federal level, our country just doesn’t believe in theatre’s worth. This feels especially true now under Trump, but even under administrations more friendly to liberal creative causes, theatre is rarely considered necessary to our national well-being. For a time, the NEA’s tagline was “Because a great country deserves great art”—an assertion I find problematic because it makes art seem like dessert, rather than something with actual value, like grains, meat, and vegetables.

The conversation amongst the theatre community about ways to keep (or make) our theatre relevant, equitable, and inclusive is ongoing. There is rigorous debate and concrete action, including the way so many of us—regional theatres, and independent artists, and companies—are putting more resources towards building relationships with the communities we work with and for. I’m also thinking of nation-wide actions like The JubileeThe Ghostlight Project, and the wave of support for projects in Creative Placemaking, and other socially engaged work. But in light of the ongoing global climate crisis and the Trump administration’s policies, the conversation is ready to take another giant step, brought to a head, like it or not, by the sheer, audacious rebuttal of things that we artists and citizens know to be true and important.

Let’s talk about climate.

At the end of eight hours, the build team for HOW TO BUILD A FOREST (PearlDamour + Shawn Hall) extracts the last bit of breath from their forest ecosystem. Photo by Paula Court.

New Allies: Theatre and Climate 

Imagine this: Theatre and Climate as allies, thrown together by the Trump administration as being two things it discredits, discounts, and largely disregards. Well of course! Both have power beyond the control of a single man or administration. Interestingly enough, both have that power because they’re situated outside the administration’s market-based lexicon. Environmental issues don’t sit easily within a profit-based model. Creativity—like theatremaking—doesn’t either. When the environment is forced to bend in order to “produce,” the effect can be similar to when theatre artists are pressured to produce—and when humans are seen only in terms of their use. The soul gets squished. Language gets co-opted and compressed.

When my company  PearlDamour was researching our piece HOW TO BUILD A FOREST,we met with people in the timber industry. They spoke to us of “product” instead of “trees.” On our tours, we often saw a field of trees planted around the same time in regular, mathematical rows just to be cut down for profit as soon as they matured, therefore, “product.” But calling trees product shifted both my perception ofthem and my relationship to them. It severed our connection as fellow living things. Words matter. What changes in our country when, as Toni Morrison notes, we go from being called “citizens” to being called “taxpayers”? When the new administration took down Obama’s climate policy page on the White House site and replaced it with the America First Energy Plan, a friend posted on Facebook: “Since when does ‘Energy’ mean ‘Fossil Fuel’?”

That word is being shut down, actually enervated, by being forced into a one-to-one relationship with oil. What does “Energy” really mean? So much more than solar versus petroleum. If we look at the word through a Theatre Lens, energy means: connections, interactions, and reactions. It’s powerful to remember that the only meaningful way to really understand climate and environmental systems is this way as well, via connection, interactions, and reactions. Energy in both the theatre and the climate is its dynamism, its process, its transformation. Energy is story.


I watch Trump as a storyteller and for the first time, I really understand storytelling’s power as a market-driving medium. Trump is a professional entertainer and racketeer, a storyteller who knows his audience and knows how to play to them. Where the climate is concerned, his stories affect the entire planet. He boils complex issues down to sound bites that sway mass markets, sell tickets, cement opinions, erase experiences, and win elections. And they have the advantage of being carried by every media outlet into living rooms, kitchens, car stereos, and ear buds across the country—an advantage our plays and performance works don’t have.

Can we compete? Our storytelling offers a different kind of narrative, driven by a different kind of energy—one that deepens thinking, expands empathy, introduces new worlds, explores imaginative possibilities, and rebuts current conditions. We could take it as our responsibility, our mandate, to keep using our storytelling to keep the realities of our climate in front of audiences, even as Trump’s cabinet is doing everything it can to make those same audiences believe those stories don’t matter.

Sure. We could do that. But the focus can no longer be on impactful storytelling. We can’t stop there because those stories aren’t reaching enough people. We can’t stop there because our current metrics of success, including getting reviewed in major publications, keep us from heading towards different kinds of performance work that might have a different kind of impact, and affect more change. We can’t stop there because as theatre artists, our power doesn’t merely exist in the plays we create and the stories we tell. It also exists in our creativity itself. It also exists in the way we move through and think about the world, as people, as artists, and as citizens.

In Lost in the Meadow (PearlDamour + Mimi Lien), climbers get ready to hoist a giant megaphone up a 60-foot tower so the meadow can speak directly to the audience. Photo by Katie Pearl.

The Artist Citizen is also a Citizen Artist

For years, I’ve responded to current events by making theatre about it. It made sense that as a theatre artist, I would do that: “Oh, I’ll do a performance about Hurricane Katrina…” or “I’ll write a play about the Dakota Pipeline, or building a wall, or the BP Oil Spill…” It was how I brought my citizenry into my artistry, and it led to some good work that many people saw and were affected by. But lately I’ve been thinking about those two words “artist” and “citizen” and wondering if I haven’t been giving myself—ourselves—enough credit. We spend so much time arguing about the power of theatre, and the importance of our product, that we’ve neglected the fact that we as theatre artists have power too. My provocation here is: how can we bring our artistry into our citizenry, rather than the other way around? How can our creative minds, our ability to make imaginative leaps, envision futures, and empathize and connect with others serve the communities that live outside of our theatremaking?

Perhaps we need to start showing up not only as people who make plays and performances about issues, but also as people who think deeply and have smart things to say and know how to say them well. We know how to tell a good story—do we only need to tell it on a stage? What about in board rooms? In Town Halls? At the Parent Teacher Association?

Inviting versus Welcoming

I’ve spent the past four years working in small towns named Milton across the US. One thing The Milton Project has taught me is the difference between “inviting” and “welcoming.” Over and over I hear, particularly from one racial community regarding another, “we invited them, but they didn’t come.” The lesson is this: inviting is very different than welcoming. Ironically, to welcome someone into a relationship with you, you often have to invite yourself to where they are. To their space. As theatre artists, a quality many of us share is a sense of adventure. We can use this quality to propel us not just towards new projects but towards new people. Towards new issues, new places. As this administration seeks to divide us both from one another and from our relationship to the natural world, we cannot wait to be invited to connect. Let’s welcome ourselves into civic, policy-making conversations about the climate and otherwise. Let’s welcome ourselves into conversations with political leaders, neighbors, disenfranchised communities, small town conservative communities, and business executives. And then, bam! Suddenly, our expansive, imaginative, and creative thinking is right in there, opening up possibility, creating connection, and making space.


At the Women’s March in Washington, DC, California Senator Kamela Harris described a time when she arrived at a meeting and someone said, “Oh good, you’re here, we’d like to talk about women’s issues.” Kamela responded, “Oh good. Let’s talk about immigration. Oh good, let’s talk about climate. Oh good, let’s talk about race relations, about civil rights, about education, about health care, about poverty. These are all women’s issues because they are all issues.”

The Women’s Marches empowered us by shifting the idea of multiplicity from being something that diffused power to intersectionality—something that increases it. I started this essay proposing the alliance between theatre and climate, but as I finish, I want to widen our gaze. Alongside theatre and climate, there is an extensive network of phenomena sharing a debased status under the Trump administration. Rather than feeling drained by the fight to assert our relevance and importance, let’s feel empowered and energized by the new collaborations and cross-currents of our intersectionality! Here’s a partial list:

The dangers of climate change
The importance of theatre
The systems of racism
The realities of classism
The saturation of white privilege
The pervasiveness of xenophobia
The prevalence of misogyny

These phenomena aren’t just aligned by being maligned by the Trump administration. More interestingly, in terms of storytelling, they are deeply, dramatically linked. Issues of climate cannot be extracted from economics; economics cannot be separated from race and class; issues of race and class cannot be untied from white privilege, xenophobia, and misogyny. Can you tell a story about any one of these issues without involving the rest? Sure you could—many of us have. But the final provocation is: let’s not. Let’s welcome this intersectionality into our stories, performance structures, collaborative models, and visions of where we make work and who we work with. Let’s keep the climate foregrounded in both our artistic and our civic lives (and perhaps there will be less and less of a difference between them) by seeking out and acknowledging its connection to, and influence on every story we tell.

There is no us versus them when it comes to our climate because we aren’t just in relationship to the climate, we are the climate. And if that’s the case, then every story is about climate—no matter how loudly the administration argues otherwise.


Katie Pearl is a director and writer of new plays and performance for both traditional and alternative spaces.  As co-Artistic Director of PearlDamour, the interdisciplinary company she shares with playwright Lisa D’Amour, she has received an OBIE Award and grants from Creative Capital, Map Fund, and the NEA. Current work includes: the multi-year project Milton in five small towns named Milton around the country, and a new performance about climate and the deep ocean co-commissioned by the ART and the Harvard University Center for the Environment.  Katie is currently an Anschutz Fellow at Princeton, where her teaching and research focus on the concept of the Artist-Citizen.

About Artists and Climate Change:

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

The Garden as Exhibition Space

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Museums and others cultural agents are key interfaces between the government and the public. As a centerpiece of the Age of Enlightenment, public institutions were founded to advance ideas, knowledge exchange, and to offer new perspectives on all forms of scientific research and humanistic endeavors. However, by the 19th century many art museums in Europe had become instruments of power for colonial regimes, classifying and “exoticizing” nature and its species. Many of today’s art institutions and artists are expressing awareness and concern about prevailing power structures and critiquing their inherent impact on our cultural discussions and commercial interests. A genuine quest for new forms of art production, interpretation, and dissemination is spreading across the globe. Central to this attitude is a new consciousness based on an awareness of one’s own contributions, resources, and relation to audience as well as nature.

Cornucopia, 2017. Climbing holds, plastic drainage tiles, metal screws. Orti Ghiglio produce garden, Parco delle Cave, Milan. Photo Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti.

The work of Italian artist Mirko Canesi fits right in with this movement; his work bypasses traditional art spaces and power structures, and is activated directly by audiences. Canesi’s work Cornucopia proposes a community garden as an exhibition space. The selected cultivated vegetable garden is located in Milan’s Parco delle Cave, a park that used to be home ground to the mafia. In recent years, this previously rather dodgy place has been through a process of regeneration and is being revamped as an ecological area where people can recreate and fish. The Municipality of Milan, who is leading the project, has given the park back to the people through a “bando public” (an open call). It triggered Canesi’s interest as he has been working on the idea of the garden as exhibition space in Milan for a few years.

Though Canesi is an artist working on vegetable plots, he is not focusing on production of art or production of vegetables. Rather, his work is about process and observing the use of space. Canesi explains his fascination: “I like it how people use the land as an expression of the self; some plots are very wild, some very orderly, some build with wood and some use cables, the latter one actually being cultivated by an electrician.”

Pls… 2017. Apartment plant, plasticine, variable dimensions. Photo Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti.

Canesi’s subtle art interventions are like treasures amidst the veggies, in some cases only spotted by the diligent observer. For instance, some leaves might be carved using artisan skills, have plasticine coatings, or be carefully laser-cut. His key not-to-be-missed intervention, however, is located between the zucchini, spinach, and tomatoes in the middle of the garden, and between the peppers, zucchini, and salads on the left of the garden. This work is as philosophical as it is practical. He changed the existing paths in the garden with alternative ones made of stones that only loosely remind us of what nature looks like: the paths are made of rock-climbing handles. The quality of the material is odd in this environment and the handles are only vaguely reminiscent of that which was once natural. These simulated stones, shaped to pleasantly fit around the human hand, are nature in its most extreme artificial version: these rocks are produced by humans, for pleasant and safe use by them. Canesi, however, proposes a reversed use for them; instead of helping you climb your wall, the handles form a climbing path that is horizontal, on the ground. Canesi is interested in questions such as “What if the gardens were an exhibition space?” Can artworks exist like an agricultural cycle that never stops? Can artmaking be a seasonal process?” Though I’m not sure pumpkin sculptures or ice-art are particularly good ideas, I find the thought of an artistic practice being in line with natural cycles interesting. I agree that the garden as exhibition space can be much more than land-art or sculpture parks. It can be an alternative to the system, a place for un-planning and process, for unexpected and non-art related encounters and conversations, a place to Touch instead of Not-Touch, and a place with inhabitants rather than viewers.

Laser cut, 2017. Laser cut pvc with wooden effect, variable dimensions.

Infamous artist Vito Acconci, known from his groundbreaking and pioneering performance art and for first introducing “Body Art” in New York knew it all along: “What I never wanted in art, is that I never wanted viewers. I think the basic condition of art is the viewer: The viewer is here, the art is there. So the viewer is in a position of desire and frustration. There were those Do Not Touch signs in a museum that are saying that the art is more expensive than the people. But I wanted users and a habitat. I don’t know if I would have used those words then, but I wanted inhabitants, participants. I wanted an interaction.”

(Top image: Cornucopia detail, 2017. Climbing holds, plastic drainage tiles, metal screws. Orti Ghiglio produce garden, Parco delle Cave, Milan. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappe.)

About Artists and Climate Change:

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

On the SAARI/ISLAND Exhibition

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

My exhibition SAARI/ISLAND was on display March 15-June 15, 2017 at the Nordic Northwest in Portland, Oregon. SAARI/ISLAND takes a nostalgic look at my childhood experience growing up in Finland, where nature is all encompassing and gives life its rhythm through the passage of the seasons.

SAARI/ISLAND started with the idea of water. The concepts of melting and flooding have a special resonance for me. I grew up an urban kid in the winter, enjoying snow play, and lived an island life in the summer, planting, harvesting, picking berries, and fishing. Reading the signs of Northern nature and memorizing the names of plants, berries, and flowers, along with their seasonal patterns, was part of my life.

Much later, I studied at the University of Hawaii in Manoa. I discovered many different climate zones on the islands of Hawaii. In addition, life next to the Pacific Ocean left me with a sense of existential vulnerability. I became fascinated with the contrasts in our existence. The vast scales of the Global North and Global South needed attention. From a climate change perspective, the distance and gap between the two was overwhelming.

With climate change, everything might be different. How will the changing temperatures affect growth in the Arctic region? Seasons are a necessity in the North. What will happen in the Southern hemisphere, which is so sharply different from the Northern hemisphere? These questions left me with many more questions. I moved to New York City, and from there, traveled to the California coast, visiting national parks and trying to reconnect with the Pacific Ocean. During these trips, I collected photographs of each place I visited. I started doing this while living in Hawaii. I felt that the contrast between different places called for a documentary lens, and created much of the artistic work by itself.

All the photographs in SAARI/ISLAND come from a close investigation of California’s Big Sur, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks. Burned forests and the Pacific Ocean became images of beauty. However, experiencing these things first-hand was shocking and humbling.

Burnt Tree, Big Sur, 2014.

The images included in the exhibition were a selection from my nature portfolio. I chose to juxtapose photographic and painted works to reflect my experience of coastal forests, showing how nature shifts between beautiful and horrible. The Pacific coastal region struck me as barren and isolated. The scale of nature there creates a sense of prehistoric time. I wanted to trace back and re-imagine prehistoric and early times in our human existence. My paintings offer a glimpse of changes over time – metaphoric landscapes inspired by the Finnish Kalevala, Viking symbols, animals such as swans, lizards and insects – thus hinting at possible futures.

Island of Pearl, 2016.

Artist as Expert
Global warming is changing life’s balance. Artistic works contribute to this global conversation. Making art is an act of sharing, and this sharing becomes a contribution to our knowledge bank. Art can support climate science. Through the scientific method, science looks for evidence to validate a hypothesis. Art is also a research method that explore hypotheses, or questions. The artistic process includes multiple layers of adding, revealing, going back, and correcting. Artists can acquire knowledge from direct experience. They have the advantage of being able to dive deeper, and go beyond the normative process of science questioning. Some of the knowledge gained from artistic practice is tacit, hard to express or re-tell. When it comes to climate change, a deep interest in the subject is crucial.


1-button Rainjacket, 2016.

SAARI/ISLAND included an installation titled 1-button Rainjacket. It was inspired by Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast of the United States in 2012. The rain jacket used in the piece dates back to 20 years ago, and is labeled “Landsend unisex apparel.” It was used in New York City during Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Then it became an installation piece.

How can we give tribute to one person’s experience, and at the same time, make it a shared experience? One way to look at this is from the point of view of phenomenology. Phenomenology is a philosophical, first-person methodology used to explore the structures of experience and consciousness. It stresses the importance of our perceptions, and states that we are in the world ultimately as bodies. What is great is that phenomenological philosophy already has lots of ideas about art and artists.

In 1945, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote Phenomenology of Perception(Phénoménologie de la perception). In this book, he builds upon the idea of phenomenon as simplistic being-in-the-world structure, and develops further the role of perception in our actions. We are primarily here as intentional bodies; the body is not a separate entity from our consciousness.

Artists can use phenomenology – in other words, they can use personal experience to access knowledge from within. From this perspective, an artist can only directly address her own perception. Again, from this perspective, there is no one single idea or experience of climate change.

SAARI/ISLAND reflects a personal connection to nature, yet the bigger theme of climate change is a shared one. I was curious about environmental changes, and ways to portray them through the artistic process. The timespan between the different works was only few years. But rather than emphasize the years between the works, I planted the idea of change as affecting us in the future. If there had been a narration as backdrop for this exhibition, it would have started with stories from my childhood island environment and expanded to the current events. For sure, the stepping back and correcting would be partial. This artistic process requires more going-back, and adding to the current state.

An art show can contribute in a number of ways. SAARI/ISLAND added to the conversation about how changes in our environment affect our ways of being with and experiencing nature. This particular show looked at water and coastal forests, bringing forth the oppositional concepts of energy, conservation, and degradation. These ecosystems need our attention.

(Top image: Water Spirit, 2017.)


Inka Juslin is a dancer, visual artist, and writer from Finland, currently living in New York City.  She holds a PhD from social sciences/cultural studies, and artistic research. She was a visiting scholar in the Performance Studies Department at New York University in 2007-2010, and in the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University (2011-2014). She has created works in collaboration with artists and scholars, using dance, performance, video, photography, architecture, fashion, and other means of visual storytelling to create intersectional, interactive, and live performances as well as installations. Her recent exhibition SAARI/ISLAND was on display until June 15, 2017, at the Nordic Northwest in Portland, Oregon.

About Artists and Climate Change:

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

Confronting Earth’s Trauma

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Last year, I traveled to the Galápagos Islands. I felt I had stepped back to a place I recognized from my past but had only experienced in my imagination. As a child, when the world seemed so big and boundless, I explored landscapes like this, untouched by humans. But as I stood upon the volcanic rock of this dynamic ecosystem filled with life, I felt the fleetingness of its being in every step I took. Both beautiful and foreboding, I wanted to somehow envelop it, to enclose this place in a cavity of myself where I could keep it, protect it, defend it, and sustain it.

But, who am I? I’m not a scientist who can uncover data-based solutions. I am not a politician who can develop a multi-national logistical plan for action. I am an artist, and artists possess a unique and crucial skill – the ability to communicate. Scientists and politicians have their own particular vernacular, but artists have the ability to access that part of human interconnectivity that cannot be communicated through language. My artistic practice is a social practice – my task is to create methods and approaches that destabilize linear ways of knowing and understanding the world.

A Poem for Lonesome George by Allison Maria Rodriguez, Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, Dec. 2015 – Feb. 2016.

In December 2015, I created A Poem for Lonesome George dedicated to the last Pinta Island tortoise who passed away in 2012, 40-years the sole survivor of his species. The work was designed for the Boston Convention Center’s marquee – an 80ft x 24ft seven-screen outdoor video display. Inspired by the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko, I used the architectural structure of the building to create a memorial for George – its physical size a testament to the significance of George’s existence and his passing. I created the piece not only for George, but for us as well, because in 2012 on that research station in the Galápagos, a part of us died too. A part of our planet, a part of our humanity, and a part of our existence was gone. The work had its intended effect: people wanted to know more about George, and they expressed cross-species empathy for a dead reptile. That is the power and the possibility of art.

Wish You Were Here: Greetings from the Galápagos by Allison Maria Rodriguez, 3-Channel Video Installation Design, 2017.

My recent project, Wish You Were Here: Greetings from the Galápagos, is a three-channel experiential video installation. As an interdisciplinary artist, I utilized an assortment of mediums and strategies: digital animation, photography, collage, traditional drawing, and live action video. The viewer stands in the center of the piece, with imagery in front of them and on either side. The left and right screens represent the change of the seasons and atmospheric phenomena – the original habitat of now extinct species. Extinct animals begin to emerge on these screens; they appear chronologically as they disappeared from earth. The middle screen is filled with still present animals, a composite of travel photographs I took in Galápagos. Slowly, they transition into extinct species by changing from color imagery to pencil sketches, then disappearing from the middle screen and appearing on the left or right. A human figure (me) moves within the landscape as both a guardian of collective memory and as an embodiment of present-day eco-consumerism.

The installation navigates the unsteady terrain between environmental advocacy and tourism, conservation and consumption, sustainability and exploitation. There is a tension between the exploitation of the natural world, and the desire to preserve and sustain it. I appear as the artist, studying and sketching these extinct animals – acting as an archivist or a dreamcatcher – attempting to write them into our collective memory. I also participate in conventional tourist-based activities: taking and posing for photos, relaxing, reading, doing bad yoga. I appreciate the animals, but am completely oblivious to their transformation and eventual relocation to the realm of mythology. Through all my actions, I invite the viewer to recognize themselves.

In my work, I often create fantastical landscapes that are intended to provide a physical representation of a mental space. This surrealist approach to communication exposes the limitations of language, and opens up a space for the viewer to explore alternate ways of accessing and connecting to the emotional realities of others. In this piece, I make reference to the earth as a conscious being that experiences climate change as trauma – impact in one sphere creates profound effect in another. I utilize abstracted brain scan imagery, animated synaptic flashes, and the interactive compartmentalization occurring on all three screens to convey the interconnectivity of human action/impact, as well as how our existence is directly linked to the existence of other species. I’m also interested in the tension between our ability to employ medical devices to “read” physical changes in the brain based on trauma response, and the blatant inadequacy of language to convey the actual experience of trauma. The piece concludes when an ominous sun – visually akin to popular atomic bomb footage – devours the entire landscape and the viewer is left alone in a pure white light. The explosion of the visuals is in stark contrast to the sound of absolute silence; there is no life remaining to hear the destruction of our world.

Wish You Were Here: Greetings from the Galápagos by Allison Maria Rodriguez, 3-Channel Video Installation, 2017.

Ultimately, it is the interconnectivity of our existences that will save or destroy us. Wish You Were Here: Greetings from the Galápagos is intended to construct a quiet space for reflection on oneself and on one’s manner of engagement with the world. The meditative quality of the piece will kindle action by allowing time for reflection on our intimate kinship with other species. In today’s world, the space for this sort of contemplation is not readily available or even encouraged, but it is necessary if people are to make significant changes in their lives. My work creates an alternative space, a unique experience, in order to initiate a new dialogue about environmentalism. By providing the opportunity for a private moment, Wish You Were Here encourages radical thinking about the impact of our daily practices and the urgency of the challenges facing our planet.

(Top image: Wish You Were Here: Greetings from the Galápagos (detail image) by Allison Maria Rodriguez, 3-Channel Video Installation, 2017.)


Allison Maria Rodriguez is a Boston-based interdisciplinary artist working predominately in new media, film/video and installation. With themes ranging from human migration to data visualization, her work converges on a desire to understand the space within which language fails and lived experience remains unarticulated. Rodriguez’s work has been exhibited internationally in both traditional and non-traditional art spaces. Her most recent projects include several large-scale public art video installations commissioned by Boston Cyberarts and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. She received her MFA from Tufts University/The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

About Artists and Climate Change:

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

Silk Painting Photography and Climate Change

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Visual artists are often solitary creatures, drawing their creative inspiration from the world around them – music, nature, relationships, politics –working sequestered in their individual studios. This typical artist way of working has been thrown overboard by us – myself, a silk painter and environmental planner based in Boston’s North Shore, and Leslie Bartlett, a photographer and Cape Ann, Massachusetts local historian. For the past three years, we have been working together as an artist collaborative – SQ and LB Artist Collaboration. I work from a silk painting teaching studio/cooperative named Ten Pound Studio in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Ten Pound Studio. I bring my work to Les’ studio in Manchester, Massachusetts where we collaborate on our exhibits using Les’ computer and printers.

Our goal is to present – through silk paintings, photography, and montages of the two media – an emotional fusion of the art and science of climate change as it impacts Boston and the North Shore’s coastal landscapes. We draw deeply from our individual passion for pristine landscapes. Our past experiences of landscapes, however, are from two different countries, and two very different perspectives. I was born in Shropshire in the UK, a county of extraordinary beauty: green rolling hills, open fields still in agricultural use, the meandering River Severn, old castles, and Tudor and Stuart architecture. Leslie is from Epsom, New Hampshire and lived there before it was developed into many subdivisions. He knows the place as a rural town of remote houses tucked into deep woods of oak, ash, poplar and maple, where there were few open vistas but many opportunities to live quietly and deeply with nature. We both became artists in mid-life. I turned to silk painting after a career in urban and environmental planning; Les became a renowned photographer of the quarries and nature of Cape Ann following a sojourn as a juggler at Le Grand David Magic Company. Our collaboration is grounded in our desire to help natural landscapes survive intact and unsullied by human thoughtlessness, as well as in our commitment to high aesthetic standards in painting, photography and printing.

Skyscape silk painting, Shrewsbury, UK (left). Photograph of Magic Illusion, Le Grand David Magic Company (right).

We started off with an examination of the effects of sea level rise and storm surges on the North Shore coastal landscape. We worked closely with the environmental education department of Mass Audubon Society to understand the science of climate change and sea level rise in Essex County. Montages of silk paintings and photos of drowning iconic images followed in a series of exhibits on Climate Change and the Great Marsh; Storm Surge and Drowning Arthur Fiedler.

Exhibit of Climate Change and the Great Marsh, Ipswich, MA.

In 2016, we turned to looking at what makes a landscape resilient to climate change, drawing inspiration from scientific research on climate change resiliency by Dr. Mark Anderson of The Nature Conservancy. While walking through the quarries of Rockport, it occurred to me that the varied landforms – rocky coastlands, water-covered quarries surrounded by lichen-covered granite boulders left over from the quarry industry which deserted this area in 1930, forested wetlands of sumac and swamp white oaks – create a diversity of micro-climates. In turn, these micro-climates buffer the wildlife from the effects of climate change. The undeveloped lands serve as a stronghold for the natural habitats in the quarry landscape. Nature has a chance to survive. As an artist collaborative, Les and I decided to create an exhibit to illustrate The Resilient Quarry Landscape of Cape Ann. With the assistance of a local non-profit organization, we secured grants from Applied Materials, Essex County Ecology Center, and Essex County Greenbelt Association to create an outdoor exhibit of silk paintings and photography. The silk prints hung from 10-feet high copper stands, and two boards displayed graphics of the science of climate change resilience. The exhibit was in conjunction with a series of dazzling quarry dance performances by Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre over a three-day weekend at a quarry in Lanesville, Gloucester.

Quarry Dance 5 silk painting and photography exhibit, Lanesville, MA.

We collaborated closely with Windhover Center for Performing Arts, as well as Essex County Greenbelt Association, who ​owns the quarries in this locale, and who organized talks and tours of the area. The spectacular blend of nature, music, art and science is still remembered by people who came to this free event.

Today ‘resilience’ is a pressing topic for our Artist Collaboration, as shown on our website. Drawing on our Cape Ann work, we were invited to create a dual exhibit on The Resilient Landscape of Marblehead and Cape Ann: Viewed Through the Prism of Ecology and Stories for the Marblehead Arts Association, (MAA,) May 5 – June 18, 2017. We looked at both climate change resilience and the quarries of Cape Ann, and at community resilience, expressed through the preservation of nature sanctuaries within the town of Marblehead. To do this work, we spent the winter walking through many woods, ocean side preserves, and an Audubon Sanctuary, in Marblehead. We collaborated with a local storyteller, Judith Black, who introduced us to local historians and recently presented a program of storytelling with us at the MAA. Les found an extraordinary rock in the woods of Steer Swamp, with unique granite markings. The rock became an iconic image of the exhibit – in both photography and silk paintings. This August the exhibit moves to the Lanesville Community Center in Gloucester, MA; next year to Cornell University.

As an Artist Collaboration, we have the luxury of exploring concepts, themes, and artistic media in a collaborative fashion. For me, this makes the ‘work’ in artwork more exciting, and it pulls me into new directions. For Les, his love of rock and rural landscape gains a new focus when interpreted through my silk paintings – especially in the light of climate change.

(Top image: Collaborative collage of silk painting and photography, Marblehead Arts Association exhibit, 2017.)


Susan Quateman is an environmental planner, who formerly directed the Mass Dept. of Transportation’s Open Space Program. After many years of working as an urban and environmental planner and landscape designer, she became a silk painter. Four years ago, Susan decided to combine silk painting with her environmental background, and focused on issues of climate change in the North Shore’s coastal landscapes. She has since exhibited her silk paintings solo and with Les Bartlett’s photography, in many Boston and North Shore locales. She has published articles in Silkworm, the Gloucester Daily Times and Marblehead Reporter, as well as Cornell University’s College of Art, Architecture and Planning Newsletter.

Leslie Bartlett is a Cape Ann Historian and landscape photographer who loves climbing down into abandoned granite quarries to photograph mineralized rock walls in their luminescent colors. His scramble and free rock climbing is enabled by his some 30 years of juggling with a Stage Magic Company in Beverly, MA. During his stint with the Le Grand David Magic Company he learned to wait as long as 25 years for the right image to appear before the camera lens. He has exhibited at the Cape Ann Museum and Rockport Art Association on Cape Ann, SOHO Photo in NY, twice at the Vermont State Capital, and at the Michigan State University Law School.

About Artists and Climate Change:

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

Fear, Climate Grief, and Comics About Climate Change

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

When my friend emailed me a link to that New York Times piece about a growing crack in an Antarctic ice shelf in February, I saved one of the images from the article to my computer. In it, the crack is a long, gray line on the white ice, like mechanical pencil drawn with an unsteady hand. An impossibly thin line, a few miles wide in real life, splitting the ice in two. The crack has grown in the months since I downloaded that photo, and soon it will break off entirely. The shelf will crash into the sea. The very old glacier behind it will begin to melt.

I open the file and look at it so often it feels like the crack is in my mind: widening, terrifyingly persistent, snaking deeper and deeper into the ice.
Six months ago, I began organizing an anthology of comics by some of my favorite experimental cartoonists to describe something that I’ve felt in myself and watched my friends experience, but haven’t always seen reflected in art: climate change grief. That hairline crack in consciousness, knowing that the earth is changing and dying. The emotion of the rift in the ice.
I’m a cartoonist. I make poetry comics—comics that use the motion of the panel and sequential image to make poetry. They’re not always narrative, often not linear. I’m interested in pushing comics forward into stranger, deeper waters, to see how the form can express human experience more precisely.
Warmer, open to a piece by Alyssa Berg.

The nuances of poetry comics are well-suited to take on climate grief. It’s a strange kind of grief, so big it’s almost impossibly abstract. Miles and miles of ocean, rising! Massive icebergs, melting, cracking, crashing into the sea! Entire species, crashing into extinction! Entire ecosystems, thrown off balance! A grief as big as the planet.
But it’s also small—a hairline crack so far away it’s nearly imaginary; small enough that I can sometimes go a whole day forgetting that anything has gone wrong. I go to work and come home again, forgetting for eight or twelve hours that anything is out of the ordinary.

Then I remember. In March, when the flower beds of Boston’s South End bloomed a little too early, only to be bitten back by frost. In February, when the weather was unseasonably warm, like a premature spring, and the sun was hot on my neck.

What are we supposed to do with this existential heartbreak, knowing that our world is dying?

What are we supposed to do with this unshakable feeling that our world is Good, and it is Good for people to live here; it is Good for ecosystems to continue on as they have; it is Good for families of humans and families of all sorts of animals to live, as they have done, since the beginning of creation? What are we supposed to do with all of this enormous, inexpressible beauty, and the enormous, crushing reality of the ways we are destroying it?

Caitlin Skaalrud

A great deal of art and design produced around climate change is created with the unconvinced or uninformed in mind. And while I am deeply grateful for the hard work of those who educate, and plan, and organize—and I do a little of that myself—I think that there is a deep grief, profoundly physical and spiritual, that comes with knowing what is happening to the world; a grief that needs to be addressed.

Out of all of this—the grief and confusion and half-willful forgetfulness—I decided to make an anthology called Warmer: A collection of comics about climate change for the fearful & hopeful.

Because here is the truth: I am confused, and I am scared. Most days I am tentatively hopeful, and most days I would prefer to forget all of this and never think about it again. I am angry at those in power, and I am angry at myself. I am grieving, abstractly, for people in nations I will never visit, full of families whose homes will be underwater soon. I am grieving for my hypothetical children, and their hypothetical children, and their hypothetical children. I am grieving for myself.

For the last six months, I’ve worked with my friend and co-editor, cartoonist Andrew White, to curate a collection of comics that engage with what we’ve felt ourselves as we’ve tried to come to terms with climate change. We gathered nineteen writers and cartoonists from around the world (and contributed work ourselves) to make a book of comics full of pain, and fear, and hope, and grief. Some are funny, some are mournful, all are strange and honest.

Maggie Umber

I decided to make an anthology because climate grief is difficult to face by yourself. It is a communal grief, a communal fear, a communal guilt. I brought eighteen other artists around me because it is easier to walk into a dark place when you’re with other people, even when you’re not sure what lies in wait for you.

One unexpected delight of making an anthology—bringing together a group of people from all different continents, with different lives and thoughts and ways of drawing—has been the diversity of expression.

Denmark-based cartoonist Tor Brandt and Minnesota-based cartoonist Caitlin Skaalrud both made apocalyptic comics that imagine a strange, difficult future. Others, like Virginia-based Andrew White (also my co-editor), and Washington-based Jonathan Bell Wolfe, crafted dreamy, meditative pieces that overwhelm with their quietude. And a few approached the enormity of the impending tragedy by looking very closely at a specific species—humpback whales and bees in particular (pieces drawn by New York-based Alyssa Berg and Minnesota-based Maggie Umber).

Madeleine Witt

To be clear: I don’t have any answers. And answers are certainly what we need now, badly—answers about what should be done, how we ought to live, how we ought to deconstruct and rebuild our societies and governments and industries, to save our world.

What I do have—and part of what I need—is a book of gorgeous, scary, sad, strange, hopeful comics that remind me of my place in the world, and make me feel a little less alone.

We’re publishing the book with the help of Kickstarter. You can pre-order a copy, and help us make sure it gets to print, HERE.

(Top image: Cover art by Madeleine Witt.)


Madeleine Witt is a designer, illustrator, and cartoonist. She is one of the co-editors of Warmer: A collection of comics about climate change for the fearful & hopeful. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can read her comics in Guernica Magazine, or on her website.

About Artists and Climate Change:

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

The Fifth Wall: Climate Change Dramaturgy

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

In Finale, by Kendra Fanconi, a single actor on stage addresses an audience member. “Friend,” the actor says, and asks that person if they can hold hands:

Okay, it’s a little freaky maybe and I have sweaty palms. But we are friends and we have opposable thumbs so I just thought. I mean, we are not the only one in the world with opposable thumbs. You should see the raccoons get into my compost. But you and I have this thing we can do with our hands that no other mammals can—that is the way our hands fold and our fingers do this. (Touches fingers to bottom of palm.) It means we can hold things tightly. It’s a defining characteristic of our species. It’s this powerful thing we can do. Can I take your hand? Will you hold mine?

They do, of course, and they even wind up slow dancing together, sharing a physical and social closeness that communicates itself powerfully to the onlookers.

It’s no surprise that reaching across the fourth wall is one of the ways contemporary theatre is engaging with the ecological crisis. After all, forging intimate bonds between actors and spectators has been a powerful part of political theatre for the past half century, formalized in genres like the happening, environmental theatre, and—more recently—immersive performance like the wildly successful Sleep No More. As such, it has a lot to offer to theatre engaged in the project of ecological consciousness-raising. Fanconi’s actor ends the play by stating, in the simplest possible terms, a new destiny for the theatre of co-presence in the age of climate change:

…fellow-human-who-can-hold-things-tightly […] don’t say a word. Just know that I am here, okay? When it feels very large and very daunting remember that. This is something we are doing together. Spinning around the sun. Very slowly. On the one planet we have. That the ones like us, who can hold things tightly, must save.

Actress Allegra Cox and director Brooklyn Robinson during the shooting of the film adaptation of Darrah Cloud’s TESS Talk at the Pomona College School of Theatre in California.

Many of the plays that emerged in response to the 2015 Climate Change Theatre Action project used forms of direct address to capture the range of feelings this subject arouses: urgency, fear, despair, rueful resignation, even savage mockery. Thus Darrah Cloud’s TESS Talk parodied the smug talk of the expert lecture circuit by giving its audience step-by-step instructions on “How to Deny Climate Change”:

Step 2: Join PEHA, People for the Ethical Hating of Animals. Let’s face it, guys. Animals are stupid. They can’t talk, they don’t wear clothes, they certainly don’t contribute to the economy by buying anything. They’re all victims of the developing world and we hate victims. Victims ask for it. They like being victims. They’re weak and ignorant and can’t even hire a good lawyer. And they smell. If your grandkids complain, take away their teddy bears and replace them with real taxidermy so they know what it is they’re whining about. That’ll stop ‘em! Hah!

These are just two of the many instances in which theatre addressing climate change is making powerful use of the representational strategies and modes of address developed over the past half century. But it’s doing something else as well: inventing new strategies that will align the theatrical apparatus—its conventions, protocols, and possibilities—with the altered conceptual frameworks offered—or necessitated—by climate change. My shorthand term for this new set of inventions is “Fifth Wall Dramaturgy.” Explaining it involves sketching in certain theoretical considerations, in particular about what else changes as the climate does.

Climate change, we’re realizing, goes way beyond climate. The changes coming—or already happening—affect every level of human activity and experience, including fundamental things like where we (can or cannot) live, what’s left for us to eat safely, and how we’ll think and what we’ll say about our species in light of our unplanned world-changing effects on this planet. Recognizing for the first time that we humans are a geophysical force—that our activities shape and hence are part of geophysical and ecological systems—forces us to expand the frames of our self-understanding. The fact that our current and recent lifeways have inadvertently affected such massive entities as the ocean (acidification, rising sea levels, etc.) and the polar ice caps (glaciers melting, ice sheets breaking up) tells us that our usual frames of self-analysis—mainly, the psychological, sociological, and political—are no longer adequate. We need to redraw the boundaries and expand the frame within which human meaning is created. We need to understand the human in its complex relation to the nonhuman, a relation that is both determining and determined, partly under our control, mostly outside it.

One of the first boundaries that climate change disrupts is also one of the most ideologically powerful conceptual structures of modernity: the boundary that defines a nation. As the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change signals in its very name, climate change doesn’t respect national borders. The nation—the master-fiction of the world politics of the past several centuries—is under attack from both economic and ecological directions. Economically, it is utterly undermined by globalization; ecologically, by climate change. The waves of refugees currently crashing on the shores of Europe are figures of both forces, and the incoherent political and moral response to their plight is evidence of how increasingly entangled the skeins of politics, economics, and ecology now are. When this entanglement suddenly produces an image that rivets the attention of the world—for example, the image of little Aylan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian boy lying dead on a beach in Turkey—we are challenged to align these complex realities with our deepest emotional responses, challenged to balance our sorrow for Aylan with our feeling of helplessness before the forces that brought him to that beach: the devastating droughts that have displaced countless populations, in Syria, Africa, and elsewhere, leading to conflicts which become politicized (and which the media insists on representing as solely political or sectarian, ignoring their ecological dimensions and origins).

The image of Aylan that caught the world’s attention, and the many artworks that image has inspired, open a space for reflection about the new intersection of politics and ecology that climate change is ushering in at great speed. As climate change, sectarian conflict, and globalization increasingly make nonsense of the political power of nations, it is forcing us to reckon with that border that all countries share and that all have always ignored: their border with the atmosphere. Other than occasions when a country’s “air space” is “violated,” or when enemy bombs rain down on us, we rarely think of the sky as a political space. Climate change is challenging that assumption, forcing us to recognize that the ways we’re affecting or interfering with each other’s national spaces is not restricted to modes like trade, diplomacy, and warfare: rather, the carbon emissions of one nation can play an inordinately large role in damaging the ecology of distant places, with the atmosphere, our common border, serving as the major conduit—a “free” space: totally unregulated by the laws of nations, utterly uncontrollable by human beings, completely impervious to our species’ wall-building prowess. To begin to take this space seriously will require us to develop an “atmospheric” consciousness.

Looking up at the sky has been, traditionally and archetypally, a figure for aspiration. On occasion, as when we are exhorted to contemplate the vastness of the universe, it has been a figure for humility, a call to acknowledge the puniness of our humanity. Both moves are sentimental and inflated, whether in self-aggrandizement or self-effacement. The same two kinds of inflation are currently tempting the discourse around climate change. There are those who see in the looming crisis a chance for our species to make paradigm-shifting leaps in technological innovation and scientific mastery. There are others who see it as the twilight of human civilization, a time for mourning and letting go.

Fifth Wall Dramaturgy (and the “atmospheric imagination” it reflects) is an alternative way of “looking up.” It’s an activation of the “diegetic” mode of literary communication—the “telling,” as opposed to the “showing,” or “mimetic” mode—that ecologically-prescient modernists had begun to use decades ago to point to the natural world that always silently surrounds the clamorous social interactions on stage. To be sure, in the past that “view beyond the social world” had been fleeting, and decidedly dismal, as in the following moment in Pinter’s The Caretaker:

DAVIES: What’s that? A pond?


DAVIES: What you got, fish?

ASTON: No. There isn’t anything in there.


This is a “world” view only a shade less despairing than Beckett’s notorious one, voiced by Clov, in Endgame, as he looks out of the window: “Nothing.”

While twentieth-century playwrights registered only the alienating gap between the social and natural worlds, the views of the “outside” world registered by recent climate change plays see a great deal more. Looking up and beyond the social world, they see forces as powerful and as fearful as the supernatural forces that had reigned over the dramas of antiquity. Instead of wrathful gods and goddesses, the drama of climate change invokes, for example, pitiless physical realities. So in Run from the Sun by Daniel Gallant, we meet a man who’s been locked up, judged a “danger to myself” for being outdoors during the day without sunblock. “The sun,” he declares, “is my enemy. My antagonist and oppressor. I cringe when it rises.” But then, with a sudden surge of the self-delusion that has brought him and his species to this dangerous pass, he consoles himself: “But still, the sun doesn’t rule my life. I can walk outside anytime I want, between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., covered head to toe.”

Besides expanding the dramatic frame beyond the social world, Fifth Wall dramaturgy also expands it temporally, pushing past cultural history to locate the human story in the deep time of the earth. In Original Fire, Kevin Loring offers a flash history of human civilization as a brief and deadly obsession with fire, a history of burning whose concluding conflagration could inaugurate a more elementally balanced history:

Maybe… we need to look away from the fire.

Maybe we need to look deeper into the water—

Maybe we need to look into the wind and the subtleties of the Earth.

Maybe we need to harness the other elements we take for granted.

In Jeremy Picard’s Martha, the expanded temporal frame includes past, present, and future, linking the habits and assumptions of an ecologically unconscious society to the far-reaching destruction they produce. Inhabiting the continuum, as the play invites us to do, realigns the human with the geological time scales that matter now:

When I turn my head to the left, you disappear. When I turn my head to the right, you are still here, even seven hundred years in the future.

You can see that far?

My neck is extremely flexible.

But if I’m still here in seven hundred years, what does that mean?

It means you also wish to invest in time.

Mother by Chantal Bilodeau, performed by Esther Sophia Artner at The Box Collective in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Julia Deffet.

The view of the world that climate change calls for is a wide view and a long one. It is a view we must learn to borrow from the earth itself, from whose perspective the human is a complicated, fascinating, and—above all—evolving phenomenon. As the ageless voice of the earth says in Chantal Bilodeau’s Mother,

I should have seen it coming of course

I should have realized when you crawled out of the ocean

that something was happening

that something had been set in motion

But the truth is

it was all random

A little mutation here

a little mutation there

and boom

there you were

with your big head and your big brain

so proud of yourself for standing on your own two feet

The evolving human is the protagonist of Fifth Wall dramaturgy, trying out forms of ecological consciousness that are more attuned to the scale and complexity of climate change. To make that consciousness something more than an abstraction or a new kind of inflated self-importance, to make it a compelling theatrical experience, will require that intimacy not be sacrificed to achieve scale. And this is where the theatre’s unparalleled articulation of the literal and the metaphoric, the embodied human and his or her frames of meaning, can accomplish something that other art forms can’t as easily: expand the frame while preserving the voice, body, and emotion with which new ecological consciousness will be made. That is the voice, body, and emotion whose task it is to reach across inherited social and national boundaries, to break the fifth wall of anthropocentrism. “Look at me,” the earth’s voice instructs, “If I see myself in your eyes, I’ll know that everything will be okay.”

(Top image: Colin Waitt and audience member in Kendra Fanconi’s Finale as part of Where Have All The Glaciers Gone, conceived and directed by Erin B. Mee in New York City. Photo by June Xie.)


Una Chaudhuri is Collegiate Professor and Professor of English and Drama. She is the author of No Man’s Stage: A Semiotic Study of Jean Genet’s Plays, and Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama, as well as numerous articles on drama theory and theatre history in such journals as Modern Drama, Theatre Journal, and Theatre. Recent publications include Animal Acts: Performing Species Today, co-edited with Holly Hughes, and Ecocide: Research Theatre and Climate Change, co-authored with Shonni Enelow. With director Fritz Ertl, she has developed a number of theatre pieces using a process they call “Research Theatre,” and she has worked collaboratively with the artist Marina Zurkow, most recently in a multi-platform project entitled “Dear Climate.”

Climate Change’s Place in Literature

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Climate change does not feature prominently in the landscape that comprises literary fiction. When the subject does appear, it is far more likely to be in nonfiction work. Sadly, the writers who write science fiction, the genre to which climate change has been relegated, are not taken seriously by the literary world. They will for instance rarely be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Global literature has shown that mainstream writers regularly respond to war and national emergencies of all kinds, but somehow climate change has so far proved resistant to their interest.

In the modern novel, it seems that subjects like climate change move to the background, while as what we experience in our everyday lives and relationships moves to the foreground. As Amitav Ghosh explains in his book The Great Derangement, the techniques that are identified with the contemporary novel exclude climate change, because its science and effects are difficult to grasp, and not something which we deal with regularly.

Even if we look at the array of science fiction films and television series being produced today, we find they are weighted towards vampires, witches, extra-terrestrials, and secondary fantasy worlds. Very few of them address the subject of climate change directly. It’s an odd thing that just when we are destroying our biosphere, films and television shows remain focused on the human experience or on extra-terrestrial life.

Three years ago, I read the nonfiction climate change book This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. While Klein’s book was masterful, I suspected there would be many people who wouldn’t read it because of its dense content. To offer an alternative, I decided to write a fictional book on the subject. Thus began my adventures as a science fiction writer.

I had written three novels but never one in the science fiction genre. As I searched around for examples I might follow, I deliberately didn’t choose novelist Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy wrote the brilliant post-apocalyptic tale The Road, which follows the journey of a father and his young son over a period of several months, across a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed most of civilization and almost all life on earth. Instead, like Andy Weir, author of The Martian, I focused on the science of climate change, and the practicalities of what it will take for human beings to survive it.

My book The Burning Years is a research-based, futuristic depiction of the struggle to survive on an earth that has been devastated by climate change. Alternative living environments are being created to sustain life until such time as the surface of the earth can heal itself and again become habitable.

This is the setting in which the story unfolds with its conflicts, challenges, and cast of characters exhibiting the best and worst of human nature. Beyond the story itself is a cautionary tale that urges us to take the stewardship of our earth more seriously.

If I had written a literary novel like McCarthy’s, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, I would have, like him, described the disaster not in scientific terms but through the thoughts and feelings of one or two characters. I would have shown these characters through the lens of the Anthropocene, and would have followed their interior dialogue and unfolding relationships as they experienced prolonged exposure to solar UV radiation. I would have described their pain as cancer rapidly spread to their lymph nodes and formed golf ball sized lumps throughout their bodies. I would also have described, either in the first or second person, their sight loss and slurred speech caused by lesions in their brains. I would have analyzed their humanness as they began to slowly and painfully waste way, losing everything and everyone they loved.

While this might have resembled the truth of what I imagine will happen, I couldn’t bring myself to write this story. Instead I chose to take a broader scientific and political perspective.  As part of this perspective, I focus on the neoliberals who are now in charge of our government. I analyze their motives as they heedlessly and cynically promote a high-consumption, carbon-intensive system, treating our atmosphere like a waste dump.

I wrote The Burning Years to inspire my readers to become involved in individual and collective actions that might increase the odds of our planet’s survival. As the great statesman and abolitionist Horace Mann once said: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

I hope my audience will come to realize at the end of the book that we are a society in love with the hyper-carbonized pursuit of short-term comfort, in the grips of worldwide political corruption, and plagued with wealth inequality and hoarding. I hope they will be moved to find practical ways to cut back on their own use of fossil fuels, and encourage their towns, cities, and state governments to do the same.

As I was writing The Burning Years, I knew in my heart that it would be well-nigh impossible for a society such as ours to change its economic system fast enough to prevent climate change. In the end, I had to acknowledge to myself that the book I have written is perhaps a prophetic warning of a mass extinction event, the proportions of which are beyond our capacity to grasp.


Felicity Harley is a polished public speaker, published journalist, and writer. Her work has recently been published in an anthology called Gathered Light – On the Poetry of Joni Mitchell, alongside writers such as Wally Lamb, Kim Addonizio, Fred Wah, and others. In celebration of the 65th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on behalf of Poets for Human Rights, Felicity was the winner of the Anita McAndrews Award. In 2015 Felicity’s book of short stories Portraits and Landscapes, was published. The Burning Years, published in February 2017, is the first of a quartet called “Until This Last.”

About Artists and Climate Change:

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

Tourism & Society Vs. Utopian Ideals

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

What makes people chase that utopian destination and what happens when they get there?

Since 2013 I have been interested in how humans interact with the natural world, and have found myself investigating islands – isolated islands, World Heritage islands.

The first island I visited was Lord Howe Island, 600 nautical miles off the east coast of Australia. I have been visiting this island since 2001. The large main island and several small outer islands form a National Park and World Heritage Site. In 1987, the local governing body decided to limit the number of tourist beds on the island to 400. Thankfully today, they have only 398 beds so aside from walking trails, the place remains relative untouched. It’s wonderful, except for the ocean pollution; a continuous stream of flotsam and jetsam washes up on the shores. In 2014, as part of an onsite residency, I collected the debris to see what was there. I was methodical; I selected three beaches, and went on three walks, picking up everything I saw. This resulted in my artwork Corpses of the Everyday (shown above), a continuous stream of text just like the continuous stream of debris that washes up on these beaches.

In 2014, I had the opportunity to travel to the Galapagos Islands, 600 nautical miles off the coast of Ecuador. Like Lord Howe Island, the Galapagos are designated as a World Heritage Site, but unlike Lord Howe, they appear to have no “real” restriction on the number of tourists who visit it. In my research, I was shocked to find out that in 1990, 40,000 people visited. Ten years later in 2000, 60,000 tourists stepped upon its shores. When I visited in 2014, a staggering 215,691 tourists from 159 countries clambered to see this “utopian” ideal of evolution. My two-week journey traveling on the Cachalote, which carried 14 tourists, was pretty standard. However, there are larger vessels that carry up to 100 tourists at a time. On any given day, 95 ships are circling the archipelago. This is not a small problem. Each ship has a water desalination plant on board so travelers like me can have fresh water, creating (in my analysis) a problem with the brine discharge. These ships are required to anchor in the same place at each island so the cumulative effect could be catastrophic to this fragile environment. It was possible to see the beginning of these effects already.

I was left feeling that I needed to bring light to this issue. The tourists are, with the government’s help, slowly destroying that which they covet. So, I created Towards Dystopia. This work is not just about the Galapagos but also about Lord Howe, about islands connected by water currents across the globe.  It takes the problem of desalination and uses a process of water purification as part of its core.

A petri dish sits on the floor. In it, a coral ceramic form resembles favia speciosa, unique to Lord Howe Island. The dish is filled with highly saline water and its content is pumped into an adjacent fish tank. Filled with the debris collected from Lord Howe, this tank works like a window to the unseen world.  Water flows to a tea urn, a metaphor for contemporary society in all its banality and inertia. The tank heats the water which then flows back to the dish, a closed water circuit flowing in the same way the South Pacific currents flow from the Galapagos to Lord Howe Island.  A projection of an air bubble floating to the surface from a reef travels across the screen, reinforcing the utopian holiday.

My discussion here is not just about the plastic that can be seen in the tank or its ominous shadow on the wall, but also about hidden elements. Each ceramic has the text from Corpses of the Everyday written on its surface. It is small, yet its presence is a reminder of the plastic we don’t see, the small pieces that remain hidden, the micro-plastics.

In January 2017, I decided to explore just how far our influence had gone and went with the not-for-profit group Ninth Wave to Antarctica. It was not an ordinary 19-day trip as we were beset by storms. However, we did manage to spend 2.5 days on Deception Island.

My reason for traveling there was the need to bring our everyday world and contemporary lives to this place of isolation, and confront our impact. The video/sound installation Deception uses videos I collected from street corners of various cities around the globe. Projected onto a melting glacier/ice floe, these images of our contemporary worlds – street scenes showing the everyday movement of our lives – open up a dialogue around the role of contemporary society in global warming, and how remote places are being affected.

These works with their interdisciplinary, eco-critical vision, transcend the traditional boundaries between sciences and the humanities.

Deception is about deception. It is not just the name of the place where the work was recorded, but it is the way we, as a society, deceive ourselves so as to not see what we know to be true. The deception of our governments is in not taking strong and immediate action. The deception of the oil industry is in working to hide the impact of its practices.

Given Australia’s history and ongoing presence in Antarctica, Deception is just one part of a greater dialogue intended to increase awareness of our actions, which have a ‘butterfly effect’ on such a remote, utopian destination – a place one would expect to be unaffected by our society. This work and the resulting exhibition show how we are effecting and affecting Deception Island. Because of its isolation and surrounding waters, it and its wildlife, remain virtually invisible to our world.

(Top image: Corpses of the Everyday, 2015. Catalogue of collected debris from Lord Howe Island, hand-stenciled on clear builder’s plastic 3600 x 5000 mm.)

Lea Kannar-Lichtenberger, MA, MFA, (Sydney College of the Arts) is an artist exploring the connections between science and art. Lea’s art works were recently shown at the Jane Goodall Foundation Symposium Brussels, Stunning Edge Exhibition Taiwan, the New York Hall of Science, Harbour Sculpture (Sydney), Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize and in her recent Solo Exhibition Deception at Accelerator Gallery Ultimo. Since 2014 Lea has been delivering papers that relate to her research and resulting artworks, at conferences including Affective Habitat ANU in Canberra; 2015; AESS at UCSD San Diego CA; ISEAHK2016, Hong Kong; Arts in Society at UCLA Los Angeles CA and lectured at Spektrum (in association with Art Laboratory) Berlin.

About Artists and Climate Change:

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