Artists and Climate Change

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Towards a Sustainable Aesthetic Theory: Climate and Rasa

by Erin Mee 

photo: Ammanur Madhava Chakyar in a kutiyattam performance of Bali Vadham. Photo by Erin B Mee.

If theatre is going to fundamentally change the way we think about climate change – and the way we relate to our planet and other species on it – we must change the way we make theatre so that it embodies new ways of sustainable thinking. Aesthetic theories reflect and shape ways of thinking, being, and interacting. Aesthetic theories are not, then, politically neutral; they require particular dramaturgical structures that are in turn political. In order to make theatre that embodies a politics of sustainability, I suggest we replace the aesthetic theory of catharsis – and all it implies and entails – with the Sanskrit aesthetic theory of rasa.

The term “rasa” has been variously translated as juice, flavor, taste, extract, and essence. According to The Nātyashāstra (The Science of Drama), the Sanskrit aesthetic treatise attributed to Bharata, rasa is the “aesthetic flavor or sentiment” savored in and through performance. It’s the mixing of different emotions and feelings that arise from different situations, which, when expressed through the performer, lead to an experience, or “taste” – the rasa – that is relished, or “digested,” by the partaker.

The metaphor is important: this relishing is multisensory in that taste always involves touch and smell, and it is internal and embodied: to taste something you have to put it in your body-mouth – or at least on your tongue. Eventually, as you digest, what you put in your mouth becomes part of you. So the metaphor of “tasting” performance posits aesthetic experience as interactive, embodied, sensual, tactile, multisensory, internal, and experiential. It allows us to think about becoming one with what is around us, with our experiences, rather than remaining separate. If we want to save the planet, this cognitive shift is crucial, and rasa can help us make it.

Like rasa, Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, which takes place in the teatron, or place of seeing, is one of emotional response; productions evoke this reaction in spectators. Unlike rasa, though, which asks partakers to relish emotion, catharsis is designed to purge excess emotion (the ancient Greeks privileged moderation). As noted classicist Edith Hall points out in her book Aristotle’s Way:

Emotions pre-exist in people, but they can be stimulated by an external force in a way that makes them susceptible to katharsis. An externally applied ‘treatment’ (music [or theatre]) actually creates a homeopathic response within the listeners [spectators], in that the arousal of a strong emotion to which they are predisposed leads to a lessening of the grip which that emotion has on them.

The central idea of catharsis – and productions that have been influenced by catharsis and/or embrace catharsis as a central goal – is that it “cures” excess emotion. Catharsis devalues emotion by asking us to experience it only in moderation – and to purge, or remove, any excess. It also asks us to maintain a distance between ourselves and that which we encounter and experience. This is the mindset that theatre needs to address, but before it can address it through content, theatre needs to address the political implications of its aesthetics.

The central metaphor of catharsis (sight) distances us from the world around us; that of rasa (taste) connects us to it. Words and metaphors are powerful because they not only reflect the way we think, they shape it. As catharsis and rasa govern modes of thinking and interacting on stage and in the auditorium, they therefore have implications on the way we interact with each other, with other species, and with the planet itself.

Catharsis demands a linear dramaturgical structure that builds to an ultimate release of tension or excess emotion in the form of a climax: A leads to B, which builds to C, which builds to D, and so on until the climax is reached. A, B, and C are not valued in and of themselves, but for what they add to the build of the linear narrative. Linear narratives also teach us to believe in causality (A causes B, which causes C) and are closely associated with notions of progress. So catharsis asks us to see the timelines of history in terms of progress and causality. Catharsis is also closely associated with agon – conflict, contest, competition. The plot moves forward because two characters enter into conflict with one another; there are winners and losers. All of this to say: catharsis reflects and constitutes notions of progress, linear (rather than cyclical) time, conflict, and dominance. These modes of thinking are detrimental to solving current climate issues, but they are embedded in Aristotelian theatrical structures.

In contradistinction, rasa requires a nonlinear, flexible dramaturgical structure that allows the partaker to linger in and with particular moments and to “wander around,” exploring numerous sensorial stimuli that give rise to emotions that can be savored. Rasa asks the partaker to value tributary streams, stories, and feelings. Rasa depends not on conflict but on association and elaboration. To return to the metaphor of food: an amuse bouche is an experience to relish in and of itself; it is not a prerequisite for the appetizer. Nor is the appetizer a prerequisite for the main course. Although vegetables are often considered to be a prerequisite for dessert, dessert is not the “goal” of a meal. A meal has things that come before and things that come after, and certain tastes complement or interact with each other, but D does not depend on C or B or A. You can still understand and appreciate a main course if you have not had an appetizer; in a non-linear structure, A, B, and C are valued in and of themselves, as a means to an end.

Rasa allows for multiple experiences and interpretations, it eschews causality and linear notions of time and progress. I believe the ways of thinking embedded in the aesthetic theory of rasa can be helpful in rethinking our relationship to the planet and to climate. It can help us think about time as cyclical (like the seasons), relationships that are not based on conflict, and interactions that do not determine winners and losers. If rasa suffuses our theatre, rather than catharsis, it will teach us different modes of interacting with the planet and each other.

For the most part, performances that offer catharsis are viewed on the proscenium stage, where much of the theatre in the United States takes place. This setup invites “the male gaze,” which describes the (male) spectator’s act of looking, or gazing, in order to fulfill his fantasy of controlling the (female) other. Even when the spectator is a woman, performances are constructed, consciously or unconsciously, with the male gaze in mind. The classic statement of the gaze is explored in feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey draws on Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of identity formation (the mirror phase, when an infant sees themselves in a mirror and is able to ask the question, “Is that image me?”). According to Lacan, the recognition of “myself” by the infant is overlaid with misrecognition and leaves the young person with a fundamental ontological-identity insecurity. It also initiates lifelong scopophilia, or love of looking, where the pleasure in looking “has been split between active/male and passive/female” such that the male look (or gaze) “projects its fantasy onto the female figure,” who becomes a bearer rather than a maker of meaning.

Ammanur Madhava Chakyar in a kutiyattam performance of Bali Vadham. Photo by Erin B Mee.

In Ways of Seeing, art critic and writer John Berger links the male gaze to landscape painting – which allowed land owners to display paintings of the land they owned on their walls to impress their guests – and to the rise of capitalism. He also links the male gaze to the invention of perspective, which puts the human viewer at the center of the world that is viewed, and implies that “man is the measure” and everything is laid out for his viewing pleasure. This creates a human-centric view of the world, and the notion that humans own what they see. Thus, ways of seeing are political. The male gaze, built into the structures of seeing set up by the proscenium, encourages us to see the world as though it is laid out from and for our own perspective, and to use each other for our own benefit. A viewing practice that encourages us to take what we need and discard the rest teaches us a mode of engagement that is not sustainable.

Ways of seeing rasic productions are built on darshan, which in Sanskrit means “seeing.” Darshan refers to the “visual perception of the sacred,” and, more specifically, to the contact between devotee and deity that takes place through the eye. In contradistinction to the male gaze, darshan is an exchange: the devotee goes to see the divine and to be seen by the deity in order to take in a superior perspective – maya, or illusion. In other words, sight becomes insight, a revelation occurs, and the spectator is transformed into a seer.

Most dance-drama in India is performed in the round, or in a three-quarters thrust. Many ritual performances are environmental and/or processional. In these circumstances, the spectators’ gaze cannot be possessive of its “desired object” because there is neither a central place of performance nor a central place from which to view and experience the event. The male gaze – the notion that everything is laid out for the viewing pleasure of the viewer as a commodity – is disabled. Darshan offers a way of seeing and a mode of engagement that is about partnership, about co-creation. No one dominates; it’s about growth. This way of seeing is more useful for theatre that seeks to address the causes of climate change and shift our ways of interacting with our planet.

Catharsis invites a distant, commodified, competitive approach to theatre that allows us to dominate, to take what we want, and to discard the rest. In contradistinction, rasa is a more sustainable approach to theatre, to ways of seeing, to modes of engagement, to each other, and to our planet. Most importantly, it is co-created: it teaches us to work together. If we want to make theatre that is itself sustainable, but that also embodies and teaches us sustainable ways of thinking and being, I urge us to create rasic rather than cathartic theatre.

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on March 26, 2019.


Erin B. Mee has directed at the Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, SoHo Rep, HERE, The Magic Theatre, and The Guthrie Theater in the United States; and with Sopanam in India. She is the founding artistic director of This Is Not A Theatre Company, for which she directed Pool Play (in a swimming pool), A Serious BanquetReadymade Cabaret, and Ferry Play – a smartphone play for the Staten Island Ferry. She is the author of Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage, co-editor of Antigone on the Contemporary World Stage, co-editor of Modern Asian Theatre and Performance 1900-2000, and has written numerous articles for TDRTheatre JournalAmerican Theatre MagazineSDC, and other journals and books. She is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow of Dramatic Literature at NYU. 


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

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Come Together, Right Now…

by Joan Sullivan

In late October 2018, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the National Gallery of Canada to tour Anthropocene, the international multimedia art exhibit by renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. After his visit and photo ops, the Prime Minister tweeted earnestly: “We have a responsibility to our kids and their kids to protect our environment. The #Anthropocene exhibit is a stark reminder that the time to act is now.” [Emphasis added.]

The three artists presented the Prime Minister with a special edition of their Anthropocene Project book. In addition to Burtynsky’s hauntingly beautiful photographs of ravaged industrial landscapes, this book contains 11 poems from The Plasticene Suite by the celebrated Canadian poet, novelist and activist Margaret Atwood. A segment from one of these poems should make us all squirm, collectively:

We are a dying symphony.
No bird knows this
But us – we know
What our night magic does.
Our dark night magic.

—Margaret Atwood, The Plasticene Suite

Eight months after Mr. Trudeau toured the Anthropocene exhibit, Canada became the third country (after the UK and Ireland) to declare a national #ClimateEmergency, on June 17, 2019. You’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe, just maybe, a major art exhibit about humanity’s devastating signature on our planet might have influenced government energy policy. Think again.

Less than 24 hours (18 hours and 17 minutes to be exact) after Canada declared a climate emergency, Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet re-approved the expansion of a $5.5 billion USD controversial pipeline that will carry nearly a million barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta’s oil sands to the British Columbia coast for export to Asia. At the same time that Mr. Trudeau made this announcement, Alberta was fighting a 300,000 hectare climate-fueled wildfire, experiencing its driest conditions in 40 years. So it goes.

How did Mr. Trudeau justify expanding a pipeline in the middle of a climate emergency? “We need to create wealth today so we can invest in the future. […] Every dollar the federal government earns from this project will be invested in Canada’s clean energy transition.”

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg spotted the hypocrisy immediately, calling Canada’s decision “shameful” in a tweet the following morning:

One second they declare a #ClimateEmergency and the next second they say yes to expand a pipeline.

This is shameful.
But of course this is not only in Canada, we can unfortunately see the same pattern everywhere…

— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) June 19, 2019

It’s not just Canada. The four countries that have, to date, formally declared a #ClimateEmergency – UK, Ireland, Canada and France – collectively provide $27.5 billion USD annually in fossil fuel subsidies for coal, oil and gas. These subsidies involve a variety of tax breaks, financial incentives and support for private – let me repeat that, private – companies exporting abroad.

According to an article in this week’s The Guardian, G20 nations have almost tripled the subsidies they give to coal-fired power plants in recent years, despite having pledged 10 years ago to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Citing a new study by the Overseas Development Institute, The Guardian’s Damien Carrington quotes Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying in September 2018 that “Climate change can be life-threatening to all generations … We must take more robust actions and reduce the use of fossil fuels.” [Emphasis added.] Sound promising? Think again: Japan ranks third among G20 nations with the largest coal subsidies.

No wonder people are losing confidence in elected “leaders.”

I am reminded of Isaac Cordal‘s subversive 2011 installation “Follow the Leaders” in a Berlin puddle which, after going viral on social media, has forever since been referred to as “Politicians Discussing Climate Change.”

As I wrote back in 2014:

I’m willing to bet that Cordal’s photo of a group of his clay businessmen submerged in a Berlin puddle will re-appear and re-appear on Twitter for years if not decades to come. It is a perfect example of the subversive nature of art: how artists must first create friction in order to generate new ways of seeing, understanding. To me, this is climate change art at its finest.

And yet, for all the brilliance and urgency of a Cordal or a Burtynsky, what is the point of “climate change art” if our so-called elected “leaders” effectively ignore it by speaking to us in platitudes?

I realize that not all climate change art is purposeful and/or prescriptive. But I think it is safe to say that the majority of artists grappling with climate change today do hope that their art will effect positive change – whether that means raising awareness, changing attitudes, motivating behavior, inciting action or influencing policy.

But is it possible that climate change art has reached a crossroads? Is it possible that by focusing primarily on dystopic visions of an unlivable planet, climate change art has inadvertently numbed audiences? Is it possible that our images / poetry / music / dance / theatre / films about melting glaciers, rising seas, biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought, coastal erosion and extreme weather events are only preaching to the converted, and no longer resonate with the general public and politicians?

I am beginning to think so. You may not agree; I welcome your comments below.

But if there is one thing we can agree on, please, let it be this: No more images of polar bears stranded on ice floes. We can do better.

“Climate change isn’t about polar bears or the future; it’s about you and me, right here, right now,” explains climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe:

A powerful new book about individuals struggling against overwhelming odds is Richard Powers‘ brilliant The Overstory – winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Structured like a tree – roots, trunk, canopy, seeds – this epic 500-page story is, at first glance, a passionate paean to trees, described as “the most wondrous products of four billion years of creation.”

This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived. [. . .] Trees know when we’re close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes their leaves pump out change when we’re near.

—Richard Powers, The Overstory

But beyond the science and wonder of trees, Powers’ The Overstory is also a hymm to collective action. In this fictional tale set in the 1980s, nine disparate characters (each of whom has his/her own “tree story”) are drawn together through collective action at an anti-logging protest camp in the last old-growth forest of the northwestern United States. Not all ends well. Nevertheless, Powers’ hopeful message is that nothing will change until citizens band together for political and systemic change – à la #climatestrike, #FridaysForFuture, or Extinction Rebellion. Waiting passively for politicians to “fix it” for us is futile, as Cordal so cleverly reminds us.

This banding together for collective action is, in my opinion, the best way that artists can “change the narrative” about climate change. As eco-anxiety increases, artists can shift our focus away from dystopic discourse to climate narratives that reduce feelings of isolation and hopelessness, while simultaneously helping audiences visualize a role for themselves through collective action. Amy Brady has written two excellent articles here and here on how a new generation of climate fiction (cli-fi) authors are leading the way “to envision new, more sustainable and compassionate social structures” in which collective action plays a leading role.

The drama, then, lies in the emotional arcs of the characters as they face their lives with alternating hope and despair, knowing that while the future looks bleak, it has yet to be written.

—Amy Brady, Guernica Magazine

In a similar vein, Project Drawdown‘s Paul Hawken said on a recent podcast that “the mindset that will solve the [global warming] problem is collaborative.” [Emphasis added.] In reference to his organization’s best-selling book that ranks the top 100 most substantive solutions to global warming according to their financial, social and environmental benefits, Hawken explained: “[It] is all about narrative, really. It’s not a fear-based book… fear isn’t a good place to start communication. Fear doesn’t work.”

By focusing on solutions that already exist – three of the top 10 solutions involve renewable electricity generation – Project Drawdown is simply “reflecting back to the world what it is already doing.” For those feeling overwhelmed by the negative discourse that dominates our social and mainstream media, focusing on tangible solutions gives agency. The new documentary film 2040, by the Australian filmmaker Damon Garneau, presents a hopeful vision of what the world might look like if we adopted many of Drawdown’s top solutions:

I’ll end here with another plea for collective action from the prodigious Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson: “The tools for dealing with our changing climate will have to come from all fields; we all need to work together – scientists, artists, architects, businesses, governments – if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

P.S. A nod to John Lennon for the title of this post.

(Top image: cellphone image by Joan Sullivan)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


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 keep our eyes on the prize – a 100% clean energy economy in our lifetimes. Joan is currently working on a documentary film and book project about Canada’s energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on ElloTwitter and Visura.


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

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Painting the Oceans: All of Them

by Susan Hoffman Fishman

Danielle Eubank is an expedition artist and, as such, has dedicated the last 20 years to traveling and painting the world’s five oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Southern and Indian). Eubank calls her inspiring and ambitious project, One Artist Five Oceans. She models herself on the expedition artists of the past, such as William Hodges, who accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Just as these earliest artists were the “eyes of the expedition,” the ones who brought back the first images of a new world before photography became the medium of choice, Eubank too has created her own singular portraits of the oceans’ “moods and emotions” for us all to see. Her goal is to encourage people to feel, think about and act on what is happening to the oceans and environment.

William Hodges, HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, 1776

Origins of the Project

In our recent conversation, Eubank related to me that she started painting water reluctantly. Having grown up near Bodega Bay, California, she had seen her share of seascapes and had turned to painting portraits, landscapes and animals instead. “Besides,” she said,” I felt that water was really hard to depict – it’s constantly moving and how do you draw that in an original way?” In 2001, during a visit to the Doñana National Park in Huelva, Spain, where Eubank had been sketching the dunes for days with her back to the sea, she turned around. Forcing herself to draw the water, Eubank began what became a decades-long passion. As she worked over a number of subsequent days, observing the water more and more closely, she began to develop a visual language for water that became increasingly abstract and emotive.

The Expeditions

In 2013, on the strength of her growing body of water paintings, Eubank was invited to serve as the expedition artist aboard the Borobudur Ship, a wooden replica of an 8th century Indonesian trading vessel. From 2013 – 2014, the expedition sailed from Indonesia, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and up the Atlantic Ocean to Ghana. Aboard the Borobudur, as with all of her voyages, Eubank would draw and photograph what she saw, and later, in her studio, develop a series of large-scale paintings based on these observations.

Of all of the oceans she has sailed, Eubank credits the Indian Ocean as her probable favorite. With its proximity to the Equator and the high level of pollution in the air, the Indian Ocean reflects a wide variety of colors, including the intense orange of the sunrises and sunsets, pale turquoise, ultramarine blue and purple. In Mozambique, Eubank visited fabric stores, which displayed the bright colors of the country’s traditional printed cloth. Her paintings from this time period were highly influenced by both the varied color palette of the water and the local dress. Eubank considered the experience “transformative” and began thinking about traveling and painting all of the world’s oceans.

Danielle Eubank, Ancol XIII, oil on linen, 44” x 28,” 2008.  The Borobudur Ship Expedition

From 2008 – 2010, Eubank served as the expedition artist for The Phoenician Ship Expedition, a recreation of a 6th-century BCE voyage, which sailed from Syria, through the Suez Canal, around the Horn of Africa and up the west coast of Africa, through the Straits of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean to return to Syria. The vessel was a replica of a 2,500-year-old Phoenician ship that circumnavigated Africa six centuries before the birth of Christ. Eubank’s paintings from the voyage reflect the hot colors of Western Africa.

Danielle Eubank, Mozambique IX, oil on linen, 60” x 72,” 2011. The Phoenician Ship Expedition

In 2014, Eubank traveled to the High Arctic aboard the Antigua, a barquentine tall ship. She was one of 27 artists, scientists and educators who made the voyage around the international territory of Svalbard, an Arctic Archipelago. The Antigua passed through a world of pale blue icebergs and “turquoise-cerulean ice calving from glaciers.” To Eubank, the already abstract nature of the landscape was vastly different from the water and sky of her previous expeditions. Her challenge, as she described it, was to find a new way to translate that environment:

Normally, I deconstruct the physical forms found in water to create stacks of abstracted rhythms. In this case, the Arctic Ocean already looks abstract before I’ve had a chance to deconstruct it.

Danielle Eubank, Arctic XI, oil on linen, 60” x 72,” 2018

Eubank achieved her 20-year goal of visiting and painting the world’s five oceans in February of this year when she sailed through the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. Although she has filled sketchbooks with drawings and taken numerous photographs, she has not yet completed the full body of paintings that will derive from this expedition. She is, however, currently exhibiting work from all five expeditions for the first time at the Kwan Fong Gallery, California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California through August 1, 2019.

When I asked Eubank what she had learned from her journeys, she admitted that she had seen firsthand how

messed up the waters around the world are, how much less marine life there is now than even in the 20th Century; how it’s really important that people have a way of protecting and feeding their families – without that, they can’t possibly think about fixing the environment.

In answer to my question “what’s next?” Eubank responded that she will probably always be working with the topic of water and that she will continue to spread the message about the importance of reducing the use of plastic and fossil fuels that have had a devasting effect on our climate and our precious oceans.

(Top image: Danielle Eubank, Arctic XII,oil on linen, 72” x 116,” 2019.  The Arctic Expedition)

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


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


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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Refuge in a Climate Context

Since 2000, the UN has observed World Refugee Day on June 20 to raise awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. As part of my own World Refugee Day observance, I’m reflecting on Blessed Unrest and Teatri Oda’s recent production Refuge.

I had the opportunity to dramaturgically support Blessed Unrest in their latest production, and even more, am eager to write about their piece in the context of the climate crisis. Refuge is described via Blessed Unrest’s website:

Blessed Unrest teams up with Teatri Oda from Kosovo and musicians from Metropolitan Klezmer for this world-premiere play based on real events in which thousands of Jewish World War II refugees were harbored by families in Albania, most of them practicing Muslims. Despite Nazi occupation, no Jews were taken to concentration camps from Albania, and it was the only country in Europe with more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning.

Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, Nancy McArthur, and Eshref Durmishi in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Presented at Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City, Refuge starts with two women running toward each other and embracing centerstage. These women, one Albanian and one American, tie us to modern day as the actors who play these contemporary characters transform back in time to two distinct moments in history: 1940s Poland and 1990s Kosova.

In 1940s Poland, a Jewish family leaves their home to escape the Holocaust. In 1990s Kosova, an Albanian family flees persecution from the former Yugoslavia. Refuge sets up these two narratives, and we see how the stories intertwine. The Jewish family journeys through Europe, intending to catch a ship to the United States before the Nazis spread further. This family meets a Muslim-Catholic family in Albania who takes them in for as long as necessary. Based on actual events, the Albanian family treats the Jewish family as their own, helping them fit into Albanian culture to protect from any Nazi suspicions.

Albanians practice Besa, an ethical code of honor meaning “to keep the promise.” In this way – according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center – “the Albanians went out of their way to provide assistance…These acts originated from compassion, loving-kindness and a desire to help those in need, even those of another faith or origin.” Later in the play, we realize that the daughter of the Albanian family in the 1940s is the grandmother of the 1990s family, and she is still trying to reconnect with the Jewish daughter, through written-yet-unreturned letters.

Refuge illustrates Besa through these fictional families, telling a story not often heard. Through invigorating music, rigorous movement, humorous and heartfelt text, Refuge brings Besa to life for a new audience. The play lays out the problems, especially what it means to be displaced and to relocate home, but it does not dwell on the hardships. Instead, Blessed Unrest and Teatri Oda use true stories from the past to demonstrate how the world could be: namely, more loving. The Albanian family, like many real Albanians during World War II, set aside religious and cultural differences, and not only welcomed strangers into their homes, but treated them as family.

Ilire Vinca, Eshref Durmishi, Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, and Nancy McArthur in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.

We need more plays like Refuge, especially in the context of climate chaos. People, populations of entire countries, have had to move from one place to another due to environmental hardship, and such migrations will only increase. Examples include Houston, Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea. While Refuge is clearly talking about refugees – people fleeing their home because of persecution – there are questions around the term “refugee” as related to climate change. The UN is careful to distinguish climate migrants from refugees, enumerating aspects that “define human mobility in the context of climate change and environmental degradation” including the aspect that creating a “refugee status for climate change related reasons…can lead to the exclusion of categories of people who are in need of protection.” Nonetheless, we’re talking about people on the move, some needing to completely reframe what and where home is. Refuge reminds me that “home” isn’t always a physical place; home is where my family is.

At the end of the play, we’re back in modern times and the Jewish daughter recounts one of her letters to the Albanian daughter: “I have children now, Tana. I have a granddaughter. She exists because of you and your family.” The Jewish daughter recognizes her survival as a direct result of Tana’s family, the Albanian’s choice to open their home to strangers for the duration of a world war. Tana responds: “I am just a person.” This line, a simple reminder, strikes me every time. How will each of us as individuals move through the world? How will we work together to build a better world? In whatever ways we yield our collective power, we must hold space for those already seeking, and who will seek, refuge. We are each just people, but together we can change the course of history, to a more equitable and just world for us all.

Eshref Durmishi, Ilire Vinca, Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, and Daniela Markaj in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.

There’s More
Follow Blessed Unrest & Teatri Oda as they bring Refuge to Europe in the coming year.
Engage with advocacy organizations like The Accompany Project and Refugees Welcome to Dinner.

(Top Image: Ilire Vinca, Eshref Durmishi, Nancy McArthur, Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, and Daniela Markaj in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.)

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


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


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

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Marian Womack

by Mary Woodbury

In this spotlight, I look at how ecology intersects with weird fiction. This has been an interest of mine, but I have done only one similar spotlight – on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy – two years ago. It’s good to come back to this subject.

I am honored to talk with the amazing Marian Womack about her new collection of short stories, Lost Objects. See Weird Fiction Review for a detailed review of Lost Objects, including a link to read “Orange Dogs” online. Jeff VanderMeer says of the book, “An intriguing and illuminating first collection, chockfull of interesting ideas about the natural world and ourselves.” Published by Luna Press (July 2018):

These stories explore place and landscape at different stages of decay, positioning them as fighting grounds for death and renewal. From dystopian Andalusia to Scotland or the Norfolk countryside, they bring together monstrous insects, ghostly lovers, soon-to-be extinct species, unexpected birds, and interstellar explorers, to form a coherent narrative about loss and absence.

What led you to the writing of this short story collection, and had you traveled to the various places within?

Lost Objects wasn’t originally planned as a collection. The stories it contains were written over a period of several years, roughly from the birth of my son in 2012 onwards, and I hadn’t thought of writing a thematic collection as each of these stories came to me. But it became clear in retrospect that these individual narratives did add up to something that deserved to be seen as a whole, a collection of different perspectives on the same or similar issues, and – with a little tweaking – the collection fell together out of disparate and apparently unconnected materials. As far as traveling to the environments I write about is concerned, on one level none of these places exist, yet. But their present-day iterations do: some of the stories are set in Cambridge, UK, where I live and work; “Black Isle” is set to a certain extent near where some of my family live, to the north of Inverness in Scotland, and “The Ravisher, the Thief” is set in Barcelona, a city I know well from my years living in metropolitan Spain. Other stories are set in environments I have visited in my youth.

What kinds of lost objects did you see in these areas, in real life?

From an environmental perspective, we are losing everything, all the time. I live in suburban Cambridge, and over the course of the last few years the visible diversity of, for example, bird life has declined enormously. This is not just anecdotal; there are statistics to back it up, but even speaking from a personal perspective you see the old certainties changing and failing all around you. I am writing this in the middle of an astonishing heatwave, and talking heads on the television say this could now be the new normal: seasons are failing, crops are dying, and the tendency is still to think about this kind of radical change as something that will happen just beyond the horizon of our perception, in a hundred years’ time, or a hundred and fifty. But it is happening now, and here, and it is terrifying.

The short stories in Lost Objects explore the unsustainable worlds of our society, and the losses therein – cultural continuity, people, animals, plants, clean water. How did you come about imagining the what-ifs, or maybe more appropriately, the what-if-this-continues types of settings, which are varied among these stories?

I think that in a lot of these stories I am not really writing speculatively. The scenarios they describe are plausible extrapolations of the current world. (Parenthetically, I am a firm believer in the idea that science fiction is never really about the future, but is about the present as we experience it.) But from a technical standpoint, I think that what I do is to take an environment as close to my real world as I can, and then develop it with little “tweaks” here and there until the final result is a world that is both ours and not-ours, both now and not-now.

Great point. I’ve run across the phrase (particularly in weird fiction) “charnel grounds” when describing our world, as it is losing these sorts of objects. We do seem to be in a place now where regret and loss result in a discomposure. We feel ghosts, see ruins and skeletons at our feet. Symbolically at least. Did the concept of charnel grounds, or anything similar, occur to you when working on this book?

To give a short answer, not really, no. But it’s interesting and appropriate to think about it: the current extended meaning of “charnel grounds” is a little vague, and is generally applied to a space of disorganized destruction and death, which is a little apocalyptic for my tastes. But charnel houses were originally spaces for storing “overflow bones” when graveyards got too full. Old bones were dug up so that new bones could be put in their place. The old bones were still treated with respect, still counted as consecrated, were as valuable as they had been before, just put to one side. I think that’s the way I like to understand the symbol perhaps: my stories are filled with death and loss, but it’s a loss that connects us to the past, that is set aside but still valued. I think that over the years to come we are going to have to have to learn to mourn in a way we haven’t needed to since the Victorian era, and the concept of the charnel house might help us here.

I see more and more fiction that addresses climate change, environmental losses, and extinction. There is a big diversity of stories being told. I think of eco-fiction, a term I’ve heard you use as well, as a way to intersect environment, humanity, and literature. Have you seen much of this in weird fiction, and if so, can you talk some about that?

Well, the intersection between ecology and the Weird is one of the things I’m writing my doctorate about, so I could speak about this for hours. But in the interests of concision, let me just say that one of the key tenets of the Weird is the idea of the irruption, the entry into apparently “normal” space of the abnormal invader. This corresponds to the Lacanian idea of the Real: the abnormal invader is actually a glimpse of the unmediated, unvarnished, incomprehensible “truth” that stands outside the symbolic and imaginary interpretations of the world we throw up around ourselves. What eco-fiction is giving us is a world in which the Real (environmental forces that are beyond the control of any single individual) is more absolutely present, and this incomprehensible cosmic truth that previously we only saw in glimpses is now breaking through to display itself to us on a day-to-day basis. Of course, this is not to say that in the world outside of fiction there aren’t people whose devotion to the symbolic or imaginary order of things isn’t strong enough for them to live their lives in a state of denial…

I wish I had hours to talk with you, because the Weird is also so interesting to me in how it connects with our natural world. In Lost Objects, you deal with tough emotional reactions to the changing world around us. It’s so important to recognize this as it’s hard for all of us to watch what’s happening. I talked with poet Lorna Crozier, author of The Wild in You, a while back, who said that as we grow older, we grow lonelier. Part of it is that as we age we begin watching friends and family pass away. But loneliness is also born of saying goodbye to the wilderness left on the Earth. “It’s the loneliness that comes from wiping out of songbirds, salmon runs, and old-growth forests. It comes from trophy bear hunting…” etc. I think the characters in your stories feel this most vividly. How can writers continue to share this without coming across as didactic?

Nothing wrong with being didactic, in my opinion… There was a post gaining traction on Facebook this morning from a climate scientist who had been invited to appear on the BBC, and who refused because he was going to be interviewed alongside a climate-change sceptic “in the interests of balance.” This is not a balanced issue, and shouldn’t be seen as one. And any tool for raising consciousness, whether it is emotional or scientific or statistical or whatever, is valid. I realize that saying this runs the risk of continuing to further entrench fixed positions, but I don’t think there’s a divide to speak across in this instance. If the house is on fire, there’s no point arguing with the person who says it isn’t. As far as representing the problems of climate change in an emotional fashion is concerned, I think maybe one way to avoid manipulativeness is to show the continuing validity of Donne’s “no man is an island,” to represent the fact that we are all – from the level of the planet down to that of the community, the neighborhood, the family – connected to one another, and our actions cause joy or pain to those around us.

I agree with you. To end, are you working on anything else at the moment?

I have just finished (to the extent that you ever think these things are finished) a supernatural detective novel, an uncanny story set in London and Norfolk. I’m quite pleased with it. And as far as the future is concerned, I am working on another novel that I’m not quite ready to talk about yet, as well as some short stories. The things that interest me stay the same, more or less: the way that the planet is changing, and our role on it as custodians or parasites, embodying the problem and the solution at the same time.

Thanks so much, Marian. I hope we stay in touch, particularly about your studies and new works of fiction.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on


Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.


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

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Novelist Aaron Thier Unfolds an Epic Tale of Longing, Comedy, and Climate Change

by Peterson Toscano 

Storytelling is a vital skill to have when talking about climate change. In this episode podcast, I introduce you to novelist Aaron Thier, a master storyteller. In his book Mr. Eternity, Thier takes readers on a 1,000 year odyssey.

The main character calls himself Daniel Defoe. We never learn his real name. Old Dan can’t seem to die. Five different narrators in five different periods from 1500 to 2500 bump into this traveler. The book is brilliant, hilarious, deeply moving, weird. It is essential reading for climate advocates. Learn why Aaron wrote the book and the challenges novelists face when telling climate stories. Aaron also reads extended excerpts from the book.

Coming up next month, Peterson Toscano uses comic storytelling and performance art to re-imagine a well-known Bible story but this time with a climate change twist. 

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

(Top image by Matthew Cavanaugh.)

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 reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @


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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Revitalizing Rural China with Art and Design

by Yasmine Ostendorf

I’m writing this from the misty mountains of Qingliangshan National Forest Park, a stunningly beautiful natural area in Zixi county, Jiangxi province, in rural China. The closest railway station (Nan Cheng) is over two hours away. It doesn’t just feel remote here, it really is. Though the soil is fertile, the people friendly, the air fresh and the water clean, the area is facing other difficulties: the last school closed last year because there were no students left, and the (aging) population is declining as the remaining young people trade rural life for city life. Family fragmentation and depopulation are the unfortunate consequences of a generation in pursuit of an urban lifestyle.

Local landscape of Qingliangshan

Rural life is not appealing to this generation of Chinese; the prevalent attitude toward the countryside is that if offers no desirable work opportunities (farming is too physically straining), it’s low-tech, it’s full of bugs and snakes, there are no good hospitals and no prestigious schools. Even if Chinese youth was interested in a more simple life in the country, no Chinese parent would endorse this plan.

My workshop during the Lucitopia Rural Design Challenge

So it was a bold move when Lucitopia Town Limited Company, in collaboration with C-Platform, Xiamen MeXdia Creativity & Technology, and Creative Cooperative decided to organize a “Rural Design Challenge.” They brought over 60 international design students and volunteers to spend a week in the mountains of Qingliangshan, doing field research and interviewing locals, in order to come up with informed proposals to re-invigorate the area.

The aim of the Rural Design Challenge is to encourage students to come up with ideas that can be implemented and benefit the local community – bringing people in, creating work opportunities, and feeding the local economy. The area was coined Lucitopia Town in order to brand it and its possible products for an international audience. I joined the group for a week as lecturer, mentor, and as a member of the jury, selecting the winning proposal(s). A task not to be thought of lightly as the founders of Lucitopia Town are ambitious and hope to actually implement some of the best design ideas.

Lucitopia could potentially serve as a model, a best practice example for other remote villages as exodus to the city is a problem occurring across China (and to some extent across the world). It is clear from the marketing language, with terms such as “Design Creation,” “Mountain Stories,” “New Rural Lifestyle,” and “Future Fantasy,” and from Lucitopia branded honey, tote bags, and other products, that they are aching to be launched into the world even though the site is hardly established.

We sleep in containers (very much resembling Shoreditch Boxpark in London) that look alien in the leafy green bushiness of the region. I guess the aspiration is to look like a hip-ish eco-village, but it looks more like a construction site. Because of recent heavy storms, the (rain and mountain) water storage tanks are clogged with sand and leaves and there is no running water.

In addition to being a design challenge, this becomes an immediate social challenge: some of the students (and even teachers) find it very hard to cope without running water for 24 hours. For many, this is their first time in Asia, or even their first time away from the city. They are confronted with cultural differences and/or are lost in translation, on top of having to deal with jet lag. Stress, chaos, and tears abound. It’s a proper baptism as it becomes apparent how detached city people are from rural life. However, the situation has the benefit of pointing students toward possible design challenges/solutions concerning the site.

The local church with surrounding farmland

Over the the next few days, we explore local villages and farms in small groups and it all becomes crystal clear why we are here. Lucitopia proves an excellent base for further exploration: the area is largely undeveloped (which is not a given in China), the small-scale organic farming practices are inspiring, and the most incredible natural resources grow abundantly around us. We come across high quality fresh green bamboo, raspberries, honeysuckle, shiitake, peanuts, tea plantations, spring water, wild herbs used in Chinese medicine, and bees raised for honey. The whole area is teeming with life and potential. The students are excited and pick up on the many possibilities immediately.

What is also interesting about the area is that the local inhabitants are comprised of two different groups. In 1959, a dam was built in Qiandao Lake, Chun’an County in the neighboring Zhejiang Province. The construction of the reservoir displaced local people who were brought to Zixi. Completely dispossessed, they had to start their lives from scratch again, starting with building their own house. Their architectural style and ways of living and farming are very different from those of the people who had been there for generations, making the landscape diverse on multiple levels.

The students are buzzing around for brainstorms, surveys, and prototyping, interrupted by the occasional identity crisis. Some ideas seem naive and Western to me, some so good that they are more likely to lead to mass tourism than conservation of the area – which is actually my biggest fear with this project. Occasionally they strike a nice balance, ranging from foraging walks and site-specific recipes, to a Renewable Energy Light Festival and culinary school with the local ladies.

On the evening before the final day, the volunteers organize a “Chinese evening.” We sing and dance, learn about paper-cutting, calligraphy, tea ceremonies, and there’s a contest picking as many peanuts as possible with chopsticks in one minute. When I go outside to cool down from hysterical peanut picking and admire the starry night, I get talking to one of the students who is still grappling with her proposal. She has plenty of ideas but still isn’t convinced there is something that would bring people to travel so remotely.

Yet look at us, I think. We are a group of over 70 young (some would say talented) people, from 18 different countries, coming from educational institutions in Singapore, Russia, China, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, France and Germany. We are dancing and drinking tea with the locals of Qingliangshan, showing our dedicated interest, and using all our energy to come up with creative ideas. From where I stand, the so-called middle of nowhere looks like the centre of the universe. Perhaps the best idea has already been implemented.


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

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On the Enduring Beauty, Power and Fragility of Water

American sculptor and installation artist Nancy Cohen is passionate about water, so much so that much of her work for the past 12 years has focused on the topic. Her large-scale installations are the product of significant research on the history and ecosystems of individual waterways that have been damaged by human interventions and climate change.

I spoke to Cohen recently about her motivation for addressing the nature of waterways, her choice of materials and her fundamental approach to creating what she called, “beauty with an edge.” 

Why Water?

Cohen has spent most of her life observing the rivers near where she has lived and worked, both as a child and as an adult. These include the East and Hudson Rivers in New York and the Mullica and Hackensack Rivers in New Jersey, where she now resides. As a result of this day-to-day exposure to rivers, Cohen began examining “what was going on in the water” and addressing in her work the changing ecosystems of the waterways around her. At times in collaboration with environmental scientists and landscape architects, she witnessed the causes of the changes (industrial development, overbuilding, overfishing, littering, chemical waste dumping, dredging, etc.) as well as their consequences (polluted water, loss of habitats, loss of species, invasive species intrusion, flooding, salt water intrusion, etc.). 

Although Cohen clearly acknowledges the negative, man-made impact on waterways, her installations, sculptures and drawings are filled with a sense of awe at the ability of some plants and animals to adapt and survive in their altered conditions, as well as recognize both the strength and fragility of water. Despite her tendency to focus on nature’s remarkable capacity for adaptation and to create works of immense beauty, Cohen admits that she is “not a blind optimist” when it comes to the future of the environment. She is making artwork that has an “edge,” and though alluring, often receives responses from viewers suggesting that her installations appear to be dystopian habitats.


Cohen’s installations and paintings are comprised primarily of paper and glass that she makes herself, along with other media chosen to serve her vision for the pieces. Her decision to use paper and glass as the foundation for her work is based on her commitment to materials that reflect a connection to water and to the waterway sites themselves. Cohen explains:

Water is an intrinsic component in making paper. During the paper-making process, the artist is literally immersed in water. Paper also allows for the reflection of water’s movements and color changes and can accommodate grasses and other natural materials that are embedded in the paper itself. In addition, many of the waterways I have addressed, such as the Mullica River in South Jersey, have had a long history of paper-making along their shores. Similarly, sand is a major component used in glass-making, which also took place in factories along these waterways.

Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics

Cohen’s installation Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics is part of an exhibition entitled “Summation and Absence,” on view through August 16, 2019 at the BioBat Art Space on the Brooklyn waterfront in New York. According to the curators, “each installation opens a fresh portal into what is at stake for life on this planet, inviting the viewer to reflect on the beauty and complexity of life within a vulnerable ecosystem.” Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics was originally created in 2008 for the Holland Paper Biennale at the CODA Museum in Apeldoorn, Netherlands.

The installation reflects Cohen’s understanding of the current state of the Mullica River in the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey. As she described it, 

In coming to know the Pine Barrens –  from readings, from conversations with marine biologists and environmentalists and, more directly, from a winter boat ride through the marshes – I began to feel the fragile ecosystem as a fragile presence in itself. As in our own lives, elements hang in the balance, each one necessary, vulnerable, beautiful and above all, interdependent…

I am struck by the endless planes of both still and undulating water and the deep equilibrium and balance of the place. As just one example, the waters of the estuary are of many kinds, distinct but intermingled. The browns and blues – and yellows and greens – of the gradual progression from river to sea find their way into sculptural forms of handmade paper that look as if they might have been stained by the passage.

More generally, the waterways are in slow and constant evolution, much as we are. Form, space and color are never static. In its movement the water changes what it touches – it quite literally moves the environment that gives it form. And, lastly, the nature-in-itself of the estuary does not exist alone. A man-made world impinges and is impinged upon. But the necessity of evolution, of impact and especially of inescapable but perilous interaction – this is what each of us confronts in every moment of our lives. In its moods and modes, I have found the ways of the water very human. 

Nancy Cohen, Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics. Handmade paper and wire, 47 x 11 x 8 inches, 2008. CODA Museum, Apeldoorn, Netherlands.

Works on Paper

Not confining herself to installations and sculpture, Cohen is a prolific creator of mixed media works on paper. Her most recent paper images, along with mixed media glass sculptures, were shown at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City from March through May of this year. The seven works on paper were based on waters observed during two artist’s residencies this past summer in Samara, Dominican Republic and in Eastport, Maine. The images shown below and at the beginning of this article are based on Cohen’s examination of the shoreline of Eastport, Maine. Both pieces address what’s left of the fishing and canning factories, which have been abandoned as a result of overfishing in the area and have since fallen into the ocean. Underside depicts how the water is reclaiming the architecture; Remnant reveals the remaining pieces of the wooden piers that supported the factories and have become covered with “seaweed creatures.”

Cohen’s process in creating these works incorporates water at every stage. She first made the blue background paper from the fiber of abaca, an herbaceous plant similar to the banana plant. Then, using wet pulp from various fibers, she formed the surface imagery, which leaves the impression that it has been stitched. Even the irregular, undulating quality of the paper evokes the intrinsic movement of water.

Nancy Cohen, Remnant. Paper, pulp and handmade paper, 54 x 54 inches, 2018.

Hackensack Dreaming

Hackensack Dreamingis a monumental installation inspired by the post-industrial landscape of the Mill Creek Marsh, a highly polluted section of the Hackensack River near a popular mall in Secaucus, New Jersey. Cohen described her first look at the site during the winter of 2014 in the following way:

A few steps from the shopping center parking lot, we entered a quiet space where pools of flat, still water gave way to the tops of wooden tree stumps that seemed to break free from thin sheets of ice while simultaneously appearing to encapsulate them as they ruptured the surface of the pale blue water. The stump forms are inexplicable, magical, sculptural. They seem to embody fragility, perseverance and a caught moment. Conceptual ideas I have been moving around in my work for years were suddenly presented to me besides the New Jersey Turnpike.

Crafted from handmade glass, rubber, metal and handmade paper, Hackensack Dreaminghas been exhibited in a number of venues including the Visual Arts Gallery of the New Jersey City University in Jersey City, NJ (2015) and the Agnes Varis Art Center at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, NY (2016). In a review of the installation for ArteFuse, an on-line contemporary art blog, A. Bascove described his impression of the room-sized piece:

This is a dream of thousands of years ago, before mammals walked the earth, when these waters teemed with trilobites, brachiopods, jellyfish, early crustaceans and sea sponges, the earliest forms of life…

Cohen’s skill and virtuosity are in full command as she finds the poetry in the ruins and memories of a forgotten, once vital, living body of water. The passage of time, the impersonal destruction by human encroachment never entirely supersedes the recognition of sublime beauty and the pulse of life in the most unexpected places.

Nancy Cohen, Hackensack Dreaming. Handmade paper, glass, rubber, monofilament,  
2014-2015. Detail.

After reading numerous articles and looking at many images in preparation for this article, I was impressed by both the evolution and clear focus of Cohen’s work over the past twelve years as she developed a body of work on the enduring beauty, power and fragility of water. It was also clear to me that Cohen has perfected her craft in papermaking and glassmaking to the point where it effectively evokes the state of our environment today. As she told me in my interview with her, this is, as a human being and as an artist, her contribution to the critical conversation on climate change, the most important existential issue of our time.

(Top image: Nancy Cohen, Underside. Paper, pulp and ink on handmade paper, 25 x 50 inches.)

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


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


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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Crystalline: Hidden Monuments

by Maeve Mulrennan

Irish visual artist Siobhán McDonald’s recent exhibition Crystalline: Hidden Monuments at Limerick City Gallery of Art explored geology, archaeology, human intervention, time and climate change through a series of interconnected bodies of work. Running from February 1 to March 31, 2019, the solo exhibition unfolded over several rooms in LCGA, beginning with the artist’s 2017 work Crystalline. The final room of the exhibition was a multimedia enquiry into the Black Pig’s Dyke, an Iron-Bronze Age linear earthwork/monument in the north midlands of Ireland that is currently the subject of an archaeological research project which uses radiocarbon dating as part of its process.

The heart of the archaeological enquiry is to determine the function(s) of this dyke, which was a bank roughly nine meters wide and in some parts six meters high, with ditches of roughly three meters depth each side. Excavations in 1982 revealed evidence of a palisade lining the bank. The dyke crosses five counties, which are now the border counties between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. McDonald was commissioned by Monaghan County Council and Creative Ireland in 2017 to research and create new work with the Black Pig’s Dyke as her starting point.

The artist’s practice naturally finds interconnectedness everywhere – particularly when looking at human interventions into nature and the consequences of these interventions. In this exhibition, interconnectedness was highlighted in part through the bringing together of explorations of Black Pig’s Dyke and a formerly hidden monument revealed in the land by a drought in Ireland in 2018.

Sound Inscription Score, 6-meter drawing on antique paper. Following a seam of geology and gold across Ireland. Linear earthworks circa 2000 BC. Photo by Kevin Lim.

Much of McDonald’s work is framed by the relationship between Humans and Nature, and most notably by her interest in mapping time: geological time, personal time and how events can repeat, reoccur, echo or act as reminders, signaling to us and being reinterpreted in new contexts. For example, the burning of the Palisades signaled war, crisis point, something being concluded; are we at this point now again? We are in a time of great need: needing to change the impact of multinational industry and demanding that governments support meaningful change – it is not just about individual-consumer impact. The archaeological, scientific and artistic interest in the Dyke shows that after centuries of myopia, our society is willing to look beyond our own time and needs, and investigate the time and needs of others before us.

What is known about the research on the Dyke is that it will not lead to one simple, conclusive answer as to why this was made and then partially destroyed. The Black Pig’s Dyke Regional Project Phase One Report Summary states: “It is evident from the research carried out to date that the linear earthworks can no longer be reduced to just one interpretation.”

An artist will often ask questions knowing that there may be no answers, and scientific research often yields more questions than conclusions. However, our acceptance with not knowing, or our recognition that the Dyke was numerous things at numerous times, is acceptable to us. We can simultaneously know and not know, something that seems at odds with our social media-led culture where someone or something is either held up for praise or mercilessly judged, with no in-between.

Palisades, a row of charred wood, lined the gallery wall, creating a border and leading the viewer to the 4-minute video Future MonumentsPalisades references evidence recorded in an archaeological investigation of Black Pig’s Dyke, which shows that the bank was lined with a wooden fence or palisade that was burned, presumably during a time of war. The artist chose not to present us with images of an intact structure or a wall of flames, but with what is left.

In the center of the square gallery space, the circular charred wood sculpture work What Remains anchored the gallery. Like Palisades, it spoke of what is left: the mark of human intervention on the planet. It showed that nothing ever really “ends” or disappears; things move on and change, usually carrying echoes, scars or memories that inform what happens next. Working with carbonized wood positioned this exhibition in the realm of archaeology and science rather than myth. McDonald unraveled myth from fact but did not destroy the presence of myth: she created a porous context and a liminal space that allowed for these multiple layers to be seen clearly.

While working with the archaeologists in charge of the research project, the artist’s process involved looking at facts, what remains, and what the traces of humans and the rest of nature leave for us to see as evidence. The evidence of the palisade being burned speaks clearly of an “ending.” This is not to say the dyke ceased to function after the burning, but maybe its function, or its meaning, changed.

Palisade, pyrolysis (burnt in an environment without oxygen). Dimensions variable. Future Monuments, 4-minute film. On-site interventions on The Black Pig’s Dyke on Winter Solstice 2018 and New Grange during the drought in July 2018. 

However, this “ending” is viewed by the artist as the ending of one thing and the beginning of another: What Remains is circular – a motif that was repeated several times in the gallery space and in other works throughout the rest of the LCGA exhibition. This circling, or cycling, was shown in the Future Monuments video by the revealing of a crop circle during the Summer 2018 drought: this echo of the past reveals the damage we are doing through global warming, and reminds us that our time, in comparison to historical time or geological time, is minimal. The contrast between how long humans have been on Earth and the amount of damage that has been done in that short time is explored and presented in a way that we can relate to in our own lives by exposing the cycles, meanings and values within that time, and how they connect to our history and the land we inhabit. We are not apart from nature, despite our constant attempts to distance ourselves from it. We are a threat from within it.

There is a sense that time (in the widest possible interpretation) is running out in Future Monuments, which was filmed in mid-summer in Newgrange and mid-winter at the Black Pig’s Dyke – the Summer and Winter Solstices. These Solstice points remind the viewer of the importance of measuring and mapping the sun in prehistoric eras – and perhaps one of the functions of the Dyke was to measure and track the sun’s activities in relation to place. Future Monuments’ audio gives a suspenseful, cinematic quality to the non-narrative video work. The video itself was displayed on a small screen, with the viewer having to turn their back to the large circular What Remains in order to view it.

This scale could be interpreted as benign as a minimal intervention; rather than leaving her own mark to add to the many layers of human interventions, the artist attempted, in her practice, to leave minimal traces. This was echoed in her minimal interventions into the two locations in the video. The soundscape, however, filled the gallery space and seemed to be the sound piece for the entire space rather than just the video, endlessly signaling and messaging. The gallery became a place for relic, prophecy, consolation and warning – the viewer was at once made calm and uneasy.

We are in a time of great need.

Hidden Monuments will open in Monaghan, Ireland on June 27, 2019. The show will run until July 30. McDonald is also exhibiting some of the works at the International Art Fair: VOLTA Basel 2019, June 10-15.

(Top image: Lunula24-karat gold, whole calfskin and smoke using a seismograph to inscribe earth signals onto paper surfaces. 120 cm square. What remainsfloor installationbirch, oak and willow. Dimensions variable.)


Maeve Mulrennan is the Head of Visual Art & Education in Galway Arts Centre, a multidisciplinary public space in the West of Ireland. She has written for Visual Artists Ireland NewsLetter, Paper Visual Art, CIRCA and Billion Art Journal and contributed several essays for exhibitions and artists publications. She has an MA in Visual Art Practices from IADT Dún Laoghaire, h.Dip in Arts Administration form NUI Galway, BA in Fine Art from Limerick School of Art and Design, and BA in English Literature, Sociology / Politics & German from NUI Galway.


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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Environmentalism Behind the Scenes on Broadway and Beyond

Sustainability and Broadway are two words that, on the surface, might not go together. Sustainability is a complex concept that seeks to ensure the natural environment is able to meet current and future needs, while Broadway is a cultural hub where theatregoers can escape and immerse themselves in the worlds of plays and musicals. But sustainability and Broadway are much more interconnected than you might think.

Ten years ago, more than 250 theatre professionals gathered in New York City to discuss the growing climate crisis. David Stone, the producer of Wicked, had just seen the documentary An Inconvenient Truth and, like many others, realized how imperative it was to take action. Stone and his team hosted a Town Hall at the Gershwin Theatre, bringing together theatre professionals interested in making, or already working to make, theatre more environmentally friendly. After an inspiring keynote speech from Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Wicked team and participants discussed ways to make theatre greener.

One of the actions discussed at this Town Hall was to form a committee that would act as a central resource on environmental issues for the theatre community. So, in November 2008, the Broadway Green Alliance (BGA) was formed as an ad hoc committee of the Broadway League.

Collecting electronic waste at the BGA’s Fall E-Waste Drive in September 2018

Since its inception, the BGA’s mission has been to educate, motivate, and inspire the entire theatre community and its patrons to adopt environmentally friendlier practices. This is a seemingly immense undertaking. But the BGA’s work is built on the recognition that environmental issues are caused by the cumulative effect of millions of small actions and that effective change comes from each of us doing a bit better every day. We don’t aim to be fully “green,” but rather work to be “greener” than we were yesterday.

One of the BGA’s main objectives is to communicate information to our members and the general public in order to encourage everyone to make environmentally responsible decisions. We host several events a year, including an annual Town Hall for the theatre community and beyond on issues like plastic pollution and green energy, as well as four collection drives – two for electronic waste and two for textiles – in Times Square. Our collection drives have diverted over 20,000 pounds of e-waste and hundreds of bags of textiles since 2016. We also circulate written materials to educate individuals on more sustainable practices. BGA newsletters frequently contain new eco-friendly initiatives that can be implemented within the theatre community and beyond, and we create guides and resources on things like e-waste recycling and how to close a show in a greener manner.

Buyi Zama backstage at The Lion King Gazelle Tour, encouraging company members to go green.

In addition, we run the BGA’s Green Captain program. One person, or several people, involved with a production, organization, or venue serves as the go-to person(s) for questions, ideas, issues, or problems about sustainability. Green Captains work behind the scenes to make their productions or venues greener, with support from other Green Captains and BGA members. There are no specific requirements – the BGA just asks that individuals do what they can, when they can. Some Green Captains make an effort to stay informed, educate their casts and companies, and post information about greener practices backstage. Mara Davi, a former BGA Green Captain on The Play That Goes Wrongexplains that some of the basics of the role include providing green tips to company members and collecting recyclables backstage. Other Green Captains have specific passion projects to which they dedicate their time. For example, Satomi Hofmann, from The Phantom of the Opera, was searching for a sustainable way to dispose of used NYC metrocards. She found an artist in Williamsburg, Nina Boesch, who uses them to make collages. Now, thanks to Satomi’s dedication, the BGA collects metrocards from all Broadway shows and sends them over to Nina, keeping them out of landfills.

Since 2008, over 300 individuals on Broadway have volunteered to be Green Captains on their productions. This program has since expanded to include Off-Broadway venues, college theatre departments, and touring productions and venues.

Members of the Broadway community often share information, through the Green Captain program and other means, about greener practices, which leads to sustainable improvements. One of the most visible ones was the upgrading of marquee and outside lights at Broadway theatres to energy-efficient LEDs and CFLs. This one action has saved energy and money, and has reduced Broadway’s footprint by seven hundred tons of carbon a year. Another example of environmentalism behind the scenes was the switch to rechargeable batteries. Since Broadway began using microphones, productions have needed batteries. To be certain that microphones wouldn’t fail during a show, the standard Broadway practice had been to put new batteries into each microphone before every performance. Wicked switched to rechargeable batteries, reducing annual battery consumption from over 15,000 batteries to less than 100, saving money and the environment without compromising the performance. Many other productions around the world, including in Australia and London’s West End, have made this switch – often after hearing of the Wicked team’s success.

Mara Davi, former Green Captain on Dames at Sea and The Play That Goes Wrong, sorting items for recycling in the BGA office.

Other improvements include using environmentally friendly cleaning products and dilution centers, more extensive recycling programs, running Energy Star appliances, switching to energy-efficient indoor lighting, aggressively insulating heating pipes, installing bike racks, and coating roofs with reflective paint to reduce heat absorption.

The actual carbon footprint of Broadway and the greater theatre community is modest, especially considering how traditional practices have improved over the last ten years. But, as we share our eco-friendly successes, we continue to see positive changes. And because theatre’s cultural influence is far-reaching, when we show the hard work being done to reduce our environmental impact, it encourages others to take action.

The BGA’s members have shown over these past ten years that sustainability and Broadway can, and should, go hand in hand. Most of the success we’ve seen backstage began with an individual or group trying something new, which ignited similar actions and improvements by others. We can’t wait to see what the next ten years will hold.

(Top image: BGA Textile Drive, November 2017.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on March 28, 2019.


Alice is a sustainability advocate with a strong interest in all things theatre. Alice joined the Broadway Green Alliance in October 2017, effectively combining her professional background and her interest in the arts, and is currently the Assistant Director of the organization. She works on a variety of programs to ensure that theatre across the country is being done in the most environmentally responsible manner. Alice’s academic background is an MA from the Climate and Society program at Columbia University and, following that, she worked in Canada, the US, and South Africa on issues of environmental justice and sustainability. 


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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