Artists and Climate Change

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Imagining Water, #16: Chanting the Waters

by Susan Hoffman Fishman

Craig Santos Perez, a native Chamoru (Chamarro) from the Pacific Island of Guam, is a poet, scholar, editor, environmentalist and activist. The author of two spoken word poetry albums, four books of poetry and the editor of three anthologies of Pacific literature, Perez is also an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa where he teaches creative writing, eco-poetry and Pacific literature. It was clear when I spoke to him by phone recently that Perez is a devoted advocate for environmental justice and for the inclusion of indigenous voices in the climate change conversation.

Growing up on Guam, a small island where the ocean and the rainforest are an ever-visible presence, the environment was always an important part of Perez’s life. Indigenous values and wisdom infused him with a belief that “the environment was sacred and should be revered and because all living beings, all the dead and all the future generations, are all related, we should act as if all of our actions affect everyone else.” It was only when Perez was older that he became aware of the impact that climate change was having on the environment of his homeland: an increase in severe storms, rising seas, and temperatures, plastic and waste pollution, die-off of marine species, military testing and training in the waters off the island, coral bleaching and ocean acidification.

Perez’s poetry, which he began writing in college, became his means of personal and political expression about these growing, existential threats. His powerful Praise Song for Oceaniais an example of his lyrical use of words and his ability to combine personal, political and ecological references and emotions in one poem, which is both an ode to the past, present and future of the ocean and a prayer for forgiveness and mercy on behalf of us all. Praise Song for Oceaniawas written for World Water Day 2016, then adapted into a video by Hawaiian filmmaker, Justyn Ah Chong in 2017. It was screened at film and eco-film festivals in Australia, Barbados, Germany, the United Kingdom and across the United States and was also featured on the United Nations World Oceans Day online portal, sponsored by the Intergovernmental Oceanic Commission.

In an interview for the portal, Perez stated that his inspiration for Praise Song for Oceaniawas “my deep respect for the ‘blue continent.’ In my native culture, the ocean is our origin, our source, our ancestor. I also wrote the poem because as an environmentalist I am deeply concerned about the current crises facing the ocean.”

To support the Standing Rock protest (April 2016 – February 2017), which was conducted by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and others to fight the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Perez wrote Chanting the Waters: In solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe & all peoples protecting the sacred waters of the earth (2016). The pipeline was to pass under the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and Lake Oahe in the Standing Rock Reservation. The thousands of participants who protested knew the pipeline would contaminate the region’s waters and damage ancient burial grounds.

As climate activist and hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez described the gathering, it was the largest mobilization of Indigenous peoples ever held. For that reason alone, even though they ultimately failed in halting the construction of the pipeline, the event was an enormous success An audio version of Perez’s poem can be found below, followed by an excerpt from the poem, which reflects the author’s frustration and anger with corporate greed, his personal associations with water and his mesmerizing, rhythmic language.

Chanting the Waters (excerpt)

water is life because we can’t drink oilbecuz water is the next oil
becuz we wage war over gods & water & oil
water is life becuz only 3 percent of global water is freshwater
becuz the water footprint of an average american is 2000 gallons a day
becuz it takes 660 gallons of water to make one hamburger
becuz more than a billion people lack access to clean drinking water
becuz in some countries women & children walk 4 miles every day to gather clean water
& carry it home
becuz we can’t desalinate the entire ocean
water is life becuz if you lose 5 percent of your body’s water you will become feverish
becuz if you lose 10 percent of your body’s water you will become immobile
becuz we can survive a month without food but less than a week without water
water is life becuz we proclaim water a human right
becuz we grant bodies of water rights to personhood
becuz some countries signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
becuz my wife says the Hawaiian word for wealth, waiwai, comes from their word for water, wai
water is life becuz corporations steal, privatize, dam, & bottle our waters
becuz sugar, pineapple, corn, soy, & gmo plantations divert our waters
becuz concentrated animal feeding operations consume our waters
becuz pesticides, chemicals, oil, weapons, & waste poison our waters
water is life becuz we say stop, you are hurting our ancestors
becuz they say we thought this was a wasteland
becuz we say stop, keep the oil in the ground
becuz they say we thought these bones were fuel
becuz we say stop, water is sacred
becuz they say we thought water is a commodity
becuz we say we are not leaving

During our conversation, Perez and I discussed the difference between eco-poetry and poetry on nature in general. He explained that eco-poetry, a relative new poetry subgenre, addresses the natural world but is also suffused with a sense of environmental justice, responsibility, ethics and urgency about climate change. Perez acknowledged that undergraduate classes on eco-poetry are “not too common” but that his students connect to it because they are “noticing the changes happening around them as they enjoy the outdoor life in Hawai’i and they feel anxiety.” He ends his class each semester on a hopeful note. He asks students to write their own visions for a sustainable future and emphasizes the fact that poetry can be a form of activism. What gives Perez enormous satisfaction is when he sees his students and former students showing up at climate marches and other environmental events.

Much of the power and accessibility of Perez’s poems on climate change and its impact on the waters is due to the fact that he often uses poignant moments from his personal life to gently help the reader connect to what can be an overwhelming topic (see Without a Barrier Reef printed in full below). Artists of all genres who choose to address climate change in their work know that it is always a struggle to create a balance between a message they want to convey and an appealing artistic expression of that message. Craig Santos Perez is a master in finding that balance.

Without a Barrier Reef

I hold my wife’s hand during the ultrasound.
“That’s your future,” the doctor says, pointing
to a fetus floating in amniotic fluid. One night
a year, after the full moon, after the tide touches
a certain height, after the water reaches the right
temperature, after salt brines, only then will
the ocean cue swollen coral polyps to spawn,
in synchrony, a galaxy of gametes. We listen
to our unborn daughter’s heartbeats; they echo
our ancestors pulsing taut skin drums in ceremony
and arrival. The buoyant stars dance to the surface,
open, fertilize, and form larvae. Some will be
eaten by plankton and fish, others will sink
to substrate or seabed, root and bud. “She looks
like a breathing island,” my wife says, whose
body has become a barrier reef.

The weather spawns another hurricane above
Hawaiʻi. Rain drums the pavement as flood
warning alerts vibrate our cellphones. In bed,
we read a children’s book, The Great Barrier Reef,
to our daughter, who’s snuggled between us.
“The corals have mouths, stomachs, and arms,”
we tell her, pointing to our matching body parts.
“They form families, like us. They even build
homes and villages.” She loves touching every
picture of tropical fish and intricate corals;
I love that the pictures never change
(and isn’t that, too, a kind of shelter). We close
the book, kiss her forehead, and whisper:
“Sweet dreams.” She is our most vulnerable
island, and we are her barrier reef.

A few years from now, maybe we’ll go snorkeling.
The water will drum against our skin. The ocean
will be warmer, murkier. No fish, anywhere.
All bleached and broken. When we return
to the eroded shore, she might ask: “Daddy,
are the corals dead?” Maybe I won’t tell her
about dredging, pollution, or emissions; maybe
I won’t tell her about corals struggling to spawn,
frozen in vaults, reared in labs and nurseries.
“Don’t worry,” I might say: “They’re just
sleeping.” Maybe she’ll look into the water
and whisper: “Sweet dreams,” as the surface
of the sea closes like a forgotten book.

(Top image: Craig Santos Perez.)

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


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 and has been awarded numerous grants and awards. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. Fishman is also the co-creator of two, large-scale 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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Wild Authors: Ali Smith

by Mary Woodbury

This month we’ll look at Ali Smith, who is not a new author, but whose “Seasonal” quartet I just began reading. Smith is a Scottish author, playwright, academic and journalist. See a complete bibliography at Wikipedia.

For the purposes of this article, I will focus on her Seasonal series. The first novel, Autumn, was published in October 2016. The next novel, Winter, came out in November 2017. While Autumn has been described as the first Brexit novel, The Nation has a beautiful article by Namara Smith titled “Omens of Disaster: Ali Smith’s new novel examines the ecological and political disintegration at the center of our world,” which goes into the climate change aspects of the books.1

The Nation argues that, first, novels depicting climate change often borrow from the disaster genre, which has a rigid narrative. And that, second, viewing climate change as a disaster event limits it to something that is a technical issue, something that can be managed. The article points out that climate change storytelling often depicts one or more apocalyptic events, when, in reality, global warming is a “war of attrition whose consequences have accumulated slowly enough to be almost imperceptible and through the repetition of millions of individual actions.” And, instead of looking at the disaster as something technical, it is really “an existential question that concerns us all.”

Ali Smith’s Seasonal series rises above the problematic genre symptoms by having “ordinary” events, as The Nation says.

Rather than large-scale catastrophe, Smith is interested in the dissonant moments that break into the awareness of people whose lives are not immediately threatened by environmental disaster: plants flowering out of season, winter days that feel like spring, the steady creep of coastal erosion.

The article also points out that these changes caused by climate change are becoming common in contemporary fiction. My take-away from this is that it’s interesting to see how authors are writing about global warming, but to try to prescribe one genre for climate change novels is tough. As with every literary and ecological parallel in the past, global warming tropes and themes become so commonplace that they begin to spill over into everything else – just like climate change has done and will continue to do so.

I was drawn to the novel for two reasons: the idea of seasons becoming out of whack has been a focus of mine for a while, especially after seeing changes firsthand where I live. Another is that in the novel an old man, Daniel Gluck, is facing death, and his time spent in a nursing care facility – where he has endless dreams in which we think he is probably reliving past events – reminds me of my dad somewhat.

When approaching the idea of climate change in fiction, when I published the anthology Winds of Change: Short Stories about Our Climate, I contributed a short story, under pen name Clara Hume, called “The Midnight Moon” (available at the Dragonfly Library for free). This was a take on a Twilight Zone episode called “The Midnight Sun” and featured an autumn in Chicago, where two women reflect on life cycles. Writing this short story was based upon real observances of variable plant changes where I live, specifically one summer where a rowan tree blossomed very early, but I had also recently talked with Emmi Itäranta about her novel Memory of Water, which looked at the disappearance of cultural and ecological continuity in our years of changing climate.

I could identify too with the old man, 101-year-old Gluck, in Ali’s novel. I had a similar circumstance in real life, often sitting with my dying dad in the nursing home. My dad was a brilliant man who developed Parkinson’s, which ravished his genius mind. He began signs of dementia a couple years before his death, and at some points could not distinguish dream from reality. Almost hauntingly surreal were the dreams he relayed to me in vivid detail, which were bizarre on every level, and which quite frightened him. One dream was even about a beach, but instead of seeing drowned refugees float up to the shore (as in Smith’s novel), my dad saw bloody heads hanging from the “ceiling” (the sky).

When my dad’s mind was all there, he was a math teacher as well as a writer, and he loved poetry. When we grew up, he would read the great poets to us, and I specifically remember him talking to me about Keats, and how dad was entering the autumn of his year. The Autumn novel starts out with Keats’ famous ode.

Smith’s novel touches close to home, not only personally for me but at a level that is wide-reaching to all humans on this Earth. The Nation states:

An epigraph informs us that, due in part to the severe floods of the past several years, so much topsoil has been eroded that “Britain may have only 100 harvests left.” Brexit, which now looks like the opening shot in a prolonged period of global instability, has marked not only the end of Britain’s partnership with an integrated Europe; it has also cast doubt on the possibility of addressing climate change within our existing economic and political system.

The idea of 100 harvests left is one way to look at climate change. Smith’s wit and non-linear (collage) writing style also help us to perceive climate change at an intimate level. It is not far out there. It is now. It has been. We can view it in every perspective, past and present and future. It becomes more real with each passing generation. And 100 harvests puts a time-stamp on continuity. It’s an extinction of ritual, both ecological and cultural. When I think of it, I feel a slow burn and think of my own father and the way he taught us to be outside, to celebrate the elements, the wild, the seasons. I see time passing fluidly, quickly, like quicksand. Yet on a daily basis, it is slow and sometimes tedious.

The novel explores time, and even no-time, as well. The Guardian states, “Autumn begins in a wild region of no-time, as Daniel Gluck dreams that he is young again, or dead.” Elisabeth Demand, another main character in the novel, is reading Adolph Huxley’s Brave New World,waiting in a post office. The clock on the wall is broken. No-time. The Guardian says:

The clock has stalled; miserable people queue alongside her, staring into space. “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY”, thinks Elisabeth, citing Huxley. Inevitably, when she reaches the front of the queue, her application is rejected. Her photograph is “the wrong size”, the man says. “He writes in a box … HEAD INCORRECT SIZE.” Then, he “folds the Check & Send receipt and tucks it into the envelope Elisabeth gave him with the form … He hands it back to her across the divide. She sees terrible despondency in his eyes. He sees her see it. He hardens even more.”

The relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth crosses time as well; they met when she was a child, and she has since adopted him as a surrogate father. In between these nearly three decades, they have had occasions to reunite a few times. The things along time come and go: “Ignored. Lost. Rediscovered years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered again years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered ad infinitum.” Time is the essence of mortality, but it can be slow or fast. It can eclipse. It can end.

What’s next? Winter. The Goodreads description sounds fascinating:

Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summer’s leaves? Dead litter. The world shrinks; the sap sinks. But winter makes things visible. And if there’s ice, there’ll be fire.

(Photo downloaded from Topping & Company Booksellers.)

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on on April 10, 2017.


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


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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Let There Be Puppets – and a Green New Deal

by Julia Levine

Persistent Acts kicks off a second year at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics, with a look at Bread & Puppet Theatre’s recent tour to New York.

As 2018 came to a close, I had the privileged of seeing a Bread & Puppet show at New York City’s downtown Theater for the New City. On tour from rural Vermont, in the off-season of the farm, they presented their new opera Or Else, written by Bertolt Brecht, composed by Hans Eisler, and directed by Peter Schumann. What I knew of B&P was large puppets, bread, and that my friend Paul was in this show. I’ve encountered B&P’s puppets before, like at the Women’s March in 2017.

As we assembled into the sold-out house, I took in the shower curtain with “Or Else” written on it; the tight rows of papier-mâché puppets hanging from the grid; the traveling-salesman-type trunk with a suit hanging off the edge; large-scale beast-like puppets; rows of cardboard buildings and Schumann, the founder of B&P himself. He blew the whistle and the show began, with a man appearing behind the trunk, dropping an ice cube on a row of spoons, which fell onto a drum. This ice played out differently than it may have when the show was created, during the summer in a barn, but the implication was similar – ice melts, turning to water, which drips. Elsewhere on the stage, the buildings and beasts are pulled to the wings. What unfolded during the show was a series of movement-based, object-based, and musical moments. The music was performed by Pi Ensemble, and included brass, piano, and violin, and two singers who wove in and out of the stage action. A description of the stage action and its potential meanings can be found in Wonderland, from when the piece was performed over the summer at the farm.

As the ensemble cast of word-less actors maneuvered the puppets and objects around the stage in choreographed synchronicity and through the music, I made a similar meaning to Wonderland writer Greg Cook: Or Else “is a show about dark times in the land, channeling a national sense of things gone dangerously wrong, of wicked people in charge who dictate cruel punishments and arrests and violence. It’s a show full of forebodings of the forces of fascism and torture coming awake.”

How is this show different than what’s on the news? What is elucidating about this performance? The cast manipulate puppets, gather as a crowd, and dance in pairs – depicting life of what seemed to me a version of Marx’s proletariat. The show is abundant with metaphor, starting with the puppets themselves: A number of human-shaped puppets, of varying sizes, make appearances as anonymous individuals. We see the actual humans who manipulate the puppets; they are also anonymous. These people – as humans and puppets – act out scenes of labor, through varying levels of industrial support. And in one scene, after dirt has been poured on the rows of stationary puppets, humans clean up the mess.

What is resonant to me about Or Else is both in the making-of and in the witnessing. From what I saw onstage, a group of people came together to make something out of nothing – the human touch is viscerally clear when looking at the puppets. By centering the puppets, I felt even more of a connection to my fellow humans because, though I could see the actors manipulating these puppets, I could ascribe my own meaning to their actions. I felt a connection to my species that is less tangible in this hyper-digital time. When the puppets moved together, it was like magic. I made my own meaning of the scenes as a whole, based on my experiences and inclinations. I have the luxury of time and space to really chew on a piece like this, but as the play seemed to echo: freedom and individuality are not to be taken for granted. At the same time, this piece highlighted the potential of a group of humans. By the end of the show, the ensemble had raised a giant human-shaped puppet up to the tall grid of the theatre, which I took to represent the rise of a fascist dictator. Finally, the scene returns to how it was at the beginning, with the large puppet looming in the background.

In B&P fashion, bread and aioli were brought out after the curtain call (rye bread and garlic grown on the farm), for a full sensory experience. I left with many potential meanings to a given scene, and continued questions about the state of our country. What happens in an absolute dictatorship? What are the alternatives? With the stage returning to its original state, it feels like the events of the play are on loop, a cycle that perpetuates – “or else” a different direction is imagined and pursued.

We are already seeing the hard-hitting effects of our current economic and political systems on our climate: the IPCC’s report lays out what the negative “or else” consequences could be in twelve years. Fueled by this, some Democrats in the current U.S. Congress are envisioning “what else”: a Green New Deal, rooted in decarbonizing the economy and justice for those communities hardest-hit by climate disasters. As my friend Blake iterated in our year-end post What Gives You Hope?, there is momentum around this platform, especially amongst youth who won’t take the cycle of “or else” anymore. Until there are concrete policies enacted, I feel cautiously optimistic about this GND, and propelled to stage more “elses” in this year to come.

(All photos: Bread and Puppet Theater performs Or Else in the troupe’s Paper Mâché Cathedral in Glover, Vermont, Aug. 17, 2018. Photos by Greg Cook.)

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, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is the Marketing Manager at HERE and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.


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

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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A New Narrative for Landscape Photography in the Anthropocene

by Virginia Hanusik

The landscape you grow up in influences how you see and move through the world. At least that holds true for me.

I spent most of my life in rural New York where I was lucky to develop an understanding of the unbalanced relationship between people and the natural environment at an early age. Most residents in my community were proud that the cornerstone of their identity was being distinctly anti-city (particularly New York City). They, and myself included at the time, believed that the urban metropolis was primarily comprised of pollution and people who didn’t care about the environment: how could they care when they were so removed from nature? The hypocrisy of this way of thinking, of course, can be found in the enormous amount of energy required to live a rural lifestyle. You must be transported – individually – to be educated, to earn a living, to buy food that’s been shipped from distant places, to have human connection. This produces an immense amount of carbon. And it’s what American national identity was built on.

Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York

I currently live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan, but I still find myself seeking out areas of the city that are less populated, and where other aspects of the natural ecosystem are more explicitly synthesized.

I make my images from the perspective that the landscape I’m photographing is changing at a more rapid rate than ever before. Prior to moving back to New York, I lived in Louisiana for several years where a trip to the coast is never the same because of rapid coastal erosion.

We are often told that certain weather events are the most severe, the most catastrophic, and the most rare. But many of us – those fortunate enough to have been spared from a terrible environmental disaster – don’t experience these events in the same way, or at least in a way that encourages lifestyle change. It’s too easy, despite continuous media coverage, to be removed from the wildfires in California or the flooding in Houston. Because of this distance, climate change remains an abstract concept for a majority of people.

The impact of climate change is more commonly conveyed through images of disaster or aerial shots that give the viewer an opportunity to dissociate. Though important to see, in the longer term these images do not motivate people to believe in a better world

Pierre Part, Louisiana

In my projects, I focus on daily life in landscapes most vulnerable to environmental changes or landscapes already facing the need to adapt. I approach scenes that are reflective of the everyday, but incorporate symbols of a changing physical world with details that only become visible when the photographs are viewed together. Very few photographs of mine convey the same message when viewed alone. An image of a sinking houseboat in the Atchafalaya Basin of Louisiana develops a more holistic meaning when viewed alongside a survey of different structures in the area. Architectural style and land use patterns of a region provide details and insight into the values of a certain place.

Historically, men have dominated landscape photography and painting, as well as most other art forms. Their images have taught us how to live, what a desirable landscape might be, and how to interact with the physical world. The male perspective on the land created American Landscape Art as a genre – our national identity was built on idealized images of nature as much as it was built on portraiture.

Muir Beach, California

Some of my favorite photographers are those who were able to communicate a sense of place through massive photographic surveys. Edward BurtynskyFrank GohlkeRichard MisrachJoel Sternfeld, and Ansel Adams created images that changed my life and inspired me to see more of the world. At the same time, these images were taught to me because of the immense privilege and affluence that these men possessed. They were able to travel alone, across great distances, to secluded places, and had the ability to create pieces of art without fear.

Photographs are subjective. The reasoning behind the creation of an image is imbedded in one’s personal history – their life experience, their memories good and bad, their aspirations. As a woman, I know it’s important to bring a perspective on landscape that’s been historically marginalized. In her book As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art, Rebecca Solnit describes the difference between the photographs produced by men and those produced by women, stating that “compositionally, the work of the genders seemed distinct, with the women’s work abandoning the sweeping prospect for more intimate and enclosed scenes.” Of course, this is not meant to be a generalization – there are certainly respected female landscape photographers. However, at this moment in environmental history, it’s critical to recognize that the male gaze on the land has helped shape our relationship with nature.

This unique moment in time forces us to re-conceptualize how and where we live, and to acknowledge that the right to build wherever we want will likely cease to exist. Before physical and structural changes can happen, however, there must be changes in how we think about inhabiting the world. We can build levees, but without an understanding of ecosystems and environmental stewardship, those levees will become isolated fortresses. Art provides endless opportunities to bridge that gap by engaging people and catalyzing collective action to create strong communities.

(Top image: Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana.)


Virginia Hanusik is a photographer whose work focuses on architecture and landscapes impacted by climate change. Her projects have been featured in Places Journal, NPR, Fast Company, Newsweek, and The Atlantic, among others, and she has exhibited work internationally. Her most recent body of work, A Receding Coast: The Architecture and Infrastructure of South Louisiana, documents climate adaptation along the Gulf Coast and has been shown in New Orleans and Berlin with support by the Graham Foundation. She grew up in the Hudson River Valley region of New York and currently lives in Brooklyn where she is a member of the Climate Working Group at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. She likes to kayak more than almost anything.


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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About Snails, Extinction and Hope

by Yasmine Ostendorf

Apparently a lot of people experience this: you get ill the moment the holidays kick in. It happened to me this Christmas and for this reason, I missed my deadline for the New Year’s What Gives You Hope? article published on Artists and Climate Change on December 31, 2018.

Nevertheless the posed question “What gives you hope?” remained on my cloudy mind. Even with the slightest interest in politics and the current state of our natural world, it can feel naive and unrealistic to “hope for a better future” – and worse if you actually engage and care. It would be more appropriate to instead invest our energy in what MoMa design curator Paola Antonelli proposed this week in an interview about her forthcoming exhibition Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival. “We’re proceeding faster than many other species that have become extinct,” Antonelli said. “I don’t see any other possibility than to designing an elegant ending for humanity.”

We are not only hurtling an astonishing number of non-human species towards extinction; we are rapidly making the planet unlivable for ourselves. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview with Antonelli, in particular when she refers to Todd May’s recent article in the New York Times, which questions if human extinction would actually be a tragedy. I’m not sure if this was the illness talking, but a beautifully green planet without any people on it suddenly didn’t seem that terrible. It would definitely make the non-human species on this planet a lot more hopeful, I thought.

A theory that is often heard in our field – the intersection of art and climate change – is that the general public finds it hard to engage with climate change because none of the “potential solutions” can be implemented within the capitalist system. When financial profit is prized over anything else, the environment always pays the price. It makes it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

The optimistic response to that line of thinking is often that this is exactly why we need artists. Artists can supposedly propose alternatives to the system, tell positive and inspiring stories. Out with the doom-and-gloom, we say and in comes HOPE and POSITIVITY! Aside from the fact that I’m losing faith in this narrative, which I was always the first to embrace, it lacks a description of what it is we hope for and how we can work towards it. After learning about the death of George the Snail – the last of his species – last week, I re-read Thom van Dooren’s essay “The Last Snail: Loss, Hope and Care for the Future” published in the great book Land & Animal & Nonanimal. Van Dooren, an environmental anthropologist and philosopher, writes about what he is hoping for, why and what it will cost. He asks:

Can our hopes be translated into meaningful action and taken up in a way that recognizes the myriad losses and expose the dangers that lie buried in the things we hope might yet come to pass? I see this kind of hope as a practice of ‘care for the future.’ Care must be understood here as something far more than abstract well-wishing. […] The grounded and responsible hope that we need today, hope for a world still rich in biocultural diversities of all kinds requires this kind of care for the future. It requires a grounded and practical care, but also one that is committed to critical engagement with the means and consequences of its own production.

The Open Call for Valley of the Possible, a refugio for art and research in the Chilean Andes.

I agree with van Dooren that hope in itself is not enough and should go hand-in-hand with grounded care, critical reflection and ultimately, action. So what actually gave me hope recently was to see two friends, Mirla Klein and Olaf Boswijk, tick all of those boxes when they set up a refugio for art and research in the Chilean Andes. Called Valley of the Possible, the refugio offers artists, scientists, and other creative thinkers and makers space and time to (re)connect with nature, conduct research, and develop artistic work. Mirla and Olaf want to renew participants’ perspective on our relationship with our planet and provide a platform to investigate an artist- and community-led model for nature conservation.

Mirla Klein and Olaf Boswijk of Valley of the Possible.

To end this article and add my contribution to the Core Team‘s What Gives You Hope? article, I followed the same format and asked Mirla and Olaf what gives them hope. Here is their answer:

Mirla and Olaf: The rise of international art and science initiatives joining forces and researching ecology and sustainability. The New Zealand Prime Minister becoming a mother on the job and banning offshore oil exploration. Rivers, mountains and other “natural” actors gaining legal rights. Literature from contemporary writers and philosophers such as Timothy Morton and Rebecca Solnit. The resilience and activism of the Mapuche in Chile, who have been fighting patriarchal, (neo)colonial and neoliberal powers for centuries. And what gives us the most hope is that throughout our lives and various careers, we have never received so much voluntary support from friends, family and, most of all, total strangers for a project that is not about money. It really is astounding how much goodwill there is in the world – how it is human nature to collaborate and form communities for the greater good, regardless of how we have all been indoctrinated by the idea that everything needs an economic purpose. The more you research the initiatives and networks around ecology, sustainability, different ways of thinking and other (economic) models, the more you find them. That in itself can help to create a more positive, and most of all, more constructive mindset for the 21st century.

PS: There is currently a very exciting Open Call at Valley of the Possible! Check it out!

(Top image: This snail, named George, died on January 1, 2019. Scientists believe he was the last of his species, which was native to the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Photo credit: Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.)


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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Port Mone Trio

by Joan Sullivan

To kick off the third year of our monthly renewable energy series, I’m delighted to introduce our readers to Port Mone Trio, the award-winning Belarusian instrumental trio whose upcoming third album Whisper was recorded entirely onsite of two utility-scale renewable energy projects in Belarus: a 9 MW wind farm near the village of Pudovnya and a 6 MW solar farm built on top of a former landfill in Rudashany.

To the best of my knowledge, Port Mone Trio is the first musical ensemble in the world to have recorded an entire album powered 100% by clean electrons drawn directly from wind turbines and solar panels (rather than indirectly from the grid or storage batteries).

Members of the Minsk-based trio include: Alexsey Vorsoba, accordion; Sergey Kravchenko, percussion; and Aleksey Vanchuk, bass guitar. They have been called “one of the most original collectives in the post-Soviet alternative scene.” According to The Guardian, the trio has “forged their own voice from a mix of influences, including jazz, minimalism and ambient music.” Others have described Port Mone’s sensual and complex soundscapes as minimalistic folk, extraavantgarde, and post-rock.

Port Mone aims to “appeal to the natural, pure and primordial in the human soul; to something that exists beyond social regulations and codes.”

Belarus, Port Mone, trio, solar, renewable, energy, music, recording, studio
Reprinted with permission from Port Mone Trio

Whisper is part of a joint art project with the Belarus Green Network to raise awareness of the potential of renewable energy to diversify Belarus’ energy supply and increase its energy independence.

In an email exchange, Port Mone explained: “We continue to use music to talk about issues that are important to us. For Whisper, we wanted to develop the idea of independence in a wide sense and at different levels. For example, a country’s energy independence as a metaphor of independence of personality. Our main message to the people is to be independent, which requires being honest with oneself and not to lie. In Belarus, the main ecological issue is ignorance and indifference.”

The album’s title refers to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear tragedy, the memory of which has become an inaudible whisper in Belarus today. Located north of Ukraine, Belarus received the majority – nearly 70% – of the radioactive fallout from the explosion six kilometers (four miles) south of its border. More than two million Belarusians were affected by radiation; one-fifth of Belarus’ agricultural land was heavily contaminated. The full social, economic, environmental and psychological costs of the disaster may never be known; it is estimated to be 20% of Belarus’ annual budget since 1986, or approximately US$235 billion over the past three decades. Despite the risks, the government of Belarus continues to promote nuclear energy as the “single best way” to secure the country’s energy independence. But critics of Belarus’ first multi-reactor nuclear power plant, currently under construction in a seismically-active zone near the Lithuanian border, suggest that Russian construction and financing (US$10 billion) of the 2,4 GW Astravets nuclear power plant will ultimately increase – not decrease – Belarus’ energy dependence on Russia.

Renewable energy makes up only 5% of Belarus’ current energy mix. With technical and financial support from the UN and the EU, Belarus is taking baby steps towards the clean energy transition. A 2018 study by the French company Tractebel estimated that Belarus could install up to 1.2 GW of solar in regions affected by Chernobyl, despite the high radiation levels. For example, construction has begun on Belarus’ largest solar project to date, a 109 MW solar power plant on land irradiated by Chernobyl fallout near the village of Blizhnyaya Rechitsa in Cherikov District.

Prior to recording Whisper, Port Mone Trio embarked on a 3,000 kilometer scouting trip across Belarus in search of wind and solar locations with the best acoustics (i.e., minimum noise) for an outdoor recording studio. This week-long expedition sharpened the musicians understanding of renewable energy technology, but perhaps more importantly, it allowed them to rediscover the beauty of their country – even in former exclusion zones – while meeting passionate individuals experimenting with wind and solar throughout Belarus. The Ukrainian documentary filmmaker Vadim Ilkov accompanied Port Mone throughout the road trip, and documented the two outdoor recording sessions. In partnership with Green Network, a documentary film about Whisper will be released later this year.

Reprinted with permission from Port Mone Trio.

Free electricity for the outdoor recording sessions was provided by the owners of the two wind and solar power plants mentioned in the first paragraph. Electricians working for these power plants supplied the necessary cables and sockets that connected Port Mone Trio’s rolling studio directly to the wind turbines and solar panels. Dozens of microphones were used to record not only the musicians, but also birds, rustling leaves and grass, spinning turbine blades, blasts of wind and other ambient sounds. Although challenging, outdoor recording can enrich the music in unexpected ways. Port Mone’s website describes it this way: “Everything that happened to and around us turned into colors and semitones in the music, into shades and intonations of Whisper.”

Nota bene: This is the second time that Port Mone has opted to step away from the laboratory-like conditions of a studio to record in a natural acoustic environment. Port Mone Trio’s second album Thou (2014) was recorded in a forest, resulting in a “loose and enchanting” sound. Thou is available on Apple Music and Soundcloud.

Port Mone Trio hopes to release Whisper in 2019, along with Vadim Ulkov’s documentary film. In the coming months, Port Mone’s main focus is to find an international label to release Whisper. Interested individuals should contact Port Mone here.

Reprinted with permission by Port Mone Trio.

Addendum: Could this be a trend? A growing number of musicians are inspired by wind energy: in 2017, I profiled three musicians from Québec, Canada, who climbed to the top of a Senvion wind turbine (80 meters above the ground) for a live performance of an original composition by Justin Garneau, a former wind technician.

(Top image: Screen shot from the Port Mone Trio website.)

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 help others visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. Joan is currently working on a photo book about Canada’s energy transition. She also collaborates with filmmakers on documentary films that explore the human side of the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on ElloTwitter and Instagram


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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Three Marias

by Megan McClain

The photograph was faded, but the spirit of the figure it contained was bright. A Puerto Rican woman with dark hair and a knowing smile seemed to defy her two-dimensional state as she was passed around the group at Superhero Clubhouse’s December Salon meeting.

The picture was of Maria, Fellow Shy Richardson’s grandmother and a core inspiration for the performance project she and Fellow Karina Yager are working on this season with Superhero Clubhouse. The team is preparing to travel to Puerto Rico in January to explore Hurricane Maria through the lenses of oral history, climate change, and environmental injustice. What was to be an examination of community survival through on-the-ground interviews is now shaped by a personal loss. Shy’s grandmother passed away very recently; however, she continues to influence the heart and direction of the piece.

The team is using three different “Marias” as their creative entry points to explore the displacement of Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria. The first, Shy’s great grandmother, represents the legacy Shy inherits through her Puerto Rican heritage. The second, her grandmother, was the conduit through which she understood Puerto Rico in the present. And the third Maria, the 2018 hurricane, created more damage to Puerto Rico than any other in modern times.

At the Salon meeting, while we were introduced to her grandmother through photographs, Shy shared a poem called “Territory.” A love letter to Puerto Rico, the poem captures the connection between the island and New York City as well as the people who mentally and physically traverse these two spaces. When the speaker shares having “heard people wonder aloud about what makes a people so proud to be from a place, a territory,” the answer surges: “…it is the resilience, the resolve to create something new.”

The group discussed how art can be an offering to and for those who might find healing in the work as well as a way to lift up experiences that are so often rendered invisible. As they prepare for their trip to Puerto Rico to conduct interviews, the Fellows will be investigating multiple questions: What does community look like before and after the hurricane? What is left to rebuild and how? What values guide the reconstruction?

Karina, a climate scientist, is also bringing the personal and the global to bear on this project. She is interested in the connectivity of water and following the imagined journey of a single water droplet through the global water cycle. A droplet might live in the ocean for thousands of years before being evaporated and deposited in another part of the world. It might become part of a hurricane and drop through the roof of a family in Puerto Rico. Water plays the role of both a sustainer and a destroyer.

Karina plans to interview climate scientists who study hurricanes from Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She also noted climate scientist Piers J. Sellers as a personal inspiration. A NASA astronaut and Deputy Director of Science and Exploration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Sellers created computer models of the global climate system to better understand the dynamics and future of our changing climate. Though Sellers was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, he was determined to use his very limited time left to continue to work to address climate change.

Shy and Karina are looking at the many layers of loss. The collective grief of climate change (characterized by Per Espen Stoknes as “The Great Grief”), the losses of those directly affected by our warming world, and the personal losses of loved ones are in conversation with each other in the work. As they consider the three Marias, Shy and Karina will be exploring questions of identity, resilience, and hope. In the face of so much loss, what do we have to give? How do we heal? What keeps us grounded in the chaos?

(Top image: Maria Montes.)

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


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


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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The Possibility of Generative Futures Through Embodied Practice

by Annalisa Dias

In June 2018, I had the privilege to attend the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change convening hosted by HowlRound. It was a full weekend. While I was there I was grateful to reconnect with Jayeesha Dutta, who is a fierce advocate, artist, and cultural organizer. She and I first met while organizing for the 2017 People’s Climate March, but the HowlRound convening was the first time we really got to learn more about each other’s work.

During the convening, we were given the space to facilitate an activity using dynamized image theatre (from Theatre of the Oppressed) to ask convening participants to embody the concept of a Just Transition.

We asked convening participants first to embody the idea of “extraction” by making a static image using their bodies. Next, we asked everyone to look around the room at all of the varied images we had made and then, using words to name them, reflect back some of the common themes. We made images of crushing, tension, scratching, harm, pain, images with sharp edges and angles. After everyone shook those images off, Jayeesha and I asked everyone to make a new image of the idea “generative.” We repeated the process of naming and reflection, and this time the common themes included lightness, peace, softness, offering, circles, images with gentle curves and upward focus. In the final step of dynamizing these images, we asked everyone to try to find a way, using a simple movement phrase, to transition from their first image to their second image. The goal of the activity is to use the body to explore possible solutions in the move from extractive to generative economies. Rather than spending ages and ages talking about theoretical hindrances in the work of moving toward climate justice, why not use the tools of the theatre in visioning possible futures? This is what we’re good at!

Convening participants being led through an image exercise by Annalisa Dias and Jayeesha Dutta. Photo by Carolina Gonzalez.

What Is a Just Transition? 

The concept of a Just Transition has been developed over the last thirty years. Briefly, it’s a framework that seeks to unify the environmental movement with the labor movement. In many of the climate movement spaces that I’ve personally been involved with, folks prioritize talking about “climate justice” in place of just the problems of “climate change.” The reason for this important nuance has to do with how, historically, the US and international climate movements have been focused on the politics of environmental conservation at the expense of social movements. In many ways, conservationist movements are rooted in anti-indigenous and colonial white supremacist ideology that conceptualizes the environment or “nature” as separate from human activity and relies on the myth of the wilderness in determining environments deemed worthy of saving.

So instead, we seek to transition away from extractive and exploitative economies by using the framework of a Just Transition. This means we must center the voices, stories, and experiences of frontline communities who are most deeply and already impacted by the changing climate, including indigenous peoples, low-income communities, and communities of color. As theatremakers, we know deeply that stories matter. In the face of the climate crisis, this has never been more true. For more information, see this helpful definition from the Climate Justice Alliance.

Convening participants. Photo by Carolina Gonzalez.

What is Groundwater Arts? 

Ok, but now you might be thinking, “Sure that all sounds great, but what do we do about this?” Or, “Easier said than done.”

Well, right. I get that.

I’ve been working (individually and together with my frequent collaborator Anna Lathrop) over the last several years with other artists and with arts institutions on a number of projects related to decolonizing practices and climate justice. Thanks to a seed of inspiration from the HowlRound Convening, Anna and I have made the leap into launching a new consulting and producing collaborative called Groundwater Arts.

We’re an artist-led collaborative, and we want to begin working with like-minded artists to build a generative future through a just and equitable transition away from the exploitation of people and the planet.  We hope to create long-term partnerships, collaborations, and resources that foster accountable theatremaking and powerful alternatives to structural racism, oppression, and inequity in the face of climate change. This vision is directly inspired by the groundwork laid by Storyshift to articulate principles and praxis for this kind of work.

Basically, this means we’ll help you figure out how to implement programs and practices (or assess the ones you already have in place) to integrate a decolonizing framework with a vision for a sustainable future. We’re excited to work with individual artists, arts institutions, and service organizations who believe, as we do, that the arts have a crucial role to play in shifting the narrative around the climate crisis.

Start with the ground. Give thanks for the water. Seed a just future.

A Challenge to Theatremakers

In many ways, Groundwater Arts also comes from another seed. Over the last few years, I’ve continually noted a critical gap between the work we’re doing as a field to dismantle white supremacy and the work we’re doing to build more sustainable, green ways of working. These two efforts are not and cannot be separate.

If you haven’t read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, I’d highly recommend it. She does a phenomenal job of explaining how the global movements for racial justice, indigenous sovereignty and land rights, equitable labor, and the environment are poised to come together in the face of the climate crisis. This is urgent and hopeful work.

So, in the face of the climate crisis (which I see as directly linked to 500 years of colonial violence and white supremacy), here are some steps that I think we, either as individual artists or folks working in institutional roles, can take:

My hope is that these will help us begin to tie together our critical frameworks and align our values with our practice around creating a more just and equitable future.

(Top image: Annalisa Dias and other convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 20, 2018.


Annalisa Dias is a Goan-American citizen artist, community organizer, and award-winning theatremaker. She currently lives and works in Piscataway territory in Washington DC and grew up in Seneca lands around Pittsburgh. She is a Producing Playwright with The Welders, a DC playwright’s collective; and is Co-Founder of the DC Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice. Annalisa frequently teaches Theatre of the Oppressed workshops nationally and internationally and speaks about race, identity, and performance.


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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Theatre’s Part in the Quest to Save Public Land

by Ashley Teague 

Making Theatre Off the Grid

My organization, Notch Theatre Company, seeks to engage communities that our brick and mortar theatres are not reaching—connecting in their neighborhoods, in their language, and around the issues that matter to them. Our nation seems stalled in an ever-polarizing inability to engage in productive dialogue, and I believe this requires us artists and cultural workers to find ways of being in proximity to communities with which we might not normally interact. This includes bringing the theatre experience to geographically marginalized and rural communities.

Photo Credit: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness © Brian O’Keefe, Chihuahuan Desert Rivers © Gosia Allison-Kosior, Grand Canyon © Jessica Pope, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument ©, Mojave Trails National Monument © Mason Cummings, Mount St. Helens © Michael Sulis, North Fork of the Gunnison © Jim Brett, Northern Red Desert © Kathy Lichtendahl

If a play falls in the forest and the New York Times didn’t hear about it, did it really happen? 

In the summer of 2017 I met Jessica Kahkoska, a Colorado-born artist now living in New York City, who was troubled by what’s happening to America’s public lands. When she brought it up with fellow New Yorkers, the reaction was: I don’t ever think about public lands. And how the heck can we? On Monday we are marching for immigration reform and on Tuesday we need to protect women’s rights and, as we mourn another young life lost to gun violence, the president signs an order allowing the NRA to conceal donation sources.

The onslaught is so great that it keeps us in a cyclone of constant vigilance and defensive activity. Meanwhile, our administration has unleashed a plan to sell (for $2 an acre) massive swaths of public lands to oil and gas companies—accounting for what would be the largest loss to public lands in American history. The information surrounding these leases is dense and obfuscating and demoralizing. In protest of the leases, a concerned citizen (who asks to remain anonymous) wrote this in a letter to their local government:

I write to comment in opposition to Alternative D, the BLM’s preferred alternative, contained in the Draft Resource Management Plan/Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Colorado Bureau of Land Management Uncompahgre Field Office (“Draft RMP”). Initially, it cannot be ignored that the Draft RMP is incomprehensible. It is incomprehensible in its volume, totaling more than 1,985 pages. It is incomprehensible in its massive use of cross-references. See, e.g., Draft RMP at Table 2-2. It is incomprehensible in its content. See, e.g., id. at Appendix Q (Equations 1-83). And it is incomprehensible in its adoption of a Preferred Alternative without any meaningful explanation, analysis, or justification.

Huh? So grappling with how best to confront this monster problem, Jessica reached out to The Wilderness Society (TWS) asking how theatre might be able to support their mission. It was also around that time Jess saw Notch’s work and enlisted us to personalize the conversation, and make phrases like “See, e.g., id. at Appendix Q (Equations 1-83)” relatable to affected citizens.

TWS has a campaign called Too Wild To Drill, which identified fifteen communities threatened by oil, gas, and mineral extraction on public lands. The campaign asks, “What if we destroyed some of the best wild places in America for short-lived commercial gains?” Inspired by their call to action, Jess and I developed, with TWS support, Too Wild to Drill: An Odyssey. The project strives to create a national discourse as it takes an epic journey through fifteen rural communities across the United States and documents a pivotal moment in America—a moment we may look back on for generations to come as we evaluate the consequences of the current administration’s re-zoning a record number of public lands to the oil and gas industry.

Director Ashely Teague and playwright Jessica Kahkoska venue scouting in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado. Photo by Jack Dwyer.

How it Works

In each community we hold public storytelling events to gather first-person testimonies about the issue. From those conversations, we develop a series of plays to be performed by community and professional actors in the very wilderness spaces that are under attack. The plays are interspersed with facilitated dialogue about local efforts to make change, offering audiences a chance to be in conversation with one another and feel more connected to the material presented, empowering them to become educators and advocates for their neighborhoods. The plays are an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey, each community representing a section of the full story. Currently, the program is active in the North Fork of the Gunnison Region of Colorado.

This model works because in each town we collaborate with community stakeholders (policymakers, nonprofit organizations, activists, farmers, ranchers, forest rangers, ex-coal miners, and artists) to generate the plays. These individuals become the program’s Community Partners—or advocates within the community—who define and own the play, and sustain the larger activism beyond our production.

In addition to mobilizing civic engagement at a grassroots level, the plays also act as an indelible record of the largest loss to public lands our country has ever seen. They document a community’s unique history and culture at a particularly urgent moment in that community’s journey. Because they are based on true stories, the plays are marked by an authenticity of character and voice, and a sometimes-disarming honesty. They are very real and very accessible, and have the rare power to touch people on a deeply personal level, galvanizing communities to take action.

Photo Credit: Appalachian Trail © Mason Cummings, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge © Florian Schulz, Badger-Two Medicine ©, Bears Ears National Monument © Mason Cummings, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness © Brian O’Keefe, Chihuahuan Desert Rivers © Gosia Allison-Kosior, Grand Canyon © Jessica Pope, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Mason Cummings

We also feel it is imperative to bring awareness of this socio-environmental issue to cities and directly to policymakers. Jessica speaks frequently about the fundamental disconnect between urban and rural cultures in America, and so this project strives to connect city audiences with stories about National Wilderness areas and the towns that depend on them. We hope (pending funding) to invite communities from each of these fifteen rural towns to travel to Washington, DC, Denver, and our home of New York City to produce the full Odyssey adaptation, where members from each town participate in their community’s section of the play.

Theodore Roosevelt, who, contrary to our current president, believed in protecting and cherishing the land said, “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will.” Working on this program, we have encountered government employees so fearful of their own government that they are scared to talk to us. Us? I think, Community-responsive theatre makers? “We can’t be seen affiliating with you, it’s just too contentious right now,” one National Park Service official told us. And sometimes I forget, theatre can be dangerous, threatening—wild. Howard Shalwitz, co-founder of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, reminds us that “in repressive societies, theatre has often been aligned with the movement toward openness and freedom. In South Africa, theatre played a role in the struggle against apartheid. In Czechoslovakia, a playwright became the leader of a new democracy.” Theatre is playful and enchanting, transformative and inherently joyful, and when armed with a deep social consciousness, theatre is power.

One brave ranger met with us, anonymously, and told us that a forest is stronger the more diverse it is. “More diverse plant communities have higher functioning and survival rates, they just do, it’s just fucking science.” And while there is probably a more romantic way to phrase that, it makes me wonder, and I put to you: Can we harness the power of theatre to illuminate and be in proximity to the diversity of experiences and perspectives from across our nation (not just in our metropolitan centers), as a means of civil discourse, as a means of moving a functioning society forward?

Too Wild To Drill: An Odyssey strives to bring disparate communities together to influence environmental policy, to document a historic moment, to raise awareness in urban centers of what is happening in our rural communities, on our public lands, in towns you may not have thought to visit but which ultimately may unite us all.

(Top image: A first reading of new plays based on community testimony in Paonia, Colorado. Photo by Jack Dwyer.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 19, 2018.


Ashley Teague is the founding artistic director of Notch Theatre Company and a recipient of the Embark Fellowship Award for Social Innovation in Entrepreneurship. Notch Theatre creates community-responsive theatre to drive change around the pressing issues of our time, offering communities across the nation a platform to tell their stories on stage and be their own change makers. In addition to the Too Wild To Drill program, Notch is a participating partner on Remember2019 in the Arkansas Delta, and on FIT, a play about the American eugenics movement of the 20th century that partners with the Intellectual Disabled Community. 


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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Using Art to Empower Climate Action

by Susan Israel

I began thinking about using public art to engage people on climate issues in 2008. I was late to the party of climate artists, but not as late as the general public. I was practicing architecture at the time, and trying to build a green practice when I realized that I could offer green choices, but the client was the ultimate decision-maker, and there was little will to choose green. I heard confirmation at conferences – we have solutions but there is little interest in using them. We needed culture change on a massive scale, and I decided that I could have the greatest impact by working on that. I wanted to make a series of public sculptures that would generate renewable energy to create dialogue about renewables because data, and the way it was presented, clearly was not reaching people. In the US, there was widespread doubt about the veracity of climate change. When I would tell people of my idea of using art for climate engagement, they would look at me, puzzled. Art and climate?

ASK, Boston, MA, 2016.

Times have
changed. Although it may seem like Americans are still skeptical, according to a
report by Yale University
, 70% of Americans believe that climate
change is happening, and 62% are worried about it. Now when I talk about
climate engagement using art, people nod enthusiastically and even help make it
happen – “yeah, we want that.” I never did make the sculpture series, but instead
make ephemeral projects which can be done quickly, cost effectively, and are

The first scalable project that I made was Rising Waters, which marks, in natural and built landscapes, future flood levels due to sea level rise and storms. The project is simple and direct, boiling down complex projections to three data points that you can relate to with your body as you walk past the lines. A lot of experimentation and 16 installations led me back to where I started – simple lines. Students helped make many of the installations, and going forward they will be made with local Rising Waters Chapters. The installations carry a URL to my website resources page which lists individual action items and links to research and other organizations.

Climate communicators – including climate artists – face a dilemma: show problems or show solutions? While it is tempting to show the problem, because that is what motivates us (climate activists), I try to link the impacts of climate change to information about personal actions. Climate change is a terrifying existential threat. Most people just want to shut it out, so only showing the problems can be self-defeating. But sometimes showing only solutions can make people feel like it is not an urgent problem, or they don’t need to take action.

Rising Waters, MacMillan Pier, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 2015.

Like many
climate artists, I turned to art so I could communicate information in a way
that allows people to absorb the message before they shut down, to appeal to
their emotions, and make data intuitive and personally relevant. We need
“both/and:” to show solutions alongside problems, empowering people to act.

ASK was an outreach project for the German Embassy and Transatlantic Climate Bridge that shows personal contributions to solutions. I made pith helmets with tiny wind turbines and sandwich boards that said “I’m a scientist, ASK me about climate change.” Companion information cards included individual action items and “Facts vs Myths” about the costs and benefits of renewable energy and aggregating small actions. I made ten sets, and volunteers wore them at public events. I addressed the question we hear so often – “the problem is so HUGE, what can I do?” While it seemed perhaps desperate to resort to one-on-one conversations, it really appeared to work. People would laugh at the hat, and then ask a question. The humor put them at ease, and allowed them to be receptive.

MISSING!, Boston, Massachusetts, 2016.

My projects
invite, and sometimes require, participation, engaging people at the outset and
providing some social buttressing. Rising
, Ask, and MISSING! involve people in the
making/distribution of the art, and give information about possible actions. With
MISSING!, people make missing pet
posters about endangered species. The activity is always offered in a social
group setting like public events or workshops. While they are deciding which
animal to draw, participants browse information about endangered species, effectively
learning without realizing it. By the time they finish their poster, I am
hoping they have made the analogy between their pet and a wild animal. Why do
we make a distinction between animals we care for and those we don’t? At the
end, they take home the poster to make copies and post in their neighborhood in
an effort to educate others. On the poster is a URL pointing to educational
resources on my website. Simple, direct, and fun while learning about
biodiversity, extinction and possible actions.

The response has been enormous and gratifying. So many people have told me how they remember the installations and have taken steps to have a lasting impact on climate change. I meet people who say they saw Rising Waters and now, whenever they are near the water, they wonder: “Where will the water be? How high and when?” These positive reactions keep me going.

MISSING!, Harvard Arts First, Cambridge, MA, 2016.

(Top image: Rising Waters, Courthouse MBTA, Boston, Massachusetts, 2014.)


After 20 years of practicing architecture, Susan Israel founded Climate Creatives to make environmental issues accessible to the public, empowering and inspiring people to take action. Previously, she was a Founder and Principal at studio2sustain, Energy Necklace Project, and Susan Israel Architects. She is a licensed Architect, a LEED AP, ArtWeek Advisor, and long-time member of the Harvard Alumni Association Board of Directors. Susan speaks at events nationally and internationally. She holds an A.B. from Harvard College, Master of Architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and attended the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston.


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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