Artists and Climate Change

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I Walk Towards Myself: Traveling Around the iForest

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

“Aren’t you coming over?”

The long-awaited moment had arrived early; I’d thought I had two more days.

By now the woodland of the Wild Center in upstate New York was well known to me. I had been coming here for two years in a noisy little eight-seater plane from Boston, my head pressed against the ceiling as we flew at cloud level into the six-million-acre wilderness of the Adirondacks. Now came the culmination of all the work.

Before me was the iForest. Twenty-four speakers had been placed on telegraph poles hidden throughout the woods with cables running underground to each from a central hub that housed multiple racks of amplifiers and interfaces. In my hand was the thing that would bring it all to life: a hard drive containing a choral piece that featured the Grammy winning choir, The Crossing, singing primarily in the Indigenous Mohawk language. What made it unique was that each of the 72 voices was separately recorded and assigned to a location throughout the woods. It was all fine in theory – the question that now weighed on me was: What would actually happen when I plugged it in?

I made my first sketches for immersive sound pieces back in 2000. It took until 2004 to make my first piece. Simultaneity recorded various locations simultaneously then played them back together to create a “God’s ear view of the world.” I began what was to become the iForest in 2005, as a room full of iPods titled iPod Forest. Since then I’d created all manners of works that, as well as using pitch, rhythm, tone and dynamic, also used spatiality. By 2014 this had led to apps that synchronized choirs across cities such as with And Death Shall Have No Dominion across Manhattan.

There were plenty of setbacks. When I started out, gear was specialized and expensive. Worse, the whole area in the UK seemed to be run by a sonic-arts clique and if you wanted funding, the funders, not knowing this world, would call the clique who would duly cast doubt on your work (it’s dog eat dog at the waterhole) and then get grants from those same people.

Gloucestershire, UK.

But I was convinced that immersive sound was part of the future. I grew up in Gloucestershire, a beautiful rustic area of the UK. As a teenager I played guitar in Led Zeppelin-inspired bands, but I was transfixed by the sounds of birds singing at dawn; each had its own unique song yet the song was part of an extraordinary whole and the experience constantly changed depending on how you moved through it. It was a million miles away from theories of music harmony or stereo reproduction. Throughout my entire career as a composer, I have tried to find a way back to those moments. Now, in these woods, that time had come.

Dave, the site manager, was waiting for me at the hub. Unflappable and unstoppable, he’d done the hard work of getting all this in place.

“You ready to give it a try?”

The hub was an intimate space, tall enough to stand in, crammed with electronics and countless mosquitos and black flies. I connected the drive. The interface whirred to life. The amps were all powered. There was no more reason for delay; it was time to find out if all the work had been worth it.

I’d spent time imagining sound in the woods. I’d listened to birds, to animals, to people, to the whispers of the wind. How far away was that sound? How much could you detect its direction? What happened when the weather changed? When the season changed? There were so many ways it could fail or disappoint. But instead, something magical happened: I pressed the button and suddenly, through the woods to my left, a vast choir began to sing. It was answered by a second choir to my right and then by a third directly ahead. Then they sang together, as though a synchronized choir of 72 voices was all around us. It sang back and forth across the woods in ways surprising and inspiring to me. It was more than I had hoped. We grinned at each other, listening.

In its first year, iForest received around 160,000 visitors. One of the nice things about it has been the feedback. Countless people have described being moved to tears: “Now I know how angels sound,” said one child. A man recently wrote: “It was an amazing, remarkable, beautiful experience. The music seemed to heighten all of my senses and brought back the awe and wonder of being a child exploring the forests. I could smell the duff and the pines, feel the breeze, and see the forest as if it was for the first time. The sounds of the forests were amazing, almost as if they were part of the music. Red squirrels and chipmunks scampering about, chittering and chipping; birds singing and chirping; winds blowing through the trees. The feeling of tranquility was almost overwhelming. I had tears in my eyes as I came to the end of the trail…”

This deeper sense of connection to nature is my chief aspiration. For me, placing humans out in the woods alongside all the other species is a way to experience ourselves as a part of nature (I titled the choral work I Walk Towards Myself for this reason). The nice thing about iForest is that it can constantly reinvent itself. I am currently developing two new iForests in the US and installing new material to the iForest at the Wild Center for next year. As it spreads and develops, it may help generate not only a deeper connection to nature but new creative opportunities. Spatialized sound offers a whole new approach to music-making and it’s my hope to mentor new composers and sound creators to explore its numerous possibilities. It would be nice to think of iForest still growing, long after my time.

(Top image: Song of the Human commissioned by New Sounds, WNYC for Brookfield Place, Manhattan and performed by The Crossing. It used 18 independent speakers above, around and below the palm trees of the main atrium. It was performed live then ran as an installation for 3 weeks in October 2016.)

 


Pete M. Wyer is a composer and musician from England whose works often involve storytelling and innovation, especially in the area of immersive sound. He has created scores for the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Juilliard, the orchestra of Welsh National Opera, The Crossing, BBC Television and the Royal Opera House as well as writing seven operas and music theatre works. His immersive installation The iForest opened in a permanent home at The Wild Center, in the Adirondacks in 2017, receiving 160,000 visitors. It was described by Inside Hook Magazine as “Like hiking through Fantasia”.


 

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

Bringing Together Art and Science to Save Joshua Trees

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

I wasn’t expecting to return to my desert hometown for my PhD research, and didn’t imagine that I would be pregnant. But as I rested in the shade of the only Joshua tree at the hottest and driest of my field sites, I knew that I had made the right decision. Recent studies show that Joshua trees could be gone from areas like Joshua Tree National Park within 100 years – it may be getting too hot too quickly for the tree populations to survive. Unfortunately, this story is not unique to Joshua trees: we may be entering into the sixth major extinction event on this planet, which will have far-reaching consequences for life as we know it. We need radical societal shifts from extraction capitalism and unhinged consumerism towards sustainability. This requires multi-disciplinary approaches to find a path forward, but first we need to get people to care. I believe that art can connect people to difficult concepts at an emotional level, helping to increase public understanding of anthropogenic species loss, and motivate sustainable behavior.

People respond to science-based art when it has a strong personal narrative. By sharing my journey as a scientist and mother, and by researching the deserts of my hometown, I can tell the story of tree loss in a way that moves people to care about what is happening. In my recent publication, we found that art can evoke a powerful emotional response, connecting people to the concepts of climate induced biodiversity loss. People could identify with my story because it had ties to family and a connection to home. I found that we have to unravel the complexities of climate change and species loss through narrative or the science can seem overwhelming and the solutions unapproachable.

Art provides a way to connect the public to science, but it is also a powerful form of research and a pathway for innovative thinking. I work as both an ecologist and an artist, investigating the impacts of climate change on Joshua trees and their above and belowground symbiotic partners. In the branch tops, I study the teeny moths that provide the sole pollination services for Joshua trees, and that use the tree’s developing fruit as a nursery and food source for their young. Underground, I dig into networks of fungi that scavenge and trade soil nutrients and water with the tree’s roots in exchange for plant sugars. These complex and incredibly beautiful species interactions will most likely be impacted by the changing climate, with consequences for Joshua tree survival. Understanding species interdependence and how humans fit within the ecosystem is critical to overcome the widespread belief in human exceptionalism that drives environmental destruction.

Because I work professionally in science and art, my practices are deeply intertwined and feed each other. Art making is unbounded by rules and definition, so the entirety of my research, science included, is art. This echoes the work of eco-art researchers such as the Harrisons or Brandon Balengée, who have blurred the lines of art and science research. Art making gives me permission to ask exploratory questions and to approach my study system in new ways. During these times, I have found great inspiration for science research because I have gained a deeper understanding and relationship with these organisms. For example, while sketching Joshua tree blossoms during pollination season at their hottest locations in the national park, I realized there were no moths to be found. This led to a new direction in my ecological research, and my recently published discoveries linking tree distribution to moth abundance along a changing climate gradient.

Image still from the stop motion animation A Joshua Tree Love Story.

Science, however, has a stricter set of methodologies. While also a creative practice, it is often confining and painfully rigorous. Yet science leads to data driven recommendations for policy and management that can address real environmental problems. As a scientist, I have developed an eye for detail and the ability to ask ecologically meaningful questions. I have access to powerful tools such as DNA sequencing, and high-powered microscopy, allowing me to visualize unseen worlds.

I create art through a variety of ways to make these worlds accessible and also to challenge the stereotype of who does science – in this case a mother with a child strapped to her back. My stop motion animation A Joshua Tree Love Story, follows my experience across a desert research expedition with my baby to investigate if the changing climate is impacting tree survival or species interactions. The dire message of tree loss within a human lifetime is highlighted by the paralleled aging of the baby into an old man. Woven through the animation are highly detailed paintings about the Joshua tree-fungi symbiosis and how they change with climate. The paintings match data I collect across elevations, providing a window for the viewer to experience the complexities and beauty of plant-fungal symbiosis.

Experimental painting of Joshua tree roots and soil with mycorrhizal fungi. Acrylic, Joshua tree seed oil, Joshua tree root soap, Joshua tree fibers.

And the painting process is also scientific! In fact, I have long experimented with using natural pigments, such as wine and fungi, to capture the organisms I study. In this project, I use a novel painting technique where I manipulate the densities and behavior of acrylic paint using oil from the Joshua tree seeds, soap from the tree roots, fire, and alcohol, to create the organic shapes of soil, lacy roots, and fungal networks. This process requires detailed note taking to recreate desired textures and effects. The colors in the painted soils change to reflect levels of nutrients found at my different research sites. These illustrations give another avenue to expand upon in discourse around species loss. The intention was to connect people to species loss through bold imagery and a passionate musical score. I also created a second shorter animation, in response to the first, with a stronger science narrative that more effectively “explains” the research for use in education outreach.

To further encourage conversation around species loss, I have created Hey Jtree, an ongoing participatory art research project and online dating site to meet Joshua trees. As part of my art residency at Joshua Tree National Park, my goal is to bring together artists (53 and growing!) to make art about Joshua tree research, and to invite the public to meet and fall in love with the trees. The website details the ecological information for each tree, shows where they live, features art and music created for each tree, and includes a profile (similar to online dating site profiles). Every tree’s location is given in latitude and longitude. It is also recorded in miles as a “scavenger hunt” and in steps from identifiable locations in the park. People can participate as “citizen artists” by submitting love letters, poetry, music or art to their tree. These will be uploaded to the site, generating a collective shared love and social media following for individual trees. Additional information is provided about ways to care for your tree, how to visit the desert responsibly, and suggestions for political actions.

We will need to explore many untraditional methods to capture public interest and influence environmental policy if we want to sustain life on this planet. The potential for social change through science-art goes far beyond just translating science for public consumption. Multidisciplinary researchers have the potential to turn information into action by connecting these different methodologies to generate creative thinking and learning. This could open new lines of inquiry to engage the public as active participants in the design of a sustainable society.

(Top image: Experimental painting of Joshua trees, roots, and soil with mycorrhizal fungi. Acrylic, Joshua tree seed oil, Joshua tree root soap.)

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Juniper Harrower studies the complexities of species interactions under climate change as an ecologist and artist. Her dissertation research focuses on the interactions between Joshua trees, their soil fungi, and moth pollinators in Joshua Tree National Park. By approaching this research as a science-artist, she hopes to better understand the form and function of the organisms she studies, as well as to share the hidden beauty of these threatened species interactions with others. Through this work she aims to encourage dialogue around social and environmental issues, to contribute to science theory, and to make thoughtful recommendations for policy and management.


 

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

An Interview With Painter Danielle Nelisse

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

This month I have for you an exclusive interview with Danielle Nelisse, an immigration attorney, private investigator, and – painter! Her Wildfires series, which was inspired by nine wildfires that surrounded her California art studio in May 2014, is on view at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain through July 2020. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

What inspired the Wildfires series?

My Wildfires series was first inspired in 2014 when nine wildfires simultaneously surrounded my art studio in Southern California. While I stood in my art studio creating the first Wildfires paintings on two canvases side-by-side, my family members checked in over the phone. I just kept painting. The sky became dark with charred ash.

The massive wildfires were fed for days by hot Santa Ana winds that blew in from the desert. To date I have completed nine wildfires paintings and luckily I haven’t been ordered to evacuate my art studio yet.

What led to the Wildfires series being shown at the US Embassy in Bahrain? 

When Justin Siberell was appointed as Ambassador by the President, he sought artwork from a California artist to exhibit at the U.S. Embassy in Manama, Bahrain. His staff contacted me and told me that he connected with my artwork because he is originally from California and as a former firefighter, he wanted to share his memory of the wildfires in California with the people of Bahrain.

Danielle Nelisse, “Wildfires V.,” 36″ x 36″ oil on canvas. Photo by EgoID Media.

What do you hope viewers will take away from Wildfires?

I often use art to depict imagery associated with climate change. I feel that a majority of people are overwhelmed with emotions regarding the negative impact of climate change, and the fact that solutions are too complex to implement quickly or easily by any one person or any one government or any one country.

I know when people feel they are not free to express their emotions, it compromises their emotional and physical health. By creating abstract paintings that address climate change, I invite viewers to vent their emotions about what is interpreted as a devastating and staggering problem for an international community to solve.

Many experts say that California’s wildfires are exacerbated by climate change. Do you think about climate change beyond what you paint in the studio?

I worry a lot about the negative impacts of climate change. Living in Southern California, I am exposed to the consequences of long term drought conditions and see lakes dry up, see mudslides take place after the fires, see lawns removed in favor of xeriscape landscapes, and see wildfires all year round.

These days wildfire firefighters are facing situations they have never encountered, such as a 100-foot wall of flames and triple digit heat for 25 consecutive days.

Eighty-nine large wildfires are currently burning in the United States, but I can’t help but notice that global warming has resulted in wildfires not only in California, but worldwide. Europe just suffered its deadliest fire season in more than a century.

According to Stanford University climate change scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, “We now have very strong evidence that global warming has already put a thumb on the scales, upping the odds of extremes like severe heat and heavy rainfall. We find that global warming has increased the odds of record-setting heat events over more than 80 percent of the planet.”

What role do you see art playing in our larger conversations about climate change and ecological disasters like wildfires?

For about ten years or more, artists like me have been expressing our concern by creating artwork about climate change and ecological disasters. Making my Wildfires painting series allows me to release anxiety and express my emotions about climate change. I can only hope that if my art is in the right place at the right time it might provide an opportunity to impact policymakers by sparking productive conversations.

Just a few days ago, the United Nations officially recognized climate change as a cause for migration, outlining ways for countries to cope with communities that are displaced by natural disasters as well as “slow onset events” like drought, desertification, and rising seas. I believe that artists can help keep this issue at the forefront by constantly reminding the public that climate change needs our immediate attention.

What’s next for you?

Within the next month I’m moving my art studio to the Hawaiian island of Maui. Rising temperatures, king tides, shifting precipitation patterns, warming and acidifying oceans and other climate change impacts are already affecting the islands in ways that will change them permanently. Given the rise in sea levels, it may be my last chance to experience and artistically record island life.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

For more on Danielle Nelisse, see this interview published on Artists & Climate Change in 2014.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x. 


 

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

An Introduction to Our Food, Art & Climate Series

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Thanks to a generous grant from Invoking the Pause, the Artists & Climate Change’s Core Team recently went on a retreat to the Omega Institute, a holistic center located in Rhinebeck, New York. While there, the topic of food kept coming up in our conversations, and not (only) because we were having three gorgeous organic meals prepared for us every day. It became clear that when talking about climate, we also need to talk about what’s on our plate. The complicated infrastructure of large-scale, globally connected food systems irreversibly impacts bodies, tummies, animals, oceans, and ultimately climate. At the same time more extreme weather, including droughts and floods, impacts farmers across the globe. And that, in turn, impacts us. Since we all need to eat, we couldn’t think of a more democratic yet urgent topic to dedicate our next series to.

There are many different points of entry into this topic: as a farmer, consumer, scientist, nutritionist, designer, cook, businessperson, policymaker, etc. We all have agency when we make decisions about what we eat, and these decisions inevitably add up to become collective power.

In this new Foodstuff series, we – Chantal Bilodeau, Susan Hoffman Fishman, Julia Levine, Yasmine Ostendorf, and Joan Sullivan – will write about the relationship between art, food, and climate from our own backgrounds and interests. Below is a short introduction that outlines our respective views on this subject.

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Chantal: When we talk about climate change, we usually talk about food that will disappear. I’m interested in the flipside of that. What are the foods we will eat more of because the new climate makes them easier to grow, or because they have a smaller footprint? Many cultures already eat things like insects and worms – what will it look like when those show up in Western cuisine? Fine cooking has become so labour and energy intensive, it’s almost like chemistry! I wonder if somehow we have to rein that back a bit. What are other ways we can make cooking and eating fun? How do we do that with nature rather than with machines? How do we eat with the seasons rather than importing food whenever we feel like having it? Eating local can make us more creative because we’re challenged to do more with less.

Susan: My entry point into the food series will be directly connected to water resources. As the planet continues to heat and reliable sources of water dry up, crop growth and food supplies will continue to be impacted, setting off a chain of local, regional, and global events, including water wars, large scale migration, and political upheaval. These events are already occurring in many regions around the world. I am also very interested in exploring the ways in which indigenous populations have traditionally sustained their food sources by planting efficiently and by honoring, protecting, and conserving their water resources.

Julia: I want to connect with where my food comes from, and motivate others to do so as well. By tracing the food supply chain, we connect more deeply to the planet and to each other, thus strengthening our community in the face of climate change. Sharing meals as a community is vital. As a theatremaker, everything I do is about recognizing other people. I want audiences to feel that they’re not just at a play but part of something larger than themselves. The more I learn about others working on food, the more I see that food is a justice issue. What we eat is connected to a larger political and cultural system. I want people to feel driven by their own interests and equipped to make informed choices (whether in food or climate or otherwise). In these ways, I use theatre to pose questions about how, in Western culture, we got disconnected from our food sources. On the stage, my collaborators and I imagine alternative food systems and empower audiences to shift from apathy to action.

Yasmine: I’m interested in how artists, innovators, and designers are contributing to re-thinking and sometimes radically re-shaping some of our food systems: whether that means what we eat, how we eat it, or how it travels to our plate. Food-sharing apps, speculative foodfutures, co-ops, (experiential) food design, groundbreaking horticultural research around greenhouses, and start-ups producing artificial meat – all of this stuff really excites me. In addition, I’m really interested in microbes and the pivotal role of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, both in our bodies and beyond. Not to mention bio-art collectives, which are doing interesting research and projects.

Joan: I would like to explore food from a personal level, looking at my own life. My bachelor’s degree was in Nutritional Science and now I’m living on a farm. I’ve lived there for ten years and it has influenced and informed my worldview on food and the environment. My own child, who grew up on the farm, has become a vegan; her personal activism to address climate change is a plant-based diet. In addition, food waste really bothers me; we have 40 chickens and the tablewaste goes back to the chickens or is composted. But generally, the amount of food waste we generate is shocking and I would like to look into how this could stop. I find it unethical. I’m also very interested in the packaging of food. And I LOVE cooking and am interested in fermented food.

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We hope you enjoy this new series and invite you to comment below with your own interests/concerns relating to food, art, and climate! And perhaps this might lead up to an offline event at some point…!

Note: For people in Europe interested in art and food, Yasmine is organizing the Food Art Film Week at the Van Eyck Academy in September 2018, transforming the academy into an open-air arthouse cinema, artist-run organic restaurant, site for debate on Food Futures, and forum for workshops and Artist’ Talks. Topics include Is Natural Possible?, Obsession and the Senses, Livestock vs Wild Animal, and Human-Non-Human Dependencies.

(All photos by Marente van der Valk.)

For previous articles related to food, check out:

Recipe for Change, In Conversation with Food and DIRT in Development by Julia Levine
Plants, Place, and Environmental Stewardship by Jimmy Fike
Maybe Tomorrow, The Fish Will Be Gone by Alison Weller
Abundance, Art, and Creative Social Research by Dianna Tarr
The Nature of Positive by Tanja Beer
Non-Human Narratives: Stories of Bacteria, Fungi and Viruses by Yasmine Ostendorf

This article is part of the Foodstuff series.

See the Core Team’s bios here.


 

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

Using Photography to Combat Climate Change

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

In 1963, Eliot Porter showed a series of color slides at the Sierra Club that he had taken at one of the underground pools of Glen Canyon in Utah. After showing the magnificent images on the big screen, he argued that the recently completed dam at Lake Powell would completely flood these enchanted pools, and they would be lost forever. His images inspired the members of the Sierra Club, and future nature lovers, to speak out against big construction projects as they increasingly threatened natural environments.

Caring for Our Environment

Porter’s famous contemporary, Ansel Adams, capitalized on Porter’s work and successfully argued for using his work, and the work of f/64 photographers – landscape photographers using visualization and the zone system to create the first modern landscape photographs we now know and love – to promote and protect the stunning nature of the Western United States.

I read this in a book about Ansel Adams written by contemporary landscape photographer Michael Frye, who is based in the same iconic Yosemite Valley as Ansel Adams was. I remember reading the book as I was writing an article on my website about my intention to use my images and love for the environment to help support environmental groups.

Recently, I have felt the urge to use my growing portfolio of landscape images for a greater purpose. I enjoy being in nature. It helps me find balance in my otherwise hectic life. I try to look for and find isolated places – places devoid of humans, and even of human interference. This is not always easy, as I do not have the time nor the money to visit the truly empty places far, far away.

Places close by give me enough energy to reload after a hectic day, week, or month. However, over the past year, I have realized that everywhere I look, there is human interference. The nature around me is for the most part cultivated and managed to fit within constraints set by us humans. Also, I am growing angry as I see more wildlife going extinct and nature being destroyed.

Everywhere I look I see human interference…

At home, we do our best to care for our environment. We religiously separate our trash, eat organic and an increasingly plant-based diet, and support local conservation groups. Every time I am out in the field, I pick up litter and stuff that has been thrown away. I try to use public transportation instead of my car and often think about my ecological footprint. I know I can do much more, but I at least try to be considerate about how I engage with my environment, my world, and our planet.

I often feel quite alone in this. Granted, a lot of my peers and other like-minded people are doing wonderful things to create greater awareness. But I also see many people littering, wasting resources, and simply not caring about the future of our planet.

Using Images for a Greater Purpose

One day, I sat down and scrolled through my portfolio with different eyes. I tried to find images that would encourage viewers to protect what they were seeing. This proved harder than I expected. Of course, there were images that did just that but overall, I was disappointed in what I found.

I turned to my small but cherished portfolio of urbex images. Urbex is the exploration of abandoned structures and buildings. Often the locations are off-limits – the idea of briefly trespassing to explore the unknown appeals to me. Also, the adage of urbex, “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures,” resonates with me. I live by it during my nature treks.

Abandoned housing at a deserted army camp.

Urbex images give the viewer a glimpse of a transitional world – a world where nature has taken over human structures after they have been abandoned. Sometimes it feels like walking through a post-apocalyptic world, and it makes me wonder if that might ultimately be the best outcome. I recently saw a video about what would happen if Man suddenly disappeared from the Earth. Within 10 years the air would be clean again, and structures would become one with the Earth – species would thrive, and balance would be restored. A sobering thought…

Here I found better images, more in line with what I was looking for – images that communicate a need to protect our environment from pollution and decay, and show the transience of our civilization. It wasn’t a portfolio or series yet, but it was a start.

I recently went to the Dutch coastline to photograph the beautiful Waddenzee area – a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. There too, I was painfully confronted with pollution and trash. This only increased my desire to educate my fellow human beings about these dangers.

Plastic trash on the tidal plains of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Capitalizing on the Idea

I am now in conversation with several like-minded photographers about creating a coffee table book and an exhibition around these themes. I also incorporated my views and this mission in the curriculum for my photography workshops. I hope to realise these projects next year and raise awareness and possibly even some money to donate to charities that champion these causes.

With this initiative, I am taking baby steps towards using my images for nature conservation and education. I also started a similar journey on another front: I became part of a local conservation group dedicated to preserving a row of ancient Poplar trees with a deep ecological and heritage importance. I created their website and donated my images to help them recruit Friends of the Trees – supporters who can donate money towards the trees’ preservation.

After a few months, we were able to enter into an agreement with the local council for the protection and transfer of the land to the council. We also obtained a grant from the provincial council to plant young Poplar trees in the gaps between the old trees. Not only will the new trees provide support for the old trees, but they will continue to play their role in the ecosystem after the old trees die or fall during a storm.

I feel at ease in this new role and hope to take more steps towards using my photography to combat climate change and raise awareness about environmental preservation. Together we can change the world!

Industrial remains on a British coastline.

(Top image: Stone furnaces at an abandoned brick factory.)

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Photographer Maurice Hertog was born and raised in the southern part of the Dutch province of Limburg. He started taking photographs as an avid aircraft spotter at the local airfield, also enjoying taking snapshots during holidays. Since 2008, he has transitioned to photographing landscapes and abandoned buildings, and learned to enjoy the wondrous world around him. “Inspired through the Lens” is his mantra. He feels most alive when he gets out into nature and can become one with the environment he so enjoys capturing on camera.

 

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

Storytelling Strategies in Eco-Theatre

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

How do you write a play about climate change? Ocean acidification? The Anthropocene mass extinction? As a playwright working with both eco-theatre and narrative traditions, I’ve found that many of the strategies we use to create narratives around the climate crisis are still drawn from ancient and classical models—which often feel entirely inadequate when addressing the scale and nature (if you’ll forgive the pun) of the issue. How do you write about a radical new moment, the stakes of which are nothing less than the future of your species (and many others) when the form you practice seems to resist the story you want to tell? And why does climate change feel so particularly resistant to narrative techniques?

A theory I’ve found personally useful is that put forward by novelist Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement. While illustrating how climate change is inextricably tied to the legacies of colonialism, industrialism, and capitalism, Ghosh links the modes of thought that emerged alongside these movements (rationalism, gradualism, realism) to our climate “aporia”: Our particular inability to even recognize, let alone respond to, the challenges posed by both climate change and its narrative representation. Though Ghosh is focused on the modern novel, with its careful construction of reality through bourgeois detail, and abhorrence of the “event”—he might just as well be speaking of the realist play, where verisimilitudinous settings and a focus on mundane detail create a similar tendency to view the uncanniness of climate change as improbable and therefore narratively suspect.*

Alanna Mitchell in Seasick by Alanna Mitchell. Photo: Chloe Ellingson.

Many contemporary theatrical responses to this climate “aporia” have fallen into two narrative tendencies: The cautionary and the informational. The informational responds to the “unbelieveability” of climate change narratives with the adage that “Truth is Stranger than Fiction”. Informational pieces rely on a claim to truth to offset our narrative bias against the uncanny event of climate change. Many employ research and journalistic strategies to reinforce this claim. Seasick, for example, intersperses playwright (and journalist) Alana Mitchell’s deeply personal monologues with scientific research collected during her exploration of the effects of ocean acidification. Annabel Soutar’s work in Seeds and The Watershed also relies heavily on journalistic strategies, piecing together the stories of particular climate struggles from verbatim interviews with residents of the affected areas, corporate representatives, climate scientists, and many others. Soutar’s layering of verbatim voices offers nuanced, multi-perspective portraits of a single situation, much in the vein of journalistic or quasi-journalistic productions like This American Life, or Serial.

The cautionary tendency, on the other hand, often uses more familiar theatrical tools—tropes and structures drawn from tragedy, elegy, and dystopia—to draw the focus towards the hubris of human responses, or the human consequences of a failure to engage. Jason Patrick Rothery’s Inside the Seed, for example, takes Oedipus, and recasts the doomed protagonist as a bio-tech CEO, and the plague on Thebes as the unintended side effects of genetic modification. E.M. Lewis’ Song of Extinction relies heavily upon the elegiac mode, with the loss of a parent becoming a metaphor through which we can emotionally grapple with the losses threatened by the Anthropocene Extinction.

Patrick Sabongui in Inside the Seed by Jason Rothery. Photo: Nicole Gurney

Both tragedy and elegy, though—as Ursula K. Heise notes in Imagining Extinction—are inherently human-centric storytelling modes: We use tragedy to foreground the rise and fall of the human protagonist.** We mourn the loss of charismatic megafauna because we are mourning a shift in our own cultural identity, and ignore the very different stories that are happening for less easily anthropomorphized species. Heise suggests instead that the epic, with its multi-voiced, multi-perspective and often collective arc, and comedy, with its focus on the loss and regaining of equilibrium after upheaval, may help us to start telling new stories about extinction and climate change.

In order to address the complicated, intersectional storytelling needs arising from ecological crisis as subject matter, eco-theatre is pushing forward into collaborative, site-specific, and/or interdisciplinary work. For narrative playwrights like myself, a similar exploration is occurring, as we experiment with both classical forms and new strategies. Chantal Bilodeau’s Forward, for example, uses shifting time frames to illustrate the scale of the shifts in our climate and human responses to it. Plays like Karen Malpede’s Extreme Whether, and Byrony Lavery’s Slime, have begun to address ideas of interspecies justice through the inclusion of animals onstage, echoing Una Chaudhuri’s call for a type of interspecies dramaturgy in her Climate Lens Playbook. Each of these strategies is another attempt to move narrative playwrighting beyond the realist tendencies that foster climate aporia—and to better answer the question “How do you write a play about climate change?”

Notes

*While often laudable in their attempt to create empathy for the plight of the working class, or expose the hypocrisy of Victorian mores, early modernist climate works like Ibsen’s Enemy of the People tend to focus on human drama at a scale quite different from that of climate change.

**This seems related to the complaints that Chantal Bilodeau levels against classical structure in her article for Howlround, “Why I’m breaking up with Aristotle”, where she notes that the hierarchical focus of many classical pieces, with their emphasis on the rise and fall of the human (more often than not privileged white male) protagonist, mirrors the prioritization of the colonial experience and perspective that got us into this mess to begin with.

(Top image: The animal translators from Slime (l-r) Sophia Wolfe, Mason Temple, Teo Saefkow, Anais West, Pedro Chamale, Lisa Baran, and Edwardine van Wyk. Photo:Donald Lee.)

Portions of this article were originally presented as a paper entitled “Eco-Theatre and Storytelling Strategies in Climate Fiction” at the 2018 Earth Matters on Stage Festival in Anchorage, Alaska.

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Jordan Hall is a playwright and screenwriter based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is the author of Kayak and How to Survive an Apocalypse. She is currently Playwright-in-Residence at Up in the Air Theatre, where she is developing her next play, A Brief History of Human Extinction, in collaboration with Mind of a Snail Puppet Theatre, for Up in The Air’s 2018 season at the Cultch. As a screenwriter, Jordan co-created Carmilla: The Series (Winner: CSA, Digital Fiction) for SmokeBomb Entertainment, and was Carmilla‘s lead writer for three seasons and subsequent movie. She teaches screenwriting at Capilano University.


 

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

Augmented Organism: Bridging Technology and Nature

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

As a young girl, my favorite place to be was outside in the elements, greeting the familiar flowers, walking barefoot on the grass, watching the whales, and hearing deer calling in the field below. Growing up in the diverse landscape of Maui, Hawai’i shaped me, grounded me, comforted me, and became a part of me to an extend I wasn’t even aware of until I dived into the world of choreography, performance and site- specific work. As an only child, my two closest friends, which kept me occupied and curious, were art and nature. I loved picking fruit, making elaborate sand sculptures, folding leaves, stringing lei (flower garlands), and tumbling in the waves with the honu (turtles). Nature was so present in my life – I didn’t know anything different until I started to travel and live abroad. Without this separation from Maui, I wouldn’t have understood the depth of my connection to the environment, our oneness with it all. It would’ve been something I took for granted and never realized the privilege of having. Hawai’i, her nature, and cultural her-stories seeped out through poetry of movement, intertwining with mine. I remember this turning point in my creative work where I started craving performances on land. Choreography jobs, dance teaching, and staged theatrical work started to fade from my interests. There was a purpose in my performance work that I was just tapping into.

In this transition period, I met my artistic partner Cy Gorman, an interdisciplinary transmedia artist and mastermind from Australia. We first met at a dance summit in Angers, France and kept in contact every so often, talking about our latest projects, dance, art, mythology, philosophy, culture and nature. We recognized how our work overlapped, and how we were both passionate about art that identifies with landscapes. We started playing with small film assignments – for our first transnational collaborative experimentation, I was in Germany and Cy in Australia. The experimenting got serious when we were both accepted for an artist residency in Finland and received the financial backing needed to work on a project together in person. This experience culminated in a project we call Augmented Organism – something that heavily influenced how both Cy and I create work today, and even paved the way towards new life paths and explorations.

Augmented Organism (AUGORG) brought together our talents in filmmaking, dance, sound production, and design, and allowed our passions for contemporary storytelling, sustainability, and environmentalism to speak through art. Our goal during our residency was to experiment with and use methodology that challenged the “human vs. nature” perspective, looking for ways technology and nature could share a harmonious relationship. This was a strong theme for us as we heavily relied on technological tools to make our art and collaboration possible, yet our project’s focus was on nature. One of the technological tools that we experimented with came from research contributor Neil Harbisson. It involved sonochromatism (or sonochromatopsia) – a neurological phenomenon in which colors are perceived as sounds. The AUGORG project used sonochromatic data as a way of developing harmonic narratives with nature, mood, and soundscape tied with the visible landscape. Movement also developed, grounding the data into the body and back into the physical plane. This dialogue between the technological/scientific and the cultural/mythological, is Augmented Organism.

To this day, the continued purpose of AUGORG is to create engaging globally-oriented art and design that supports the voice of our natural world, using technologies of today and tomorrow to remind us of the importance of Mother Earth and our relationship to her. The project values connection and communication with land (geographically, geomatically, and geo-socially) with a mission to design, develop, and produce environmentally harmonic works and share them with digital and physical networks and communities worldwide. AUGORG’s perspective sees nature as an intelligent voice that needs to be heard and actively supported.

For the entire project, our framing choices, narration, and the way we used technology developed from an intuitive and lateral dialogue between our practice-based research areas and the natural environment. We let our creativity and technical preparation follow nature’s lead. We made ourselves as ready as possible for the perfect moment when the environment revealed narrative of itself. And She did. A lot of the work happened in spontaneous moments, captured in one shot, which was unlike the pre-set choreographed scenes and director’s shot list that we were both used to working with. This was organic and flowing, with no agenda, like my barefoot walks as a kid. This work felt like home and for the first time I understood my purpose, and felt gratitude for the talents that Maui provided me – to feel spatially, to harness earth energy, to carry awareness in my feet.

Check out trailer here: http://augmentedorganism.com.

AUGORG pushed us to not only communicate environmental wellbeing through art but also to act on it. Cy started nurobodi, a holistic healing and wellbeing practice, and I decided to pursue an MA in Sustainable Design. AUGORG was the “aha” moment that aligned and confirmed our natural inclinations towards more organic working styles, and brought to the surface deep passions we previously brushed off as mere interests. Our working intuitions were spot on: the strongest way to deliver creatively is to work with nature and her cycles. My love for Maui is now defined, the wisdom of my child self is restored, and I am curious again. I hope the work allows the child deep within you to emerge and remember too.

The AUGORG project includes diverse offerings, such as live installation and performance works, research presentations, interdisciplinary “co-design” workshop modules, and a feature film, which was released at the beginning of this year. We are eager to share these aspects of the project with others and open future AUGORG work to people interested in collaborating.

(All photos by Cy Gorman.)

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Jazmyne Geis grew up in the culturally diverse environment of Maui, Hawai’i, lived abroad in Asia and Europe, and returned back to her family’s land and StudioJaz, her home design studio where experimentation runs wild. Collecting a wide variety of dance styles and visual art backgrounds, Jazmyne has tied these “languages” back to the dance, culture, and land of her homeland. Jazmyne is a sustainable designer, consultant and interdisciplinary artist (an active performer, choreographer, visual artist, creative director, curator, and writer) who uses her artwork as a tool to advocate on behalf of the natural world, bridging environmental her-stories with others around the world.


 

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

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

How to Turn Music into Trees

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Can music be a solution to climate change? Is it possible to turn music into trees? Can we sing humanity into a greener future?

I would like to say yes to these questions. Music will probably not be the only solution to our climate crisis, but I think it will be part of it. Why? Because music is a language everyone can understand. It transcends culture, religious beliefs, skin color, gender, and age. I believe music is a necessary bridge that can bring us together to face climate change.

Coming together is crucial because no one can face climate change alone. It’s so big that it’s easy to feel depressed and powerless when confronting the relentless barrage of bad news. But if we find people who dare to stand beside us when we rise and fall through the pain and bliss of loving our blue planet, we can allow ourselves to dive deep and commit to making changes. With love and support, we can safely explore our gifts and talents which I believe is going to be essential for the times ahead. We’ll need every musician, poet, artist, nurturer, mathematician, craftsman, blogger, YouTuber, and politician. We’ll need all of us, using all of our skills, gifts, and talents to turn this ship around.

As a choir leader, I see the choir as a perfect arena to practice coming together to face climate change. It’s the perfect place to encourage each other to explore and raise our voices, to take a stand together. Singing in a choir is good for our health, and can create meaning and an amazing feeling of support. A few month ago, with this in mind and a longing to do something that might help keep our planet habitable for my future grandchildren, I launched Women’s Virtual Choir, an online choir experiment that gathers the voices of women across the globe to explore how we can sing together via the internet and transform our singing into trees. A few days ago, the number of members in the choir hit 600!

Our current project is to make a music video with all the voices of the women in the choir. Communicating by email, the singers get instructions, rehearsal tracks, sheet music, and tips for how to record themselves on video. The song is about sisterhood – if you’re curious about it, you can listen to the rehearsal track here.

This autumn, audio and video engineers will put the voices together to make a music video, which will be posted on YouTube. Any income from YouTube adds will be donated to the tree planting organization TreeSisters. That’s how we’re going to transform music into trees! Along the way, we’ll have some fun, challenge ourselves a bit, find new friends, and feel connected to women around the world. There is already a Facebook group for the choir members where beautiful connections are made.

Joining the choir doesn’t cost anything and it’s open to everyone who identifies as a woman. You don’t need to be a professional singer – just come as you are! That’s the beauty of choirs – blending our voices will make a unique sound, perfect as it is. If you are an experienced singer, we do have some challenges for you too, maybe you want to sing a solo part? If you want to join, you can register here.

Why the focus on trees and women?

Trees are our best friends in this age of global warming. They provide shade, oxygen, shelter, and food but also, by planting trees we buy ourselves some more time. We all know that we in the western world need to radically change how we live if we are going to evolve from a consumer species to a restorer species. And one of the most radical change we can make today is to empower women. By lifting women around the world and giving them the opportunity to fulfill their potential, we have a chance to really do this together. My hope is that singing in a choir can be a stepping stone in this process and the beginning of a greener future and sustainable planet for all of us.

Hope to see you in the choir!

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Her practice deeply rooted in Swedish folk music, singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/choir leader Åsa Larsson explores how music can connect us to the earth and each other. She recently launched Women’s Virtual Choir, an online choir experiment gathering women to sing our planet green. Her solo project Resmiranda, which has been described as eco-conscious folk music mixed with ambient electronica and the ancient art of kulning, will release the album “For the trees” in 2018. In 2013, her folk music trio Blås, Bälg och Tagel released “Hosvid Hasvid.” In 2014, Resmirandas released the debut EP “Mellan stiltje och storm.” Åsa’s music can be found on YouTube.


 

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

Touring Plays on Bicycle Across a Shifting Landscape

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Recently, I found myself traveling by car on the same stretch of Arizona highway that my theater company, Agile Rascal, had traversed on bicycle a few years prior. As the car flew by cacti and freeway exits, I saw a familiar sight in the distance – a truck stop. I suddenly recalled what it had felt like to see this beautiful, run down relic loom on the horizon of that hot lunar landscape. I could picture the face of the man who worked behind the counter, the spider in the truck stop shower, the rack of vaguely erotic romance novels right beside the ice cream freezer, the vividly colored sunset against the neon station sign.

But as the car passed, with radio playing and air conditioning blowing and engine burning, this otherworldly oasis turned back into the mundane – just another outpost on the way to our destination.

A gas station in Arizona, 2015 coast-to-coast tour.

I sometimes think of this moment when I reflect on the purpose of Agile Rascal – my theater company that tours original plays on bicycle. When I started the company almost five years ago, the purpose was simply to collide my love of theater with my love of biking. At the time, there was no thought to how the collision of these two things would inform one another, or how they would lead us to bigger questions of how we bear witness to our shifting landscape, or how we bring these observations to our audience. But years later, it’s clear to me that the act of bicycling creates an awareness that transforms the landscape into a place of potential, not because of any physical change, but rather, because of a shift in perspective.

I will admit, I suppose, that Agile Rascal was created as an exercise in doing things the hard way. Hard art creation made harder by hard travel, hard cooking, hard cleaning, sleeping and bathing. Sometimes even hard relationships and hard compromises. In a landscape made up of car-dictated space and a culture consumed by screen-mediated interactions, to bring free, live performance to people without the aid of fossil fuels is nothing if not a self-imposed obstacle course.

But when you travel the land by bicycle, instantly your understanding of distance in relation to time shifts. Sixty miles is no longer an hour car ride, but instead, an entire day’s epic journey. Keep pedaling and something expands in the body, a kind of pulsing awakeness peppered with ache. Suddenly you feel the hills, the heat, the hunger, the weight of your belongings and the trash you generate – feelings that entire economies and infrastructures try to soften and hide.

In a car, the liminal, in-between spaces of freeways, gas stations and big box stores that make up so much of the American landscape are easily sped through. But on bicycle, these areas are unavoidable – their place-ness no less palpable than a beautiful and pristine national park. In more rural areas, we witness forests blackened by wildfires, spindly creek beds now dry, and mountaintops hacked bare by mining.

To bike the land is to bear witness, to both mourn and revere it. It puts this act in the body, not that unlike what we do when we step out on stage, putting our bodies into a new landscape and putting the story inside of our bodies.

* * *

Arriving in a new town to perform our plays, I often wonder whether the audience can sense the pulsating in our muscles, can see the feral glint in our eyes. I’d like to think so. But even if they can’t, the play is an opportunity to get people out of the house, away from their screens, to gather together, often times in unconventional theater spaces and always for free.

“We Called it Resonance,” 2017 Montana tour.

The same absurdity that characterizes the project is also what brings non-traditional theatergoers to our shows. While we expected cyclists and environmentalists to show up, we didn’t predict how often we would meet someone on the road – at a gas station or truck stop – only to have them show up again, sometimes hundreds of miles later, at our next show. Street performers once intersected with people where they shopped and convened, but as Main streets all over the United States become boarded up, we find we meet people where they are now – on the road, in their cars, stuck in traffic, at gas stations.

If performance (and art in general) is going to stay relevant in the face of our rapidly changing environmental landscape (and the cultural, social and economic landscapes it affects), we have to push against the fast-paced, highly individualized and wasteful modes of production that late stage capitalism dictates, and we must do so not only in the messaging of our work, but also in the mode in which we create and share it.

“Sunlight on the Brink,” 2015 coast-to-coast tour.

Agile Rascal is an invitation to imagine another way. The challenge becomes not simply the challenge of inconvenience, of effort, of difficulty, but of creating new priorities – slowness, focus, community and creativity to re-imagine the landscape both as what it is and what it could be.

(Top image: The plains of Montana, 2017 Montana tour.)

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Dara Silverman is the Artistic Director of Agile Rascal Theatre, a company that tours innovative new plays with environmental themes on bicycles. A bit of a nomad, your best bet is to find Dara in Oakland, California, where she often lives, works, and rides her bicycle just about everywhere. Dara thinks of her creative projects as experiments, each born from a collision of questions, and resulting in a unique universe complete with rules of science and magic, patterns of behavior and specific aesthetics. She allows her current preoccupations to embed themselves inside these landscapes, revealing connections and complexity.


 

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

A Theatrical Revolution of Hope

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

“And if you are here,
And you are one of the Seven who run this world
You are not alone
I have come to bare my heart before you.
I have come to greet you.”

Bare Spaces by Angella J. Emurwon

This was the opening of our 2017 Climate Change Theatre Action production, The Spaces Between Us, which I produced as part of the 2017-18 Brandeis University Department of Theater Arts Season. The cast took the stage one at a time to greet the audience.

But as part of the same project in 2015, this was how we started our production:

… I know. I mean, I get it, I do… it’s hot. It’s, like, seriously hot out today and the first thing I hear… not five minutes outside my building… “it’s global warming.” (makes a face) I mean, come on… please. It’s summer! It’s always hot in the summer! How you gonna blame that on anything but it’s the summertime and it’s hot in summer.

A wonderful monologue by Neil Labute, An Average Guy Thinking Thoughts About Climate Change pits a climate change denier against reality. He rants, he calls us stupid, gullible and whiny. And his only real concern seems to be getting his Chipotle.

We didn’t let him conclude his hysterics. Not yet. We cut him off, mid-rant, and ushered in other plays to shout facts and fear at our audience: The last polar bear alone on an ice floe; parents wrangling over whether or not they should kill their own children rather than let them encounter the end of the world. We clamored louder than Labute’s Man could. And then we allowed him to come back on stage.

The guy looks up at the sun overhead. Squints. Looks back at us. Shakes his head.

I mean, come on! (beat) Global warming? (beat) Whatever…

He opens his bottle of water and finishes it. Crushes the plastic and tosses it to the ground. He wanders off. The stage gets brighter and brighter and brighter…

The end. Don’t be that guy. That was our mandate. We were frustrated. We were angry. We needed the audience to be our hope, and we would overwhelm them with unvarnished truth and terrifying circumstances until they took up arms and gave us the hope we needed.

So how did we go from this to “baring our hearts,” a much more hospitable opening?

I remember one tenet from my undergrad Introduction to Sociology class (sorry Professor ????): “The miserable don’t rebel.” The masses don’t revolt when conditions stay the same. They don’t riot when conditions get worse either. They revolt when an indication of light reaches into the mine, an omen of opportunity that summons the strength to exact reformation. Revolutions require hope!

And in the fall of 2017, we were miserable. Way more than we were in 2015. We had just been through, well, the election and we were now living in a country that had just elected the “Man” from Labute’s play to our highest office. And yet, in our deliberations over which plays to perform, the desire to provide hope that would lead to action was palpable. We would offer our audience that spark, that bit of light that they needed to incite a revolution.

We realized that we had to be the purveyors of hope. We welcomed our audience. We received them into our home, our circle. “I have come to bare my heart before you.” We bared the hearts of two scientists. Their budgets cut. Their labs closing. Ready to acquiesce. But rather than quit, they plant a tree.

“Start Where You Are” by E.M. Lewis. Featuring Emily Bisno and Lilia Shrayfer. Directed by Alex Jacobs. Photo: Mike Lovett.

We comforted the audience: the scientists won’t give up. Of course, they won’t. But along with these hopeful pieces, we wanted to include plays that provoked the audience to action. We sought out plays that gave agency to the audience to engage with the text. We performed Appreciation by Katie Pearl, a piece that encouraged the audience to clap for a multitude of devastating events brought about by climate change: Let’s clap for the one white rhino left in the world; a round of applause for the waters flooding back into their original waterways. Like the best activist theatre, it was fun, and funny, and you are clapping and laughing until you are really uncomfortable doing so. It feels gross, but you are required to clap for the play to succeed. So you do. And by the end, the audience is still clapping, but it is faint and painful. And we all want it to stop.

“Appreciation” by Katie Pearl. Featuring Sara Kenney. Directed by Raphael Stigliano. Photo: Mike Lovett.

OK, the audience is primed for participation now. So we decided to up the ante even more with The Rube Goldberg Device for the Generation of Hope by Jordan Hall. This play turns the audience into a Rube Goldberg machine. Every audience member is given a strip of paper with an instruction, like this:

  1.  (Stage-Manager) If everyone closes their eyes, and takes a deep breath, turn out all the lights.
  2.  If the lights go out, begin to cry, loud enough that everyone can hear you for about ten seconds.
  3.  If someone begins to cry, say “Shh! It’ll be okay.” Repeat this until the crying stops.
  4. If someone says “It’ll be okay”, wait about five seconds and then hiss loudly: “It was never going to be okay.”
  5.  (3 people) If someone hisses “It was never going to be okay,” start making noises like those of traffic in a big city (cars WHOOSHING past, horns HONKING, feet STOMPING, etc.) Don’t stop until you hear “Donald Trump.”

When it works, if it works, it is a progressive current that carries the audience on stage for a dance party. Complete audience participation, leaving-your-seats-coming-on-stage-audience-participation. I won’t lie, opening night we were clutching on to each other, dreading what would happen, or not happen. But when the two performers climbed onto rehearsal cubes at the end of the play, surrounded by a dancing audience, we were ecstatic (and relieved.) The audience gazed up at the actors, still dancing, while the performers delivered a substantive promise of hope.

“The Rube Goldberg Device for the Generation of Hope” by Jordan Hall. Featuring Gabi Nail, Joelle Robinson and Ensemble. Directed by Brandon Green. Photo: Mike Lovett.

A: When I think of how improbable it all is, that a planet should have formed in just the right place, with rocks, and water, and one perfect, circling moon – like the biggest symphony of ball bearings you ever saw. How improbable it is that rock and water could catalyze into life—like the littlest symphony of ball bearings you ever saw. That life evolved into fish and moss and dinosaurs and bees and a species of bipedal primate with a brain that happens to generate the tiny electrical storm of consciousness. That this species could come to their own extinction, see their selfishness and say STOP! That we can stand together in this moment, letting nothing but a few words, written by a small woman far away, start us dancing, dancing in the face of it all –

B: And of course, maybe it won’t work. Maybe it’s silly, and redundant. Maybe we’re doomed –

A: But I like to think that the things we put in motion can be bigger, and more complicated than us, and yet very, very simple. I’d like to think that at any moment, one tiny act might be the start of the Rube Goldberg Device that saves the world.

And maybe it is silly. And maybe it won’t work. But our experience with this show is a testament. This is how the revolution will start. With stories. With people in a room baring their hearts. With the one ball bearing rolling down a tube that will launch a revolution.

“I have come to bare my heart before you. I have come to greet you.”

(Top image: Bare Spaces by Angella J. Emurwon. Featuring Emily Bisno, Geraldine Bogard, Peter Diamond, Gabi Nail, Joelle Robinson, Lilia Shrayfer, Daniel Souza, Zain Walker and Alex Wu. Directed by Brandon Green, Alex Jacobs and Raphael Stigliano. Photo: Mike Lovett.)

*   *   *

The production team for The Spaces Between Us included: Gabi Nail, Daniel Souza, and Hannah Uher (artistic collaborators); Brandon Green, Alex Jacobs, and Raphael Stigliano (directors); Aislyn Fair (scenic design); Anthony Fimmano (lighting design); Eleanor McKnight (costume design); Alicia Hyland (sound design), and; Tong Li (stage management).

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Alicia Hyland has been so grateful to have been a part of Climate Change Theatre Action over the last two years (and surely beyond!). At Brandeis University, Alicia is the Executive Director of the Senior Festival and the Academic Administrator for the Department of Theater Arts. She has also taught several courses and directed readings of new and existing plays at Brandeis. Alicia received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and has had work placed in a variety of literary magazines, including Mason’s Road and Fwriction Review.


 

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