Public Discourse

Searching For The Sweet Spot

This post comes to you from Chantal Bilodeau’s Artists and Climate Change Blog

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By guest contributor Jeremy Pickard

The subversive songstress Nellie McKay says, “You want people to care.  I like the idea that music can get into people’s minds, hearts and souls.  Then, maybe slowly, a lyric will cause them to start rethinking their lives and choices.”

In the five years since I began working at the intersection of theater and environmentalism, my struggle to find ways to ignite public discourse while maintaining the integrity of my medium has led me to understand the importance of mixing cerebral information with an emotional experience.  Simply informing a plugged-in audience does not necessarily make the kind of cultural shifts our world is desperate for; but art can meet this challenge head on, providing visceral outlets to interpret research and ignite change.  I call this outlet the “sweet spot”, a place where empathy and intellect co-mingle in such a way to seem synonymous to an audience.  Successful “sweet-spotters” like Nellie McKay are proof that finding it is both fruitful and possible, but it’s certainly a hard spot to hit; after five years it still feels like I’m wrestling a finicky squid.  But through collaboration, I’ve begun to find answers, inching ever closer to that elusive sweet spot.

MARS- Haven

Collaborating with other artists

I recently premiered a show called MARS (a play about mining), the sixth in a series of ecology-inspired Planet Plays I am in the process of creating with my company, Superhero Clubhouse.  I call it a play, but MARS was really a multi-disciplinary performance event blending dance, live music and graphic art to tell an allegorical story inspired by the history of Appalachian coal mining.  The intention of all the Planet Plays is to create new mythologies in order to offer fresh perspectives on important ecological conundrums; in the case of MARS, we were interested in energy extraction and the seemingly inevitable destruction of land and culture that accompanies human progress.

Though I often incorporate music and movement into my productions, MARS was the first time I’ve had a choreographer and composer working beside me from the beginning, not to mention an illustrator and a graphic novelist.  The many mediums, both sensual and intellectual, made for a very effective fusion of feeling and thinking.  The music was a unique blend of sci-fi and Appalachian folk, evoking a mood that was both familiar and strange; the dancing was personal and emotional, allowing us to communicate internal conflicts without words; the images assisted the storytelling in literal and abstract ways, providing an anchor for time and place; the text existed as both poetry and exposition.  In the end, people seemed moved by the visual and aural world, and provoked by the ecological questions that were raised in the narrative.

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Collaborating with kids

Each spring, I work with a group of fifth-graders at Bushwick’s PS123 on a project called Big Green Theater Festival*.  It’s an eco-playwriting program my company created in partnership with The Bushwick Starr Theater, and it’s awesome.  Part 1: students write eco-plays inspired by presentations given by guest scientists and other “eco-experts”.  Part 2: my company of adult artists mounts a professional, green production of the students’ plays and performs it for the school and the public during Earth Week.

Fifth-graders are incredible eco-artists.  They weave the parts of ecology that they connect with into stories that are at once funny, sad, weird and thrilling. In one of this year’s plays, a newlywed breaks up with her husband because of his obsession with shark fin soup (a traditional and controversial wedding dish in Chinese culture); the husband, in turn, dives into the ocean and joins a dance-off against an army of sharks in order to win the right to kill a shark and make his own soup.  With near effortlessness on the part of our young playwrights, the sweet spot was found: the audience cares about the characters, laughs at the situation and thinks about shark fin soup.

Fieldtrip Cabaret6

Collaborating with scientists

Each fall, my company is commissioned by PositiveFeedback and Columbia University’s Earth Institute to create a site-specific performance in collaboration with climate scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). Because we perform the final product on the LDEO campus (where some of the world’s most important climate research is done) for an audience of families, educators and scientists, this project is a prime opportunity to seek the sweet spot in an arena where the stakes are high and outreach from artists is sought after.

To many people outside the scientific community, the work of climate scientists seems mysterious and exclusive, like Willy Wonka locked away in his factory (except instead of chocolate, the experts inside are experimenting with particles, rocks, trees, ice, invisible gases and other things that don’t taste good). Humans relate best when they feel included and empathetic.  To someone only encountering results and not the process or people behind those results, earth science can seem removed and impersonal. Persistent scientist stereotypes (namely emotionless old men in lab coats proclaiming the apocalypse) only work to widen the chasm between human story and science.

A play, on the other hand, is a human story; it exists to be inclusive, to be seen by as many people as possible. Like science, a play searches for truth, but its fictional nature allows it to be expressive and personal in ways science cannot.  A play has the ability to open the gates and bring the scientists out into the streets.  So for last year’s LDEO performance, we tried just that.  Working with seven female climate scientists and incorporating original songs, movement, poetry and storytelling, we made a piece called Field Trip: A Climate Cabaret.  Rather than working allegorically, we focused on revealing the essence behind the lives and work of these seven extraordinary women, portraying them as curious, creative and flawed individuals who ask questions, go on adventures and make discoveries.

Time will tell how effective Field Trip is as either a play or an outreach tool– we’re currently seeking opportunities to expand and remount it– but I consider our day of performances at LDEO last fall a “sweet spot” success.  Some of this success I attribute to the cabaret medium in which we were working; as Nellie McKay says, “Music makes the cerebral accessible, the subconscious hummable”.  But of equal impact were the words and ideas of the scientists themselves. Through the context of theater, we gained an understanding of their work, which was fascinating, but we also got to hear their perspectives on why they do what they do and how they see the world, which was inspiring. We learned to care about science, as if for the first time.

*The Big Green Theater production was April 27 & 28 at The Bushwick Starr.  Visit thebushwickstarr.org for more details.

Filed under: Dance, Featured Artist, Multidisciplinary, Music, Theatre

Artists and Climate Change is a blog by playwright Chantal Bilodeau 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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Call for Papers – Environmental Humanities & the Challenge of Multidisciplinarity

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

This call for papers articulates an argument for a broad, in the terms of the call multi-discipliary, approach to environmental issues.  The text of the call is a clear and cogent case for the involvement of a wide range of disciplines and positions to develop an ethics.

A Workshop at the 13th International Conference of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, *“The Ethical Challenge of Multidisciplinarity: Reconciling ‘The Three Narratives’—Art, Science, and Philosophy”*

University of Cyprus, Nicosia, July 2 – 6, 2012

THEME OF THE WORKSHOP

Environmental issues are typically framed within public discourse as problems that require empirical information and technological solutions.  This paradigm holds not only scientific but also philosophical assumptions, most importantly that the real world is the one described by natural science, the world of scientific realism. In this worldview, all other disciplines (such as ethics, the qualitative social sciences, and politics and policy) are assimilated as “tools in the toolbox” used to solve the problems previously defined by Western science. The intensity of current environmental crises—especially global climate destabilization—energizes this focus on practical problem-solving and on technological and policy solutions within existing institutional, economic, and political frameworks. However, this approach fails to recognize that the humanistic disciplines, including philosophy, literature, and the arts, both construct and express knowledge of nature that exceeds the bounds of problem-solving and the ontology of scientific realism. Further, claims about nature that appeal to the authority of Western science, though masked as objective, are frequently deployed to undergird ideological constructions about race, class, gender, and nation; the authority to make claims about nature is inseparable from political power.

Underlying this default position of the natural sciences is the unexamined assumption that environmental problems are encountered independently of any context, values, history, or disciplinary biases.  Humanities scholars in the emerging fields of ecocriticism, environmental art, environmental philosophy, and related areas of inquiry vigorously challenge this assumption, arguing that our environmental problems are inescapably ethical, historical, and political. The very definitions of environmental problems at any given moment are a function of human ideas and negotiations that have a particular cultural location and history and that reflect specific concepts of ethical responsibility and justice. Consequently, the methods of the natural sciences, although necessary for meeting our environmental challenges, cannot replace the interpretive, critical, and artistic methods of the humanities. The emergence of the “environmental humanities,” as a multidisciplinary site of convergence within academic scholarship, responds to this need.

This workshop will engage with the emerging disciplines of the environmental humanities to pose a series of questions, including:

* How are the methods and epistemology of the humanities distinct from those of the empirical sciences?

* What would a genuinely interdisciplinary approach to questions of the environment look like, and how can this be negotiated within current institutional limitations?

* What impact can the humanities have on public discourse and political will in specific areas, such as environmental justice and climate change?

PROPOSAL SUBMISSIONS

Please submit two-page abstracts by email in Word format to the workshop organizers by*15 March 2012*. Each presenter will have 20 minutes and is asked to present rather than read a paper. Abstracts of accepted presentations will be circulated to the participants in advance of the conference.

CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS

Final versions of the papers (not to exceed 3,000 words, or 10 double-spaced pages, including notes) will be reviewed by the workshop organizers for possible publication in the conference proceedings.

THE CONFERENCE

This workshop is planned under the auspices of the 13th International Conference of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, on the theme “The Ethical Challenge of Multidisciplinarity:

Reconciling ‘The Three Narratives’—Art, Science, and Philosophy.” For more information, visit ISSEI’s website at http://issei2012.haifa.ac.il/

THE VENUE

The workshop will be held at the University of Cyprus – Main Campus, Kallipoleos Avenue 75, Nicosia 2100 Cyprus.

WORKSHOP ORGANIZERS

Janet Fiskio, Environmental Studies, Oberlin College, jfiskio@oberlin.edu

Ted Toadvine, Philosophy and Environmental Studies, University of Oregon, toadvine@uoregon.edu

Ted Toadvine
uoregon.edu/~toadvine

Head, Department of Philosophy
Associate Professor, Philosophy& Environmental Studies
University of Oregon

Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Environmental Philosophy
ephilosophy.uoregon.edu

Co-Editor, Chiasmi International
filosofia.unimi.it/~chiasmi/

Editor, Ohio University Press Series in Continental Thought
ohioswallow.com/series/Series+in+Continental+Thought

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.
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