Living on the Edge: what I learned from attending IETM’s annual plenary meeting

In June 2023 our culture/SHIFT manager Lewis Coenen-Rowe travelled to Aarhus, Denmark for the IETM (International network for contemporary performing arts) annual plenary meeting.

Aarhus, which is at the same latitude as Edinburgh and Glasgow, was sunny and warm as I walked over to attend the opening keynote talk at the Musikhuset. In fact, Denmark was gripped by a near-record dry spell. Appropriate, as I was attending IETM’s annual plenary meeting because they had chosen to focus their programme this year on climate change, under the theme ‘Living on the Edge’. I was there to speak and run some training, but also to learn from the many other attendees.

Travelling to Aarhus

The journey to attend had been… tricky. I had calculated that travelling by train to Brussels and across to Denmark was still less than a third of the carbon emissions of a flight, so I opted for this route. However, my plans were interrupted by mass cancellations of Eurostar trains from London (the only time I have ever encountered this) that forced me to accept the backup option of a flight from Stansted, where I got all my liquids confiscated. Having a train tunnel under the sea is amazing, but of course there is no backup option when the only railway track that leads into the tunnel goes down. This is doubly concerning given that the issue apparently was related to rapidly rising temperatures that day, something we are going to see more of.

Arts, sustainability, and climate justice

As a result, I was doubly determined to make the most of my time in Aarhus. The conference organisers had clearly taken great care to frame environmental sustainability through the lens of climate justice and with a particular focus on the perspectives of indigenous peoples. The first keynote speaker, philosopher Nikolaj Shultz, discussed climate change movements in relation to class and inequalities. The second, former Sámi president Aili Keskitalo, offered a detailed and powerful critique of how ‘environmental’ policies in Scandinavia have caused harm to Sámi territories and how indigenous artists like Máret Ánne Sara have challenged this. She invoked Pakistani poet Yusra Amjad, saying: ‘when the world burns, it doesn’t always cook evenly’.

ID: Keynote speaker Nikolaj Shultz standing on stage next to a powerpoint presentation. Image credit: Gorm Branderup. Courtesy of IETM.

I was on a panel at the Godsbanen arts centre exploring what policymakers can do to support the arts and culture sector to work on climate change, alongside representatives from two Danish councils and the Danish Arts Foundation. I was struck by how different the context in Scotland is from Denmark. Most countries don’t have a local ‘Creative Carbon Scotland’ and much of the talk revolved around the risk of divides forming between grassroots environmental sustainability movements and carbon management measures instituted by arts councils and foundations. However, the same concerns over financial costs and overwork seem to occur everywhere. Conversation turned to ideas around ‘degrowth’ and whether cultural organisations should be under less pressure to produce new work and prioritise working in deeper and more sustainable ways.

Later that day, I ran training sessions for conference attendees on how to integrate climate justice principles into their practice. We discussed ways to make climate justice relevant to your local context and then finding where local issues are relevant to arts and cultural organisations and practices. Some issues cropped up everywhere, but there were divides between those from the generally wealthier north-west and poorer south-east Europe. Some felt the need to grapple with the colonial origins of their wealth, others with modern-day deprivation in their locality. Later that day, a performance, ‘We the 1%’,highlighted wealth inequalities between Denmark and Moldova. These kinds of wealth inequalities are central to understanding responsibility and capacity for acting on climate change.

Artist talks and discussions

Elsewhere there were talks from fascinating artists of varied kinds. I particularly appreciated author Andri Snaer Magnason, who spoke very movingly about our perceptions of time in relation to climate change and how to reckon with the abstract feeling of dates like ‘2100’, and By The Collective (artists Beaska Niillas, Liisa-Ravna Finbog and Timimie Märak), who explored divides between western and indigenous ideologies in provocative and immersive ways. There were practical discussions too, on developing an environmental charter for IETM and organising a Green School training programme later in 2023. The AGM saw the passing of a new environmental policy for IETM that reckons directly with the environmental impact of travel to events, a key issue for them given that this must be by far the largest contributor to their carbon emissions.

I’m always interested in how we can inject creativity into events about the arts. Too often we’re reduced to talking rather than being creative. Some of the highlights of the conference broke out of this constraint. The opening welcome was interrupted by a tree who invaded the stage and spoke to us in an indecipherable language. Artist Lotus Lykke Skov led a demonstration of her artistic practice that attempts to reconnect people with familiar landscapes as part of the Performing Landscapes project: we were paired up with complete strangers, one of us was blindfolded and we were instructed to ‘go and play together’, without talking. Once we got beyond the initial awkwardness, it was an invigorating experience and a much-needed pause between a lot of conversation.

ID: A person dressed as a tree leaning against a table in a room full of people. Image credit: Gorm Branderup. Courtesy of IETM.

The journey home

The train journey back was beautifully smooth, and I got the chance to visit relatives in the Netherlands and London on the way to make the most of the travel. The slow travel also offered time to reflect on the conference and think about what comes next. I met all sorts of fascinating people who I want to keep sharing ideas with. Attending international events is great for making these kinds of new connections, but the associated travel emissions mean we can only do so sparingly. This means really making the most of these opportunities when they do arise and finding ways to stay connected at a distance. Denmark’s long dry spell has mercifully ended now, but we need to make sure that the impact from events like this does not.

(Top image ID: Conference attendees sitting at cabaret style tables watching speaker Lewis Coenen-Rowe, who is holding a laptop. Image credit: Gorm Branderup. Courtesy of IETM.)

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