Thinking about environmental sustainability #4

This is the fourth in our ‘Thinking about environmental sustainability’ blog series and focuses on climate change in arts programming.

The blog relates to this question that Creative Scotland asks in its Multi-Year Funding application process: How will the climate emergency be considered in your programme and the ways it is delivered? It will also be relevant to other funding streams.

Read blog #1 – introduction to the series.

Read blog #2 – on mitigation.

Read blog #3 – on adaptation.

In this blog:

The power of culture to influence society

Artists and cultural organisations have an enormous opportunity to use their powerful influence to shift society’s thinking about climate change. We reach a far broader population than almost any other field. Cultural organisations often have loyal and repeat audiences who understand and like an organisation’s values, meaning that they are ‘trusted messengers’ that can help shift opinions and bring about change.

Does that mean you should programme work that specifically addresses climate change? ‘Issue-based’ work has become unpopular in recent years but in fact there is a great history in Western art, at least, of great art with a purpose, from Joan Baez’s protest songs to religious music, and the plays of Bertolt Brecht to paintings like Picasso’s GuernicaMargaret Atwood has written powerful novels about post-climate crisis society. Composers John Luther Adams and, closer to home, Karine Polwart have written music directly focused on environmental themes. The key is that it must be goodart.

The point: There is good artistic work that’s addressing climate change, and there are artists in all disciplines who want to take on this big challenge of our age.

The stories we tell

In 2021 Creative Carbon Scotland worked with major cultural bodies to produce a film, Climate Action Needs Culture, highlighting cultural organisations’ ability to change the narrative about society. Cultural organisations tell stories – in the work they produce and present, and in the work they don’t produce and present. They can tell stories that, in direct or indirect ways, include narratives of a positive future in a climate-changed, zero-carbon society. They can tell stories that directly reinforce existing ways of being. And, simply by not touching upon or considering the climate emergency, they can reinforce current ways of being that are the cause of the problem. One thing I learned as a theatre director is that audiences notice and take account of everything you present to them. Our stories are never neutral.

Cultural organisations also tell stories in the way they work. This is not so much about programming, but it is impossible to disentangle the work presented from the way in which the work is delivered. This is reflected in the question in the Multi-Year Funding application, and applies to other funding streams as well: How will the climate emergency be considered in your programme and the ways it is delivered?

Programming work using the climate lens

It isn’t necessary – although it may well be a good thing to do – to make or programme work that is about climate change.

Climate change is happening all around us. It’s an integral part of our lives. It’s changing what we eat and where we go on holiday, the ways in which we travel, farm, heat our homes and more. It’s prompting international migration. It’s causing wildfires and travel disruption. It has caused protests and policies to address it have led to riots. It features in the news every day.

For all these reasons, we at Creative Carbon Scotland argue that it is essential, simply to keep up with the times, to view your programming through the climate lens. What does, or could, this work of art, this exhibition, this novel, say about climate change and how it is affecting our society? This might lead to work that is specifically about environmental themes (see for example the work of artist Patricia MacDonald) or includes them (Karine Polwart’s Wind Resistance). It might lead to works directly about climate change:

  • John Luther Adams’ Vespers of the Blessed Earth is a good example.
  • Don’t Look Up got mixed reviews but there is no doubt it garnered attention and delivers some good laughs.
  • Ian McEwan’s Solar is perhaps a more successful foray into climate change comedy.
  • In Scotland, Robbie Coleman’s and Jo Hodges’ The Museum of Climate Futuresshows how terrific work directly addressing climate change can be moving, fun and powerful.
The counterfactual: what if you don’t use the ‘climate lens’?

It may not be necessary to produce or present work directly about climate change; the problem arises if you don’t consider it. Hollywood constantly pumps out stories of high-carbon lifestyles – and has been very successful in promoting American values and aspirations across the world for decades. If we ignore climate change and continue to tell stories in which it doesn’t register, we are authorising audiences to ignore it too, promoting the same values as the oil companies. If you’re not doing the right thing, you’re doing the wrong thing.

‘Authorising’ artists to work on this theme

Why not co-create work touching on climate change? An organisation that states that it’s seeking artists who want to work on climate change, in whatever way, will be attractive to those artists, and may well licence artists who have wanted to do so but have felt reluctant to say so. Creating work that makes an argument while also being artistically successful generally needs the craft, skills, experience and knowledge of established artists. Seek out top-level artists wanting to make this work and make clear your intentions. Scotland is ahead of most other places in the cultural sector’s practical and operational work on climate change; this is our opportunity to take the lead artisticallytoo.

Climate justice and programming

Could you take into account voices that are currently unheard in climate discussions or decision making? Are there specific topics that, by being relevant to your locality or communities, might attract new or different audiences, readers, visitors or users to your work? Can works from abroad where people have already experienced the impacts of climate change provide insights for people in Scotland? Climate lens programming can help make visible the connections with other social issues like fuel poverty or inequality. Look out for our climate justice blog, due to publish on 12 October, for more examples and thoughts on this topic.

Delivering the work

Creative Scotland asks: How will the climate emergency be considered in your programme and the ways it is delivered? [our bolding] There are other ways of using your assets to:

  • Provide a framing for non-climate-related work that highlights the connections with climate change.
  • Promote your organisation’s own choices and behaviours to encourage others to emulate them.

Perth Theatre & Concert Hall’s project Transforming Audience Travel Through Art is a good example of using the organisation’s influencing role – and the work of an artist, paid for by non-arts source Paths for All – to work for change with their audiences.

Greenwich Dance’s ArtsUnboxed initiative is another way of using your assets differently. They aren’t the only ones touring ideas rather than stuff and people, but this is a good blog about the concept. See also Headlong Theatre’s A Play for the Living in a Time of ExtinctionKatie Mitchell’s work with Theatre Vidy-Lausanne and Pippa Bailey’s Biding Time.

And again, failing to apply the climate lens to how you deliver the work as well as to the programme you are delivering may lead to reinforcing current beliefs, practices and behaviours.

Changing the narrative

When discussing programming around climate change there is often an assumption that the aim is to bring about individual change: an audience member, a viewer, reader or participant has a transformational experience leading them to change their lives. For example, maybe they see an exhibition and decide to stop flying or become a vegan! In fact, evidence shows that this is very rare. Normal life intervenes. Habits, work, family and peer pressure make change difficult. People revert to their usual ways of being. The infrastructure isn’t available. However, it is proven that if there are safe cycle lanes or effective kerbside recycling, more people ride a bike or more people recycle their waste. See Complexity theory, cultural practices and carbon reduction policy for more on this topic.

Thus, what’s more important is the ability of the arts and culture to change the narrative in society more broadly – to focus not so much on the individual as on society.

(Image ID: Wavy lines in varying shades of green with the text ‘BLOG SERIES: Thinking about environmental sustainability #4’.)

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