The Art of Reimagining Managed Retreat

Artist Yky shares ideas and artworks he presented to an international conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around ‘managed retreat’ — and how artists need to engage with pedagogy to contextualize and reimagine responses to climate change.


2,440 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


In June 2021, Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York City organised a four-day conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around the theme of ‘managed retreat’. This conference covered a broad spectrum of topics, but all of them were meant to discuss resilience, relocation, and climate justice when facing the consequences of flooding. I was invited to discuss how art could address the challenges of climate-caused relocation.

At what point managed retreat? Columbia Climate School conference 2021

It was no surprise to me that, amongst key issues, it was recognised that most practitioners facing climate change and resilience challenges had no adequate professional preparation in terms of communication. Scientists are often blamed for not being able to see the value of unconventional narratives. But artists also have their share of responsibility. During this conference, it appeared that the meaning we give to the words ‘managed retreat’ and how to bring pedagogy into the process were two essential issues. To give more insights on the way art should address the question of communication improvement, I presented five of my works that question how vulnerabilities may turn natural hazards in disasters.

‘Managed retreat’ — advancing in a different direction?

Art provides powerful narratives, enabling us to bridge the gap between scientists and non-expert citizens. It gives a better understanding of the world. Its vision of reality enriches the collective debate, enabling a significant change by shifting the perspective to more open-minded views. It gives the opportunity to understand reality differently, either using our sense of understanding or our sense of emotions, or both. Facing disasters, be it due to climate change or others hazards, artists will use their skills to convey the message they find appropriate. Most often, the vulnerabilities that shape such disasters translate into a scope of artistic representations which are direct, realistic, emotional, strong, and visually meaningful.

But, seen from the artistic point of view, translating into a piece of art the meaning of ‘managed retreat’, though terribly actual, is much more challenging. During my presentation, one of the questions sent through the Q & A session asked “is the word ‘retreat’ appropriate to discuss the topics of the conference?” I think this was one of the most interesting questions, as indeed, the word ‘retreat’ can have a negative perception. It is linked to this idea that you have been defeated and that there is no other alternative than withdrawing and leaving the field to the ‘enemy’. Flooding-caused displacement cannot ignore our attachments to a community or a place. It needs to address social and environmental justice issues as integral parts of the retreat management. But at the same time, it is ambiguous. What do fairness or justice mean when dealing with the unavoidable tradeoffs linked to forced evictions, when prioritising access to retreat resources, when ignoring the fact that indigenous communities have tribal rights that are too often ignored by our post-colonialist behaviours?

But what about understanding retreat as ‘advancing in a different direction’? Could we think of retreat as being a way to reimagine, reinvent, redefine processes to give the environment its full place, promoting visions radically different from massive human movements? Undoubtedly, the creativity and imagination required to propose new scenarios, even ones seen as utopian, are the privilege of artists. But how can we describe the complexity of urban space from the artistic perspective? How could artists translate into their works the unpredictability of our future as described by Carl Folke of the Stockholm Resilience Centre?

There is a need for all artists to better understand some concepts. ‘Resilience’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘risk management’ are not interchangeable words. When sustainability calls for more efficiency, resilience is more focused on redundancy. Both need to be linked, and the conditions providing a synergistic effect between the two concepts are key when looking for the path to reimagine ‘managed retreat’. Artists don’t need to be experts, but they need to know how to address through their skills the issues related to climate disasters. Empathy is not enough; there is a need to better engage with scientists, to better contextualize the concepts so that such concepts, through an artistic expression, help non-expert citizens to understand how and why retreating from flooding-prone areas and moving to safer ground can also meet their needs.

Bringing pedagogy into the process

The scientific community may understand complex concepts but without appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people, for a simple reason: facts are not enough. We also need the right narrative and, in this respect, art can help.

There are many examples of associations, like Art of Change in France, Artseverywhere in Canada, or Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, with talented artists who are committed towards climate change. And some of them bring artists and experts together to imagine and propose answers and ideas for adaptation and transformation. But few are engaged together in a pedagogical process. However, artists need to recognise their social responsibility and be involved in an artistic approach consistent with the objectives we are trying to reach. Some of them may find it difficult to leave their comfort zone: going beyond a natural sensitivity finding its expression in a painting, in a sculpture or in a poem is not easy, and sometimes not feasible. But artists can also engage in improving our well-being and well-living, using their skills to increase our collective awareness, through a designed pedagogical approach together with scientists in a co-working exercise.

Ultimately, the threats and challenges we all face are so high that being committed towards non-expert citizens becomes a duty. A pedagogical approach is not needed simply to make non-expert citizens aware of the challenges they face; but it is definitely a requirement if artists want to play a role in explaining the systemic nature of socio-ecological threats shaping our vulnerabilities.

Pedagogy cannot be decreed; it needs to be learned. And in the specific case of hazards and related disasters, teaching is cognitively challenging. When both experts and artists decide to join their skills, Paulo Freire can be very helpful. Freire was a Brazilian educator and sociologist who dedicated most of his work to vulnerable communities. His work — most of it can be found online — was about how knowledge should be transferred from teacher to learner, and the core was based on the idea that unequal social relations build the path to a “culture of silence” which is created to oppress. To this extent, it leads to questioning the systemic nature of inequalities in our society, shaping the vulnerabilities that lead to disasters. ‘Teachers’ following Freire’s principles, will need to develop the critical consciousness of ‘learners’, aiming to build a “cultural action for freedom”.

Managed retreat: the art of critical thinking

Redefining ‘managed retreat’ in such a way that the focus moves from disruption in human occupancy to promoting new visions incorporating issues of gender, race and equity questions the nature of artistic approaches. How can they be consistent with the duty to (re)educate communities about conceptual processes which themselves had their share of responsibility in creating inequalities? In line with Freire’s approach to giving more importance to questions than to answers, artworks should prioritise such issues. By doing so, art will engage in this ‘critical thinking’, seen as the cornerstone that enables us to reconsider what has been taken for granted when this is needed.

In the five works I showed during the conference, and seen below, the property of argentic paper to darken when exposed to light should be seen as an allegory of ephemerality, questioning the value of what lasts in time. Each is a diptych of two photographs illustrating a given urban space impacted by a natural hazard. While the first one is stable in time, the second image darkens — with some parts disappearing as the argentic emulsion turns black. It is the comparison between the two photographs that will lead the viewer to question the resilience level of the urban space. Being ephemeral, this work can be seen as having no value, unless its value lies in the questions it raises.

“Only the ephemeral is of lasting value.”
Eugène Ionesco (playwright, 1909-1994)

Shakes 

‘Shakes’ questions how resilience can be implemented in the case of widespread destruction by earthquakes, which are devastating at different levels. They impact the cities, the organisations and the persons. But they also talk about an irrational fear, which is the destruction of our matrix. In this diptych, the second picture darkens in time in such a way that only the broken glass path remains, referring to our fears and vulnerability, while two attributes of our cultural heritage — a Le Corbusier building and the Golden Gate Bridge — are endangered even when not destroyed

Yrban resilience: Showing Shakes, a diptych by artist Yky
Shakes, a diptych: D0 and D+
Artist: Yky © 2018

The Japanese paradox

The Japanese paradox’ is all about the difference between risk management and urban resilience. It is well-known that the Japanese culture of risk management is almost second nature. But do we really speak of urban resilience, the way we understand it, when philosophical and/or religious principles refrain from addressing the norms that sometimes need to be reconsidered? In that work, darkness in time is detrimental to the city and its inhabitants, confronting the great wave of Hokusaï, symbolising the almighty nature that no one can stop.

Managed retreat: showing 'A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+', a diptych by artist Yky
‘A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+’, a diptych
Artist: Yky © 2018

La Seine

La Seine’ was taken during the substantial flood in Paris three years ago. And this work is about the adaptation of historical cities’ urban environment. How far are we ready to go in losing our cultural heritage, and what does this mean in terms of resilience?

Managed retreat: Showing 'La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+' by Yky
‘La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist Yky © 2018

NB: ‘Shakes’, ‘The Japanese paradox’, and ‘La Seine’ were showcased just before the pandemic during the Art of Resilience exhibition organised by the World Bank in Washington DC.

Do cities learn from getting burned?

This work was inspired by the Australian tragedy that we all remember but is also related to the ongoing and never-stopping fires in California. And it speaks of the moment where cities will be impacted, and not only the wild-urban interface. It also questions our inability or difficulty to learn from aboriginal traditions in terms of fire risk management.

Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2019

Is NYC retreat inevitable?

This work refers to the different issues discussed during the conference. It was inspired by an article published last year in the online journal NewCities in which the CEO of the Star City group explained why he decided to leave the Hudson River area where he was living and why he did not believe any longer in urban resilience. This work concluded my presentation, not only because it refers directly to the conference topic, but also because not being able to explain to non-expert citizens the meaning of urban resilience should be seen as a collective failure.

'Managed retreat: Showing 'Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2020

Find out more

You can explore the programme for the At What Point Managed Retreat? conference and watch videos of all the sessions. Yky explores many aspects of urban resilience in a changing climate in his Resi-city blog about his work picturing urban resilience seen from the citizen point of view: for example, Exploring spirituality in the urban frame. Some of the artworks featured in this post — including Shakes — were exhibited at Art of Resilience, organised by the World Bank in Washington, DC. In Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link, his earlier post for ClimateCultures, Yky offers further thoughts on art as a pedagogic tool and imagines a conversation between citizens, a scientist and the artist himself as they consider Shakes.

You can read about the language we associate with coastal change and particular responses such as managed retreat in You can’t resist the sea: Evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon, a 2009 paper by geographer Stephen Trudgill.

Yky mentions the work of Carl Folke and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. You can download and read Resilience: Now more than ever, an article co-authored by Folke for Ambio: A journal of the Human Environment in 2002 and shared as part of the journal’s 50 years celebration in 2021: “As proffered in the Ambio article, resilience is about learning from and developing with change, rather than managing against change. Resilience is about having the capacities to live with complexity, uncertainty, and change, abrupt or incremental, and continue to develop with ever changing environments. This includes both adaptation and transformation.”

Among the organisations bringing together artists’ responses to environmental and climate change, Yky mentions: Art of Change in France, which was created in Paris in 2014 ahead of COP21 and “highlights the role of artists and creativity as accelerators of the ecological transition and acts on an international scale”; Artseverywhere in Canada, “a platform for artistic experimentation and exploration of the fault lines of modern society”; and Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, “mobilising the arts and culture to take action on the climate and ecological crisis.”

The work of Brazilian educator and sociologist Paulo Freire is celebrated by the Freire Institute, an organisation for transformative community-based learning, and many other organisations around the world (which you can find listed at the Freire Institute). “Freire developed an approach to education that links the identification of issues to positive action for change and development. While Freire’s original work was in adult literacy, his approach leads us to think about how we can ‘read’ the society around us. For Freire, the educational process is never neutral. People can be passive recipients of knowledge — whatever the content — or they can engage in a ‘problem-posing’ approach in which they become active participants. As part of this approach, it is essential that people link knowledge to action so that they actively work to change their societies at a local level and beyond.” Freire wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, translated into English in 1970.

Yky mentions Anthony Townsend, the CEO of the Star City group, who decided to leave the Hudson River area over climate resilience concerns when the river flooded Hoboken, New Jersey: Our Inevitable Retreat is the article Townsend wrote for NewCities. “The plan I came up with was simple — move inland and uphill. To my disbelief, the housing market hadn’t skipped a beat. Once I finally pulled the trigger, my condo sold in less than a week, at a profit.” 

Yky
Yky
A citizen artist exploring urban resilience whose photographic works use argentic paper's response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces.
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Solarpunk — Stories for Change

Writer Mick Haining discusses the role of stories in helping to bring about change — to mobilise, not paralyse — the XR Wordsmiths group that he’s part of, and their call out for new Solarpunk stories that give us hope.


1,530 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes


Stories form and change the way we think and therefore act. The ‘stories’ we are told as children by our family tell us about our relatives, our neighbours and the place in which we live and we form attitudes and behaviour as a result. Growing older, we read and watch TV — we may not fight in Vietnam or Yemen but the stories we swallow help us decide who the ‘good guys’ are. Reality at times makes us doubt the veracity of some stories but never all. There’s a difference, of course, between stories that constitute our communication of events to one another and stories that are deliberate works of art. It’s the latter I deal with here. (As an ex-teacher, I became used to student excuses that were clearly works of fiction but not intended as works of art…)

Clever stories can shake earlier beliefs — I was OK as a young man with capital punishment until I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Stories may be warnings about what to avoid. The 1966 film War Games by Peter Watkins showed graphically and horrifically what could happen in the event of a nuclear air-strike on the UK — it seems credible that it and two subsequent films, Threads and The Day After, have actually helped the planet avoid a nuclear conflict. Stories, though, can also show us not just what to avoid but a goal to aim at.

Promoting our bond with life

The human race, steadily and somewhat blindly, has been creating the conditions for a future about as bleak for the whole planet as a nuclear war would create. There’s a growing sense of how cataclysmically awful that might be from an increasing number of ‘stories’ in the media and in art. That in itself might prompt some to change their lifestyles — even from a sample of only 100 U.S-based readers, a 2018 Yale study found that climate fiction (‘cli’fi’) nudged readers “in a slightly more progressive direction”. However, the same study concluded: “​From the emotions these readers described, it is clear that their affective responses were not only negative but demobilizing.” For us — humanity — to find a way to cope with and maybe mitigate the climate extremes that we have already locked in, we need stories that will not paralyse but mobilise. We need stories that will give us hope, stories that will not just ‘nudge’ but inspire readers to act in ways that show respect for the nature without which we could not possibly exist. We need stories to help us create societies that appreciate and promote our indissoluble bond with life in all its magnificence on the only planet we have.

That’s where Solarpunk comes in. I am a writer with XR Wordsmiths and we are launching a showcase for writing stories in that genre. Some of you may be in the position I was in a few months back — despite shelves full of books and an age full of years, I had never heard of Solarpunk. To save some of you the trouble of looking it up on Wikipedia, their definition is that “Solarpunk is an art movement that envisions how the future might look if humanity succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges with an emphasis on sustainability problems such as climate change and pollution”.

Solarpunk architecture
La cité des habitarbres
Art: Luc Schuiten © 2021

I’ve personally never written anything myself in a purely Solarpunk style though I did write a series of short stories set in the quite near future where I imagined a small group living on a very small peninsula who were rediscovering skills that instant meals and supermarket shopping had eroded. Their names relate to what they contribute to the community — the central character is ‘Reader’ and there’s Little Crabber, Big Fisher, Cobbler, Wireman, Knotter and a pile of others. It’s a little like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker though set much, much closer to the present day and thus the mutations of cultural conventions are in their infancy — the local bandits are called ‘vikings’ even though they know all about horses and nothing about ships. In the first story, ‘Easter’, the hero’s daughter sings a Christmas carol… 

It isn’t that the characters have “succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges” but they have found a way of surviving that doesn’t just bring constant fear — Reader still finds time to read to his daughter and on the extraordinary day when snow falls for the first time in the lives of most of the inhabitants, there’s a snowball fight and a snowman built.

Solarpunk — writing as hope and defiance

Solarpunk - XR Wordsmiths callout for stories of a better future

For our XR Wordsmiths showcase, we say that: “whether you are totally new to the world of eco-fiction or a seasoned enthusiast, this contest is open to any adult, teenager, or child who wants to combine their passion for writing with getting the message out there about the climate and ecological emergency.” 

Maybe, like me, you don’t quite have the nerve — yet — to be arrested at a demonstration. That’s probably why I’m with XR Wordsmiths. There are several dozen of us but only a small core of about half a dozen get together via Zoom every Sunday at 4.00 p.m. to work out ways of welding words that might move people to rise peacefully and effectively against the authorities that seem to move like sloths in relation to the climate and ecological emergency.

We were XR Writers for a while but there’s another group of XR Writers who are actually published authors so we gracefully changed our name to avoid confusion and better match our work — we write letters, slogans and we’re even on the verge of completing a book for publication, a gardening handbook, in fact. If that seems a little odd as a form of rebellion, our intention is not to teach people how but to persuade them to take gardening up as an act of hope and defiance — you don’t plant a seed in the belief that it will never germinate. If any of you reading this want to join us on a Sunday, you’d be most welcome!

But here, then, is your chance to rebel through the Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase. This is your chance to put pen to paper and to put people on the path to a better future than might be the case. You may not find many or even a single, complete answer to all of the problems we have been piling up but, as an Al Jazeera piece in 2014 declared, “this is a life-or-death situation now, one in which even partial solutions matter.” So — tell us a story. Transform our futures, one word at a time…


Find out more

You can submit as many stories as you like to the XR Wordsmith Solarpunk Showcase, there are three age bands and the word limit is 2,500. Submissions do, sadly, have to be in English at present but subsequent years may differ. The submission deadline is 14th September 2021.

You can find full details of the open call for stories (and a few prompts to get you started) at Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase — which also links to a Definitive Guide to Solarpunk from Impose Magazine, exploring fashion, architecture, technology, literature and more. You might also like to read At the very least, we know the end of the world will have a bright side, a 2018 Longreads review of the growth of solarpunk, Solarpunk or how to be an optimistic reader at The Conversation (19/7/19), or A Solarpunk Manifesto (2019). Inside the Imaginarium of a Solarpunk Architect (10/6/21) reviews the work of Belgian architect Luc Schuiten, one of whose images is used in this post.

The winning entries will be selected by a panel of judges that includes eco-poet, writer and ClimateCultures member Helen Moore (who wrote about her own writing practice in our recent post Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature), children’s climate fiction writer Gregg Kleiner, Ecofiction YouTube vlogger Lovis Geier, and Green Party politician Zack Polanski. Winners will have their stories published in the XR Global blog and on the Rapid Transition Alliance website. Other prizes include three £1000 scholarships to the world’s first global online climate school terra.do. 

You can explore XR Wordsmiths via their site and blog (get in touch via xr-writers [at] protonmail [dot] com), and Mick also mentioned XR Writers, whose work is featured on the main Extinction Rebellion site, including a podcast.

There is also XR Creative, an evolving anthology of songs, fiction and poetry that’s inspiring, meaningful and original, and that reflects the principles, concerns and values of the Extinction Rebellion from a global, regional or local perspective. You can read three of Mick’s Tales from the Nab at XR Creative: Easter, The Journey, and The Flare.

You could also read Mary Woodbury‘s two-part series on A History of Eco-fiction and David Thorpe‘s two-part series on The Rise of Climate Fiction; and there’s more on the power of stories to promote (or resist) change in Mark Goldthorpe‘s post The Stories We Live By.

Mick Haining

Mick Haining

A retired drama teacher and writer of short stories, plays and haiku on nature -- and 'rebel haiku' on post-it notes left in significant sites, usually
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