Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link

Citizen Artist Yky explores urban resilience and the importance of building joint commitments by experts and artists to improve our understanding of this concept in ‘citizen science’ and other approaches to empower citizens in planning for the future.

 

2,600 words: estimated reading time 10.5 minutes


Recently, three publications pointed out the difficulty for most people to understand the deep changes in our environment. At first sight, those publications have very little in common. But ultimately, the three converge towards the same conclusion: a link is missing in how to empower urban citizens as full stakeholders in the process of mitigation/adaptation that should improve their well-living and well-being.

The first — To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story — was an article about the Viable Cities programme, the largest research and innovation initiative taken in Sweden in the field of sustainable cities. Their conclusion is beyond dispute: the scientific community may understand the complex concepts of the Anthropocene, but without an appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people for a simple reason: facts are not enough; we need the right narrative.

The second — How climate-related tipping points can trigger mass migration and social chaos — was written by François Gemenne, director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, Belgium. He points out that facts and perceptions are independent tipping points, in particular when assessing the social consequences of climate change. Commonly, a tipping point is a tiny perturbation that may alter the whole stability of a system. The theory of tipping points has been recently used to refer to climate change, but as explained by the author, it often overlooks the role of inequalities, perceptions, governance, solidarity networks, and cultural values in their evaluation of the future social impacts of climate change.

The third event was the emergence of The Freaks, a collective representing 68 French artists and prominent representatives of the cultural scene committed to 42 steps to ‘save the planet’. Some of them did reconsider our current consumption paradigm, others did not and, except for one, all of them were individual recommendations. No need to say that this initiative is welcome; but the legitimate question is whether it might better impact community awareness of climate change than the continuous warnings of climate experts’?

Citizen Science for urban resilience

Paradoxically, experts recognize the importance of including civil society as stakeholders, as shown by the emergence of ‘Citizen Science’. Though laudable, this approach is most of the time ‘thought by experts for experts’ with no obvious operational application at the citizen’s level. Some independent initiatives gathering either experts or artists have been shown to play an active role in developing community awareness on matters related to urban resilience. But few have brought experts and artists together. This post argues in favour of a joint commitment between artists and experts to improve understanding of urban resilience.

Déjeuner, by artist Yky, shows two people eating lunch facing a wall at Les Grandes Voisins, a former hospital. Yky has used the wall to show text on Urban Resilience, from sources that inspire his work.
Déjeuner
Artist: Yky © 2019 https://www.resi-city.com

The first question coming to anyone’s mind will be the definition of urban resilience. It seems that there is a huge ambiguity on this point. In 2015, Sara Meerow and colleagues from the University of Michigan found 25 different definitions, all of them published by editors of recognized journals. None of them appeared satisfactory. In Defining urban resilience: a review, Meerow gave the 26th. This shows the difficulty in translating a concept into operations across many threats and challenges faced by urban citizens. However, as explained below, it is possible to elaborate upon a simple definition: an urban space is resilient when it can integrate the occurrence of hazards without compromising its operations. Let’s also recall that a definition is not a description. A definition sets limits, while a description opens the limits. Perhaps forgetting this distinction, many of the expert definitions of urban resilience will appear too complex to be understood by non-expert citizens, and this will not create the desirable conditions for a pedagogical process.

Art as a pedagogic tool

Using art as a pedagogic tool to enable experts and artists to describe urban resilience, and better explain the complexity of this concept, requires some guidelines.

The first one is to understand the paradigm of cognitive apprenticeship. A lot of publications are available online and can help us acquire the basic knowledge needed to engage in a learning process. They will be helpful for learning how and why we need to give a simple definition of the concept while, at a further stage, being able to brainstorm on the limits of the definition.

The second guideline is to share a common language between artists and experts. This is needed to build a joint productive activity and will help artists to translate their message and emotions and engage in a dialogical process with citizens. With no clear understanding, there is no possible empowerment; and the stakes are too high for us to conceptualize urban resilience without actually bringing operational results, considering the current threats of hazards and their related disasters. In this regard, the open access Disaster Science Vocabulary provided by Ilan Kelman in his paper Lost for words amongst Disaster Risk Science vocabulary? is a valuable source of information.

The third requirement is selecting the appropriate artistic approach. The needs of citizens should be at the core of the process. When there is a requirement for a local community in the southern hemisphere, asking for the contribution of an artist coming from the northern hemisphere with a global approach is risky and potentially off-topic. Priority should be given to local artists conveying a message that could make sense for local citizens.

From theory to practice

Recalling that mental pictures precede spoken language, sociologists have described how virtuality and reality interact with each other and ultimately lead to a new perception of the world. Fictional narratives help to transform our own representation of reality. Representing the reality of the world becomes a virtual act and the reality of this virtuality plays a fundamental role in the sense we give to our actions. Fictional narratives are therefore a powerful way to build the required tripartite relationship ‘virtuality-reality-action’ between artists, experts and citizens. The scenario needs to be built beforehand in such a way that all matters relevant to the hazard (potentially) impacting citizens have been thoroughly discussed between the expert and the artist. The fictional example below makes use of one of my photographic works, Shakes, selected by the World Bank in Washington DC for the Art of Resilience exhibition.

Shakes, a diptych by artist Yky, explores urban resilience by presenting two images. The first one illustrates the hazard (here, the earthquake), the second the impact on a non-resilient city.
Shakes, a diptych: D0 and D+ (click for larger image)
Artist: Yky © 2018 https://www.resi-city.com

This work questions the challenge of implementing an urban resilience strategy after a widespread seismic destruction. With architectural symbols, broken reflections, and linear designs that at once feel as much like an earthquake monitor as they do a heart monitor, it talks about an irrational fear: the destruction of our matrix. The approach is here described as a ‘theatrical scenette’ with a teaching process that will need to encompass the following:

  • the sociological causes of so-called ‘natural disasters’ (recognizing that there is no such thing as a natural disaster, only natural hazards, while at the same time recalling the consequences of human activity on nature in the Anthropocene).
  • the relation between resilience and vulnerability;
  • the question of bouncing back (to business as usual) vs bouncing forward;
  • a comparison with Japan and their risk management approach in case of earthquakes;
  • a general conclusion on the meaning of urban resilience for the group of citizens;
  • a plan of actions.

The fiction of Shakes

Citizen 1 to Yky: Your work is really frightening. There is broken glass everywhere. Obviously, everyone is dead in this landscape.

Citizen 2 to Yky: How can you speak about Urban Resilience when everything looks destroyed?

Yky to citizens: Yes, quakes are frightening. When I started this work, I was wondering: “How is it possible that people can ever adapt to a seismic environment? I still wonder. Are we less vulnerable in case of flooding?”

Expert to citizens: At first glance, this work does not look very encouraging. But before concluding that nothing can be done in case of quakes, we should ask ourselves a first question: What has caused such a mess, as shown in the picture?

Yky to expert: Mother Nature obviously.

Expert to citizens: Yky‘s answer makes sense. What do you think?

Citizen 1: Hold on. What about the infrastructures? Did they comply with seismic norms?

Expert to citizen 1: Probably not …

Citizen 2 to Yky: And what about people? We see nobody in your work. Are they all dead?

Yky to Citizen 2: Oh, no. They are neither dead nor alive. They are not here. I did not know how to show a sign of human activity. I wanted to underline the question of vulnerability.

Citizen 2 to Yky: What do you mean?

Expert to citizens: I think I understand what Yky wants to say. The work does not say anything about the social positions of the inhabitants. A high income person can be less vulnerable than a low income person. Can you figure how?

All citizens together: For sure! The rich one had his private jet and could leave quickly after the first quake. And the poor one, as always, had no other place to go …

Expert to citizens: This seems to be a general rule. Low income people are always the most vulnerable. Some of you may have higher income than others. So knowing we all live in a seismic zone, what should we do to prepare ourselves before and after the quake? And then, let’s see with Yky if another approach of his work is conceivable.

Citizen 3 to expert: Excuse me. I do not want to spoil your teaching process. But I am sure you are going to show us nice examples of what other threatened communities do. And this is OK with me. But what worries me more are the decisions that local authorities will take in terms of going back as quickly as possible to the situation that prevailed before the quake. What I see in Yky’s work is not very optimistic.

Yky’s answer: Well, it depends on how you will consider it. You may see only a broken path filled with pieces of glass. But this path may also lead to a new way of living together, should it help to become aware of our fragility. Why is it that we are so vulnerable and what could we do about it?

Expert’s answer: If we sum up what we have discussed, I see three points on which I propose to elaborate: 1- What do we mean by (so-called) ‘natural disasters’ and are they comparable to each other? 2- What do we mean by ‘vulnerability’? 3- When we say that we want to come back to a ‘normal’ situation, what does this mean? Let’s try to answer those questions before answering the final one: What should be done to be prepared and to anticipate a quake?

In Shakes as in my other works, my photographic technique makes use of a well-known property of argentic paper, which is to darken when exposed to light. This will produce a diptych of two images. The first one illustrates the hazard (here, the earthquake) while the second one darkens in time. The comparison between both images will highlight the related disaster and the questioning which will be used to support the pedagogic work with the expert. By doing so, my works contribute to engaging citizens in considering the most appropriate way to operationalize resilience.

It goes without saying that all form of art can use such an approach, as long as the cognitive apprenticeship has been finalized with the expert.


Find out more 

The World Bank’s The Art of Resilience exhibition of artworks from around the world includes three of Yky’s photographic works: The Japanese Paradox; Shakes; La Seine. You can read more on the issues explored Shakes in Yky’s blog post Can urban resilience cope with earthquakes? (9/7/18), and explore his technique in other photographic works on his site.

To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story, by Feargus O’Sullivan and published by CityLab (11/11/19), features Per Grankvist, chief storyteller for Sweden’s Viable Cities programme. Grankvist’s job is to communicate the realities of day-to-day living in a carbon-neutral world.  

How climate-related tipping points can trigger mass migration and social chaos, by François Gemenne, director of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, was published by Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania’s hub for global engagement, for a regular column for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (8/11/19).  

The Freaks is a collective of artists and personalities who are committed to adopting new behaviours to fight against over-consumption, pollution, global warming and protect biodiversity. 

Citizen Science is defined by National Geographic as “the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs.” It is explored in this paper by Susanne Hecker et al (2/12/19) in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 4(1): How Does Policy Conceptualise Citizen Science? A Qualitative Content Analysis of International Policy Documents. To recognize how citizen science is perceived to foster joint working at the science-society-policy interface, a mutual understanding of the term ‘citizen science’ is required. Here, we assess the conceptualisation and strategic use of the term ‘citizen science’ in policy through a qualitative content analysis of 43 international policy documents edited by governments and authorities … Interestingly, documents largely fail to address the benefits and challenges of citizen science as a tool for policy development, i.e., citizen science is mainly perceived as only a science tool.”

Defining urban resilience: a review, by Sara Meerow, Joshua Newell & Melissa Stults, was published in Landscape and Urban Planning 147 (2016) 3. It “concludes that the term has not been well defined. Existing definitions are inconsistent and underdeveloped with respect to incorporation of crucial concepts found in both resilience theory and urban theory”; and identifies “six conceptual tensions fundamental to urban resilience: (1) definition of ‘urban’; (2) understanding of system equilibrium; (3) positive vs. neutral (or negative) conceptualizations of resilience; (4) mechanisms for system change; (5) adaptation versus general adaptability; and (6) timescale of action. To advance this burgeoning field, more conceptual clarity is needed. This paper, therefore, proposes a new definition of urban resilience. This definition takes explicit positions on these tensions, but remains inclusive and flexible enough to enable uptake by,
and collaboration among, varying disciplines. The paper concludes with a discussion of how the definition might serve as a boundary object, with the acknowledgement that applying resilience in different contexts requires answering: Resilience for whom and to what? When? Where? And why?”

Lost for words amongst Disaster Risk Science vocabulary? by Ilan Kelman was published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science (2018) 9:281–291: “Like other subjects, disaster risk science has developed its own vocabulary with glossaries. Some keywords, such as resilience, have an extensive literature on definitions, meanings, and interpretations. Other terms have been less explored. This article investigates core disaster risk science vocabulary that has not received extensive attention [and] draws out understandings of disasters and disaster risk science, which the glossaries do not fully provide in depth, especially vulnerability and disasters as processes.”

You can find articles on the virtual and the real, in French, in these discussions of the 2009 book Le Réel et le virtuel (in which “sociologist André Petitat examines the relationship between action and representation, exploring notions of interpretive plurality and underlining how fictional imagination contributes to the construction of real action.”): Grand résumé de Le Réel et le virtuel. Genèse de la compréhension, genèse de l’action by André Petitat and Comment l’imaginaire construit le réel by Francis Farrugia.

For another read on resilience and vulnerability, you could read Mark Goldthorpe’s post Rising — endsickness and adaptive thinking, a review of Elizabeth Rush’s book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore: a contemplation of transience, connection and the possibilities of resilience, demonstrating the power of story to highlight opportunities to attend and adapt to a changing world.

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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UNFIX Festival — Unfix the Situation

UNFIX situation 2019 Image by Henrik KnudsenArtistic director and performer Paul Michael Henry, who has devised successive UNFIX festivals, discusses his motivation and ambitions for these international gatherings and explorations, ahead of UNFIX 2019 next month. UNFIX: a command form, a verb, an activity.


1,120 words: estimated reading time 4.5 minutes 


UNFIX is a multi-art form festival based in Glasgow, New York and Tokyo. It starts from the proposition that the Anthropocene is happening inside your body, RIGHT NOW. The 2019 Edition is scheduled for 29th-31st March at CCA Glasgow.

I started UNFIX in 2015, looking to ‘Climate Change’ like a lightning rod for the vague and specific discomforts about this society that have plagued me all my life. People keep mis-labelling it ‘Unfixed’ or ‘The Unfix’ but it’s UNFIX: a command form. A verb and activity.

A loosening, disburdening, freeing-up. Anti-fatalistic, with the assumption that it doesn’t have to be like this. I experience climate change as a terrible affirmation: we cannot treat each other, ourselves and our surroundings this way. We can’t walk around with these egos functioning the way they do, and live.

UNFIX situation 2019 Image by Henrik Knudsen
UNFIX 2019
Image: Henrik Knudsen © 2019

Situation crisis

When the ‘Banking Crisis’ hit in 2008 it occurred to me (and others I’m sure) that it could just as well be called the Banking Opportunity. With the cracks briefly showing, it could be a moment of vulnerability for finance and late capitalism, a gap in the concrete where something new could spring up. The fact that it wasn’t speaks simply to the aggregate level of human consciousness at that time. We were not awake enough.

I’m a Glaswegian artist whose work tends to focus on the body — specifically, the body as an ecological reality traumatised by, and intimately connected to, wider currents of politics, patriarchy, capitalism and climate change. I’m also interested in the body’s ability to soften these by love, connection and embodied understanding. I’m uninterested in finger-pointing, and am probably some kind of mystic at heart.

Actually part of that is a lie. I’d love to finger point, and sometimes I do. Jump up and down and rail at the capitalists and the patriarchs and the selfish and the sleeping, righteously righteously. Weep publicly, perhaps on TV, cradling plastic smothered turtles in my too late saviour’s arms. But climate change really isn’t about me and a wiser part of me knows that. It swallows me and I need to reckon with it, I live inside it and it shames me and prompts me to act.

When I don’t live in alignment with my values (which is often), a rat gnaws my stomach. The rat is tamed when I take actions with my whole being, like starting a festival for misfit artists to say what’s burning in our gizzards and draw what attention we can to The Situation. 

Paul Michael Henry in Shrimp Dance Image by Brian Hartley
Shrimp Dance, Paul Michael Henry. Platform, Glasgow October 2017.
Image: Brian Hartley © 2017

Situation opportunity 

The first UNFIX happened because a wonderful venue (the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow) was foolish enough to give me the keys to the building for a weekend. I was living in a camper van at the time, completely skint and dreaming. We teamed up, dozens of artists and activists, nobody getting paid, and we staged performances and film screenings and debates and ate together at another great venue (the Project Cafe) who made us all food from ingredients foraged in Kelvingrove Park. It felt a bit explosive. People still tell me how it affected them, boosted their resilience. I dunno. I’d like to think so.

But I mean: it’s art. The Situation persists. I throw my tiny actions and those of the artists involved in UNFIX on the pile, to be added to the older generations who saw this coming (the Joanna Macys, the Alastair McIntoshes) and the younger just now exploding in beauty (the school-age climate strikers). Outcomes are unknowable so I align myself, not sure, opting — as Alastair is fond of saying — to “Dig where I stand.”

So what about the Climate Opportunity? I don’t think shouting at Trump is going to be enough, though it is surely a part of it. But when I project all my climate rage outwards I’m being dishonest. I think that all of us raising our levels of awareness, radically –individually, in small groups, in large groups, in continental blocks, in cross currents and collaborations, and in the owning of our own shadows — CHANGING OURSELVES from the inside out, might make a difference.

I don’t know what our chances of survival as something resembling the human species are, and I’m agnostic about whether we deserve it. I’m to blame and you’re to blame and everyone is confused and the most ignorant and ego-driven have the most power and will kill us all if we let them. OK OK. The Situation. Perhaps we should just get to work?

Minako Seki Image by Ulrich Heemann
Minako Seki
Image: Ulrich Heemann © 2019

UNFIX 2019

This year’s UNFIX Festival has some (a little) money behind it. For the first time I have a budget and producers and paperwork, and people to account to afterwards. And I can pay the artists taking part, more or less. All of which makes me nervous because it dilutes my standing as someone powerless and shouting on the sidelines (my strongest suit). It’s not much power, mind.

If I were king, I would outlaw the term Consumers. Swap in the word Organism, or System, or ConsumerDigesterExcreter. I would have mandatory shit cannons primed for every time someone says ‘Economic Growth’. All would bow down before my solutions. Righteously Righteously.

I am not king, thankfully, signing on instead each day as an average-extraordinary worker bee in the Anthropocene: of unique gifts and no special importance, grief-stricken and hopeful and sometimes sick and faltering and giving up and starting again.

Who looks out through your eyes when you think about climate change? 


Find out more

Paul Michael Henry makes performances that, most of the time, end up on a stage, but he also makes recorded music and films and collaborates on other artists’ projects. He is artistic director of UNFIX Festival and teaches dance workshops called The Dreaming Body. His themes are political, social and spiritual, dealing with love, neglect of the body, destruction of the environment and atrophy of the soul in consumerist society. 

UNFIX 2019 is scheduled for 29th-31st March at CCA Glasgow. It will feature contributions from local and international artists and organisations including Minako Seki, Alberta Whittle, Chistiana Bissett, The Workroom, Extinction Rebellion, Creative Carbon Scotland, Niya B, Ruaridh Law, Verónica Mota/Urban Arts Berlin, VID art|science, Yulia Kovanova, NIGHTPARADE, Katrine Turner, VIDIV, Adam Fish, Paul Michael Henry and The Dark Mountain Project. You can discover more at www.unfixfestival.com. Tickets are on a sliding scale and can be purchased from the CCA website.

Paul Michael Henry
Paul Michael Henry
A performance maker whose dance, music, ritual and writing deal with love, neglect of body, destruction of environment and atrophy of soul in consumerist society.
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Art, Rise Up!

Artist Ottavia Virzi describes a recent intervention by Art Rise Up, the creative collective bringing art and activism together for environmental protection, in support of the campaign to halt opencast coal mining, using art to engage cultural meaning.


1,010 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes 


How to realign our creative practice in support of effective actions, aiming to help achieve some steps in the process leading to a fairer society? As creatives, feeling this need can lead to different paths: paths that can be centred on raising cultural awareness, or be part of a sustainable design process, or can look at the bridges between art and activism. We are interested in testing this last option inside the collective Art Rise Up. Approaching activism can be an uplifting experience for those looking to direct ways to have an impact, overcoming the sense of frustration and disempowerment that is felt by so many citizens today. Our creative intervention in support of the direct occupation of Pont Valley started from this common need we perceived, to use our creative skills to directly support a significant environmental campaign.

A direct occupation of the valley has been taking place from early March until eviction last week, but the campaign is however motivated to stay strong.  A campaign lasting decades for some members of the community, trying to stop an invasive open-cast coal mine from opening right in front of the villages of Dipton and Leadgate, County Durham. A campaign felt ever more strongly today, right when England is committed to coal phase-out by 2025, in an areas which has been historically exploited for coal.

Creative intervention

Coal is the symbol of many countries’ slow response in tackling the climate crisis. Moreover, the impact of coal on local community is extremely high, due to coal dust produced through the distressing excavations. A petition signed by 88,000 people regarding the Pont Valley mine was brought to the Home Office in February and ignored by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Sajid Javid, the same Tory HCLG Minister — just appointed Home Secretary — who recently denied permission for another mine — at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, on the grounds of climate change and implications on health and wildlife — did not react regarding Pont Valley. The same private energy company, Banks Group, is involved in both mines. This scenario underlines the conflicts between private corporate interest and governments, who are not able to pronounce a complete and definitive “no”. National usage of coal power has diminished in England, amounting to 8% of the energy mix in 2017. But the continued dependency on cheap polluting energy is a direct consequence of our economic system — based on boundless consumerism — and the lack of extensive policies reforming energy usage through real investments in renewables and energy efficiency, and of a brave discourse regarding the need to re-adjust energy demand. This does not mean de-growth seen as a step backwards, but rather as a different growth and a step forward.

"Sajid Javid turns a blind eye to Pont Valley". Image: Art Rise Up
“Sajid Javid turns a blind eye to Pont Valley”
Image: Art Rise Up © 2018

All of these thoughts informed our decision to organise ourselves into a collective which could keep supporting the campaign in London, where our life as creative freelancers often means compromises in a constant search for balance in our actions.

Cultural meaning

The task we gave ourself was to create something simple and efficient, to give a shape to this large amount of information on the issues in the form of an artistic intervention which could also try to help to influence directly. The exercise of art is after all an attempt to condense communication, and give it tangible cultural meaning.

Pont Valley masks. Image: Art Rise Up
Pont Valley masks
Image: Art Rise Up © 2018

With the use of a critical neo-classical bust, we decided to underline the responsibility of governments and power figures in handling the climate crisis. This is a call for politicians to re-think the meaning of providing community welfare beyond exploitative models.

Our installation consisted of a clay bust picturing Sajid Javid — empty black eye cavities, and coal around him — and a plaque referring to his controversial silence regarding the Pont Valley mine. In the plinth, built-in speakers were emitting sounds of birds chirping with overlapping industrial sounds of excavators.

More-than-human community

The statue has been officially unveiled in front of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Direct action and artistic intervention can share with theatre a performative key, which is increasingly used in protests. We decided to unveil the statue in a ceremony with four officiants wearing masks inspired by Pont Valley wildlife – Skylark, Crested Newt, Pont Burn River, and Gorse Bush. These masks to represent a wider community of people and living beings behind our actions. Mining and burning coal harms the smaller creatures in our ecosystems as much as human communities worldwide.

Art Rise Up

Art Rise Up

Art Rise Up
All images: Art Rise Up © 2018

Our intervention didn’t manage to change Sajid Javid’s mind. The Pont Valley Protection Camp was evicted last week. Banks Group are even planning to appeal against the Druridge Bay decision. What this little journey helped us discover though, is how committed and motivated is the movement behind environmental campaigns. How a small example such as a coal mine in County Durham and a larger perspective necessarily live together. How the journey will still be long, with countless the campaigns to fight. How important it is for all to embark on this journey to adjust the system, from politicians to countryside dwellers, to city workers and artists together, committing to spread awareness and give shape to a real plea for change.


Find out more

Art Rise Up has a Facebook page and intends to promote and share contents about Art and Activism.

You can learn more about the open cast coal mine at Pont Valley and the campaigns to prevent it at Coal Action UK and in these articles from The Ecologist, BBC News and Chronicle Live: Protecting Pont Valley: meet the protesters fighting a new coal mine (28/3/18); Dipton opencast mine protesters in underground tunnels (20/4/18); All the opencast campaigners kicked out of protest camp after 33 hour stand off with bailiffs (20/4/18).

Ottavia Virzi
Ottavia Virzi
A set and costume designer focusing on sustainability, heritage crafts and social history, and associate artist with Art Rise Up, a group merging art and activism.
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Necessity and Urgency — Summer of Learning

Film-maker James Murray-White captures the energy and inspiration of a busy summer learning, engaging others and sharing their stories, recalling four very different events: a climate visuals workshop, a regenerative activism retreat, a performance and a coastal encounter.


1,810 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes 


“I pondered all these things, and how people fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other people have to fight for what they meant under another name…..”

William Morris, A Dream of John Ball, 1888

I’m writing after a stimulating Masterclass on Climate Visuals, run at the Thomson Reuters HQ in London by the Oxford-based climate NGO, Climate Outreach.

Visual language & regenerative activism

The event was titled ‘Catalysing a new visual language of climate change’, which is no small task, and by the day’s end the 30 or so participants had run the gamut of emotions examining a wide range of images, discussing them in small group exercises, and hearing from climate photographers and editors about finding and choosing stories and images.

I principally work with moving images these days, though my first creative medium was photography, and this masterclass again brought it home to me the importance of analysing images for human/non-human content, and how a story is told through the visual image.

Telling the story of climate change, with its impact upon the world and its tragic impact upon humans, often the world’s poorest and most vulnerable of society, needs to be done sensitively and with compassion; and the day kept coming back to both the ethics of featuring people caught up in the effects of climate change, and to the importance of understanding how the image and possible caption and accompanying article can find an audience. As journalists and creatives working to create change, we can ofttimes never know how an article, an image, a film or a play will land in the audience’s imagination, or what it may trigger.

"Women learning how to use a solar cooker. Solar cookers can help to reduce deforestation and carbon production bringing cleaner air locally as well as lower carbon globally." Climate Outreach Climate Visuals Portal
“Women learning how to use a solar cooker. Solar cookers can help to reduce deforestation and carbon production bringing cleaner air locally as well as lower carbon globally.”
Photograph: UN Development Programme 2009 – Creative Commons
Source & text: Climate Outreach Climate Visuals Portal http://climateoutreach.org/climatevisuals/

Climate Outreach’s Research Director, Adam Corner, opened the day by setting the scene and mapping the landscape, through a diagram of the ecosystem of imagery: its generators and users. The NGO has excelled in its research in this area, outlined in a set of seven principles for climate change communication, from showing ‘real people’, through to ‘understanding your audience’. An ongoing debate, which continued with a colleague on the train home, was the use of polar bears in early and current images to represent the alienating effect through habitat destruction of climate change. 

In any day-long course, or masterclass, there is always so much knowledge to share and stories to hear, and this was no exception. Climate Outreach and its dynamic team have been engaging deeply with this medium of knowledge transfer and change and, crucially, are creating the network to shape the future through careful and deliberate image choice and placement to sway opinions and support crucial debate and journalism.

At the other end of a spectrum of group dynamics, I was fortunate to attend a week-long retreat on Dartmoor in July titled ‘Regenerative Activism’, run by a team from the Buddhist Ecodharma centre in Spain. 

This was a powerful group-learning experience – we were taken on a deep ride through our experiences as activists of all kinds and given powerful tools to support ourselves, understanding power in our groups and those we may stand against: burnout, privilege, inner criticism and everything that may stand in our way.

The week was at times challenging, but a crucial, urgent, regeneration. I was privileged to be in a group that included climate activists who have risked their lives and gone the extra mile for action and laws on climate change worldwide. Tried and tested exercises gave us all the chance to see and reflect upon our work and the passion that drives activism, testing this from many sides to see and feel both the flaws and the glorious altruism that drive our need for change, whether from hurt, weakness, or something else within. I’d highly recommend the work of the Ecodharma team – they are deeply engaged individuals who use the buddhadharma to enhance and enrich lives where they can. 

The retreat was managed and hosted by a wonderful group of skilled meditators who offer retreats ‘freely’ to enable anyone to grow.

Back to my work, motivations and the place I work within, and the City of Cambridge remains a sphere of education, growth, and a catalyst of climate and social justice knowledge. 

Pivotal — life in a flat land

It is a place of tradition and growth, but we live on flat land: an entire region of this tiny island that is highly susceptible to floods. The image below is a projected map of East Anglia, with coastal erosion taking away a huge swathe of Fenland from the Wash; cutting through Kings Lynn, Downham Market, Peterborough, the area where poet John Clare explored the treasures of nature, Chatteris, and the prime agricultural lands right up to the gates of the newly-titled ‘Silicon Glen’ that is Cambridgeshire. Only from the Ivory towers of academia will we be able to look out upon this once fertile landscape.

“How East Anglia might look if sea levels continue to rise based on 2C warming,” as reported by the Norwich Evening News, 1/12/15
Image: Climate Central © 2015 http://www.climatecentral.org

In the city, Pivotal is one initiative trying to bring together town and gown to find solutions and share experiences on climate and social justice, mainly using the prism of the arts. We’ve had lots of successful events and a mini Festival to find ways of engagement.

Pivotal is teaming up with many of the NGOs across the county who also look at issues of environment, community and sustainability, such as Transition Cambridge, Cambridge Carbon Footprint, Fulbourn Forum and other village parish councils and groups, to run a season of films, events and speakers in February 2018: ‘Films for our Future’. Watch this space for a full timetable. We’re finding that teaming up with all the expertise and crossover here, while learning from similar festivals in Totnes and Reading, brings a world of resource and energy into one concentrated space – to make change happen.

On darkness and doing

Over in Reading, I got to see Festival of the Darkness director Jennifer Leach’s performance piece Crow recently: “Whoah”, is all! This is a creation myth that hits you in the stomach; with searing sadness, and an eternity of tension between the figure of Crow and Hollow Man, I felt a personal sense of despair in looking at our humble humanness not felt since seeing a Samuel Beckett play. There are moments of beauty, and real insight: clowning; a chorus that observes, entices and engages. Crow’s mother, who sways through, brought up some grief for the loss of my mother this year, as well as a sadness at the sly dexterity that is at play amongst humans: we can love and laugh, cry and die, and can try to resolve and understand issues, though still we maraud and pillage natural resources as if we own them, and howl at the terrible consequences.

Thinking this thought further, I’m delighted to share that following our highly successful provocation at the life-changing TippingPoint Doing Nothing is Not an Option conference in Warwick last year, where so many of these connections were made and interlink across culture and activism, stage designer Andrea Carr and I have been talking about reprising our Doing Nothing is Sometimes an Option event – giving participants an opportunity to dump all their baggage at the door and enter a space of rest, mindful exploration and tuning in to sensory being. Participants at DNNO might well remember the glorious prism that showed up for us. Watch this space for more!

Lighthouse island

Happisburgh lighthouse
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2017
sky-larking.co.uk

During a filming project recently, I visited the Norfolk village of Happisburgh, which has suffered the most extreme coastal erosion of our entire island, and successive governments ‘giving up’ on their efforts to protect the land from the violent surges. After an hour of filming in the iconic lighthouse, as the volunteer warden locked the door and I packed up cameras, I asked him “So what’s your take on the erosion here?” He pointed to the field we stood beside, and angrily responded “This was entirely flooded just three years ago. The next time the sea will wash into the Broads and contaminate that. These houses won’t be here. This lighthouse will be beaming its light as an island in the sea.”

This close-up and personal engagement with the reality of change, in the midst of doing other things, reinforces for me the need to keep making connections, writing and filming these issues, finding images and creating footage to highlight all the stories of our time. I went from this conversation to the church, and met a church warden who had moved into the village some seven years ago, in full knowledge and sight of the potent destruction of the sea defences, some of the cliffs and some of the property in the community. For her, faith and church involvement sustains.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light, 1988


In the theme of spiritual inquiry and the buddhist practice of cultivating bodhicitta, I dedicate this writing to all those affected by climate change over the past few months, in the USA, India, and worldwide. May all beings find peace.


Find out more

Climate Outreach provide a ‘Climate Visuals’ portal.

Explore Ecodharma Centre and their Freely Given Retreats.

You can read a local press article on the possible scenario illustrated in the map above: How rising sea levels could change the shape of East Anglia.

And there is a Geographical article about erosion at Happisburgh, Norfolk’s disappearing village.

James is a member of the Pivotal – Cambridge Festival Of Change team and you can see some of his work on Vimeo.

James also mentions fellow ClimateCultures Members Andrea Carr and Jennifer Leach, and you can find out about their work through the links, and in the ClimateCultures Members Directory.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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Questioning what sustains? Space for creative thinking... 

"James' post ends with an image of a stranded lighthouse and a note on faith. For you, what sustains your engagement with 'the reality of change, in the midst of doing other things'?"

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

The Anthropocene Writ Small: My Friend Jules

Artist and game designer Ken Eklund shows how working with stories offers popular and accessible routes into the past and present of our life with energy, and imagining possible futures as part of the Stories of Change project. 


880 words: estimated reading time 3.5 minutes


For the past three years, there’s been a digital storytelling initiative at Stories of Change relating to the national transition to lower-carbon energy. This AHRC-funded project draws on history, literature, social and policy research, and the arts to encourage more imaginative thinking about current and future energy choices. When Joe Smith from Stories of Change and I met last year, we knew from our research that people ‘don’t appear to think or care about their relationship with energy, because they can’t see it’ and that set off conversations about adding a storytelling game to the initiative to explore that dimension.

I’m an artist and game designer; I develop innovative game approaches to real-world problems. In my view, the key is to find a playful way to present the issue, one that encourages people to ‘play along’. In World Without Oil (2007), my gamerunning team pretended that an oil crisis had actually begun, and people played along by creating stories of how the oil crisis was affecting their lives. In FutureCoast (2014-7), a game about climate change, we pretended to be recovering voicemails made in the future – and people played along by creating those voicemails that sounded as if they had leaked back to our time.

FutureCoast: two players recover a voicemail from the future that had materialized in New York. By recovering this ‘chronofact,’ they revealed its voicemail, which is a robocall advertising ‘Glacierland Resort,’ an arctic theme park with an artificial glacier, from the year 2048. Tweet by Kate de Longpre’, 2014.
Photograph: Ken Eklund © 2017

For Stories of Change, we decided to collect people’s personal stories about their relationship to energy, quite literally as their personal stories about “my friend Jules.”

A complicated relationship

“Like it or not, you’re in a relationship with energy. How’s that going for you:” is the beginning of the game’s storytelling prompt. Visualising energy as though it were a person in your life – your friend, Jules – is a fun exercise in imagination, but it can also be revelatory. On one level, Jules is undoubtedly a great friend: lighting up your home, whizzing you around the country, and so on. On other levels, though, Jules can be more of a problem friend: chronically hitting you up for money, occasionally abandoning you completely, and engaging in some questionable dealings in your name while out of your sight.

My Friend Jules opens up discussions about our complicated relationship with energy to the vocabularies we use to characterize our human relationships. At the game’s website you can find an elegy, a character reference, a how-we-met love story, a short play, a limerick, essays short and long, a video interview, superheroes, captioned photos, an Amazon product review, and more – all featuring the protean character Jules, standing in for some aspect of the role energy plays in our lives. The project is expanding the ways we can collaboratively envision the anthropocenic structures that shape our common future. 

My Friend Jules: people describe their relationships with energy in the form of its persona, Jules. ‘Hey Jules, can we make a deal?’ Jules stories are told through a variety of media; this image comes from the Stories of Change photobooth at Didcot, May 2017.
Photograph: Ken Eklund © 2017

Take the storytelling challenge

To weave these many threads together, and to reward people for their participation, Stories of Change has engaged artist (and ClimateCultures member) Vicky Long to create a work inspired by the ideas expressed in the first iteration of My Friend Jules. Jules stories received before midnight, Sunday 11th June will be considered for inclusion in her work, to be unveiled by mid-July. Follow My Friend Jules on Twitter (as @MyFriendJules) or Facebook for updates about Vicky’s creation and its possible live performances.  

My Friend Jules is a storytelling challenge, as you will discover if you put pen to paper (or press RECORD) to create your own Jules story. It’s designed to be the easiest possible on-ramp to a difficult road: re-imagining what exists and what will come to pass in the Anthropocene.

If you take up the challenge, it’s easy to contribute your Jules story via the email link at My Friend Jules, site below. 


Find out more

You can find out all the details (including all the entries) at My Friend Jules.  And you can explore the Stories of Change project that the game is part of.

You can explore worldwithoutoil.org, another project that Ken has contributed to.

There’s an interesting CNET article about the World Without Oil game.

Ken Eklund
Ken Eklund
An artist whose immersive what-if storymaking games explore real-world issues through collaborative play to bring possible futures into clearer focus, and imagine positive action
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Questioning Energy? Space for creative thinking...

Unsurprisingly, our main creative thinking space this time is made over to My Friend Jules - so get over there and post your story!

But I also found this excellent suggestion at World Without Oil (a quote from Stephanie Olsen, author of the CNET article mentioned above): “If you want to change the future, play with it first.”  What do you think? What would you play with to help create a different path into the future? Share your ideas in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."