ClimateCultures welcomes new Member, poet and artist Salli Hipkiss. In the first of two posts, Salli reflects on how - through her work in Tanzania and a chance encounter with a key book - she came to understand the urgent challenges of climate change, on her decision to write a novel, The Riddle of the Trees, to support positive change, and her hopes for publication. Salli's follow up post will take the story further, with extracts from her book.
It all began in 1999 with ‘A Novel Idea’. Not the idea for a book, but a wonderful bookshop of the same name on a dusty peninsular of the East African town of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Living there as a teacher, a weekend treat was to head to ‘A Novel Idea’ where highly contemporary international new books appeared as if magically in a town where other correspondence from the rest of the world often failed to arrive. One particular Saturday a book found its way into my hands, as ‘just the right book’ seems to do from time to time. It was The Carbon War by Jeremy Leggett.
I read it in a couple of power-rationing interrupted evenings (the irony was not lost on me) and came away knowing I had been introduced to possibly the most serious issue of our time, and one that would become a greater and greater problem and international focus over years to come. The issue in question was, of course, climate change. My immediate action was to apply for a new additional post at the school where I worked, aiming to become ‘Leader for the Environment’. I was given the post and for two years, in addition to my art teaching duties, I was the Environmental Education coordinator for the secondary school. Over this time I tried to introduce some of the urgency I had sensed through the book, including creating a whole school Environmental Charter.
A meaningful contribution
Jump to September 2006. I had left both Tanzania and full-time teaching in 2002 with the intention to retrain and hopefully carve out a new career in one of my other great passions: music, alongside my arts and sustainability commitments. I was living in Cambridge in the UK as a self-employed arts and sustainability practitioner and educator when An Inconvenient Truth hit the cinemas.
Having read The Carbon War I was very aware of Al Gore and his climate change advocacy work, but most people I knew at that time saw him solely as the former US presidential candidate. An Inconvenient Truth changed all that. I went to see the film three times at the cinema and bought the DVD for friends. My passion was renewed and I wondered once again how I could contribute meaningfully to the conversation around climate change and help to turn things around for the better.
Later that month an opportunity arose to travel to Sierra Leone to help with forest conservation education and my time there helped focus my thoughts. The idea began to form that my personal contribution to the climate change solution could be to write a book that inspired dialogue and change: after all, a book and a bookshop had been my introduction to the issue. Straight away I knew it would be a book for young people, and that the science would be put across through the medium of a magical story. I started to make notes and sketches and by the time I came back from Sierra Leone I had made a firm commitment to write the story.
The advice generally given to writers is to “write what you know”. Although my musical ambitions had suffered many setbacks, music remained a source of great joy and wisdom in my life, and as the idea to write a novel took shape I knew music would be one vital thread through the story. The imperative to help with the climate change challenge formed the other.
I began to read more widely about carbon sequestration and carbon trading and gradually the story began to take shape. It was to be set in a future when ‘carbon balance’ has been achieved through widespread reforestation. A new crisis would then emerge when a mysterious disease befalls one such forest and threatens the others, and therefore puts the carbon balance into peril and the threat of climate change looms again.
My deeper ecological message was to illustrate that in planning for widespread increased sequestration as one solution it is vital that we also keep sight of the need to protect biodiversity and that a healthy planet will only prevail if we seek health on all levels. The other deeper message was that this may only come about if we put aside our cultural differences and work together as one humanity.
The Riddle of the Trees
Characters appeared next: a lonely teenage girl, a shy teenage boy, a Forest Keeper grandfather who is too often absent due to his commitment to the forest, international musicians who carry the sounds of nature and the seeds of culture from all quarters of the world within their music. Other key characters are a heavy-handed Ealdorman who tries to save the forest by imposing greater and greater restrictions, and a reclusive artist living in the forest who provides intuitive wisdom born of her close connection with and immersion in nature. Then the settings emerged: a forest by the sea, a former palace turned cultural centre, a portside town, and a mysterious cottage in the woods with a magical tower and observatory.
I started to write, sitting at a corner desk in my one-bedroom maisonette with a cherry tree just outside the window, or in one of the many cafes in and around Cambridge.
In 2007 I embarked on a Masters degree in Children’s Book Illustration, envisaging, amongst other outcomes, a beautifully illustrated chapter book of my story, or even an interactive ebook with moving illustrations and strains of music at key moments. The course turned out not to be the right place to nurture the story, and a year in I took a break and a part-time job in a shop aptly named ‘One World is Enough’.
I continued to write. Then after focusing on finishing the MA in 2010, I completed the first draft of the story and The Riddle of the Trees was born.
Since then the story has undergone numerous revisions and attempts at publication while I have also been raising a family. Now, almost twenty years after first reading The Carbon War I feel inspired once again to try to get the story out into the wider world where I hope it will inspire young people and others to care more deeply about climate and biodiversity issues and to take individual and collective action. Perhaps when this happens we will be one small step closer to achieving not only carbon balance but also ‘Carbon Peace’.
Find out more
You can explore Salli’s creative work as artist, writer and educator via her ClimateCultures profile page and her website link there. And Salli’s recent poem, Modest Things — asking how English poet, artist and radical William Blake might have responded to climate change and what examples we might take — is published at Finding Blake.
Jeremy Leggett’s The Carbon War is no longer in print but you can find second-hand copies online, and you can read a download of his follow up book, The Winning of the Carbon War at JeremyLeggett.net
In An Inconvenient Truth, (2006) by Davis Guggenheim, the film follows former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore on the lecture circuit, raising public awareness of the dangers of global warming. Grist has an interesting behind-the-scenes at how the film came about, An oral history of An Inconvenient Truth.
The 2017 ‘sequel’ film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, follows Gore as he speaks with scientists and leaders, and is featured in this Scientific American (28/7/17) article, Al Gore Returns with an Ever-More Inconvenient Truth.
It's a joy to welcome back Julien Masson, a visual artist who works with technology to produce digital art that questions our relationships with both technology and the natural world. Here, Julien describes his recent residency in the New Forest, an environment that juxtaposes natural and human worlds; and his choice of a physical paint medium to help bring distance from the digital realm that itself can distance us from the natural.
I was delighted to be invited by an art agency based in Hampshire for their residency project in 2018. Every year they invite an artist and provide them with a space for two weeks and the opportunity to produce art in the beautiful surroundings of the New Forest. It was going to be a challenge to adjust to new working spaces and produce artwork in such a short time but I thought it would offer a good opportunity to explore the area and really concentrate on an art project without distractions.
Last year I worked on a project with the New Forest heritage department and produced a series of digital art works inspired by the geology, the streams and the flora of the area to create rich multilayered images based on LIDAR captures (images used to survey the geology and analyse what lies underneath vegetation). I was able to exhibit examples of that work at the New Forest Centre in Lyndhurst, such as Shades of the Land:
For my residency this year, based in a New Forest forge, I was given free reign to work on a self-initiated project. The manager of the forge until very recently was the director of a local art gallery and so there was an interest to help support artists through this residency, but they didn’t expect us to produce work linked to their activities — although it is a fascinating space.
I was happy to rise to the challenge and try to produce a series of works during the two weeks of the residency.
Mapping new meaning
Our digital culture brings us into a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with the technology we rely on to drive it. I am interested in the ways we rely more and more on technology to record and survey our environment, and how this over-reliance is possibly misplaced. Through the numeric lens of digital devices that have a direct impact on how we perceive the world, spaces, objects and people are all analysed in the same manner — reduced to datasets that can be disassembled and reassembled at will. My works often consist of a dynamic mass of marks echoing digital networks and our complex interconnected world; they criss-cross the surface of the paintings like a giant mind map generating new meaning.
I explore the possibilities that digital tools offer us to create alternative realities and virtual simulations that ultimately allow us to further our knowledge. How does the virtual world affect our real, physical experience? What consequences will the digitalisation of our experiences bring? In these new pieces the layers of data points recreate the geological contours of the region. Each geological layer is superimposed onto another, and in the same way I superimposed strips of paint to recreate the layered stratas of the land…
One of the reasons why I have been working in a physical paint medium rather than producing purely digital artwork is that working in paint and pastels allows me that freedom and distance from my subject. By using paint I am a step removed from technology, I can have more a more critical look at it. I admire the digital virtual but also I like to imbue it with all that is chaotic and unpredictable with the physicality of painting.
A pixelised reality
My technique is unapologetically experimental. I paint, slice and collage painted surfaces, echoing the remixing of images in photoshop or the superimposed layers of photos in computer graphics software. There is a certain destructive activity in the way I work, as fractured formations of paint emerge from this process. I believe this illustrates the dislocated sense of reality we are subject to in this day and age.
The studio space was comfortable and bright, on the top floor of the forge, and I also had the privilege of working alongside Peter Corr there, a very talented artist. It was fascinating seeing the work progress during the two weeks. We were made to feel very welcome by the forge manager on the ground floor; it was a real hive of activity and we felt really inspired by the work they produce there.
The journey in and out of the studio offered an interesting progression through the industrial landscape of Southampton Docks to the forest at Ashurst… Spring sunshine appeared and we witnessed a real explosion of colours, as the foliage really started to fill the tree canopy… The impact on my work was immediate and I shifted my palette from a rather restrained selection into a veritable kaleidoscope array of glitches. These glitches — unexpected results or malfunctions, especially occurring with digital devices — often manifest themselves through a faulty interaction with digital technology, and offer a sort of distorted pixelized reality. I spent several days gathering images of the surroundings with my digital camera. I often manipulate the images to generate interesting and unexpected arrays of colour, which I use as inspiration for my works.
I wanted to illustrate this fractured vision of Nature that we sometimes have. The tessellated technique I used on these works echoes the kaleidoscopic view we often have of the world through the use of digital technology. Our perception becomes compressed and pixelated, often in constant motion; it seems incomplete yet it has a certain beauty too. I also arc back to painterly techniques used by the Vorticists and the Futurists. Similar use of dynamic strokes of colour can be found in my work.
The intense use of the colour green was definitely in response to the new leaves that appeared in the last couple of weeks there. The tessera of paint also echo the foliage of the trees and the movement of their leaves in the wind. Geology is also present, as the stacks of colours reminds me of the strata of different soils.
No matter how aesthetically oriented my work is it is undeniable that I also want to treat the subject of eco-responsibility in my work. Technology allows us to analyse and study our environment so we can understand it better but it has the effect of distancing us from it. From this abstracted digital space we can experience the world in the safety of our own virtual shells, choosing to be blissfully unaware of the impact our activities are having on our environment.
I often mix traditional materials such as paint and pigment with found manmade materials: metallic foil, electric wires and plastics. My use of recycled materials is also a comment on our relationship with the natural environment and how we are truly living in a geological age dominated by our own activity. I included some flexes of copper and metallic material throughout the works as a reminder of human activity in the landscape and also a nod to the activity at the forge where the studio is based. To me, the layering of marks, materials and imagery during my creative process is in many ways akin to the stratification of meaning, of human activities and histories.
In this series I was particularly interested in using the circular frame because of its scientific connotation. I am thinking of petri dishes or microscopic images; this series of works represent almost a series of individual experiments in shape and colour, each forming its own world, its own microcosm. Finally I am planning to display these works as a series: carefully arranging them almost as a comparative study.
The residency took place in a studio on the top floor of a forge, and this industrial space was at odds with the idyllic view of the area. However I felt this was very appropriate considering my interests in the sometimes uncomfortable juxtaposition of a manmade landscape and a wild landscape. The New Forest itself is a human creation, managed for centuries to exploit its various resources.
The LGV Residency “accommodating an artist in the New Forest National Park for the development of their creative practice” is a scheme provided by Little Van Gogh, an agency that delivers programmes and projects that help organisations to support and promote emerging artists, “be it through our workplace art exhibitions or the commissioning and purchase of original fine art.”
A tondo (plural: tondi or tondos) — Wikipedia tells me — “is a Renaissance term for a circular work of art, either a painting or a sculpture. The word derives from the Italian rotondo, ’round.'”
The New Forest was created by King William I in 1079 as his royal hunting park following the Norman Conquest; the ‘new’ forest became one of England’s National Parks in 2005. The New Forest National Park Authority is the planning authority, while the Verderers of the New Forest – the commoners whose rights are protected by statutes – manage many of the traditional agricultural practices in the area.
LIDAR — Wikipedia again — is a surveying technique for 3D laser scanning for ‘Light Detection and Ranging’, which “measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor. Differences in laser return times and wavelengths can then be used to make digital 3-D representations of the target.” At the website of the Verderers of the New Forest High Level Stewardship Scheme, you can see two interesting films of the technique being used in the New Forest to understand more about the human and natural characteristics of the area; and there is more in this blog from the New Forest NPA heritage section.
In part 1 of Doggerland Rising, Justina Hart introduced her poem, which was commissioned following the 2016 Weatherfronts conference. Drawing on advice from experts at Durham University, she investigated the prehistory of Doggerland, the lowland plains inhabited by mesolithic people before sea level rise created the North Sea. In this concluding part, Justina completes the story of her research and reveals how the poem's characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.
Click on the map to read Doggerland Rising #1: Walking Across the North Sea.
Reading academic papers – a new vocabulary
Following the day at Durham University spent meeting with palaeo-scientists to discuss all things Doggerland, they emailed me numerous papers to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. With six weeks to go till the commission deadline, I focused on reading and journaling to help the ideas bubble up.
Studying an area where knowledge is expanding rapidly I found to be exciting and addictive. Although the Doggerland concept had emerged in the early twentieth century, it didn’t take off until the late 1990s when Professor Bryony Coles at the University of Exeter examined and wrote about the archaeology of Doggerland; and until researchers at Birmingham University (Vince Gaffney among them) in the 2000s used data from oil and gas drilling maps to chart the submerged landscape of the Southern North Sea.
I started a Doggerland journal in my writing program, Scrivener, jotting down salient points and ideas every day. Early on in reading the academic papers, one thing that struck me was the intriguing sounds of many of the scientific words and terms used to describe investigation into the North Sea. Here are a few:
The mysterious half-understood (to me) quality of these words sparked my first draft for part I of my six-part poem. Scientific exploration provides an entry point both into the writing and into the Doggerland landscape:
Wade in with palaeogeographers,archaeologists, palaeogeologists,cartographers who swiminto the past for a living, who disturb and reconfigure depths.
Later on, I realised that these palaeo-scientist characters were part of the poem’s scaffolding that could be removed. The start of the finished part I of the poem now addresses the reader directly as scientist-investigator and everyman. He dips a hand into the North Sea and comes face-to-face with one of his Mesolithic ancestors:
A man hallooing as if to himselfpaddles through shallow waters. He looks ahead, squinting;he can almost see you, you him.
Letting go of research and sinking into the sea
Having immersed myself in the research, the next step was to let go of it – taking whatever I’d absorbed with me – and allow myself to sink into a place from which the poems might flow. That was the idea anyway. It felt risky: the research was a safety raft without which I could end up all at sea.
Giving myself the gift of this time to sink or swim was – as a jobbing writer/editor where paid tasks must take priority – the privilege of having a commission. What joy to be given licence to write and research poetry in prime client time. I unplugged from the internet for consecutive mornings and, in silence, held the idea of the sequence lightly in my mind, listening for what might surface.
I used others’ writing, music, photographs, and my own visits to natural landscapes to tickle the poetic synapses. Early on I found a jazz song that I took as a soundtrack for my project, Mi Negra Ave María, by Roberto Fonseca. Soaring and anthemic, it includes the lyrics:
And Atlantis can once again Rise from the ocean And the musical, beautiful sound will resound And shake in every tree …
I read poetry with watery and icy themes (the polar wilderness gave a useful sense of remoteness and strangeness).
I wanted to make a research trip to Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast as recommended by the Durham scientists, but it was too far afield. Instead, with help from my partner as driver, I went on a long madcap jaunt from Staffordshire down the M1 and M25 to one of my old stomping grounds on the Kent estuaries to photograph mudflats. I also took pictures of trees in bogs in Osmaston, Derbyshire. These landscapes became the stage set for the inundated Dogger Island.
Here is a note from my journal:
5 November 2016 – research trip to northern Kent: Visited the Medway, got excited on seeing marshes, then just beyond the sea at Allhallows and took pictures as the sun was going down. Landscape very flat and I was bitter around theears, although it would have been 2-3 degrees warmer then [i.e. in the Mesolithic].
After a time, interesting things started cropping up in my journal. Here’s a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing:
The voices [in the poem] are strong. They are alive. They are speaking to us but also tothemselves as though there’s this thin film of water called time between us … They talk tothemselves and the meaning trickles to us across this film. They can kind of see us throughthis film too, and not.
The first character emerges – let’s call him Shaman
One day as I was writing my journal a character emerged urging ‘Follow me, follow me, follow me’. So I did, trusting his voice more as time went on. At first he acted as a guide, taking me back in time to the Mesolithic; later he made his way into the poem. It felt exciting channelling a Mesolithic character, as if I was bringing someone back from the dead whose bones lay under the North Sea. He seemed to relish the chance to live again.
This man, aged twenty-five or thirty, becomes the character we meet in section I, and who we follow through the poem. If he or someone like him did exist, perhaps he was a Mesolithic shaman because of his time-travelling and piloting abilities. Archaeologists know that such roles existed in tribal groups because they have unearthed objects such as deer skulls used as masks in spiritual ceremonies; they’ve also found standing stones or menhirs beneath the waves.
This is the kind of thing my nameless shamanic character whispered to me. It made its way into the poem in section II:
‘Look in the water. Look in the pool I’m looking at. The pool that is brackish, filled with saltwater, the river’s still. Giant oaks are asleep in it. I leave something there for you, a clueabout me. I take off my necklace and cast it in, it’s like casting a spell – that one day we will come this way again.’
Drafting the whole sequence was like walking a tightrope over the North Sea. I had never written such a long poem in different voices before and did not know that I could complete each section until I had its first draft down.
So I navigated my imaginative North Sea – and the poem – by degrees: first I was a quarter of the way across, then a half, then three-quarters … Since each section had to come from deep down, as if from my own internal sea, each time it was a case of listening, having faith, holding my breath until at last I was rewarded with each poem’s content, form and language. All the sections had to tie together and tell a story as well, of course.
After writing the first four poems (out of the total six), I attended a small poetry festival in London, Second Light’s The Song of the Earth. I found the workshops by poets such as Jemma Borg and Hannah Lowe very helpful for renewing my inspiration, and the festival provided a much-needed break from my own company. I came back and wrote the last two sections.
Sharing the poem – feedback and editing
Had the poem succeeded? It felt to me that the commission had moved my poetry on, but the proof’s in the pudding. I sent the finished draft to fellow West Midlands poet, Sarah James, who generously read it, suggested tweaks and commented, “It all reads beautifully and feels very crafted and finished”. I was over the moon. The poet Myra Schneider kindly read and fed back in detail before I submitted the final version. “It’s a real achievement – a step forward,” she said. I am indebted to these poets and other readers.
Myra pointed out that the poem needed some linguistic fine-tuning to get it ‘as close to Anglo-Saxon as possible’, as this would be more in keeping with the prehistoric setting. So before filing, I spent a few hours scouring the poem for Renaissance and post-Renaissance words and concepts. I scrapped ‘lurid’ (mid-seventeenth century), replacing it with ‘violent pinks, blues, greens’. ‘Sulking’ (late eighteenth century) became ‘turned sour’, ‘unnavigable’ (early sixteenth century) became ‘where evil spirits hide’, and ‘foraminifera’ (mid-nineteenth century) was changed to ‘tiny sea animals’. A whole passage like:
Here I come: pushed from the delta’s mouthinto blue – blue is my element and green –the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …
was transformed with simpler, more concrete language into:
Here I come: pushed from the river’s veinsinto blue – blue is my dwelling place –the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …
Myra also spotted an anachronistic use of the country names, ‘Germany, Holland, France’, in a refrain in part IV of the poem, which is voiced by the tribe’s ancestors. This started life as:
Yet once we were kings who strolled throughparadise to Germany, Holland, France.
Few readers might have noticed – and the rhythm worked well – but having put so much work in, it was important to get all the details right. I turned to Dr Jim Innes for help. ‘How might our Mesolithic ancestors have referred to these lands?’ I asked.
‘They would have had names for these areas I suppose, but we can’t know. I would perhaps have said something like ‘the eastern high ground beyond the plain’ and the same for Britain, only ‘western’. That doesn’t tell the reader exactly where though, so maybe … ‘theuplands beyond the eastern plain’ or similar.’
Here’s the final refrain:
Yet once we were kings who strolled through plains rich as paradise to the uplands beyond.
I sent the finished draft to the Durham scientists for fact checking and so they could see what I’d made of the research. All good except Jim spotted I’d used the phrase ‘heading inland’ in section VI, when people would have had to cross water to get to Britain. Jim also checked the date in which I’d set the poem:
‘The dates look fine. Our main radiocarbon date from Dogger peat at -27 metres depth is8140 radiocarbon years ago, which comes out when calibrated as 9300-9000 calendaryears ago. Other dates suggest that the Dogger island was finally fully submerged by about 8000 calendar years ago, or a little before.’
Personal insights – leaving the Mesolithic
The Weatherfronts commission was the first time that I’d ever been paid to write poetry. Symbolically this was deeply important to me as I was being remunerated for writing something I love, and this made a real difference to my craft. Previously, I always fitted my fiction and poetry around the freelance writing and editing I do for commercial clients; now, for the first time, creativity could take centre stage.
Not surprisingly, focusing on my poetic craft during the best, most productive hours of the day meant that my poetry improved. I began to value my work as a poet more and started seeing it as on an equal footing with my client writing. I was able to set and rise to a more difficult poetic challenge than I’d otherwise have attempted. I had not felt such joy in any paid work I’ve done in years, and loved the luxury of the reading and generative time.
Collaborating with the Durham palaeo-scientists was another revelation and joy. The only careers advice I recall receiving at university was ‘Don’t go into academia’, and yet the researchers seemed to thoroughly enjoy their working lives. Thanks to Weatherfronts, I now know that I’d welcome the chance to do other collaborative projects with researchers and universities in the future.
The collaboration completely changed the nature of my Doggerland poem. If I had attempted to write it without talking in-depth to the scientists, I believe that it would have looked very different. Gradual if dramatic climate change (coastal erosion, low-lying island nations at risk of submergence) and migration are more akin to what our Mesolithic ancestors were experiencing, and more akin to what we’re experiencing in the twenty-first century. The scientists helped me and the poem to take this focus.
By the end of the project, I began to envy our Middle Stone Age ancestors for the simpler rhythm of their lives, their multi-skilled resourcefulness, and even (medical advances aside), their quality of life. Pulling out of ancient time and leaping forward to the present day came as a wrench.
Find out more
You can read the full lyrics to Roberto Fonseca’s Mi Negra Ave MarÍa and play the track.
Explore the poets who gave Justina feedback: Sarah James and Myra Schneider. and Dr Jim Innes‘ research into human palaeoecology, particularly in relation to Mesolithic communities and their impact upon the environment.
There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website. Doggerland Rising and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.
Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking...
"When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?"
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
In our latest Members' Post, Adam Ledger of The Bone Ensemble and the University of Birmingham discusses the process of devising "Where's My Igloo Gone?" and the challenges of making participatory theatre about climate change as something that we can collectively address.
Oolik is an ordinary girl who goes on an extraordinary journey to save her igloo home. On her way she meets some exciting friends to help her – including YOU!
So says the back of the flyer advertising The Bone Ensemble’s family performance Where’s My Igloo Gone?, which is soon to be re-rehearsed before a national tour. What this strapline tries carefully to invite is involvement in a participatory performance about home, community and climate change. It is for children 5+, but clearly wants to draw their parents/carers into, as the marketing blurb continues, an ‘Arctic world of soaring snow geese, pet husky dogs and starry nights… and the kind of cold that makes your skin tingle!’. And this has been the key.
Climate change art (if we accept there is such a category) is, of course, an emergent practice. Some work, especially visual art and installation, reflects the materiality of the environment, inviting us to encounter the natural world. There is some dance work, some music, some theatre (and, as the bit I know most about, bear with me while I dwell on that).
There has been a crop of interesting ‘climate change’ plays, and performances that are more like performance lectures. The latter includes director Katie Mitchell and Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion (2012), about the a/effects of population growth (now there’s a film of the subsequent book), and her later (2014) collaboration with writer Duncan Macmillan and scientist Chris Rapley, 2071. These performances are stuffed full of unequivocal scientific fact in an attempt to ‘prove’ climate change; Emmott’s Cambridge office was even minutely reconstructed on the Royal Court’s stage; and Rapley sat in front of wondrous video graphics.
Even more visually impressive is Motionhouse’s Broken (2013), in which astonishing feats of acrobatics-dance happen in front of a sophisticated videographic backdrop. Physically astonishing too is As the World Tipped (2011, Wired Aerial Theatre), incorporating, again, video with feats of aerialist performance and, as the name implies, a big, up-ending stage. At its conclusion, the crowd were visibly and audibly inspired by its projected call to arms, ‘Demand change now’, clearly a huge step forward from the dismaying conclusion of the earlier Ten Billion, which ends (I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the swearing isn’t mine) “we’re all fucked…”
…well, we might be, but let’s hope not; let’s ‘demand change’, and seek, as artists, to keep shifting work on from the apocalyptic; looking at even my short list of work above, there is quite a visual narrative of the negatively spectacular going on. Of course, work is still developing, and there is already a noticeable arc, but what are we meant to do – physically, actively, emotionally – with just a negative reflection of the increasingly obvious issues around us? Can we also find ways to go beyond ‘demand change’?
Thinking (too) big
Where’s My Igloo Gone? didn’t start with the idea of making a participatory performance for a limited audience of only forty – which we are expanding now for its national tour to sixty. A few years ago, capitalising on The Bone Ensemble’s foray into the outdoor arts and festival scene, we decided to try to build an igloo in the middle of the summer countryside. It had to be big enough to hold a reasonable audience (as many will know, making work that is in any way ‘intimate’ brings immediate commercial problems), couldn’t get too hot, and had to be made of sustainable material. Oh, and it had to have a blackout so that we could have lights. Which meant that we had to find sustainable and, crucially, silent power. This was getting complicated…
We got a bit of funding to explore ideas and to incorporate homespun electronics into the mix. Even though we found ways to link our ongoing interest in voice and music to big LEDs, making them light up with our burgeoning, and often unreliable, artisan knowledge of raspberry pis and Makey Makeys, building what was effectively a portable theatre was becoming way too expensive, time consuming, and far too difficult. Trips to scientific labs to look at the latest eco materials and mega-batteries were interesting but taking us away from the very people we wanted to think about and, eventually, connect with: our audiences. What had emerged through all this experiment, play (and downright headache) were, though, the beginnings of two characters, who later became Oolik and Ooman in Where’s My Igloo Gone?, and an interest in Inuit culture; a demographic of indigenous peoples which, like so many around the world, is affected by the changing environment, of which they are so intuitively aware. Rather than a sort of outdoor installation, what seemed urgent was the need squarely to address climate change and find new ways that theatre, and in our case theatre for young people, could do this.
We started again: there would be a human story, there would be characters and situations with which audiences could empathise and, above all, there would be a positive, empowering message. Funding was cobbled together from Arts Council England’s ‘Grants for the Arts’ scheme (GfA) and the University of Birmingham and, in September 2015, we undertook a short ‘RnD’ phase. This could also foreground how we might develop our earlier participatory work on Caravania!, a twenty minute performance for only six people at a time in a 1980s caravan (yes, really) into a politics of participation, of a shift from mirroring the environmental problems around us to a positive experience. Rather than (as can happen) guilt, blame or feeling stuck as to what to do, we would try to offer a feeling of empowerment. And we would stage the show in the round so that everyone could see and take part.
At this first stage, an important decision was taken: the characters would not speak English, but a made up language we call ‘Iglooish’. On a practical level, this was about the show being accessible to everyone (and, of course, we were going to go on a world tour! That remains an ambition, but a 40+ date national tour is pretty satisfying in the meantime), but also obliges the effort of communication with characters a little bit ‘other’ and, importantly for the climate change issue, are not necessarily English-speaking, familiar figures, but ones who globalise the debate.
Where’s My Igloo Gone? was subsequently commissioned by mac birmingham and the Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton and, with the support of a second GfA award and funding from several Trusts and the University of Birmingham, was created in November 2016, when it was shown regionally, at Pontio, Wales, and in a special school. Concerns of accessibility have been expanded: our work has been made accessible to d/Deaf audiences too, with the help of the wonderful Caroline Parker MBE, sign-signing diva and all round good egg.
Where’s My Igloo Gone? is at heart a pretty straight story, a quest triggered by a crisis, that of Oolik’s melting igloo (itself clearly an exaggeration of climate change effects). But our starting point is, then, quite consciously the state that some of the aforementioned work often ends with. Oolik’s subsequent adventure sees her meet a set of animals, including – something of a hit – the Walrus (who is a bit flatulent), get caught up in a storm, confront an oil company boss and deal with becoming displaced – she, too, is a climate refugee, a very real consequence of contemporary environmental change. So Oolik exemplifies someone who experiences peril, gains insight, experiences failure, yet takes action.
How to explain climate change became one of the greatest challenges in devising. The science is complicated; data has to be brought together from a number of sources to demonstrate cause, effect, possible scenarios (basically, what 2071 does). Young audiences are often eco-minded, but our early visits to our partner schools to test ideas confirmed that not many know the terminology ‘climate change’ and certainly not the causal processes.
Caught in a storm, Oolik meets a scientist, Ting Tang Zood, quirky, charming and a bit silly, who doesn’t speak Iglooish of course, nor English, but a fizz-pop sort of language of ‘science’. Stuck in linguistic incomprehensibility, Ting Tang Zood’s solution to explain environment change is to draw the basics of global warming (an apparently simple solution but one of those devising obstacles that seem to take forever to sort out…). This offers, too, a layering of the aural aesthetic as Oolik taps along on a tin cup and joins in a few rude noises to demonstrate how plane emissions are just like those of an altogether different sort…
This slightly silly, interactive scene puts Oolik, crucially, in the same place as her young audience friends; she learns about environmental cycles alongside everyone else in a situation where everyone becomes a kind of Oolik. Optimally, the sequence informs and empowers in playfully providing not only fundamental environmental knowledge but suggesting that, if the root cause is actually simple, if highly damaging, human activity, then a root solution might be to want do something different. Since she realises climate change has affected her personally, our empathetic relationship with Oolik extends also to an investment in Oolik’s next step, the decision to confront the oil boss to find out why drilling is taking place around her and make that stop. Oolik becomes a kind of vicarious climate change activist.
You can’t, I think, just throw people inside a show; immersive theatre work (and some other artworks) can do this much better in that this type of practice also typically comes with some sort of place/space that spectators are inside – immersed in. In our case, we move from simply clapping along to a song, or adding a sound effect with a simple musical instrument, to a few – then all – spectators involved in a sequence. Nevertheless, for us, the audience is always there and is often referred to, included, or made complicit in a scene. A key to inviting participation is just that – it is never a requirement, but always a respectful, if direct, invitation. We have had no real issues here, discovering with pleasure that our audiences want to get involved. But it needs to be taken step by step.
Near the beginning of the piece, our characters ask spectators to draw a picture of where they live – in the Inuit languages, ‘igloo’ doesn’t just mean an ice house, but a home, a shelter. The point is we all need an igloo. This is an example of a relatively straightforward mode of participation, at once communal and individual, yet connects spectators to the characters in terms of the themes of the work yet to unfold. Later, everyone participates in the encounter with the politician. It is here that the drawings of spectators’ various ‘igloos’ return when everyone brandishes them when participating in a protest! Of course, this is meant to be fun, but it also models what could happen outside the theatre, where audiences might be encouraged to give voice. The work is not, then, about ourselves as individuals, but ourselves as a community wanting and doing something different.
“The climate is changing, but people are not.”
At the 2015 ‘2 Degrees’ festival at ArtsAdmin, the book There is Nothing that is Beyond Our Imagination was launched. In it, Henrietta Moore writes
“The climate is changing, but people are not. Politics is about story-making. A new politics would require new stories. Now, in contemporary political life, apocalyptic imaginaries infuse the whole climate change debate. What are the alternative stories?”
As well as, in our case, how climate can be made central to theatre for young audiences, ‘alternative’ stories might encourage feeling, thought, conversation and potential behaviour change. Moore is right: few media items about climate change seem to be more imaginative than offering a stock illustration of a polar bear stuck on a piece of ice. Yes, it happens but, again, what are we meant to do with such an image? It risks being a visual trope and the iconography of stasis.
Climate change can seem a distant, abstract and difficult to understand phenomenon. Although the world has dangerous clowns who claim that the whole thing is a conspiracy (do some people really believe that or is it a convenient (post)truth?), what can art and artists do? We can continue to make climate change real, around and about us now, not letting it seem an overwhelming, distant issue. We can work together towards awareness and change by first offering and sharing in particular, human ‘alternative stories’. As a citizen of the world, it is hard to know what to do, but, where we can, if we make artworks that place situations into dialogue through skill, artistic craft and objects and events of beauty, we can offer a different normalcy.
As Anthony Gormley asks in ‘Art in the time of global warming’
“Is it possible to re-think art and take it from this finished-object status and make it into a verb, a participatory, open space, a place of transformation and the exchange of ideas and reflection on our state and status?”
Our work is not some sort of perfect example. Before re-rehearsal in a few weeks and the launch of the national tour (supported by a third GfA), I want to look closely at the participatory parts because, whilst we have to make frameworks, an audience’s agency can be compromised; and, although we have made ourselves very informed and especially careful, I want to think more about how we handle the diverse cultural aspects. Still, we are making a particular and new form in the context of a certain type of theatre audience. We also offer an example of how theatre can approach climate issues not by staging a negative, inevitable problem – as if we were inside some sort of disaster movie – but something that we can collectively address.
So a performance of Where’s My Igloo Gone? simply cannot end unless everyone works together. Audience members participate in changing the set and build a structure that becomes a new home for Oolik and Oomam. Everyone is welcomed inside this newly created igloo.
Find out more:
You can find a trailer and the tour dates for Where’s My Igloo Gone? and more at The Bone Ensemble.
Adam mentions some of the other plays that have addressed climate change issues over the past few years.
Wired Aerial Theatre‘s information on As the World Tipped (2011) also includes a video about their R&D for the production.
The essays that Adam mentioned appear in the following books:
Henrietta L. Moore and Renata Salec’s essay (2015) ‘How to create climate for change’ was published in There is Nothing That is Beyond our Imagination, ed. Claudia Galhós. Torres Vedras: ArtinSite, p. 56.
Anthony Gormley’s essay ‘Art in the time of global warming’ (2010) was published in Long Horizons: an Exploration of Art and Climate Change by Julie’s Bicycle and the British Council). The full guide can be downloaded as a free pdf from Julie’s Bicycle.
Questioning an end? Space for creative thinking...
"Adam says of Where’s My Igloo Gone? that the 'performance simply cannot end unless everyone works together." In our changing climate, where is the end of participation - and therefore of performance in your own creative work?"
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
Our latest Members' Post comes from writer Justina Hart, one of five winners of commissions from Weatherfronts 2016. All the commissions from that and the 2014 event have now been brought together in a combined anthology, available as a free download from Cambria Books. In the first of two posts, Justina introduces how she collaborated with palaeo-scientists at Durham University – one of the Weatherfronts partners – and how the research she conducted with their help fed into the creative process.
A long time ago (approximately 9,000 to 9,500 years), a vast, low-lying and once-Edenic landmass off the east coast of England, known as Doggerland, connected Britain to mainland Europe. My Weatherfronts project was a long poem called Doggerland Rising, about a tribe forced to leave their homeland as the North Sea rose to swallow the last remaining island, Dogger Island.
Doggerland first came to the world’s attention when, in 1931, a commercial fishing vessel hauled in its nets off the East Anglian coast and discovered a Mesolithic antler harpoon inside. It wasn’t until the 1990s though that archaeologists began viewing marine environments and submerged forests as once inhabited landscapes. Scientific research into these landscapes has intensified since, concentrated at universities including Exeter and Birmingham.
This post is about how I collaborated with palaeo-scientists at one of Weatherfronts’ commissioning partners, Durham University, and how the research I conducted with their help fed into my creative process. It’s a case study with poetic leeway, which I hope might help or inspire others.
Weatherfronts and early ideas – Dogger what?
I’d never heard of Doggerland until I sat next to palaeo-scientist Dr Louise Callard at dinner at the Weatherfronts conference at Free Word in London in May 2016. The conference, the second in the Weatherfronts series, brought climate change writers/artists and scientists together. Louise was super enthusiastic about her summers spent aboard a big ship drilling boreholes into the seabeds off Britain and Ireland – she and her colleagues are working on the BRITICE-CHRONO project to map the last glacial maximum. A young woman’s working life so far removed from my own: I was intrigued to learn more.
As the wine flowed, Louise moved on to ancient people who might have inhabited these seas, and touched on lost lands. She mentioned Doggerland. The word ‘Dogger’ rang a faint bell from the shipping forecast, which holds a special place in the imagination for many of us.
I left dinner, my head filled with images of our ancient ancestors who might have drowned off England’s east coast, or survived submergence by trudging over shallow seas at low tide. In my mind’s eye I saw women, children and bearded men dressed in furs footslogging across a desolate, sea-whipped landscape. This vision resembled a cross between Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I swapped the next session I’d booked and hotfooted it to Louise and Alison Cook’s workshop, Understanding the Ice.
Writing the proposal – what have I taken on?
My aim was to write a sequence of four to six poems ‘told in the voices of the ancient people of Doggerland as they witness and respond to rapid climate change’. My idea coalesced on the train on the way home. I would set it at the last possible point people could have realistically inhabited Dogger Island – without needing to grow wings or fins or build better boats. This would relate to the current global situation where people are experiencing climate change inter-generationally and even in individual lifetimes.
To fill in the knowledge gaps in my proposal, I did some Googling. The links focused on populist myths and fears – apocalyptic scenarios that would be ripe for Hollywood treatment: ‘Doggerlanders decimated by tsunami’ (a reference to the Storegga slide tsunami which hit Doggerland around 8,000 years ago); ‘Was Doggerland the real Atlantis?’. To write the poem, I was going to require proper help with research.
To win a commission, writers had to include details of support or further information they might require, such as ‘contact with one or more of the speakers at the event’. Spending a weekend surrounded by scientists was a first for me and I was excited. I also wanted to write a poem that would not, perhaps could not, exist without Weatherfronts or the input that scientists might provide. So I said that I wanted to work with the Durham University Geography Department scientists, some of whom I’d met at Weatherfronts.
But would the scientists, who spend their working lives weighing up data, look askance at the idea of collaborating with a poet who, on some level, would be making things up? Instead of assessing the amount of foraminifera in ancient mud, say, or counting grains of ancient pollen, would they baulk at using their hard-won research to make imaginative jumps?
Making the links – the muddle of ancient time
I heard that I’d won one of the commissions on the day the Brexit referendum news broke. It struck me as spooky since this project was about the moment that Britain broke physically from mainland Europe in around 8,500 BP (‘before the present’).
Over the summer I emailed the Durham scientists I’d met at Weatherfronts and did a Skype interview with Professor Harriet Bulkeley. Not much happened while most of them were doing 10-hour shifts onboard ship in the middle of the sea. “I’m heading offshore again,” Louise emailed, “to spend 52 days in front of some glaciers in NE Greenland. We will be ~80º N and therefore will have very limited communication with the world.” Right. I was spending the summer on my narrowboat in a marina in Lichfield, Staffs.
Before she went, Louise emailed some photographs of a small stretch of exposed ancient forest in Druridge Bay, Northumberland, as visual inspiration. “When sea levels began to rise this forest was drowned and buried by sand,” she wrote. “It occurred around 6,000 to 8,000 thousand years ago, before which land was possibly connected to Doggerbank when the sea level was lower. Some fortuitous rough weather has removed the overlying sand to reveal this forest. Apparently you can see footprints in it, but I’m not sure.” The visuals set the poetic cogs whirring, although I couldn’t make out the ancient footprints either.
Durham University also sent me a first paper to provide context: Mark White’s Things to do in Doggerland when you’re dead, which focused on Neanderthals in Britain. The paper was so brilliant that I became fixated for a week or two, not realising that it was set in the Palaeolithic, many tens of thousands years earlier. I got carried away for a brief moment with the idea of writing dramatic monologues in the voice of Neanderthals.
I had fun Googling background information for poems that I wasn’t destined to write: ‘Did Neanderthals have names?’, ‘Did Neanderthals speak and use language?’ It was silly season and my mind threw up numerous Neanderthal-inspired poems and jokes. How many Neanderthals does it take to change a lightbulb? Why did the Neanderthal cross the road? The mistake shows that linking up with scientists and asking those basic contextual questions can be vital. Also, if you’re dabbling in prehistory, check your dates first.
Here’s a fragment in which I imagined Neanderthals experiencing rising sea levels:
We have our own sounds for water, run,higher ground, drowning –but the same sounds as you for fear …
A first poem – bedding down with Mesolithic tribes
Things improved once I knew that I’d be writing about people because this would give the sequence more scope and variety. My poem would be set firmly in the Middle Stone Age period, the Mesolithic.
Our Mesolithic ancestors were surprisingly advanced. Settled in encampments, they had a wide range of skills and led a full, rich life with, in Doggerland’s heyday, a balanced diet of meat, fish, fruit, nuts and seeds. The temperature would also have been slightly warmer than in today’s Britain.
Before I’d conducted any formal interviews with the scientists, I wrote a first complete poem. It arrived, excitingly enough, almost fully formed.
This poem is a lament in the voice of a young woman. The sea having claimed her land and drowned her people, she is grieving for the fact that she won’t be able to have children. At the end, she walks into the sea, embracing the water as having life. She claims as her own the animated, dancing sea, as if all nature springs from her feminine life force. Doggerland – and climate change writing – had started to become a canvas for exploring personal material which I had resisted writing about in other, perhaps more obvious, ways. Here is a fragment from the last verse of an early draft of the poem:
The waves feel cold but they’re soft toolike fur. This new world moves, is alive– each tear, each sea drop is alive.Look, see all my babies dance!
This poem did not ultimately fit into the final sequence. But after finishing the Weatherfronts commission, I turned it into a song with lyrics and a melody, and then recorded it in a professional studio. It became my first recorded song.
Face-to-face with scientists – clarity at last
I was lucky to be invited along with one of the other commissioned writers, Sarah Thomas, to form part of a panel event at the Durham Book Festival in October 2016. This was exciting in its own right and, with an early December deadline looming, great for focusing the mind. The extra night’s accommodation granted for research purposes proved invaluable for the making of my poem.
The panel event happened on a Sunday. On the Monday, I spent the whole day on campus doing interviews and getting to know Durham, which I’d not visited before. I talked to Louise and to Dr Dave Roberts, followed by Dr Jim Innes, Dr Mark Brigland and Dr Mark White. I’m indebted to them all.
Since disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 loom large in our own consciousness, we’re inclined to project our current climate woes onto our ancient ancestors. Right away the Durham scientists steered me from such apocalyptic and other populist scenarios: when the Doggerland tsunami hit there was no chance of there being any people left on Dogger Island. Rising sea levels meant that they would have been migrating away for centuries.
They also gave me an insight into essential topics, such as:
rates and levels of inundation
changes to the landscape and vegetation
Mesolithic people’s skills and tools
Their lifestyle and spiritual views
Their ability to cope with rapid climate change.
At the start of the day I had a vague picture of Doggerland 9,000 years ago. But as we progressed, I began to pick up the very first inklings of the inter-tidal, estuarine backdrop and the resourceful people who would populate my poem.
Meeting face-to-face also enabled us to build ongoing relationships. And I think crucially, actual contact with scientists on the ground and hearing their passion for their subject fuelled mine. They were not at all fazed by the idea of helping a poet. Mark Brigland told me he read the Saturday poem in the Guardian every week. That was very humbling. I was off the starting blocks and away.
In the second part of her post, Justina completes the story of her research and the drafting of Doggerland Rising – revealing how her characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.
You can discover more about the BRITICE-CHRONO research into the ice sheet that once covered most of the British Isles, which Louise Callard and colleagues have been working on, at the project homepage.
Justina read excerpts from her finished poem, Doggerland Rising, at the 2017 Hay Festival and you can listen here:
And her full poem and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.
There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website.
Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking..."When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.