Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs shares thoughts on the place of artists, and of creative ensemble practices, in a culture of possessive individualism that must urgently address its chronic failure of imagination in the face of eco-social crisis.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


“Art is a parasite that feeds upon the corpus of culture. Its insularity is just a conceit….”
– Simon Read

One — driven to be part of the problem

The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss is Maddy Paxman’s account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique. She writes:

“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life.”

This sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she loved deeply, a man very clearly ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry, gives me pause for thought. In part because I recognise all-too-clearly the need to paint that she speaks of. In part because I think that, indirectly, her observation relates to the performance artist Andrea Fraser’s claim that artists are not part of the solution to our current socio-environmental crisis, as many assume, but part of the problem.

That sounds like a betrayal of both my own work and that of many people I deeply admire, at least until I think about the art world’s financial reality, its ‘big hitters’ — Jeff Koons, John Currin, Damian Hurst, Odd Nurdrum et al. What is the nature of the work such artists produce if not an expression of the culture of possessive individualism, the global economics the culture feeds and is fed by, and the deepening epistemological crisis in which current presuppositions about creativity are embedded? And that’s clear even before we link these things to an environmental situation that, in all probability, is now nearing its terrible endgame.

Two — the Great Derangement

As it happens, Andrea Fraser is simply restating in variation concerns raised by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley and, most recently, the writer and academic Amitav Ghosh. Despite a lifetime spent making and teaching art, I find myself sharing their various concerns. So I want to raise two possibilities.

Firstly that, if we have a stake in the arts, we should now very seriously consider in what ways the arts, in the culture of possessive individualism, have and are enacting just the chronic failure of imagination that Ghosh calls the ‘Great Derangement’. Not as some kind of quasi-masochistic guilt-trip in the best Protestant tradition, but as a necessary step to re-orienting our notions of creativity.

Cover to 'The Great Derangement' by Jill Shimabukuro
Cover to ‘The Great Derangement’
Artist: Jill Shimabukuro

Secondly, that we might ask ourselves whether the tendency to psychic monomania that Maddy Paxman describes as ‘driven-ness’ can be addressed by radically rethinking the nature of creative activity from a more inclusive perspective. Might it not be both more productive and more accurate to consider the attention and skills associated with arts practices, not as an end in themselves that justifies the artist as a ‘driven’ individual, but as catalysts or models for larger ensembles of heterogeneous skills, concerns and activities? Ensembles that would retain the psychic (if not necessarily the economic) benefits of a creative practice, but at some distance from the assumptions, expectations, and protocols central to the hyper-professionalised art world to which Andrea Frazer refers. Considering increasingly heterogeneous creative practices as compound ensembles might be a useful step towards reversing the situation in which art serves to perpetuate the culture of possessive individualism, and with it the Global North’s Great Derangement.

Three — ensemble practices

In the past I’ve used the term ‘mycelial’ to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates the roles and skills of citizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor and, more recently, fortune-teller and student of shamanism. Maybe ‘ensemble practice’ is a better term, more able to consolidate the more inclusive understanding I’m reaching for. To stress an individual’s mycelial entanglement in multiple, interconnected tasks, connectivities and interdependences, all of which will, to a greater or lesser extent, involve creativity understood inclusively. If nothing else, the concept of ‘ensemble practices’ posits the parallel notion that individuals are themselves compound, multi-relational ensembles, supporting by extension a view of the artist that does not presuppose an exclusive hyper-individualism.

ensemble practices - Akin: art by Lucy Gorell Barnes
Akin: compost, strawberries, Letraset, pencil, watercolour and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Four — between self and other

I think we now need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. We are in reality, of course, constituted quite differently, in and through our connections, attachments and relationships. Consequently, I’m intrigued by the distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make in proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a ‘life-as’ at one extreme and ‘being-as-becoming’ at the other.

‘Life-as’ requires massive investment in a monolithic psychosocial identity, one that must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not reinforce its coherence. It lacks, that is, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse — fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended.

The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple. To face our eco-social crisis, we must now find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. This cannot be done by investing in any ‘life-as’, including ‘life-as an Artist’.

ensemble practices - I am done with apple picking now: art by Luci Gorell Barnes
I am done with apple picking now: knife marks, apple juice, watercolour, pencil and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Five — placing the artist

Do we now need to differentiate ‘life-as an Artist’ from an involvement in making art that’s ultimately predicated on the understanding that the self cannot be reduced to a categorical identity? Isn’t this what’s implicit in Edward S. Casey’s distinction between a ‘position’ as a fixed postulate within a given culture and a sense of ‘place’ that, notwithstanding its nominally settled appearance, is experienced through living experimentally within a constantly shifting culture? If so, then isn’t what ‘places’ those who acknowledge the ensemble nature of practices itself predicated on negotiating multiple psychic, social and environmental connections, attachments, and relationships? On an open engagement with the productive tensions between experience and category, reality and representation, life and language?


Find out more

Iain’s notes on ensemble practices relate to a book chapter he has recently submitted for the ecology section of an anthology, The Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, which should be published later this year. “These are, as the title suggests, simply notes and lack the references, etc. which will appear in the final chapter when it sees the light of day.”

When working on these notes, Iain had in mind the work of two visual artists. Simon Read — who he quotes at the beginning — is an artist who fosters projects on a collaborative basis and who has immersed himself in environmental debates where collaboration on an interdisciplinary level is vital. Luci Gorell Barnes — who has herself recently joined ClimateCultures — is a visual artist whose participatory practice and responsive processes aim to help people think imaginatively with themselves and others. Iain and Luci have worked together on various projects, including a ‘deep mapping‘ workshop that I took part in at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in 2018. When I approached Luci, she generously agreed for me to use her images as an accompaniment to Iain’s text.

You can read more of Iain’s reflections on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016, published by University of Chicago Press) on his blog.  In the book, Ghosh asks “Are we deranged?”, seeking to explain our imaginative failure to grasp — at the level of literature, history, and politics — the scale and violence of climate change.

Fellow ClimateCultures Member Cathy Fitzgerald uses the term ‘eco-social art’ for her own works, which she also describes as ensemble practices: “often involving art and non-art activities and many ways of knowing from art, ecophilosophy, science and traditional and local knowledge and practical experiential knowledge.”

Dancing with Darkness

'I wonder what darkness means now?' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the DarkArtist and writer Jennifer Leach recalls the journey from a sharing of darkness at a climate conference for artists and scientists, and the year-long festival she created in its honour, to her new book, Dancing in the Dark.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


In 2016, Festival of the Dark was born on Winter Solstice in Reading, and ran for a full year. It had bloomed remarkably quickly from a seed planted at the TippingPoint climate conference — Doing Nothing Is Not An Option — that had been held in Warwick in June of that year. These TippingPoint conferences had for many years brought together scientists and artists, in the context of climate change; the scientists brought the facts, the artists the imagination to creatively take these facts along with their work and out into the world. The 2016 conference could not, initially, shake off a persistent sentiment of doom. Many scientists said they had little new to say, many artists felt they had tried and failed to effect change. Many delegates felt we were still hooked on looking for solutions, rather than extricating ourselves from that singular goal and extending our sight over a wider terrain.

What is it that we fear?

Yet something developed over that weekend that was unpremeditated, and I believe it was the presence of a coterie of particularly feisty women who may have had something to do with it. They began talking about the heart, rather than the head. One delegate counted the number of times the men said, ‘I think’, and the number of times the women said, ‘I feel’. One delegate humorously objected to being told, ‘Doing Nothing Is Not An Option’ and she set up a break-out group called ‘Doing Nothing IS An Option’. I was too busy lying under a yew tree doing nothing to go, but I hear a remarkable rainbow appeared from nowhere and spread across the wall of the small unprepossessing room in which they sat. By the end of the weekend we were talking of a new spiritual paradigm, a shift of focus from the head to the heart. There was no point, many of us agreed, in trying to find solutions until we had fully explored why and how we had arrived in this place of self-motivated disaster. Why are we acting as we are? What is it that we fear? What is it that we are resisting?

It is a much longer story than I can tell here, but in the course of the conference, someone suggested that there could be a day set aside for all theatres in the UK to turn off their lights and play in darkness, or by candlelight. This throwaway suggestion, one of many in a series of brainstorming sessions, brought about such extreme reactions that a small group of us attended to the energy generated and set up a breakout group to explore the darkness. Why was the darkness seen as Luddite, why was turning off the lights seen as a reactionary action, an action that contained within it all that people loathe about the ‘environmental lobby’? Why is darkness seen as non-progressive, as negative?

Showing Jennifer Leach's suggestion for Learning to Love the Dark - a discussion at Doing Nothing Is Not an Option. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
Learning to Love the Dark – a discussion at Doing Nothing Is Not an Option, June 2016
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe

I recall feeding back from our group to the plenary session, and slightly tongue in cheek saying we’d hold a festival in Reading, at the end of which we’d turn off the lights across the town. ‘If it can happen in Reading [which it didn’t quite!], it can happen anywhere.’ So was born Festival of the Dark, which opened around four months later, with full Arts Council funding.

Darkness honoured

I did not know where the Festival came from, it surprised me, and I did not know what it wanted. It was perhaps conceived as being grand; it ended up sweet, subtle, subterranean, dancing beneath the streets of Reading like the Holy Brook whose waters do likewise. It did not end with the sweeping gesture of a great Lights Off ceremony (in a corporate town at the height of the Christmas shopping season?!), yet soft candles, and faces lit by campfire stories, and even darkness, came to be its keynotes. It softened as the year progressed, and the steely imperatives of its inception transformed into a more mellow weave. Yet what it held was radical, daring, brave, and those who chose to participate showed courage. The festival ended in darkness on 21 December 2017. After a night of food, music and reminiscence, as we watched snatches of video from each of the Festival’s 21 events, we stood unable to see one another, arms around each other, and sang. A quite glorious community anthem slipped out from the darkened windows of a generous venue, now boarded up, and escaped into the night.

Darkness - the gathering for The Night Breathes Us In, part of Festival of the Dark, . Photograph by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes
The Night Breathes Us In – part of Festival of the Dark, March 2017
Photograph: Georgia Wingfield-Hayes © 2017 georgiawingfieldhayes.org

I wrote Dancing in the Dark for the Opening Ceremony and in many ways it became a signifier for me, for the Festival itself. Its unknown origin, its uncanny form, its darings and challenges, and its unswerving message of quiet assurance that ‘all shall be well’ came in from outside my self. The work, I am sure, bubbled up from our sharp ancestral past, when death, hunger and danger were ever-present and the skull was a bed-fellow for the living. It wove through the starry heavens of Galileo who unhooked us from the secure centre of a human-anchored universe, and flung us out into orbit around a foreign star. It took me deep into my own heart, to a place of fear, and asked me to jump, into the racing pulse of the unknowable, and the unknown. And it led back out into the weightless universe where, divesting of the small and false securities that keep us tied to fear, there is to be found a joyful liberation in our magnificent insignificance.

'I do not know what darkness meant then' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the Dark
‘I do not know what darkness meant then.’
Artist: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Freed from the tyranny of our dread

I worked with a dear friend on presenting the piece. She brought music to it. On four long nights we found ourselves in a back garden multifaith temple, in midwinter, breathing the words over candles and a calorgas heater, cold but entranced. The magic happened here. Strong ancestral stirrings were at work, and we felt perhaps that we and our ancestors were clumsily mapping out a new way to work with these crazy descendants who don’t, to misquote Hamlet, know a hawk from a chainsaw.

The ‘performance’ itself was imperfect. A childcare crisis arose minutes before we began, we broke a microphone in the dark, and we could not see. It mattered not. The power was in the process, in the imprecise nature of the very real exploration of imagination that began with the words, the music, and later the images, and which are now loosely harnassed in the pages of a book.

A conference cannot avert a crisis. A Festival cannot. A book cannot. We do not, in fact, know whether anything can, not even the accumulation of every great head initiative and every great heart initiative focused right now on the calamity of climate emergency. What I do know is that the courage to make tangible our rightful fear, to acknowledge it, and to launch ourselves into it, will profoundly change us, and liberate us from the tyranny of our dread. And in this, every small creative contribution adds one more small stone to place upon the communal cairns of our courage. Welcome waymarkers on unknown paths. 

Darkness - 'Is this not so?' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the Dark
‘Is this not so?’
Artist: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Find out more

Dancing in the Dark is available to order for a very limited time — and in a limited edition print run. This Kickstarter campaign — which has already ensured that the 48-page, richly painted story-poem will be printed and delivered to its backers — closes early on the morning of this coming Sunday — 18th August. On the project page, as well as examples of words and images in the book, you can hear Jennifer give a short reading from it.

Jennifer’s recent post, Earth Living — Now, Facing the Storm, explores some of the ‘questioning tales for a world’s ending’ she told at the recent Earth Living Festival in Reading, and the relaunch of her Outrider Anthems enterprise as a sanctuary of creativity. 

You can read On Night in the Daytime, my ClimateCultures review of Night Breathes Us In, which was an event from Dark Mountain Project as part of the Festival of the Dark. The Dark Mountain website features two other accounts from members of that organisation’s team who took part: Charlotte du Cann, and ClimateCultures Member Sarah Thomas

With Far-heard Whisper, O’er the Sea

Artist Rebecca Chesney describes her explorations creating With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea for exhibition in Newlyn this year — taking inspiration from the town’s tidal observatory and its unique role in revealing the UK’s rising sea levels.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


At the end of 2018 I was invited to make new work for inclusion in an exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall. As my work looks at our relationship with the landscape and is usually connected to specific places, I organised a trip to Newlyn in January this year to help me understand the place better, and to explore its location, learn its history and meet people working and living in the town.

Tidal observatory

One of the first things to pique my interest was hearing that Newlyn has a tidal observatory. A plain little building standing next to the lighthouse on the south pier, it looks more like a fishing shed than how I imagine a tidal observatory might look. Not usually open to the public, it was the director of the gallery, James Green, who organised permission for us to visit and gain access to the building. It felt really special to go inside this modest old outhouse with an enormous significance.

Newlyn Tidal Observatory, next to the lighthouse
Newlyn Tidal Observatory, next to the lighthouse
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

The observatory was built in 1915, along with two other observatories (at Dunbar and Felixstowe) to establish a national height system to provide vertical reference levels related to a measure of mean sea level. In 1921 the Ordnance Survey decided that there should be only one national datum and selected Newlyn as the most suitable of the three. Hourly recordings of sea level were used to determine an average that could be related to the head of a brass bolt set in the floor of the Newlyn observatory and this brass bolt is the benchmark from which all heights in mainland Great Britain are measured.

The Newlyn Tidal Observatory Datum
The Newlyn Tidal Observatory Datum 
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Although old equipment remains in the observatory it is now fully automated, with data collected every second via Global Navigation Satellite System technology.

Following my visit I met with local historians Richard Cockram and Ron Hogg. My work and ideas have always benefited from discussion with others: those who share a common interest, or have a passion for a subject I am exploring too. Looking at the same theme from different angles can produce some exciting conversations. They told me more about the history of the building, its importance and how they helped to get the observatory declared a grade two-listed building by Historic England at the end of 2018.

It was only when they mentioned never gaining access to the Observatory themselves that I realised how special my visit was and how lucky I am to have been inside (they have since organised an open day at the Observatory and been inside, so I don’t feel too bad now).

Although the Observatory was built to establish a datum for height across the country, it is the sea level records that have become so valuable for the study of climate change.

Sea level recording at Newlyn Tidal Observatory
Sea level recording at Newlyn Tidal Observatory
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Drawing out a vast truth

Providing the longest and most accurate tidal information in the UK, the Observatory has continued to record sea level data for over 100 years. And with these records showing that mean sea level at Newlyn has been increasing, I decided to use this information to make new work for the exhibition. Rising sea level is an environmental, social, economic and political issue: it is about land loss and displacement and will impact us all. And although it is a complex, multi-layered issue I think it is important to keep reminding people that climate change is happening.

While looking into the subject I noticed that sea-level data is typically shown in a short graph, a spiky image rising over half a page (or computer screen). But I wondered if it would have a bigger impact if I lengthened how the information is displayed. I wanted visitors to the exhibition to see time in front of them and to understand that every millimetre makes a difference. Trying different methods and materials and stripping back any labelling I decided that a pencil line on graph paper was a subtle yet visually effective way to show the information. Comprised of 102 individual record cards, the finished drawing is 8.75m in length. Each of the specially made record cards represents a year and the pencil line across it shows the mean sea level recorded at Newlyn for that year. Viewed all together the line undulates and slowly rises across the gallery wall. Minimal in its execution, the drawing holds a vast truth: sea level is rising.

The title of the drawing, With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea, is a line taken from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Written in 1797, I think the theme of the poem is still relevant today.

'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea'
‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Installation at Newlyn Art Gallery 2019
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

In May 2019 I was invited to speak at an event in the gallery alongside Richard Cockram, the local historian I had met earlier in the year. Richard gave an illustrated talk revealing his interest in the Observatory, outlined the history and also spoke of how his research contributed to a book published by the Newlyn Archive in 2018, The Newlyn Tidal Observatory.

Ten Years - part of 'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea' Artist: Rebecca Chesney
Ten Years – part of ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

I followed by detailing how my trip in January inspired me to make the work and where I got the data for the drawing (individual station data is available online via the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level). I also related the drawing to my other works in the exhibition: Forewarning, a three-screen video and sound installation considering land erosion on South Walney Island off the coast of Cumbria (filmed in 2018); and Far, three large hand screen prints showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes (2017). All these works represent the themes I continue to explore and am keen to learn more about into the future.

Four Years - part of 'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea'
Four Years – part of ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Find out more

Invisible Narratives at Newlyn Art Gallery also included the work of artists Lubaina Himid and Magda Stawarska-Beavan and ran from 23rd March until 15th June.

Ordnance Survey plaque at Newlyn Tidal ObservatoryYou can discover more about the Newlyn Tidal Observatory’s history at its designation page on the Historic England site and on the Penwith Local History Group site, and about its role in measuring sea level as part of the National Tide Gauge Network. Rebecca also mentioned the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level, which was established in 1933 for the collection, publication, analysis and interpretation of sea level data from the global network of tide gauges.

The Newlyn Tidal Observatory, compiled by Richard Cockram, Linda Holmes, Ron Hogg and Frank Iddiols (2018, edited by Pam Lomax) is published by the Newlyn Archive. ISBN 978-0-9567528-4-0

You can find Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in full at Poetry Foundation. ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’ is taken from Part III.

Rebecca’s work Far — showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes — was featured in her previous ClimateCultures post, Near / Far, in February 2018. And you can find out more about Rebecca’s other work that formed part of the Invisible Narratives exhibition, Forewarning, at her website.

Earth Living — Now, Facing the Storm

Jennifer Leach's artwork, The EyeballWriter and artist Jennifer Leach shared some of her stories at Reading’s Earth Living Festival. Here, she discusses these questioning tales for a world’s ending — and the relaunch of her Outrider Anthems enterprise as a sanctuary of creativity.


approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes  


There is a profound sense of collective bewilderment in the air right now. A disbelief that we are alive at the very time the world as we know it is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, coming to an end. There are theories and queries as to what this actually means — will Life on Earth end, will Homo Sapiens survive in any form, will the elite few succeed in their bid to safeguard an AI-supported future for themselves, will we all have to endure unbearable suffering? We are about to journey as we have never journeyed before. Permanence is already a foreign concept; it always was a delusional one. Already, the status quo is no more. On our internal radar we have seen it, and know it; we are now awaiting the shock waves.

Earth Living

In this context, how does one live? As an artist, how does one engage? Do we simply carry on, for now, until ‘now’ brings with it the storm we are all awaiting? Or do we drop the rhythm of conventional society, and walk out to meet the storm? Is our role to stand our ground, asking the uncomfortable and unanswerable questions?

I do not know the answers. Like many of us, I hear many calls. There is a call to action, which for me is being answered largely through a firm commitment to my local XR group; there is a strong call leading me into both immersive art practice and community ventures; there is the call to live each moment with a light heart and a sense of fun, and there is the call to hold fast to all that is dear, and to spend focused time with those I love. And Time tells me I cannot, in truth, answer all of these calls. At some point, I must choose.

Striving to find the rightful path for my organisation, Outrider Anthems, has provided me with a strong clue as to how I might be moving forward into this time of unknowing. In a remarkable and unexpected branding opportunity offered me by the talented and insightful young graduate, Ed Hendry, we have understood that Outrider Anthems is to declare itself a ‘sanctuary of creativity in the inevitable turbulence of climate breakdown’. We are building a strong team for this work, and paying close attention to what, in practice, it will mean. Following impulse and instinct, we trust that knowing will come when knowing needs to.

As an aside, I wonder how many collective shudders issued forth from that insouciant use of the ‘branding’ word. Used wisely, understood well, I have learnt the value of embracing what the commercial world has to offer, and to teach me. For Outrider Anthems, we worked hard and rigorously to hone a clarity of concept, purpose, mission and values, and in doing so, finally gained an authority that was previously obscured. It is a process I recommend.

In my personal work, I have been exploring these issues through story, as story is one of the most portable, direct and accessible art forms we have. They create a space where fears can be unmasked, held, explored, and honoured. The soundings are the first step in the process, and practical solutions play no role here.

My most abstract exploration of the letting go of fear is Dancing in the Dark, a work that is just ready to make its way out into the larger world through another new venture for Outrider Anthems: a dedicated Kickstarter campaign to create this visual story poem as a limited print first edition. (You can explore Dancing in the Dark, and how to get involved, via the link at the end of this post.)

Jennifer Leach storytelling at the Earth Living Festival, Reading in May 2019
Storytelling at the Earth Living Festival, Reading
Photograph: Alice McGuigan © 2019

Other questioning stories were written to share at the Earth Living Festival in Reading in May. This festival was a wonderful new venture established by Alice McGuigan to nurture, in Reading, a community learning to live in greater balance with the Earth. In the chill of a spring evening, by a quiet River Thames, and beneath a circle of listener-enclosing yew trees (all upshoots of one Mother Tree), I brought my tales. As the light waned and the day darkened, we explored greed, and need, and pain, and sorrow. Catastrophe and equanimity.

Earth Living - Jennifer Leach's story, The Eyeball
The Eyeball
Art: Jennifer Leach © 2019

The human being sees life from one pair of eyes. Everything from this one pair of eyes. The first story grows from one of these eyeballs, a nascent hairy eyeball whose voracious appetite proves to be insatiable:

After one great turning of time, the eyeball woke one day and its razor gaze fell, like a blade, upon a new land far beyond the known shale ridge, a vision of waving fronds and swaying bands. And the engorged eyeball swivelled impassively towards this new goal, setting its inscrutable sights upon a new paradise. Off it went, scuttling across rocks, and through foam, between boulders, and under stones. Unswerving, unerring, grotesquely unnerving. And from it all creatures cowered and hid.

The eyeball cannot see. The Patterners can. Have you heard of the Patterners?

They are rare beings born engraved with the interconnected patterning of all things. You understand this, it is not something they have chosen? They are carved so. Their skin, their eyes, their tongue, their ears, their hearts, all engraved with the patterning of all things. Each waking moment, each dreaming state, they see the web. They see each knot, each node, see each and all as sacred weights in the integral patterning of holding. Each unique, essential in itself. One knot carelessly broken, is the first small hole in the web. Two knots broken is the first bigger hole in the web. And so it goes. And so it goes.

Earth Living - Jennifer Leach's story, The Patterners
The Patterners
Art: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Who is to say what breaks the web? What ‘should’ we now do? How should we now act? In our daily lives, many of us will have noticed a growing sense of partition, as we judge not only our own actions, but those of others. Why is he saying yes to that plastic bag at the checkout? Why does she even ask if he needs one? Did you know X drove down to Y today to pick up a pair of party shoes from that designer outlet? So-and-So is flying again, off to Magaluf/Vietnam/Cuba, as if there’s no tomorrow. Judgement and separation set in.

Earth Living - Jennifer Leach's story, The Old Man and the Glacier
The Old Man and the Glacier
Art: Jennifer Leach © 2019

And from this space a tale unfolds of an old man who finally meets the majestic icelands of his lifelong yearning, in the twilight of his dwindling years.

I don’t normally use words like magnificent; I don’t feel comfortable with them. But sometimes there is only one word that will do. It was so grand and beautiful that it made me cry. I got frozen tears in my beard, and hanging from my nose as well. I probably looked a sight, but it didn’t matter. I could not stop looking at the, at the magnificence of this sight. I stood there until I was so cold I could take no more…

And in the very same landscape, amidst the rising oceans and the shrinking ice, a woman rows in her boat across the ocean, leaving behind the luxury cruise liners, the activists and the warriors, to arrive in the shadow of the melting glacier:

Quietly I haul in my sodden oars, lay them softly in the rowlocks. Gently I seat myself. I turn up my collar and release my hood. My white hair falls loose. And in my lap I slowly place my hands face up to her glistening face. I bow in her cloudbound shadow. Her diminishing body drip drip drips upon my uncovered head. Quietly I sing to her, a lullaby of passing.

Earth Living - Jennifer Leach's story, In the Shadow of the Melting Glacier
In the Shadow of the Melting Glacier
Art: Jennifer Leach © 2019

It is mystery

These are our viewpoints, those available to the limited frameworks of a human mind and imagination. However, there remains the word beyond. The final story offered the fragile thought that, shifting beyond our limited field of vision, all is as it is meant to be.

Upside out is inside down and here is neither there and thought is energy and matter is light and light is frozen as a waterfall that is placeless and ubiquitous and spaceless and timeless and infinite and eternal. And words that are vessels back down on Planet Earth, are mere echoes of energy, and each is an impartial resonance that holds, in itself, no power. Life and Death and Future and Past and Redemption and Ruin are all absorbed equally and mutually into the blue echo of dark Space. One hears nothing, for there is no means of carrying the words. It is mystery.

Earth Living - Jennifer Leach's story, Space
Space
Art: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Find out more

Jennifer performed her stories at the Earth Living Festival in Reading on 11th May 2019, under the title In the Shadow. The festival was organised by Alice McGuigan, Outrider Anthems’ project manager for the earlier, year-long Festival of the Dark, in Reading.

Jennifer at the Earth Living Festival, Reading
Photograph: Alice McGuigan © 2019

Jennifer is producing Dancing in the Dark, combining her poem-story and art in a limited edition, high-quality artist’s book, on the Kickstarter platform. To find out more, to support this publication and receive a copy of the book, visit Dancing in the Dark – an artist’s book on Kickstarter.

You can find two more of Jennifer’s stories in full on ClimateCultures: What the Bee Sees, and The Gift of the Goddess Tree.

You can find Ed Hendry — the designer who worked with Jennifer to create the new Outrider Anthems logo, branding, website and identity — and other examples of his work on Facebook and Behance.

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe is pleased to have joined the relaunched Outrider Anthems as freelance creative administrator, organising publications such as Dancing in the Dark and a forthcoming series of Outrider Anthems events.

Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change

climate griefWriter Deborah Tomkins chairs Bristol Climate Writers, who meet to critique their poetry, science or nature writing, short stories or novels. She shares their discussion on ‘climate grief’ and how psychological responses to climate change influence their writing.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


I’m grateful to artist Perrin Ireland, who has agreed for us to use drawings from her Climate Grief graphic story to complement Deborah’s text.

***

This August, I came across The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, an article by climate scientist Peter Kalmus. He writes about the profound climate grief he sometimes experiences, which he says makes sense to him and is helpful in focusing his mind, but also a crippling anxiety, which is less helpful. I forwarded the article to Bristol Climate Writers, inviting comments.

Our online discussion veered off in several different directions, so I’ll try and pull together some of the threads.

Climate grief and hope

First to respond was fellow ClimateCultures member David Thorpe, who didn’t find the article helpful. For him, the important question is why some people care and some don’t — is it down to personality type? “It was common knowledge in the 60s about deforestation, air pollution, antibiotics overprescription — in the Daily Express, for God’s sake. We knew in the 70s about climate change.” Society was supposed to change and adapt to take account of these serious issues, but that never happened. If it’s down to personality, David feels, this makes him angry; that our fate can be sealed by a majority who don’t care.

Peter Sutton agreed: “It’s a fair point about personality types – it’s kind of like knowing that gaining weight is bad for your health but this one cream cake can’t be bad, can it? We are generally, as a society, as a species (?), bad at thinking long-term…”

Later, David asked: “Are certain types more likely to think long-term — and they’re in the minority? Is this behaviour characteristic necessarily connected to what levels in Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Need’ have been satisfied?”

Abraham Maslow states that our most basic needs have to be satisfied first (food, sleep, safety), before the needs for love and companionship, self-esteem, and finally self-actualisation or creativity. The question here is: can certain personality types look beyond these personal needs to global or societal needs, perhaps far in the future (as climate change has been perceived to be)? Some artists work at a perilous level of neglect of at least some of the more fundamental needs, yet still produce great art.

Caroline New was less sure about the robustness of the concepts of personality type and Maslow’s hierarchy, regarding their explanatory power. She preferred to reframe the question in terms of social positions and early experiences.

Caroline agrees that climate disengagement is partly fuelled by the psychological difficulty of taking on the reality of climate change; however, she believes that feelings of climate grief and dread are not inevitable responses, but are re-runs of what we felt as infants, before the age where they could be cognitively recorded as memories. This makes them harder to process and heal from. Climate change brings it all up: the powerlessness, the overwhelm, the impossibility of understanding a massive, out-of-control reality. Caroline mentioned experiencing the same feelings of grief, dread and fear when visiting Auschwitz or Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum. Yet these events have already happened.

For Caroline this means that “If we realise that our childhood sufferings make us vulnerable, we can separate today’s reality from those old injuries, and welcome the fact that we have the chance … to join with others … to take action in the present that will affect what happens to humanity for thousands of years.”

A frame from 'Climate Grief'. Artist: Perrin Ireland
A frame from ‘Climate Grief’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

Psychologies of change

Others framed the answers in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Peter Barker said: “Some of the psychological reactions described in the article sound like PTSD, which can affect activists who work tirelessly on issues they really care about.”

Peter B believes that while campaigners are encouraged to focus on the important positive benefits of a low carbon economy, this fails to communicate effectively. He believes that humans are programmed to respond to threats and cautionary tales. “News is usually about trouble, danger, threats. Things we need to know about to survive. I think a clear picture is required to say, ‘This is what’s coming unless we get our shit together.’ I know it may turn some people off but the current message simply isn’t working.” He added that to tackle cognitive dissonance — the phenomenon of simultaneously holding two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas — we need to be even clearer about cause and effect.

Emma Turnbull responded with thoughts about cognitive dissonance. The belief that “carrying on business-as-usual is viable; we can act without consequence”, is familiar, comforting, inherited and reinforced through generations. It conflicts with the other belief that “climate change is real and we need to radically change our lives”, which is an invitation to the unknown and to some harsh realisations and shakes our sense of security and societal structures. But she added that although this “second belief is like waking up in hell … it offers personal growth opportunities and collective evolution.”

Emma added: “I think it is useful at some level to acknowledge the potential losses from leaving behind the old systems and beliefs that have served us before now, because it helps to understand what needs to be replaced in new systems and culture e.g. emotional needs, personal purpose and value, and ritual or life course.”

She also mentioned PTSD, but in terms of society rather than the individual. “I think climate issues are deeply related to PTSD on a global level. Having an ambient sense of danger on a daily basis which is so powerful and seemingly beyond the power of an individual to correct, how can that not impact us all? When people are traumatised they have different reactions to it and can freeze when there’s a danger that there are no signs of escape from; dissociation allows them to zone out in a fog of denial. From researching the subject of trauma, I’d say that the way to help people move out of trauma and into a position of healing/action is to help them build emotional resources and a sense of safety. This is where I’d say positive narratives have a helpful role alongside more sobering storytelling.”  

For my part, I referred to feelings of climate grief and powerlessness, and the power of communication. “The more people talk about climate change, and admit their feelings of grief and helplessness, maybe this gives permission to other people to acknowledge these feelings too … I think we can draw on other social movements such as civil rights, homosexuality, etc — people talking and writing and acting — for some kind of roadmap … Depression can be a result of knowing something is terrible but not being able to do anything about it. So, in the West we have an epidemic of depression and other mental ill-health … could it have something to do with helplessness in the face of planetary destruction?”

A frame from 'Climate Grief'<br /> Artist: Perrin Ireland
A frame from ‘Climate Grief’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

Lesley Richardson quoted Denise Baden at the University of Southampton, who runs greenstories.org. “Denise argues that disaster movies etc haven’t worked — they cause us to bury our heads — while positive stories inspire and help us imagine the future we want via heroes and role models.”

Emma Giffard agreed that “Humans are hardwired to respond to threats but are much more able to respond to short-term immediate threats than distant ones”, recommending an article on the Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change.

Emma G also recommended Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, a free online course on the psychology. Only about 10% of ‘denialists’ are actually truly denying the science, while behind the other 90% there are other factors which relate to internal values.

David and Caroline also discussed mindsets, which influence expectations and behaviour. David wondered about how to change mindsets, citing placebo and nocebo effects. We know little about these effects, he said, but he’s keen on the use of shame, which has been effective with “paedophilia, drink-driving, smoking and seat-belt wearing, alongside evidence, public discussion/education around the long-term consequences … and legislation. Shame is a powerful peer-group influencer. Shaming frequent fliers, for example, could work in a similar way, but to work it needs a certain critical mass. Reaching that takes a long time. We’re getting there with plastics use.”

Caroline agreed there’s a place for shame, but as a major political mechanism it’s double-edged, since it draws on social disapproval and low self-esteem. She thought concepts of justice — “We have the right to require our government to formulate policies that protect us and future generations — and exemplary hopeful actions — see Plan B Earth” — are a better way forward.

Writing for change 

Finally, we touched on how these complex issues inform our writing, particularly in fiction. What is our motivation in writing about climate change, or our approach? How do the responses of hope vs grief play out in character and plot? What do we want to achieve — if anything?

A frame from 'Climate Grief'<br /> Artist: Perrin Ireland
A frame from ‘Climate Grief’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

Peter B: “For me, the main motivation to write about climate change is to produce action. To alert, alarm even, people into responding. It may be fiction but it’s a way of engaging your reader’s imagination to the realities we are, or soon will be, facing, to avoid sleepwalking into disaster. If nothing else, at least we can be awake when it all goes tits up. I don’t write about climate change, but a world in which it is happening with my characters living and dealing with disintegrating systems — ecological, economic and social. The central plots revolve around my characters trying, in their own different ways, to survive (grief) or effect major change (hope).”

David: “From a narrative point of view, addressing the issues of feelings of powerlessness or apathy in the face of something as huge as climate change, one must remember that most people do not make a dramatic change in their lives until they have to. A convincing narrative would explore the significance and nature of this tipping point … Additionally, I would wish to explore this idea — for which there is some scientific evidence — that a certain level of stress in an emergency seems to paralyse most people … but there is a significant minority who are energised … and can take charge and try to rescue the situation.”

Emma T: “I want to inspire hope and action through positive visions of sustainable futures. I like to share with others the magic and healing I experience through deeply connecting with nature and contribute stories that reconnect us with the land. I also write to explore the trauma that is at the heart of and driving issues like climate change.”

Peter S: “I’m currently reading You are not human, by Simon Lancaster, which is all about metaphor; and he mentions this study, Metaphors for the War (or Race) against Climate Change, which investigates how language — and specifically the metaphors we use — affects how people perceive climate change. I’ve always drawn inspiration from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and as writers we should be hyperaware of what language we use, especially when our writing is a political act (but then, isn’t all writing a political act?)”

Emma G: “My novel is basically all about the cognitive dissonance required to be fully cognisant of environmental issues and still function as a modern human — it’s basically about the intersection between climate change and ecocide and mental health. Just need someone to publish it, that’s all …”

And I too write in order to explore that cognitive dissonance. My second novel (unpublished) explores the deep climate grief and pain experienced by someone who understands all too clearly what’s happening to the planet, yet is surrounded by people who belittle her anxieties and believe she’s mentally ill because of her ‘extreme’ beliefs. Writing it has helped consolidate my own position, alleviated some of my climate loneliness, and encouraged me to keep campaigning and writing – the only sane response. Seeking publication…


Find out more

Bristol Climate Writers meet monthly in central Bristol, for discussion and critique, and to plan public workshops. There are roughly twenty members, writing poetry, science, nature, short stories or novels. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter, where you can follow @BrisClimWrit and @tomkins_deborah

You can follow some of the BCW members mentioned here at their websites: Caroline New Pete Sutton David Thorpe 

Bristol Climate Writers is running a writing workshop, Finding the Positive: Dystopias and Utopias in a Changing Climate, on Sunday 28 October 2018 as part of Bristol Festival of Literature – see our Events calendar

Peter Kalmus’ article, The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, appeared in Yes! Journalism for people building a better world (9th August 2018): “Sometimes a wave of climate grief breaks over me. It happens unexpectedly, perhaps during a book talk, or while on the phone with a congressional representative. In a millisecond, without warning, I’ll feel my throat clench, my eyes sting, and my stomach drop as though the Earth below me is falling away. During these moments, I feel with excruciating clarity everything that we’re losing — but also connection and love for those things.” You can follow Peter on Twitter: @ClimateHuman and his website: becycling.life

Other resources mentioned in this post include:

Brian Kateman’s article, Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change, appeared on Columbia University’s State of the Planet site (9th January 2012). 

Simon Lancaster’s book, You are not Human, is published by Biteback Publishing (2018).

Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ was described in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. There is a useful guide to the original concept and recent developments, by Saul McLeod at Simply Psychology (updated 2018).

The free online course, Making Sense of Climate Denial, is provided by the University of Queensland (and is featured on our Anthropocene Learning page, alongside other free online courses).

Greenstories.org was a short story competition organised by the University of Southampton in 2018, and the anthology of winning stories, Resurrection Trust, will be published in 2019. The site has a section of useful story ideas and resources.

Finally, you might like to read a couple of other articles and an illustrated story relating to climate grief, which I discovered while bringing Deborah’s post to the site:

Jennifer Atkinson’s article, Addressing climate grief makes you a badass, not a snowflake, which appeared in High Country News (29th May 2018). Atkinson teaches environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell, and after watching her students “struggle with the depressing realities of our ecological crisis for nearly 10 years … decided to offer a new seminar on ‘Environmental Grief and Climate Anxiety.’ When registration opened, every seat filled. But after the local media began reporting on the class, a flood of derisive emails and phone calls poured into my office, and the newspaper comment sections filled up with responses mocking today’s ‘absurd. college courses and the students who attend them.” Despite this, “direct engagement with today’s biggest challenges is, nevertheless, the path many of today’s students are choosing to follow.”

Writer Meehan Crist’s Besides, I’ll be dead is her review in London Review of Books (22nd February 2018) of Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World. Crist raises a psychological paradigm of ‘ambiguous loss’, introduced in the 1970s by Pauline Boss when studying families of soldiers who had gone missing in action. Boss “coined the term to describe the arrested mourning that follows a loss without closure or understanding. Boss describes two types of ambiguous loss: when the object is physically absent but psychologically present (as with soldiers missing in action), and when the object is physically present but psychologically absent (as with Alzheimer’s disease). The first helps illuminate the arrested mourning often experienced by climate refugees. How do you mourn a home that is sinking into a faraway sea, but remains psychologically present? The second type of ambiguous loss is appropriate to the experience of living in an area threatened by a rise in sea levels. … Grief is stalled by uncertainty.”

The illustrations throughout this ClimateCultures post come from the graphic story Climate Grief, The emotional reality of global warmingby artist Perrin Ireland. Perrin works with scientists, policy analysts, and environmentalists to tell their science stories through animations, visual essays, and infographics. You can find the full story and more of her work at www.experrinment.com 
'Climate Grief, the emotional reality of global warming'<br /> Artist: Perrin Ireland
‘Climate Grief, the emotional reality of global warming’
Artist: Perrin Ireland © 2018
http://www.experrinment.com

And the passage from Joanna Macey that Perrin quotes in her story come from Macey’s lifelong activism in The Work that Reconnects, which began in the 1970s as “despair and empowerment” work, evolved in Deep Ecology and has become a network. 

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What do you think?

Do you experience Climate Grief? Do you have other ways of exploring, explaining or addressing the issues that Deborah and her fellow Bristol Climate Writers have raised here? ClimateCultures would like to publish further accounts and discussions on climate grief and other responses to our environmental and climate predicaments; do use the Contact Form to get in touch!