Environmental artist Laura Donkers works with the embodied knowledge of communities, through a form of eco-social art engagement, to help develop climate literacy. Laura describes her approach and experience with local communities in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
2,300 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes + 6 minutes video
This is the first part of two, and in her next post Laura discusses her move to Aotearoa New Zealand to expand her research as part of her final year of a practice-led PhD at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at Dundee University.
For the last thirty years, I have lived on the southern island chain in the Outer Hebrides, known as the Uists, where I work as a horticulturalist, artist and researcher. The population of fewer than 5,000 people is largely indigenous and is widely spread across several islands, with between four and fifteen people per square kilometre inhabiting small, close-knit townships of all occupations needed to sustain a community. The archipelago’s economic activities are reliant on the primary industries of tourism, crofting, fishing and weaving and dependent on the environment for continued livelihoods.
I feel I belong to this place; I both know and am known by my community. Without this social embeddedness, I could not have undertaken the sort of research I do, which relies on mutual trust and understanding, as well as a familiarity with the way that individuals and societies work at a local level. It’s a community that is interconnected across several planes of knowledge. Connected to the land, sea, seasons and with strong intergenerational and societal bonds, people exhibit a broad skills base extending across several identities; and, with shared spiritual connections and an interest in heritage and genealogy, people continue to pass knowledge on through generations.
It is natural then that I am interested in how eco-social art can be used strategically to promote sustainability in small island communities. Through the process of research for my PhD, I have come to understand that this is done best by working with the community’s own embodied knowledge, and I want to be able to show the importance of this.
My practice-led thesis aims to show that a specific set of knowledges accumulated through lived experience can help to improve ecological and social regeneration. My research reveals the role and value of this community embodied knowledge as a method for reengagement. Together with an eco-arts approach, this can bring local people, community organisations and national partners together into an open learning environment to develop ways of adapting to climate change.
Embodied knowledge, eco-social art
So what is community embodied knowledge?
I have found it to exist where people know each other through familial and experiential ties, are attached to their place/environment/land and utilise intergenerational knowledge to understand their own existence. It is also a practical form of wisdom, or practical reasoning, that is about individual ability to make good choices, based on understanding what is the right thing to do in the circumstances.
So, embodied knowledge helps us get to the deeper kinds of change that are needed at this time of climatic upheaval. When faced with challenges, practical rural-based people do not have it in their nature to just sit back and wait for others to act, but instead use their lived experience and inherited bank of knowledge to make decisions about what to do. However, in this new climatic regime, changes at a local level can be subtle (while still ultimately catastrophic) as they creep into everyday experience and become the new norm. While rural people are well placed to adapt to change, they share wider society’s lack of experience in understanding what irrevocable changes they will need to adapt to. In my opinion, it’s here that valuable reengagement opportunities lie, where ordinary practical people, local organisations and national bodies should come together and share knowledge and practices that may achieve solutions for local survivability.
And socially engaged art practice?
This is anchored in community-led development and uses art to draw the community into talking about and acting on social, political or environmental issues. It involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction, and this is, at some level, where the art lies. It is led by artists who recognise that the community is the expert in their own lives, and works with them to cultivate that understanding more widely.
So, place-making led by artists can revitalise communities: art and cultural activities involving local individuals and groups in collaborative activities with national organisations to develop meaningful public spaces where people can meet, celebrate and identify with each other. This kind of arts engagement can provide critical reflection and an alternative to the dominant social developmental discourse that can exclude the less vocal, less confident, less certain members of society, especially where historically these indigenous knowledges have been suppressed.
Many of the examples of this kind of ‘place-making’ are carried out by artists working in urban communities: Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s skills building projects develop the community’s capacity from ‘communication to construction’, to transform their roles into co-producers rather than merely consumers. However, I feel that the extensive productive capacities already present in rural communities require artists to take a different approach here.
A more rural approach begins with recognising the importance of the characteristics mentioned earlier regarding communities’ valuable interconnected knowledge and deep links to their places, and how they make use of their environments to sustain their livelihoods. So, finding a way to work that respects and upholds embodied knowledge is key to developing a good working relationship before even thinking of trying to shift mindsets for a changing climate. This is as much about showing the community the value of their own knowledge as it is about conveying how this form of knowledge can help other communities and wider society to re-think how to act locally elsewhere.
An example of my work is the Machair Art project. Machair is one of the rarest habitats in Europe: a fertile low lying grassy plain that only occurs on exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Machair Art was a collaboration between myself and artist Olwen Shone for the Conserving Scottish Machair LIFE+ project. It encompassed the year-long cycle of the machair in the form of four field trips to various crofting locations, exploring the themes of harvesting, seaweed, ploughing and wildlife. Students also attended drawing and photography sessions after school.
As part of my work combining embodied knowledge with eco-social art practice, therefore, I develop practical and theoretical engagements that rekindle old tacit knowledge and skills to help communities reimagine their places as ‘climate change prepared’. My eco-social arts activities centre on developing climate literacy through social, intergenerational activities and range from drawing and photography days-out, to long term strategies that establish community food growing sites. Planned actions, shared vision, co-intelligence and co-management strategies help build a deeper understanding and potential for assimilation into everyday life, with actions informed and underpinned by the local embodied knowledge of crofters and contractors, as well as local specialists and advisors.
Another short film I made, Tha Mi a Bruadair — I Have a Dream, shows the possibilities of rural education. In this case, through the Crofter Course run at the local high school, Sgoil Lionacleit, Isle of Benbecula, we engaged young people in land stewardship in their communities.
This video project was part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ Global Art, Farming and Peace project for Vancouver Biennale 2014-16, and was shown as part of Raising Farmers’ Voices for ArtCOP21 in Paris — an initiative by artist Shweta Bhattad, ‘Faith in Paris’.
Climate literacy: knowing and not knowing
A community’s embodied knowledge develops through its approach to change. While changes come about in all societies — alterations in population, climate, prices, policies, availability of healthcare, schools provision, and so on — tiny communities feel these much more acutely than larger populations. In places like Uist, they have learned that adaptation is always possible. There is no choice but to find a way to overcome challenges, and this produces resilient, adaptable people who can transform and sustain their lives as they need to.
The mindset of communities in places like Uist involves a very different experience of living than in the urban context. Understanding this means appreciating that these communities exist between knowing and not knowing. I will attempt to explain this and how I think my eco-social art abilities can work with these forms of knowledge to include climate literacy.
Rural knowledge is based on communities’ own capabilities to make and produce something to live from. Knowing the materials they require and how to access them calls on acute observational understanding and an ability to wait for the right signs. Counter to this runs not knowing whether they will achieve their goal this year. They cannot know for certain whether the materials (e.g. seaweed) will be available or sufficient, whether the right conditions (e.g. gales that bring the seaweed inshore) or signals (e.g. rainfall or lack) will appear, and finally whether these will enable the task (e.g. harvest) to be completed in time. Of course, they will achieve something of their aims, but they strive always with the hope that this year will be a good one that they can celebrate: that they can have some reserves, can feel a little satisfaction. This ability to live within these two states of knowing and not knowing comes through intergenerational knowledge, developing skills to source and make materials, and engaging deep durational and seasonal knowledge as well as acute capabilities to observe and to wait.
My eco-social arts process draws attention to wider issues of concern brought on by climate change and encourages reflexive reassessment via new thinking and doing that draw on the community’s existing materials, methods and processes. Our relationship develops through a collaborative process that respects existing knowledges and hierarchies, but introduces an alternative mindset that references climate change knowledge. While this is not at odds with a society dependent on the environment for its livelihoods, the way it is introduced needs sensitive handling in order for it to be considered rather than rejected. I occupy a different space, from another perspective, and can draw links to relevant information that can translate into local understanding.
Making space for climate conversations
I wish to activate and expand the potential of art as an agent of social intervention, community building, and cultural change. I have found the best way to do this is through an open-call process where participants self-nominate. What follows is built around close listening and dialogue and, importantly, showing this through projects that reference the participants’ experiences, concerns and ideas.
Essentially, what we create together is a space for the community to enter, influence and direct themselves. They start to have ‘climate conversations’ that make sense and lead on to transformative climate-aware actions that they take themselves. The artistic aspects help with visualisation and the creation of new spaces (e.g. Community Food Growing Hubs) to reconsider and reflect on recent local changes, whether increasing levels of social isolation, poor diet or mental health issues, as well as the potential climate change impacts of sea level rise, and increased food costs. The visualisations offer another view on the situation, enabling participants to see and hear themselves speaking and acting.
The creation of these spaces fits in with the community’s inherent qualities of knowing and not knowing. It feels true and believable, and sets parameters that are achievable and, in the end, self-determining.
Looking beyond the west
My work is about understanding mutuality through an artform that’s concerned with human interactions and social context acting in spaces of the everyday: negotiating the personal, social and political — in place. It’s about working with each other to gain new understandings of how to live in a changing world.
I contend that community embodied knowledge is a valuable resource that is not properly understood at present, and so cannot be truly valued. During my studies, I have come to appreciate something of the cultural disparities between the Western disregard for this knowledge and indigenous societies’ world views. These are based on interconnected environmental and spiritual values, and recognise human dependence on ecosystems and our influence on them through the use of land, water and air. As with the island community in Uist, this knowledge has come about through extended processes of observation and interpretation. But in non-western societies, the interconnected world view influences how they value their knowledge, affording a context for understanding from an embodied perspective that references the natural world, its materials, and conditions, in a natural state of co-existence.
To explore this point, I have been undertaking comparative research in Aotearoa New Zealand to gain perspective on the role indigenous communities with long-standing interconnected relationships with their natural environment can play in highlighting the importance of practical local knowledge. Māori see themselves as integral parts of ecosystems, and know that their basic necessities such as materials, health, good social relations, security, and freedom of choice and action are provided directly and indirectly by ecosystems. Knowledge of this interdependency supports their ability to care for their land and their people.
This part of my research — which I will turn to in my next post — focuses on learning how regenerative practices can influence the governance of resources and help to develop flourishing communities. And I am also looking at what maybe limits how we can transfer such a model to other places and contexts.
Find out more
The term ‘Eco-social Art’ was first coined by artist-researcher (and ClimateCultures Member) Cathy Fitzgerald as part of her PhD by practice The Ecological Turn: Living Well with forests to explain eco-social art practices.
The Rotterdam-based artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s work engages with the setting up of ‘collaborative production’ between people involved in processes of urban development.