Artist Michael Gresalfi shares an artwork that uses repurposed materials dating from before our mass communications ‘information age’ to witness the extensive decline of bird species and populations in his local area and the loss of natural spectacle.
820 words: estimated reading time = 3 minutes
My wife and I have lived here in our home, located in Boyds, Maryland, USA for more than 32 years. Our backyard is adjacent to a 2,500-acre regional park. Black Hill Regional Park is comprised of fields, forests, streams, ponds, and a large lake.
Over the past decade, we have noticed the precipitous loss of so many species that we previously observed, including native bees, butterflies, beetles, salamanders, frogs, toads, turtles, and birds.
Not only have we lost a number of bird species, the quantity of remaining bird populations has drastically diminished. In the past, during both the Spring and Fall migratory seasons, we would watch in awe as deep and dark ribbons of migrating birds flew overhead, oftentimes extending for many miles and for half an hour or more.
Over the past years, this substantial loss of both species diversity and populations has influenced the direction my art has taken. I find myself responding to this human-induced global environmental onslaught with an increasing focus on creating climate change focused art, and where possible relying upon recycled and repurposed materials when making my art.
If you have not watched my narrated art and science integrated slide show ‘Our Changing Planet’ please do so. My large installation “What Man Has Wrought” likewise is also available here on the ClimateCultures website.
Post-it board – sixteen reasons for bird species losses
This repurposed work originated with my purchase of a 1970s-era post-it board, which I then transformed into a climate change focused work of art.
I began with a 19.5″ x 27.5″ canvas framed and unpainted machine-stamped post-it board that included the outlines of birds sitting along attached twine, along with one-inch-sized clothes pins.
Prior to the introduction of the ‘Information Age’ and the advent of personal computers and particularly smartphones, people kept track of upcoming events on paper calendars and notepads and through the use in their homes of post-it boards.
I found this post-it board, equipped with the eight intact strings and a few miniature wooden clothes pins at my local Goodwill store. The canvas was untouched, no gesso, no paint. The birds were simple outlines, and not colored. The price tag on the back indicates it was sold in the ‘pre-barcode era’.
I purchased it for US $5.00 and proceeded to paint both the background and the birds with various acrylic paints. I then used vintage filing folder plastic file tabs and associated cardboard name tags, along with purchased colorful one-inch clothes pins to create this climate change focused work.
The twenty short post-it notes posted on this repurposed board (in order) are as follows:
*Where Have All The Birds Gone?
*In the past 50 years 30% lost inN. America
*2.4 Billion have disappeared since 1970
*MANY CAUSES MAN INDUCED
*SEED BEARING PLANTS DISAPPEAR
My future goal is to broaden my focus on the many other diminishing and lost species that I have observed here in my backyard and within the adjacent regional park.
I haven’t seen a salamander egg mass in the ponds in more than a decade. The mating songs of the Spring Peepers, a tiny chorus frog found in the pond directly behind our yard, is nowadays a mere whisper.
Along with Box Turtles, Bull Frogs, Possums, and Monarch Butterflies, all are prime candidates for my future works.
“If you were alive in the year 1970, more than one in four birds in the U.S. and Canada has disappeared within your lifetime” — so begins Vanishing: More Than 1 In 4 Birds Has Disappeared In The Last 50 Years, an article by Gustave Axelson
(September 19, 2019) for All About Birds. The article summarises recent research led by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which quantified for the first time the total decline in bird populations in the continental U.S. and Canada, a loss of 2.9 billion breeding adult birds. Conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, who led the study, is quoted: “These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife. And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”
Globally, the 2022 edition of State of the World’s Birds from BirdLife International “paints the most concerning picture for nature yet. Nearly half of the world’s bird species are now in decline, with only six percent having increasing populations. One in eight species (or 1,409 species in total) are now threatened with extinction.”
Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White visited the Planet Local Summit, finding in its examples of urgent work around the world to foster being and acting locally a cultural turning towards nature as antidote to climate and ecological breakdown.
1,800 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes
Once in a while I’m fortunate to attend a gathering — truly in this case an in-gathering of a community — that is so warm and focused that my intuitive heart knows that this is a real crystallisation of the worldwide urgent work going on, and that this will be a big impetus for it to flourish, broaden and deepen.
Helena Norberg-Hodge, inspirational founder of Local Futures, the organising NGO, spoke in her opening address of the Planet Local Summit of all attendees being part of the ‘bacterial mycelia’ seeding the crucialness of acknowledging our local belonging. This felt a deep truth and, as I write and reflect, still feels the best take-home gift. I left Bristol feeling energised to return home (currently Cambridge) with many gifts, new and old connections made and refreshed, and a strong motivation to keep working at a local level. I returned specifically to co-host a public engagement event called Dear River, of which more later.
Planet Local – our need for connection
Helena set the term ‘localisation’ as the antidote to the twin threats of climate and ecological breakdown, happening at speed now in every corner and continent of our planet, and the death march of the industrial/economic system that capitalism has wrought upon the human world. By acknowledging, being and acting locally — in terms of fostering community, emphasising well-being, local food growing, and community care — including finance staying within our local systems, Local Futures describes localisation through these actions as “a cultural turning towards nature” and “an expression of our need for connection — both to others and to all living beings.”
This was the first post-pandemic gathering for me that I felt called to, due to both the high-profile speakers in-person and the sessions sharing case studies of specific local actions and issues. From Helena, Bayo Akomolafe, Morag Gamble, Iain McGilchrist and Charles Eisenstein to many other brilliant engagers, thinkers and philosophers, pragmatists, growers and weavers, the hall at St George’s, associated spin-off rooms — including the cafe/bar, and various rooms at the nearby Folk House venue, and The Tobacco Factory arts centre to which the summit relocated on day three — were all humming with conversations and ideas brewing and being dissected and unpicked.
The big evening conversation on the Friday, a much-hyped conversation between XR co-founder Roger Hallam and ex-Government Minister Zac Goldsmith felt almost a dampening of the enthusiasm during the day: neither seemed to absorb the energy of the gathering, and while they found a kind of middle ground around failures of policy, and the potential of coming bloody revolutions (and the history of previous ones), neither could really offer any threads to hold hope upon.
The community-building that XR and Just Stop Oil has created is hugely commendable and needs anchors and deep seeding across all levels of our societies. I recently heard about an elderly couple who watched Chris Packham’s incisive and timely documentary struggling with his conscience about being arrested for activism and using his powerful voice; and they are now inspired to act, in whatever local way they are able.
On the other hand, Goldsmith’s tale of woe and pressure from lobbyists, including in one notable case the National Farmers Union, against plans for environmental support he was proposing is simply insane, and needs calling out. This is the industrial death machine of chemicals, vested interest, power; the insecurity of the human mind, tragically, that has created this huge schism in a world with so much staggering beauty, potential, and constant flux and change. The next day, Charles Eisenstein’s words — “The idea that the change can happen with the right person in charge is inherently wrong” — reminded me of Goldsmith and Hallam, and also the pedestals and stages we create for leaders to stand on (and fall or get kicked off, because we’re fallible humans!).
Belonging in the human and the natural
It was a joy to hear philosopher Iain McGilchrist reflect upon the theme, both alone and in conversation with Bayo Akomalafe and then Helena. I’m struck by his phrase:
“We are here to respond to the values of the universe, both in belonging ourselves and as part of the human community; to develop and expand our relationship to the natural world, and, partly as a result of these two practices, to live within divinity.”
A one-to-one conversation with Iain became a beautiful engagement around the theme of grace, which is an enduring talisman for me to hold. I recommend Iain’s The Master & His Emissary for an erudite scientific dissection of the schism in our body-brain and how this permeates across human history.
Food and farming, and the systems that support them, was a key theme of the Summit. With another hat on, I’m a member of the team making Six Inches Of Soil, a new documentary on regenerative agriculture and new entrant farmers, which will be premiered at the Oxford Real Farming Conference early in 2024, so I’ve an interest here, as I hope we all have. It’s increasingly clear that knowing our local farmers and buying direct or from local farmers’ markets, with local supply chains, is vital to planetary health and soil-human survival and potential thriving.
Chris Smaje, smallholder, writer and food activist, based outside Frome, and Jyoti Fernandez, farmer, activist, and co-founder of the Landworker’s Alliance, are tremendous forces for good in this sphere. Both are making change, standing strong against big farm companies and food/meat manipulation and galvanising opinion.
It was refreshing to hear from Nelson Mudzingwa, a Zimbabwean farmer who has struggled to gather seed sovereignty and organic certification across his land and the African continent. By open source seed saving, his collective is developing crop resilience to climate change in their region. Words of hope from a country known for bitter political struggle. Farmer, former head of the Soil Association and now founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden chaired this session with passion and aplomb, though I found his constant allusions to connections across the CEO worlds, including Bill Gates, distracting and pretty irrelevant given the brilliance within this audience and panel.
Speaking from a new story
A day and a half in, however, I was chomping at the bit for news from really local actions, initiatives and community building from these isles. As a former Bristol resident, I know that this city is bursting with creative social enterprise and strong community efforts, particularly around peri-urban food growing and combatting poverty. It’s a gritty sprawl of communities, and I sadly heard there had been a stabbing that led to a fatality in a neighbourhood nearby on Friday.
I had expected to meet the Street Goat Project bringing their furry troupe up the steps of St George’s to engage with us all. However I found the answer in a brilliant presentation from three members of Frocal in the village of Forest Row, Sussex: in a nutshell, asking themselves “what it might be like if we all lived and acted more locally?” They gave examples of their success and failures and acknowledged that it was a work in progress, albeit a vital effort for these times. I will visit friends there and investigate shortly. Frocal feels like a really valuable and catalysing project.
Other takeaways for me include the theme of colonisation of the mind as well as land and countries and continents: Vandana Shiva in her pre-recorded video highlighted this, reminding us that just 600 men created the East India Company treaty (that our monarch signed and sealed) to sail off and colonise that part of the world. Anthropologist Darcia Narvaez picked up on this with her fascinating presentation on her work on Nestedness, agreeing “we are all colonised”, and how might we respond to that knowing? Her thesis continues in the knowledge of our connectedness to, and acceptance of, our heritage.
Keynote speaker Charles Eisenstein delivered a meandering wander through his response to the topic — “ I trust the deployment of the intelligence that my gifts will be useful for” — and concurred with the broader theme that we “need to speak to people from a new story”. He brings a wisdom to our human need to really acknowledge that “technology is reaching deeper and deeper into the core of what it means to be human” and that our “common goal is to rekindle our connections”.
Sadly, I had to leave after two days, and the third and final day of the summit relocated to another Bristol venue, and I suspect drilled down more into very local UK and Bristolian specifics.
What called me very strongly back to my locale was an event I co-hosted to celebrate water and river systems at this time of waking up to the sorry state most rivers are in, and specifically how they are being abstracted from, and our human sewage dumped within. Dear River was a locally-organised gift to our community, to meet the issue with creativity, grief, and space — space to gather, to listen, to respond, and to ask “what can we do?” After two days of deep stimulation at Planet Local and then this event, I suspect that asking this question is our fullest human response.
Find out more
The Planet Local Summit took place from 29th September to 1st October 2023, in Bristol, UK. You can find the full programme, find about the speakers and watch the livestream recording on the Local Futures website.
James highlights Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master & His Emissary (2009). You can find out more at Channel McGilchrist, and James shares his experiences taking part in and filming a retreat with Iain in a post for James’s Finding Blake project on William Blake: Exploring the Divided Brain.
And Six Inches of Soil is the film James has been working on: “the inspiring story of British farmers standing up against the industrial food system and transforming the way they produce food — to heal the soil, benefit our health and provide for local communities.”
And here on ClimateCultures, you will find many other pieces by James, including his review of fellow member Susan Holliday’s book, Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart.
Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan shares her realisation that, no longer content to simply document climate change, a more fluid, non-linear visual language can evoke the nonhuman voice and reflect our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world.
2,300 words: estimated reading time = 9 minutes
A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera. — Dorothea Lange
Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure to collaborate with a sound artist, Robin Servant, to create an interactive climate change art installation in Quebec, Canada. The result of our collaboration was ‘La voix des glaces’ (in English: ‘Ice Voices’), a multi-sensory installation that gives voice to the nonhuman: the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River.
This was the first time that I exhibited my photographs as tactile sculptures. I grouped 24 of my abstract photographs of the rapidly disappearing river ice into eight triangular triptychs suspended from the ceiling in the center of the gallery. Swaying in the natural air currents of the gallery, these ‘ice sculptures’ resembled floating blocks of ice in the Saint Lawrence River.
Each photograph was embossed with braille text from recent IPCC reports. Visitors – both sighted and visually-impaired – were invited to touch the braille relief in a gesture symbolic of our collective blindness to climate change.
By touching my photographs, visitors triggered underwater audio recordings of the ice blocks as they shift and crack from friction, waves and tidal movements. Every time someone touched an image, the gallery filled with haunting, otherworldly ice voices. They destabilize us, pulling us into their evocative vortex, coaxing us to listen more intently. We find ourselves imagining what the ice is trying to tell us.
Bringing back the nonhuman voice
Giving voice to the nonhuman has, since 2019, transformed my photographic practice from documentary to abstraction. This shift was triggered by two events. The first (which will likely repeat itself in 2023) was Australia’s 2019-2020 Black Summer – the catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfires that killed an estimated three billion nonhuman beings. I was traumatized by the images of blood-red skies, charred kangaroos clinging to fences, and birds falling out of the sky. I suddenly realized that I could no longer participate in documenting climate change. I felt an overpowering sense of urgency to find a more fluid, non-linear, non-narrative language with which to express my ecoanxiety.
The second event that made me question the role of photography in the Anthropocene was a 2019 interview with the author Amitav Ghosh. Responding to a question from Amy Brady, Ghosh explains:
“I think, in literary terms, the most difficult challenge a writer has in an age of climate change is determining how to give a voice to the non-human (emphasis added). And not just in terms of natural disaster – in general. It’s such a challenge. One writer who has done this very well is Richard Powers. I thought his book, The Overstory, was a huge event because it expanded the boundaries of what writers can do. Now I am asking similar questions: How do we restore nonhuman voices? How do we trace the influence of the human among the nonhuman?”
I had previously read Ghosh’s 2016 non-fiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. But it was his 2019 quote above that inspired me — no, pushed me! — to completely change the way I used a camera. Instead of creating images from my perspective (while hiding behind a camera), I wanted to know how the nonhuman beings in front of my camera perceived climate change, from their perspective. What do they see when they look back at us? What do they feel about our destructive behavior and disregard for nonhuman life? What advice would they offer if given the chance? I was desperate to give voice to these nonhuman beings threatened in the age of man.
This shift in perspective, from the human to the nonhuman, has profoundly changed my art. Since 2020, I have been working on two series of abstract photos: ‘Je suis fleuve’ (in English: ‘Becoming River’) and ‘If I were a tree’. For both series, I have adopted a phenomenological approach in order to embody the nonhuman beings in front of my camera. It’s their story, not mine. If we humans are to survive the coming upheavals, we have no choice but to learn from our nonhuman relatives who were here millions of years before Homo sapiens sapiens first walked the earth. And many of them will likely still be here long after we have disappeared. So it would behove our self-described ‘wise’ species to absorb some of the wisdom from these ancient beings while there’s still time. But in order to do so, we must first slow down. We must learn to listen. We must learn to ‘see’ viscerally with our whole bodies, not just visually. This is embodiment.
A beauty filled with dread
Since Australia’s Black Summer, I have become obsessed with finding non-visual ways to enhance the photographic experience, both for myself (during the creative process) and for viewers (in the gallery setting). Instead of ‘photographing the river or the trees’, I ‘become the river or the trees’ through sustained contemplation and mimicry – moving my body in sync with the flowing water or the wind blowing through the branches. I do this using the technique ICM (Intentional Camera Movement). All of my ICM images are created in-camera; nothing is Photoshopped in post. To date, all my ICM images are single exposures, usually 1-2 seconds long. Through this experimental process, I have learned to embrace chance and mistakes. Most importantly, I have learned to stop trying to control every aspect (sharpness, composition, depth of field, etc.) as I did for 25+ years as a documentary photographer.
I describe my new abstract photos as fluid and fleeting. My hope is that these ephemeral images provoke reflection on our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world. An article in a French-language art magazine here in Quebec described my new abstract photos as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (in English: “of a beauty filled with dread”). To me, that’s as close to a perfect description as possible, not just of my photos but also of my state of mind.
Yes, I am filled with dread. Things do not seem to be heading in the right direction; there’s no sense of urgency. But I also refuse to do nothing while we collectively watch the world burn on our cellphones. I counter this dread with a more powerful burning passion: to dedicate every second of my remaining years (15? max 20?) to helping shatter the absurd illusion that Homo sapiens sapiens is somehow separate from and superior to the one trillion other species with whom we share this planet and upon whom we depend for our own survival.
This is what prompted me, in part, to question the environmental impact of my own photographic practice. I started to think about all the toxic chemicals in the inks and photo papers that are used to create the photographic prints for my exhibits. Even for those photos that were never printed, a huge amount of electricity is required 24/7 to store them on my computer, in multiple external backup drives, and on my website. Social media, email, charging camera batteries, and driving to locations also require electricity and energy. Then there’s the undeniable problem of how to dispose of photographic prints (they are not recyclable), not to mention the layers of plastic and stryrofoam that protect them during shipping. I could go on and on…
But it wasn’t until November 2021, during a duo exhibit with the video artist Anna Woch, that I became aware of an even more existential dilemma for a photographer. As I looked at my photos on the wall, a wave of queasiness came over me: I felt strangely uninspired by my own work. Or, I should say, uninspired by the way they were presented: as static, two-dimensional objects hanging against a flat wall, protected behind glass to ensure that no one would damage them. After standing alone in the gallery trying to understand why I felt this way, it finally dawned on me: how absurd it was that these abstract images of the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River were considered untouchable, yet we humans are constantly meddling with and disturbing nature. Photographs are ephemeral, just like the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence. Why was it so sacrosanct to protect ‘art’ for decades if the world around us was burning down? What’s the effing point? On the day that I took those photos down, I mentioned to the director of the artist-run center, Philippe Dumaine, that this would be the last time that I exhibited my photographs in the traditional manner, two-dimensionally. I had no idea what my next exhibit would look like, but I sensed that I was standing on the threshold of a new direction in my artistic practice.
A month later, I was sitting at the kitchen table of the sound artist Robin Servant, whom I had heard through the grapevine was collecting underwater recordings of the river ice with his hydrophones. In our early discussions, I had not yet developed a vision for the tactile three-dimensional photo sculptures; that would come much later thanks to the input of several artist friends. But when I first proposed this project to Robin, I already knew that I wanted to incorporate braille text into my photos in response to the rhetorical question “Are we not collectively blind to the impact of climate change?” After many iterations over the next 14 months and in collaboration with the local chapter of People Living with Visual Handicaps, we presented ‘La voix des glaces’ in February-March 2023 at the Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer in eastern Quebec. Funding for ‘La voix des glaces’ was provided by the Canada Council for the Arts.
The response to this multisensory interactive installation, in which visitors were able to experience embodiment of the disappearing river ice by using three of their five senses — sight, touch and hearing — was phenomenal. According to the Centre’s director, attendance at our installation broke all recent records. Especially among the youth. The secondary school students in particular were most captivated by ‘La voix des glaces’. One of their art teachers showed me some of the artwork that her students created after visiting our installation — such incredible abstract paintings, full of energy, movement, and emotion. And yes, rage. It gave me goosebumps knowing that some part of my work resonated with and was internalized by these young people. This gives me hope. We can live with beauty and sadness at the same time.
I’m currently working on the conception for a new exhibit in 2024 or 2025 — my most audacious to date — that incorporates elements of ‘La voix des glaces’ but goes one step further. I’ll write about this in a future post.
Hope you enjoyed reading.
P.S. If anyone out there knows Amitav Ghosh, please thank him for inspiring me to experiment using my camera in new ways that give voice to the nonhuman.
Find out more
‘La voix des glaces’ — created by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant — was exhibited at Vaste et Vague artists’ centre in Carleton-sur-Mer (Quebec) from 24th February to 31st March 2023. It was supported by The Canada Council for the Arts.
Curator and writer Veronica Sekules introduces her special essay for our Longer feature, using GroundWork Gallery’s recent exhibition to explore artists’ roles in helping change how we value what we discard, viewing our waste as art and heritage.
1,570 words: estimate reading time = 6 minutes
Longer is the place for works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog. Longer is for essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces it here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it.
In my essay, The Art and Heritage of Waste, I hope to counter the prevailing culture of extractivism by looking at how mobilising the creativity of artists can help us to rehabilitate waste as a transformative resource.
From March to July 2023, GroundWork Gallery’s exhibition The Art of Waste] featured the work of eight artists, all of whom were in different ways [bringing creative responses to waste that point to solutions, albeit on a tiny scale.
GroundWork Gallery — which I opened in 2016 — is situated in King’s Lynn, in Norfolk, UK, on the confluence of the River Purfleet with the Great Ouse. It lives in a converted little 1930s warehouse, a building we saved from waste, as the planners and heritage officials at first wanted it demolished “for something more suitable”. The gallery is dedicated to the environment and to the role of art and artists in helping us to rethink aspects of it, and to understand and treat it better, vitally urgent now in our times of crisis. I believe art can carry a powerful message or ‘voice’ to a much wider world than the narrow confines of the conventional art world, if only its audiences respond actively to it and communicate its innovative messages to wider publics, other disciplines and contingent professions. That is how we begin to achieve change — through bursts of inspiration, sudden insights, and above all through widening influence.
Environmentalists hate waste. This is the starting point for all the work I discuss in the essay, as artists hate waste too, and many of them are trying to find creative solutions to the way we think about it and literally view it. However, I’m proposing that we rethink the category of waste to include formally its relationship with art and with heritage, and think about the potential status of waste as both. The re-categorising and the status change involved will play a part in counteracting the extractivism which has contributed so significantly to the effects of climate change.
Artists working with waste for positive impact
Each of the artists in The Art of Waste used waste materials as creative resources, making use of surplus materials, implementing circular economies, being very economical in leaving nothing behind. As well as inventive practical strategies, the artists excelled in changing the status of waste, from that of detritus and ephemera, to be something precious and valued.
Jeremy Butler creates minutely detailed relief-assemblages which involve items that the artist has carefully crammed together to make complex formal architectures that hover somewhere between order and disorder.
Liz Elton makes large-scale draped fabric-like installations using compostable cornstarch, a material used in food waste recycling bags, which she colours with vegetable dyes made from her own kitchen waste, intercepted on its way to compost.
Caroline Hyde Brown makes work mainly in textile and paper, and is part of a bio-based collaborative group who are recreating textiles from Neolithic legumes, such as grass pea and more recently green manure crops such as Buckwheat and lentils.
Lizzie Kimbley works with woven textiles, natural dyes and basketry techniques, using principles of circular design to consider material sustainably in regard to its whole life cycle.
Kai Lossgott is a writer, filmmaker, visual and performance artist, and waste in his work has its own agency and is as much a metaphor as a physical phenomenon.
Eugene Macki is a sculptor whose work makes resourceful use of waste materials, often including food, and can be playful in making the most of the multiple meanings that result.
Jan Eric Visser creates sculptures from his inorganic household garbage, experimenting with new forms new materials, consistent with his own saying: ‘Form Follows Garbage’.
Rain Wu, whose conceptually driven work materialises in different forms and scales, works with waste and perishable materials to instigate discussions around our manifold relationships with nature.
The immediate impact of The Art of Waste was measurable to a degree from the visitor book comments. Responding to the exhibition, many visitors remarked that it was “inspiring, relevant and thought-provoking”. However, it was also “unsettling”, “bringing new perspectives on waste”. Some were moved to more action: “Interesting ideas, we need to reach out to everyone”, “WE NEED TO DO MORE”, “much needed”, “love being eco”, “we waste so much”, “educational and makes us aware of our industry and pollution”, “who knew waste could be so useful – makes you think”, “feels very dystopian”, “compulsory viewing for all politicians and their influencers”. One of the youngest visitors wrote: “Makes you think about waste. Awe inspiring”.
This positive impact was gratifying but just a beginning. It showed to an extent the desire of people to be receptive to new creative ideas and how these can stimulate our societal needs to change. However, beyond the specificity of the timescale and place of the exhibition, there needs to be a whole lot more thinking about how we can mobilise the creativity of artists and these kinds of responses to it. Where does it get us and where can it lead? What does that kind of power enable and what and whom can it both connect with and lead to?
Revaluing waste as heritage
As I explore in the essay, recent thought on waste has proposed various paradigm shifts that involve changes in consumer habits, moving away from a throw-away economy of short-term use and of things ‘becoming useless’, to one of waste as asset creation. Some argue that waste as an entity ought to be entirely avoidable, or even non-existent, providing that materials, foods and resources are used by people with greater economy and efficiency. Within the framework of Discard Studies, the entire concept of waste is open to interrogation from all points of view. In sympathy with that interrogative framework, I suggest that a paradigm shift in the way waste is categorised will help us all to prioritise what and how and why we save the stuff of the earth. Increasingly, students of waste, entrepreneurs repurposing it and artists creating with it are recognising that waste needs to be rehabilitated as a transformative resource, not stuck with the shifting values of random commerce or the vilification applied to detritus.
In setting the framework for further discussion, I hope my essay raises in outline some of the issues in the definition of heritage and of the potential for waste as heritage. It touches on some of the enormous complexities of the subject of waste, such as how and where is waste accumulated and what are the problems of distribution. I touch on the subject of who the various categories of ‘we’ are who are creating the problems. Then, taking a lead from a series of artists’ projects, I take a look at two specific contentious waste subjects in more detail: landfill sites and plastics, and how they might be faced afresh. The ways these subjects have been tackled by artists, writers and archaeologists hold the key to the category shifts we need, from dumps and surpluses to treasure, from waste and trash to art and heritage.
The innovative ways in which artists are using waste materials can lead the way to a shift in values, potentially turning what is currently a burden into a heritage asset. Categories of definition matter and both art and heritage are relevant. Waste’s role as heritage, specifically, needs to be brought into focus more, in order that we give greater value and the right kind of longevity to all the earth’s material and how we are using it. Shifting values affect attitudes. Applied at scale, that is one way the idea of waste as bulk mess and detritus can end. Instead, if surpluses, leftovers and spent materials are sorted not only by reuse potential, but as categories of art and heritage, this re-categorising can turn a negative into a positive asset and environmental benefits and economic consequences can follow.
Find out more
Veronica’s full essay, The Art and Heritage of Waste, is the third piece in our Longer feature, where members share original works, or ones that haven’t appeared online elsewhere, and which don’t fit easily into the regular ClimateCultures blog; Longer provides space to explore in more detail creative and critical responses to our ecological and climate crisis.
GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, UK, is dedicated to art and environment. It shows the work of contemporary artists who care about how we see the world. Exhibitions and creative programmes explore how art can enable us to respond to the changing environment and imagine how we can shape its future. The Art of Waste ran from 18th March to 15th July 2023.
Entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and artist Nicky Saunter shares the Hope Tales project she’s working on to find creative ways to make sustainable futures and talk about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change.
1,170 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes approximately
My work with the Rapid Transition Alliance is frequently a strange mix of dreadful fear and awe-inspiring hope. Our field is bang in the middle of climate change and therefore features a daily stream of reports, commentary, data and science on how poorly we tiny humans are doing in curbing our overconsumption and weening ourselves off our drug of choice that is fossil fuels. It is a veritable tsunami that threatens to overwhelm us every day: as wide as it is deep and moving faster every day. It can seem too large to approach with any purpose or clarity. Feelings of panic and hopelessness start to flutter in our bellies — you are probably feeling this already. What is more, climate change is now part of a ‘polycrisis’ — a perfect storm of catastrophic issues, from social division and isolation to pandemics and ecological breakdown.
Grim stuff indeed. But then suddenly in comes a story about yet another person or group who get together — often without much money to start with but a big idea — and do something that is simply brilliant and gives us hope for the future. And I can take a breath again.
Creativity for building change
The significance of this maybe lies less in the actual idea and the ‘fix’ that is being applied to a particular part of this vast issue. Instead, it lies in the inspiring way that single humans continue to work together in the face of impossible odds to cooperate, create and heal — often with surprising success. Despite what pundits would have us think Darwin said about the survival of the fittest and the drive for ruthless competition, we are excellent at cooperating and skillful at creative thinking. We are also capable of fast, practical action. The bit we find hardest is to stop either scaring ourselves witless or putting our fingers in our ears and waiting for all the horrible stuff to go away. How do we open our eyes, follow the science and use our creativity to design and build a new future together on this beautiful planet?
Our Hope Tales project focuses specifically on this feeling; looking at creative ways to make a sustainable future, and talking about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change. Hope Tales is a collaboration between the Rapid Transition Alliance, the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex and the New Weather Institute, using the power of story to investigate real hope for our future. The Rapid Transition Alliance is known for its research and publications on “evidence-based hope” — stories from the near and distant past that illustrate how real rapid change might be made. But the Hope Tales work has pushed further into the field of creativity, using fiction, poetry and art to stimulate both thought and action on potential new ways of living on Earth.
Air, Land, Water – Hope Tales in place
The concept is simple: to gather a group of people in a specific place for a few hours to share short performances of their work on a given topic. The overarching theme is Hope and each event looks through the lens of a further elemental subject. So far, we have looked at Air in a beautifully appointed vintage cinema in Crystal Palace, considered the Land in earthy Somerset in an old woollen mill, and felt the pull of Water in ancient Colchester as part of the Essex book festival. We have held a pinecone on our palm while telling the story of a tree planted by suffragettes, we have woven local plants into plaits in thanks, we have watched oysters clean river water of our filth, and we have listened to the tale of two plaice swimming the seas of Eastern England. We have met a lot of new people, shared spaces and tea and mince pies with them, laughed and gasped in equal share, wondering at the ideas of others and the beauty of their self-expression.
Once the event is over, the content prepared for this one-off performance is then compiled into a small and beautiful book, called a ‘chapbook’. Chapbooks were small, cheaply produced books widely sold and highly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sold by a ‘chapman’, they were used to publish popular or folk literature, almanacks, children’s stories, folk tales, ballads, political prospectuses, poetry and religious tracts. Our own chapbooks follow this tradition of broad subject matter, bite-sized pieces for easy reading and made to be shared and passed on.
Pandemic learning in action
There is something about the forming and sharing of creative work in an intimate space for a one-off performance that generates excitement, concentrated listening and a keen enjoyment of what others bring. It also reminds us how such interactive and collaborative forms of entertainment are so much more fulfilling to all than the treadmill of consumption we so often ride.
Part of the inspiration for this work came from the global pandemic, during which a flourishing of creative, homemade entertainment was shared and enjoyed worldwide without huge investment or any financial purchases being required. The Rapid Transition Alliance documented this flowering of generosity and creativity in a series of short reports that looked at examples of positive stories. Remember how nature returned and deer wandered through empty shopping malls? How ballerinas unable to dance on stage took to their kitchens and balconies for impromptu performances watched by millions stuck at home? How people of all skill levels took up pencils, paints and brushes, tried sculpture, made their own clothes, sewed and crocheted for each other? How we mended our old stuff, swapped it with others, cooked for those who couldn’t and planted seeds once again?
Hope Tales is taking the pandemic learning and putting it into action with a real focus on place. We try to choose towns that are not big, wealthy or famous for anything in particular. We are showing the diversity of the ordinary and the stories that lie around us in droves, just waiting to be heard and acted on.
The next Hope Tales event is at the fabulous Margate School on 31st October from 6.30-9pm. Join us.
You can explore the work of the Rapid Transition Allianceto share inspiring and varied examples of rapid transition and show what kind of changes are possible, how people can help to shape them, and what conditions can make them happen.
The New Weather Institute is a co-op and a think-tank, created to accelerate the rapid transition to a fair economy that thrives within planetary boundaries. The Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex supports academic communities build partnerships with policymakers and the public so that research and education at the University of Essex can improve people’s lives.