Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs discusses Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, his new co-authored book about the possibilities of creative work, ensemble practices and disciplinary agnosticism in seeking alternative and inclusive ways of belonging to this world.


2,250 words: estimated reading time = 9 minutes 


In December 2020, and after a great many years of work, Mary Modeen’s and my book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies finally appeared. This post aims to give some idea of what sort of book this is, along with some idea of how, and why, it has the content it does.

Calling for disciplinary agnosticism
Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, by Mary Modeen & Iain Biggs

As we make clear from the start, and despite the sixty-eight colour images of works we referred to, it’s not really an ‘art book’, at least in the usual sense. Instead, it’s a book about the possibilities of ‘ensemble practices’, creative work viewed as drawing on concerns found in art, education, issues of place and what Felix Guattari calls ecosophy. Nor is it a book of theory, although it deals with a wide range of ideas from many different disciplines. Our central aim is to encourage readers, whatever their background, to understand their particular skills and knowledge in larger, intra-related contexts so as to contribute to the ‘joined-up’ thinking and action necessary to face the global changes now taking place. We’re not interested in providing an argument based on a set of specialist practices or a particular form of disciplinary or interdisciplinary thinking. Instead, like Donna Haraway, we want to encourage readers to find practical, creative ways to ‘stay with the trouble’ in all its many dimensions.        

Towards ‘placed-ness’

So, a brief outline of the book’s contents. Chapter One outlines the basis of our position and, in particular, considers the importance of three geo-poetic thinkers to our concerns — Gary Snyder, Kenneth White, and Robert Frodeman. This also allows us to distinguish their approaches from our own. Chapter Two goes back to fundamentals by considering how we take in the world through our senses. It takes the reader on an imagined walk so as to explore the relationship between embodiment and place, the visible and the invisible, the phenomenological and the numinous. Chapter Three then sets out what we mean by slow residency and explains why we don’t offer a single definition of deep mapping. It then outlines a possible pre-history of deep mapping and gives examples of current practice.

Disciplinary agnosticism
‘Queen Bee and Mobile Hive performance’, Buzz Lab interns, Plains Art Museum, Fargo, North Dakota, 2017.
Photo: Christine Baeumler

Chapter Four is based on a long interview about her work with Christine Baeumler, an artist, environmental educator, community activist, and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota. Her collaborative work with both her local community and Dakota people living in Minneapolis St Paul resulted in a number of land reclamation projects, including transforming an abandoned railway marshalling-yard into what is now the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Her recent Buzz Lab project with young people employed as paid interns created a pollinator garden and developed strategies to highlight the socio-environmental value of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Chapter Five investigates the values inherent in perception, and especially as this is central to the ways in which place is perceived. In it, the processes by which the threads of cultural value relating to a particular site generate understanding are unpicked.

Chapter Six looks at questions around collaboration. It includes a look at the gap between the idea of ‘interdisciplinary research’ and the way interdisciplinary collaborations tend to work out in practice. Here we’re concerned with the ways the presuppositions of the knowledge industry distort collaboration to maintain the status quo. As an alternative, we discuss what we call ‘creative communities of practice’. Importantly, it includes a shortened version of the South African artist, environmental researcher, and writer Hanien Conradie’s text The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, which provides a compelling example of collaboration with the more-than-human.

Chapter Seven consists of eleven examples of practices that offer inclusive and open creative approaches to a range of current concerns. Approaches that, for example, embrace the complexities of living in a world that has become inexorably multicultural, while also respecting and valuing the local, the specific, and the idiosyncratic. Chapter Eight is based on exchanges with the Australian designer, landscape researcher, curator, and educator Gini Lee. Her Stony Rises deep mapping work is representative of an inclusive, relational approach to issues of place and environment that has informed her numerous collaborations, enabling her to explore possibilities across a wide variety of conventionally disparate roles.

Chapter Nine draws on extensive conversations between Mary Modeen and  Alexander and Susan Maris, who live and work at Kinlock Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands. We see their work as enacting the vital materialism proposed by Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, and others; an inclusive approach that makes possible what Donna Haraway calls ‘tentacular thinking’. Chapter Ten, ‘Fieldwork Reconsidered, is a plea for more holistic and grounded approaches to creative learning in its fullest sense. For a shift away from what Geraldine Finn calls “high altitude thinking” towards direct experience and awareness of our placed-ness. Towards a better understanding of knowledge as embodied, enacted, and always subject to the contingencies of human and more-than-human worlds. And towards a more open awareness that attends to multiple voices in different registers and differently placed. A fieldwork, then, that’s enacted in and through our active awareness of the porosity of the human and more-than-human, of place and time, of self and community.

Disciplinary agnosticism

Now for the ‘how’ and ‘why’. The Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub pointed out in 1990 that we have an unrealistic view of the work of both scientists and artists. Work that, in both cases, is actually located within a small, subtle, largely confined — if at times pervasive — domain with regard to society as a whole. Furthermore, both scientists and artists are, for much of their times, actually engaged in a whole variety of other, more mundane and everyday roles and activities. Against the assumption that the artistic or scientific mentality is a singular, exceptional and all-consuming role, Holub suggests an alternative view. Rather than the current overemphasis on the different practices and methodologies of scientists and artists, he focuses on their need to acknowledge that these differences are insignificant compared to their common obligations. ‘Obligation’ Mary and I paraphase as the need to obtain, and act on the basis of, an informed understanding of the distinct but intra-related ecologies of selfhood, the social, and the environmental. Recognising that common obligation is a key element of the inclusivity of ensemble practices.

However, developing an ensemble practice requires an agnostic attitude towards the realpolitik that underwrites the authority that disciplines and professions claim in relation to the production and circulation of knowledge. An agnosticism that allows us to separate the ‘use value’ of specialist knowledge from the intellectual and social power of categorisation and exclusion derived from it. Disciplinary agnosticism is basically a strategy to by-pass what sociologists of knowledge see as the way in which dominant forms of knowledge production are able to insist that all other knowledge claims be judged according to the dominant set of criteria. In extreme cases, this means that nothing recognisable as knowledge can be produced outside of the socially dominant form. Put briefly, disciplinary agnosticism insists on what Isabelle Stengers and other thinkers call a “decolonization of thought”. So how did we arrive at this position?

A carrier bag theory of ensemble praxis

Disciplinary agnosticism - Listening at the Borders
Iain Biggs Hidden War (with and for Anna Biggs) from Iain Biggs ‘”Listening at the Borders” introduction, acknowledgements (and an intervention) in Iain Biggs, ed. Debatable Lands Vol. 2. These Debatable Lands (Bristol, Wild Conversations Press, 2009).
Photo Iain Biggs

The archaeologist and anthropologist Barbara Bender’s work, like that of her friend the political geographer Doreen Massey, show that:

“landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology]”
(quoted in Doreen Massey 2006: ’Landscape as a Provocation: Reactions on Moving Mountains’. Journal of Material Culture. 11(33), p. 33).

This understanding is complemented by the polymath Cliff McLucas, a key figure in the development of deep mapping, who writes in There are ten things I can say about these deep maps that deep maps should: “bring together the amateur and the professional, the artist and the scientist, the official and the unofficial, the national and the local”. In her chapter ‘The Politics of Spirituality. The Spirituality of Politics’ in Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence, 1996, the feminist philosopher Geraldine Finn identifies the tension between that shared obligation and a form of reason preoccupied with categorisation. She states that:

“…the contingent and changing concrete world always exceeds the ideal categories of thought within which we attempt to express and contain it. And the same is true of people. We are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us.”

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points to the profoundly negative social consequences of over-emphasis on the categorical; it’s encouraging and enabling ‘othering’ by promoting an ethically neutral ‘objective detachment’. One that erodes what Hannah Arendt calls the animal pity by which all normal persons are affected in the presence of physical suffering and, in addition, has estranged us from all other-than-human life.

Lastly, Bruno Latour supports the link between disciplinary agnosticism and the ability of ensemble practices to help renegotiate the relationship between local and global when he writes:

“What counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalisation, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish, a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world”.
(Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime 2018 pp. 15-16).

Both disciplinary agnosticism and ensemble practices assume a particular sense of self that’s constituted in and through relationships, attachments, and connections. Our understanding here draws on the psychoanalytic thinking of Gemma Corradi Fiumara and Felix Guattari, the post-Jungians James Hillman and Mary Watkins, the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, and the sociologists of religion Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. I don’t have the space to enlarge on this here but, if you want the detail, it’s set out in a chapter on ‘Ensemble Practices’ in the recently published Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm.

So, finally, who is this book written for? When we were writing, I had in mind the  various very different individuals I’d helped navigate creative Masters and Doctoral projects. Individuals who, while they share a desire to understand and transform some aspect of the material world, have surprisingly little else in common. Drawing on Ursula K Le Guin’s recently republished essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, I’d like to hope that we’ve assembled the beginnings of a ‘carrier bag theory of ensemble praxis’, one that will be able to hasten the end of the deeply problematic story that, to borrow from Le Guin again, might be called ‘The Ascent of Man as Hero’. I hope that, instead, we can encourage readers to engage with another, less toxic and more inclusive, story. The one about how we can each best learn to register, maintain, and cherish as many alternative and inclusive ways of belonging to this Terrestrial world as possible.


Find out more

Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies, by Mary Modeen & Iain Biggs is published by Routledge (2021). 

Iain’s coauthor, Mary Modeen, is Professor of Contemporary Art Practice at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. She is an artist/academic whose research links creative practice with interdisciplinary academic studies in the humanities, particularly philosophy, literature, feminist and indigenous studies. Her work usually combines creative art practice and writing.

Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’, Iain’s previous post for ClimateCultures, introduces ideas of ensemble creative practices to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates a multiplicity of roles and skills, illustrating “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.” Iain’s chapter on ‘Ensemble Practices’ appears in the Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, edited by Cameron Cartiere & Leon Tan (Routledge, 2021).

Iain mentions the work of fellow ClimateCultures member Hanien Conradie, a fine artist concerned with place and belonging, informed by the cosmology of African animism within the complex human and other-than-human networks that encompass a landscape. Her ClimateCultures post Writing on Water shares a collaborative film of her ritual encounter with the River Dart in Devon and her work with places where nothing seemingly remains of their ancient knowledge — including The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, which Iain refers to.

Iain also mentions Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Fellow ClimateCultures member Philip Webb Gregg also discusses this essay — where “Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.” — in A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12, his contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

You can explore ideas and examples of geopoetics through the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and its journal Stravaig — where ClimateCultures member James Murray-White is one of the editors.

Iain Biggs
Iain Biggs
An independent artist, teacher and researcher interested in place seen through the lens of Felix Guattari's ecosophy, working extensively on ‘deep mapping’, other projects and publications.
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Climate Conversations to Save the World

Environmental researcher Matt Law reviews an online performance about climate conversations: an interactive journey inviting us to consider how different connections and storytelling could have led to a different world today, and help save the world for tomorrow.


1,180 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


Are there pivotal moments where, if only somebody had said something different, the progress of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock could have been slowed? What if you could be transported to one of those moments? What choices would you make? Would you know what to say? In a talk to TEDWomen in 2018, US-based Canadian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe tells us that the most important action we can take on climate change is to talk about it, not by bludgeoning people with depressing facts, but by connecting the risk to your audience’s core values. Tassos Stevens and Michelle McMahon’s How We Save The World, commissioned from Coney by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), explores the ways our conversations about climate change can shape our futures, by putting decisions in the hands of the audience.

Meaningful interventions

We are time travellers, guided on an interactive 75-minute journey by our reassuring and informative pilots (Naomi Stafford and Richard Popple, who also represent all of the characters we meet on our journey and are a joy to watch) to choose from a selection of places and times where we could make meaningful interventions. At a house party in Clapton in 2009, can we plant the seed of an idea about consumerism and plastic waste in the mind of young Fergus, playing in the kitchen with his Hot Wheels; or reassure Lucy, drinking gin on the balcony, who has abandoned her vegan lifestyle, having become jaded with the complexities and enormity of the sustainability choices we face?

Before audience members are called on to talk to the characters we meet, a disembodied voice, the voice of NERC-supported research, tells us about some of the psychology that impacts our choices — the rewards of consumerism, our reluctance to speak up out of fear of being judged; or the physical science of climate change, such as the influence of atmospheric carbon dioxide on clear air turbulence, and importance of forests for diversity.

Showing an image from How We Save The World
How We Save The World
Photograph: Thomas Scott on Unsplash

How to save the world

Interventions having been successfully made by audience members at Clapton, we are presented with further choices of times and places to visit. Can we suggest a more successful term than ‘global warming’ at a focus group in Dallas in 1989 (the winning suggestion from our cohort was ‘Bonfire of the World’), or convince the daughter of a wealthy industrialist in early nineteenth-century Bingley of the dangerous path those profitable factories and fossil fuels are leading us down? The crunch choice comes in South Sumatra, in 2005, where we — now assuming the role of islanders of differing financial circumstances — are split into break-out rooms to discuss the choice between allowing PalmOilCo use of our forest, with an immediate monetary benefit, or to allow EuroNGO to protect the forest, giving us less of a financial reward, paid less immediately. Do we lift our families out of poverty now, or listen to the person from half a world away telling us what is best for the planet?

Matt Law’s screenshot from How We Save The World

Placing the audience in control of the decisions, making a game out of climate conversations, forces us to think with empathy and care about the interests of the characters we are talking to. What angle can we use to help them see that the consequences of climate change will be to their detriment too? And how confident are we that we can do that on the spot in front of an audience of strangers? Drawing from research in environmental psychology, How We Save The World distils the idea that storytelling and human connections are among the most powerful tools in climate action at its most immediate and intimate level: the way we talk to each other about the part we can play in climate action.


Find out more

Matt Law was one of five ClimateCultures members who took part in recent conversations with fellow member Julia Marques for her series Directing the Change, which Julia discussed in her recent ClimateCultures post, Conversations with Work That Connects. In his interview — which you can see in full as well as an excerpt in Julia’s post — Matt discusses how he is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department there: The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group.

You might also like to read a previous post by Julia, where she explores theatre as a space for thought about our options and what climate change means for us individually.

How We Save The World is a story game by interactive theatre-makers Coney. Written by Tassos Stevens and Michelle McMahon’s, it was created in collaboration with environmental scientists and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It was first presented in 2018 at The Natural History Museum in London, and then re-imagined for our new global context as a live online performance, on Saturday 20th February 2021. “By looking at how we got to where we are today, together we’ll explore moments where small actions might create a ripple of change in the world – and learn how to take that forward in our own lives.”

You can read an interview with Michelle McMahon hereConey will be announcing new performances of How We Save The World in the next couple of weeks — do check their blog for news.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is an independent, nonprofit organization that gathers a diverse array of informed and influential voices tracking man-made threats and brings their innovative thinking to a global audience. The Bulletin focuses on three main areas: nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. What connects these topics is a driving belief that because humans created them, we can control them. The Doomsday Clock is a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet. When the Doomsday Clock was created in 1947, the greatest danger to humanity came from nuclear weapons, in particular from the prospect that the United States and the Soviet Union were headed for a nuclear arms race. The Bulletin considered possible catastrophic disruptions from climate change in its hand-setting deliberations for the first time in 2007.

Katherine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, where she is director of the Climate Science Center. You can join the 3.8 million people who have watched her TEDWomen 2018 talk The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it — and then talk about it. 

Matt Law
Matt Law
An environmental change & sustainability researcher interested in environmental archaeology and public engagement, working on a theatre project to explore climate change's disruption of everyday lives.
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Dead Kid’s Fingers & Living Soils

Fungus: Showing Dead Kids Fingers by Anthony BennettMultidisciplinary artist Anthony Bennett shares the inspiration behind sculptures on the crucial role of the usually disregarded fungus in returning life to soils following mass extinction events — and what this offers us in imagining possible human extinction.


840 words: estimated reading time = 3.5 minutes + 1 minute gallery


Dead Kids Fingers is a project I started some years ago now. I’ve always been a political animal. Over the years I’ve been involved in many kinds of political causes. Environmentalism, for the last ten years or so, has reinvigorated my passion for social justice.

Through the Festival of the Mind in Sheffield, which I co-conceived with Professor Vanessa Toulmin, I met a number of scientists at the University and through conversations with them, I started to learn about the tasks and the enormous issues which their research is focused upon, facing society now, and in the near future. Research concerning climate change, food security, all sorts of things, including depletion of global resources.

The fungus factor in our soils

I was particularly inspired by soil scientist/mycologist Professor Duncan Cameron. Our conversations have resulted in a number of artwork projects, and continue to do so. For one such project, I considered the worst-case scenario facing the human race; that if it doesn’t adapt and change its ways, then it could become extinct. The idea of human extinction really knocked me sideways. I suppose it fascinated me.

I learned that following the three last great Mass Extinctions on the planet, the organism that took a lead in restoring life on the planet was fungus. I learned that it originally created the soil itself, and that it has built the soil ever since by means of its mycelium rotting matter and repurposing it as soil. That we owe our entire existence to six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains. The concept of ‘The Wood Wide Web’, coined by Duncan’s teacher and colleague Professor Sir David Read, the revelation of the hidden but active connectivity of mycelium, reinvigorated my lifelong yearning for active and purposeful collaboration, creative and open, with no proclivity to compromise or to dumbing down.

Through my research I came across the fungus Dead Man’s Fingers. Considering a post-extinction planet, and the fact that fungus is the thing which will restore some sort of life-forms, I employed the idea to use the device of a child’s finger, emerging from the earth, as a metaphor for post extinction life re-emerging, human or otherwise.

Fungus: Showing Dead Kids Fingers by Anthony Bennett
Dead Kids Fingers
Photograph: Anthony Bennett © 2020

Dead Kids Fingers

I started creating sculptures at my studio, and then created installations in woodland areas and forests nearby. I took photographs which I shared online, and exhibited some of them in group art shows, with the statement:

“Dead kids fingers address the fact that: With or without humans, fungus will revitalize the earth, as it has done following previous global extinctions. And that all life on earth is connected. In the hope that future generations will embrace the mycelial world, learn from it, and engage with it in mutualistic symbiosis.”

Maybe the lessons learned could then be put to use to actually fend off the next extinction? A purpose to life in the Anthropocene.

NB: click on image to enter slideshow and then view full size.

Dead Kids Fingers by Anthony Bennett © 2020
« of 10 »

(All images are © Anthony Bennett 2020 and are not to be reproduced or used without his written permission. Please contact him via his website at www.anthonybennettsculpture.co.uk)


Find out More

Check out Anthony’s Instagram feed @absculpts for up to date and ongoing artworks. Anthony contributed Ace of Wands to Week 3 of our Quarantine Connection series in 2020.

You can explore the most recent Festival of the Mind schedule, for 2020, which includes a series of podcasts on various climate change, extinction and health topics — among them, Anthony’s Bittersweet Air exhibition and podcast on his work on soil in collaboration with Professor Tim Daniell.

You can find out about Professor Duncan Cameron’s work on resource fluxes and chemical signals in plant-microbe symbioses in agricultural and natural systems at his website.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has a good introduction to the role of fungi in living soils. And How fungi’s knack for networking boosts ecological recovery after bushfires, published on The Conservation (19/3/20) discusses how fungal communities are impacted by forest fires such as the devastating ones that hit Australia in 2020 — and how the fungi help the land and its ecosystems recover.

This piece by Taylor Kubota of Stanford University (15/5/19) for Science X describes how scientists built on the pioneering work of Professor Sir David Read on fungal symbiosis to map the global Wood Wide Web. 

The world of fungi is the topic of Martin Sheldrake’s recent book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures (Penguin, 2020). And in The secrets of the Wood Wide Web, (New Yorker, 7/8/16) Robert Macfarlane meets Merlin Sheldrake in London’s Epping Forest to discuss his work.

Finally, there is more at The Woodland Trust on the specific fungus that inspired Anthony’s work, Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha). 

Anthony Bennett
Anthony Bennett
A multidisciplinary artist whose work, often collaborative, is inspired by difficult contemporary and future sociological concerns surrounding issues such as food security and migration.
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Conversations with Work That Connects

Climate change dramatist and activist Julia Marques introduces a series of lively and engaging conversations she has recorded with fellow members. Artists and researchers explore their experiences with wide-ranging topics which inform the creative work that ClimateCultures celebrates.


2,970 words: estimated reading time 12 minutes + videos


The inspiration for this journey into podcasting came from the imposed self-isolation that we are all currently facing because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that we have faced (on and off) for nearly a year now. As a fairly extroverted human, I miss connecting. I miss collaborating. I miss conversing in 3D; the whole-body language that cannot be translated through a flat screen, no matter how hard we try. As a human being, there is also a need to create. So, working within the current limitations, I decided to set about creating a podcast for ClimateCultures members to become more acquainted with each other. I started with a small pilot group of five members all linked to theatre practice in some way: Daniel Bye, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law, Jennifer Leach and Andrea Carr.

I am myself a theatre maker, mainly with amateur groups at a community level, and I discovered the melding of the two worlds of theatre and environmentalism during my climate change studies at King’s College in London a few years ago. I also directed and produced The Children by Lucy Kirkwood in 2019 with my local theatre group. Having worked in the environmental NGO sector for a bit, I decided to foray into the business startup world last year and set up a business with a team-mate that aimed to connect media professionals with environmental community stories.

As well as being interested in why people have joined ClimateCultures, when they first decided to combine art and environmentalism and what they are working on now, our conversations explored what art and environmentalism bring to each other – and more along the way.

I’ve included a short clip from each conversation, with links to the full interviews in the notes and in their ClimateCultures member profiles.

“Galvanising the faithful”

‘Preaching to the choir’ is a common criticism in environmental circles. However, writer and performer Daniel Bye doesn’t think this is a problem because even among the broadly like-minded each person brings their own interpretation of a situation and how to take it from here to there. As Dan points out, there would never be another rally or march if all you were trying to do each time was convert people who don’t share your views. There is power in gathering with like-minded people who are also individuals nonetheless and carry their own life history and views and opinions with them. Everyone can bring something to the table.

Daniel Bye on ‘galvanising the faithful’

I think there is a lot still to be learnt from faith communities and religion – often overlooked in the climate change discussion. For many years they have successfully galvanised the faithful and ‘preached to the choir’ to great effect. The ‘guardians of the Earth’ narrative is one that many people will identify with — we have been given this wonderful planet by a higher power and we need to take care of it.

Dan spoke to me about How to Occupy an Oil Rig, and his more recent piece These Hills Are Ours made with Boff Whalley of the band Chumbawamba. The first is more overtly political and has very clear links to climate change. The second is more subtle about the subject matter, but it is very much linked to our connection with the natural world — walking the path between urban and country with different groups of singers.

How to Occupy an Oil Rig
Photograph: Reed Ingram Weir © 2013

There is something about walking that has magical properties; we step on the ground in order to walk — “that patch of ground upon which you tread to go to the local shops” as writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach put it in our discussion. Walking is our constant connection to the physical earth that we live on. We also walk on marches — to have our voices heard. We walk to get us somewhere, but also as a leisure activity. Walking slows us down, we have time to appreciate what’s around us. With no other means of transport, we walk. There is huge potential in walking too, as initiatives like Slow Ways are showing – walking connects us.

When watching the videos of the walks that the choirs were able to do with Dan and Boff, you get a sense of something powerful in a group of people all singing together on top of a hill. Voices into the wind, feet planted on the ground, nothing else around but grass and stones. They have made a journey, and this journey has brought them here — but the journey is not yet finished. The art is in the process, not the product. They hope to make more performative journeys later this year.

“Just enough beauty to stay with the darkness”

As you watch the singers trudge up the hills with Dan, you can see the hardship that must be gone through before they reach the peak and sing for joy. You must go through the darkness to reach the light — there cannot be light without darkness. Jennifer and writer, performer and creative producer Tessa Gordziejko are sure of this. If we cannot stay with the darkness then we will forever be chasing the light. Tessa quotes Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project: “Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down.” This reminds me of Donna Harraway’s Staying with the Trouble and the work of Joanna Macy — climate work very much rooted in psychology. Tessa is in fact connected to the Climate Psychology Alliance and has started to weave tapestries using social dreaming — untethering what is sitting on the bottom of our lakes of consciousness and letting it ‘bob to the surface’.

Tessa Gordziejko on ‘Facing the darkness’:

Tessa also likes to weave music into her work; she says it helps to immerse people in the work so they feel part of it. There is also an element of dance – she misses dancing with people – as a way of connecting when words run out, and of circus performance via her collaborations with circus artist Mish Weaver. Dancing, music, song — these elements run throughout Tessa’s work, and Dan’s too.

Breath[e]LESS – a blend of spoken word, soundscape, projection and dance music on environmental themes that Tessa Gordzjieko collaborated on.

“You learn as much as you teach”

We all go into situations with preconceived ideas of how things will be. What art does is make it okay for us to be uncomfortable with the way things actually turn out — as we figure out what’s really going on. Art embraces uncertainty, as does science. The not knowing is what drives both pursuits. And for both, the process is as important as the results. It would make sense then that the two join forces so that we can all welcome the unknown with open arms.

As a geographer, Matt Law has been introduced to the power of art as connector. He is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department that addresses environmental issues. The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is the result; a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group. Plans to tour it have been put on hold but will hopefully go ahead later this year.

The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul)
Photograph: Matt Law © 2020

Being an educator, Matt really feels as though the process of using art to communicate science has been as much of a learning process for him as it has been for any of the students he has taught. His work on the project Future Animals with Professor Jaqui Mulville from the archaeology department at Cardiff University was the spark that ignited his interest in merging art and geography to make sense of climate change.

Matt Law on ‘You learn as you teach’:

“Ecology begins on your doorstep”

Jennifer Leach looks out of her window at a holly tree and tells me that if everyone could see this tree then there would be no need for words to explain the beauty of the natural world in which we live. The beauty lies in the ordinariness of the thing. The everyday ecology.

I really think this is crucial for that all-important shift in consciousness from understanding something with our heads to really feeling it with our hearts. Big, lofty ideas are not going to get us far — ordinary, everyday things are what will change hearts and minds. And art has a way of celebrating the ordinary, of holding it up to the light so that we can really see it for the beautiful thing that it is. Jennifer identifies this in the work of American visual artist Joan Jonas who celebrates the ordinary, albeit in a thorough and intentional way.

Jennifer Leach on ‘Ecology on your doorstep’:

Jennifer herself has made canvasses out of plastic bags used in an art exhibition and organised the Festival of the Dark, where people were encouraged to re-embrace the seasonal cycles of dark and light. As she puts it:

“It’s only by being still, by being quiet and by completely embracing the fact that death and decay – endings – are part of our cycle that you learn to live in harmony with everything else that lives within the seasons of nature. We are the only species that don’t.”

Showing 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

She’s currently working on Duende with fellow ClimateCultures member Andrea Carr — a project that came to life through one of those preciously ordinary things that we now crave; a chance meeting on a staircase, and a conversation about Federico Garcia Lorca at a TippingPoint gathering. The unnamed catastrophe in Duende has forced two insects to hide underground — a strange portent of what became reality in 2020 for many of us. This piece is still a work in progress, and Jennifer and Andrea are looking to collaborate with others who appear in connection with this project. However, as Jennifer says, “what’s become super clear to me now is that my work is not about product, it is about process”, so you could say that the art has already been created.

“Our new brief”

So, what is the way forward for environmental theatre? For designer and scenographer Andrea Carr, it is the vision that all artistic practice will hold the environment at the centre of all it does — so the prefix ‘eco’ will no longer be needed. She has pioneered this approach to making theatre, and now she has joined forces with other scenographers and created Eco-stage, a soon-to-relaunch platform which will serve as a library of eco-theatre work and a space for dialogue on the topic.

Orlando after Virginia Woolf
Photograph: Andrea Carr © 2019

Andrea has her own set of values which she has defined on her own terms, and she encourages others to really think about what these highly generalised words mean to them as well:

Creativity – “cultivating curiosity”
Sustainability – “where the dreamer … the idealist and the pragmatist will work together”
Collaboration – “active listening”, “developing openness”, “pooling expertise”, “welcoming and honouring diversity”
Radical optimism – “celebrating and noticing what works and doing more of it”

She also speaks of honouring the materials that we use to create art — these things that we regard as single-use but have a life that extends far beyond our imagination.

Andrea presents us with our new brief: to place the ‘eco’ at the heart of everything we do.

Andrea Carr on ‘Our new brief’

One thing that really inspired me in my conversations with these five people was that each was proud of all of their work, large and small, and no one was afraid of making something that may or may not fly. All creative work is valid. Having spent a year in the business incubator world where you are constantly asked how ‘scalable’ your idea is, it was really nice to be reminded that ‘small and quiet’ is also worth something and this is where change starts — at the local, smaller, community level. This has inspired me to pursue more of my own environmental community theatre work, to put something out there and see where it goes. After all, if we don’t act now, then when will we?

I would like to thank Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea for their time and their great insights into making environmental art, and life more generally! The videos of my conversations with them are all available below, and in their profiles in the ClimateCultures Directory.

Conversations such as these are part of the bigger conversation on art and climate change and how to make sense of the world we live in. The idea is also that they will become part of a spiderweb of conversations starting with the ClimateCultures community, reaching further and further out until they include all members and eventually beyond. So I’m hoping this first set will also spark more conversations and collaborations within our community. If you’d like to be part of future discussions – just let me or Mark know!


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Julia Marques
Julia Marques
A climate change dramatist and activist in social and cultural aspects of climate change who has worked in the nonprofit sector and combines arts and environmentalism.
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You can read about Julia’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s play in her post Directing The Children.

Do watch Julia’s full conversations with Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea below. This post and our brief summaries here give just a flavour of what they discussed!

Theatre writer and performer Daniel Bye discusses the value of dialogue with the community of other makers, and shares his experience of creating work (including How to Occupy an Oil Rig and, more recently, These Hills Are Ours) as starting points to bring people together, galvanise those with existing environmental awareness, reach new audiences and have impact beyond the performance, expanding the opportunity for activism.

Writer, performer, creative producer and activist Tessa Gordziejko discusses her involvement with the Climate Psychology Alliance and Dark Mountain Project as inspirations for work such as Breath[e]:LESS and The Divided and explorations of ‘social dreaming’ as ways to address our emotional responses to climate crisis. Tessa also shares plans for a deep adaptation project working with the land and conversations around the campfire.

Environmental change and sustainability researcher Matt Law shares his experience of crossing academic boundaries, coming to climate theatre as a geographer and bringing arts and geography students together for The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul). He also discusses art, music and performance as ways to explore ways of engaging people with environmental histories and futures, and being connected to a community.
   

Artist, writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach shares her environmental passion as a creator of projects such as The Festival of the Dark, reconnecting with nature’s cycles of life and death, and learning how the process is as important as the product. She shares ideas behind Duende, her new collaborative project with Andrea Carr, and the importance of finding what feeds you rather than what drains you.

Designer and scenographer Andrea Carr shares her childhood model for environmental action, developing her core values through works such as Orlando after Virginia Woolf, Stuck and The Chairs, working on eco-scenography with other designers to directly incorporate ecological thinking into theatre and make activism visible. She also discusses Duende, her new collaborative project with Jennifer Leach as hybrid encounters with times of ecological uncertainty through stories, song, imagery and myth.

As well as exploring these members’ activities via their ClimateCultures profiles, you can explore the following links for film and other materials from some of their theatrical works mentioned in the post: Daniel Bye — How to Occupy an Oil Rig and  These Hills Are Ours; Tessa Gordziejko — Breath[e]:LESS; Matt Law — The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul); and Andrea Carr — Stuck. And you can read about Jennifer Leach’s 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 recent book in her post Dancing with Darkness.

Slow Ways is a project to create a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities as well as thousands of villages. 

The Dark Mountain Project is making art that doesn’t take the centrality of humans for granted, tracing the deep cultural roots of the mess the world is in, and looking for stories that can help us make sense of a time of disruption and uncertainty. 

In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016) Donna Harraway offers provocative new ways to reconfigure our relations to the earth and all its inhabitants. 

Joanna Macy is the root teacher of The Work That Reconnects, a framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.  

The Climate Psychology Alliance is a network focusing on climate change not as a scientific problem waiting for a technical solution, but as a systemic problem that engenders fear, denial and despair, forces uncomfortable dilemmas about justice, nature and equality into consciousness and challenges all of us in modern societies both personally and politically. 

The Future Animals project on art, Darwin and archaeology included artist Paul Evans, Ciara Charnley from the National Museum, Wales and bioarchaeologist Jacqui Mulville from Cardiff University. 

Eco-stage is a public commitment and positive declaration to work ecologically in the performing arts sector. It includes a set of intersecting values, objectives and provocations for engaging with ecological practice. The pledge is envisioned as a conversation starter to help bring an ecological ethic to performance production and as a tool for motivating action. 

Owned by the Wood in Winter

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews The Wood in Winter, an illustrated essay by John Lewis-Stempel, and finds an elegant exploration of life — wild nature and human — in the harshest season, and an Anthropocene question: who owns the land?


1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes 


Under an off-white, late winter afternoon sky, climbing over an iron field gate whose bars have “galvanized the cold of centuries”, John Lewis-Stempel crosses from public road onto private land. It’s “an awkward trespass” as the wood he’s slipping into as rooks fly overhead was once his family’s land, but sold on many years ago.

“In the trees I feel safe from prying eyes, just another dark vertical shape among others: a human tree trunk. Anyway,” he adds, “no one comes looking for you in a wood.”

Showing the cover of 'The Wood in Winter'
The Wood in Winter’ by John Lewis-Stempel.
Cover illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

It’s Christmas Eve and Lewis-Stempel is on the lookout for something — “a certain thing” he remembers from his childhood in these woods. Maybe, like many of us revisiting our early haunts, he’s also seeking something less certain, something of childhood itself. But his sense of Pool Wood is of a much older place then his own family’s time, from before William conquered or “Romans trod their road to Hereford,”  a remnant of the original wildwood. Following paths made by generations of badgers, he passes through an oak grove as dusk falls around him, the bare oaks revealed as “temple pillars of a lost civilization.” And an air of dismal, darkling days seems to extend throughout the natural world: winter is a harsh and hungry season, the ground bitter hard, even the “toadstool smell of woodland” frozen solid. “From one ivy clad ruin a wren, as small as a moth, peered at me. It was too feeble to tisk its default alarm.”

An Ice Age in miniature

In a season of dearth, with redwings and fieldfares — “the Viking birds” — descending from the north and taking the holly berries, he has returned to these old woods hoping that a lone female holly tree he remembers from his grandparents’ time has survived the avian plunder. And there, in the clearing, he finds her — “Just as always.” He has come out without gloves and without a knife, so retrieving his small harvest of holly is bitterly cold work and a little bloody, but necessary. “As a good grandson of the country, I do not care to be without holly at Christmas … As boy and man my grandfather had gathered holly from the tree in the clearing. On that Christmas Eve I was his picture echo down the century.”

Showing robins and holly in winter
Robins and Holly
Illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

The Wood in Winter is a little book — just 12 pages, an essay in simple and elegant text reflected perfectly in winter colours through illustrations by Angela Harding — but it captures something essential in the season. Winter makes, as he says, a hard life for the birds and other creatures under the bare trees. We look for signs of rebirth and a new year to come — in the evergreen holly, for example, “an arboreal metaphor for eternal life” through its association with both the birth and death of Christ and with a hope of new life. And yet a naked wood under snow in midwinter is more than a promise; it “is existence stripped back to the elements. It is the Ice Age returned in miniature.”

‘The winter came upon her before she reached home’

Lewis-Stempel finds comfort, or something like it, from the nature of the wood, of land, as ‘other’. Badger and fox, like bramble and oak, are the ancient landowners. “Humans never really own land, do they? It belongs to the eternal animals.” And we can take some solace from that, even as the ancient landowners struggle their way through another bleak turn of the cycle while we try to insulate ourselves, for the most part, from such an elemental existence. The fact that for many of the creatures the struggle must end in death is nature’s price, while — for comfortably off humans anyway — winter is now something to enjoy “as a livener, a quick tease of the elements before resorting to their central heating.” But there is an unnatural price too: payment due for that distance from nature that the human tries to assert. And this price is in part marked by a growing understanding that ‘eternal’ is no longer a true description of any creature, not even in human terms.

Who owns land, truly? The author’s family once owned this parcel of woodland. He does not name or even acknowledge whoever owns it now. We sense that his “awkward trespass” is not against those humans anyway, or in any simple way against the wildlife there suffering winter privations that he can turn away from again as he heads home. Perhaps it is a trespass against a time when it was possible to believe that other species could truly seem eternal even as the current inhabitants of those skins struggled against each other and the elements, before the realisation of the Anthropocene and its mass extinction and habitat destruction. It’s a realisation that, maybe, can only become a revelation of true value when we accept that we are owned by the land and by the others we share it with.

“As I blundered along, shoulders hunched, my fingers laced through the holly sprigs for my house, I found something sitting before me on the path: the vixen, quite oblivious to the weather, and to me. Even through pelting snow and half-light her fur lustred. She burned alive.”

Showing a vixen in winter
The Vixen
Illustration by Angela Harding © 2016

Find out more

The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Candlestick Press (2016). The book also features two poems, including Winter Heart by Jackie Kay and Seven Words for Winter by ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell. Nancy’s seven words for winter include “ukiuuppaa the winter came upon her before she reached home, or finished building her house,” from which I took one of my headings. Part of the purchase price of The Wood in Winter is donated to the Woodland Trust.

John Lewis-Stempel is the author of books such as The Running Hare and The Wood. He is also a farmer, rearing cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, traditionally. His book The Wood: The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood, written in diary format, is the story of an English woodland as it changee with the seasons. It is published by Penguin (2018).

You can explore the work of printer and painter Angela Harding at her website, including the many nature and other books she has illustrated or provided cover art for.

Nancy Campbell’s poem Seven Words for Winter appears in her collection, Disko Bay — published by Enitharmon Press (2015). Her latest nonfiction book, Fifty Words for Snow, is published by Elliot & Thompson (2020) and you can read a short reflection on writing the book, with a short extract, in her recent piece for our Creative Showcase.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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