Mosses and Marshes: Creative Engagement with Wetlands

Artists Andrew Howe and Kim V Goldsmith share the story of their collaborative Mosses and Marshes project, which investigates connections between fragile wetlands and their communities in England and Australia, seeking new interpretations, multiple perspectives and less-heard voices.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes


Reimagining the future of fragile wetlands through new contexts and fresh perspectives, while still allowing site specificities and shared commonalities to assert themselves, was the challenge we set ourselves as artists on opposite sides of the globe.

The connection between these landscapes — a lowland peat bog on the border between Wales and North Shropshire in the UK and a seasonally inundated marshland at the tail end of the Macquarie River in central north-west New South Wales, Australia — was made through our collaboration that began when we were paired together in 2018 under the Arts Territory Exchange remote exchange programme initiated by artist/curator Gudrun Filipska in the UK.

We had both worked outside our practices in natural resources and environment sectors for decades, and quickly identified a shared interest in how water and land are managed, in particular in our local but internationally significant wetlands, the Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve (UK) and Macquarie Marshes (Australia). Both sites are rare habitats vital for combating climate change and supporting biodiversity.

Mosses and Marshes - showing Macquarie Marshes landscape: Lagoon on Burrima, covered in Azolla
Macquarie Marshes landscape: Lagoon on Burrima, covered in Azolla.
Photograph: Kim V. Goldsmith © 2021

The two photos below were taken in 2020 before water arrived in the Marshes after drought (click on images for full size).

Over the next three years, we conducted research and field visits at each site while maintaining an ongoing dialogue, almost entirely by email and digital file-sharing. This informed a series of individual and collaborative artworks. The initial question of what is it that connects us formed an ongoing theme throughout the project, from which sprang many other questions. Taking a holistic approach, we sought new interpretations, multiple perspectives, and less-heard voices in our investigation of these landscapes and how they are valued.

Partnerships and consultation

As the Mosses and Marshes project took shape, we developed partnerships with land managers, environmental scientists, other artists, and local communities. We each secured funding from various sources in Australia and the UK, including a project grant from Arts Council England in 2021 that allowed us to develop a series of arts events, site interventions, community engagement, talks and discussions.

Our aims were to use art to encourage people to build connections with the natural environment, think about human relationships with wetlands, and take part in conversations about the values of wetlands in addressing climate change, biodiversity, water management, as well as some of the less tangible ways, such as cultural and aesthetic values.

In the UK, Andrew partnered with Natural England and Shropshire Wildlife Trust (SWT). Natural England leads the BogLIFE project with Natural Resources Wales and SWT. This six-year project, funded by grants from the EU and The National Lottery Heritage Fund, ends in 2022 with the aim to restore 660 ha of degraded peatland and surrounding peat edge (‘lagg’) back to a functioning, healthy ecosystem. As a separately funded exercise, a derelict former scrapyard on Whixall Moss was purchased by SWT to be cleared and remediated. Over 100 truckloads of waste metals and hazardous materials and around 50,000 tyres were removed from the site.

Mosses and Marshes - showing Whixall Moss, Shropshire UK
Whixall Moss, Shropshire UK
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

On first visit, it can appear that the Mosses are a natural wilderness with few obvious signs of human activity, yet it is the long history of underlying human impact that resonated with both artists as one of the key themes of enquiry in our respective landscapes.

Recognising the importance of past economic and industrial practices, both negatively and positively, needs to sit uncomfortably with our modern aspiration to live in accommodation with Earth’s systems. Providing visual clues of what went on in these wetland places before their reconfigurement is critical in order to remind us of what the Global North is responsible for, what humanity has gained and lost and what more we could lose without more entrenched responses in support of sustainability. 


English Wetlands: Spaces of Nature, Culture, Imagination, Mary Geary et al.

Kim’s partnerships took place in less formal ways, engaging local landholders and community members with connections to the Marshes through gathering and mapping audio stories about those connections, contacting scientists and academics to provide background information to issues she was exploring, and more generally connected other artists and communities in the Macquarie-Castlereagh catchment through meetings about the project and formal presentations.

Creative engagement with the mosses and marshes

Mosses and Marshes has resulted in the creation of new artworks and documentation in a range of formats for local, national, and international audiences — online and in physical exhibitions within each site’s catchment. The artworks have included sound and video installation, prints, and paintings using dyes and paper made with natural materials gathered from the landscape.

Mosses and Marshes - showing 'Territory' art by Andrew Howe (handmade paper made with bracken, reeds, purple moor grass, silver birch and heather)
‘Territory’, Andrew Howe: handmade paper made with bracken, reeds, purple moor grass, silver birch and heather
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

We sought to work closely with the landscape and reveal sounds and sensory experiences not ordinarily encountered by visitors. These included recordings made of sounds encountered at night time, underwater or from within trees.

At the Mosses, a new self-guided public art trail was created using locative media for an immersive sound trail with temporary sculptural waymarkers along the trail, created by artists Elizabeth Turner and Keith Ashford. The sound trail incorporates work by both of us as co-lead artists, including the collaborative I am Walking spoken soundscape, that places the participant in a walk alongside us in the Mosses, and then into the Marshes. This sound trail, and another created in the nearby town of Wem, include soundscapes based on a range of field recordings and contributions from poets and local community members.

In the UK, community engagement centred around a project with Wem Youth Club in partnership with local artists Sue Challis and Kate Johnston and Shropshire Wildlife Trust. Groups of young people took part in site visits and workshops to create new artworks including three seven-metre-long banners that have subsequently been shown in exhibitions at Wem Town Hall and Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury. This highly successful project developed a momentum of its own, with evident desire to create long-term impact by helping the young people involved continue to build confidence in, and a sense of ‘ownership’ of, the landscape.

Mosses and Marshes - showing 'Banners on the Moss', art by Wem Youth Club at the Moss
Wem Youth Club at the Moss – Banners on the Moss
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

Sustainability, for example, is not a law of the universe – ecosystems change, species come and go. It is instead a human construct, based on value judgements – we want to conserve some biodiversity, but not the Coronavirus. The concept only has meaning when choices are made about what timescale to define and how wide a net of interdependencies to consider. It is consequently as much a cultural matter as it is a scientific one.

Science cannot help with decisions about what meaning to give to any experience in the environment, or how to be reconciled to aspects of the natural world that may be spiritually challenging. Some of the deepest truths are expressible only by poetry or metaphor.

– Dave Pritchard, writing in the Foreword to Mosses and Marshes

The project to date has been documented in the Mosses and Marshes project book, published in October 2021. This publication has allowed us to expand on the themes of research and express thoughts that may not otherwise be evident in the artworks.

Showing the Mosses and Marshes book
‘Mosses and Marshes’ book
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2021

Edited by Dr Liz Charpleix, with a foreword by Dave Pritchard (Ramsar Culture Network, and fellow ClimateCultures member), the Mosses and Marshes book contains contributions from curators Gudrun Filipska (UK) and Jamie-Lea Trindall (Australia), ecological, environmental and cultural writings by Tim Hosking (NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment), First Nations educators and artists Fleur and Laurance Magick Denis of Milan Dhiiyaan and Sooty Welsh (Wayilwan Elder/artist), Cathie Sleigh (Shropshire Wildlife Trust), Robert Duff (Natural England), and many other project partners and people from the communities around the Mosses and Marshes. The book cover features an overlay by Sooty Welsh, titled Walking through Country.

This book is beautifully written and presented, with the clever use of QR codes, that allows the reader to experience through sound and vision this beauty. It encouraged me to further explore the effects of colonisation on this diverse landscape, to the present-day challenges of climate change. Positively thought-provoking and beautiful.

– Natalie Cutler, an interested reader with historical family connections to the Marshes, Sydney Australia

New voices, new stories

The cultural exchange came to a significant meeting point in November 2021, through an international online panel discussion on the topic of ‘Alternative ways of understanding and valuing special environments to help shape their future’. The event brought together a group of natural resource managers, scientists, academics, and cultural consultants from Australia and the UK, all with a wealth of experience in land and natural resource management issues. Facilitated by Jessica Moore of Dubbo Regional Council, the panellists included Tim Hosking, Kate Mildner, Fleur and Laurance Magick Dennis of Milan Dhiiyaan from Australia, and Dave Pritchard, Dr Tim Acott, and Robert Duff from the UK, who discussed six questions put to them as pre-recorded videos by provocateurs from both countries — all of whom had connections to the wetlands.

From the panel event, it was evident the Mosses and Marshes may be separated by over 10 thousand miles, but many of the issues impacting them are not so different. Land ownership, access to land, and the legacy of Enclosure Acts and colonialism have been lenses through which we’ve been able to look at how the sites have been used for extracting financial value from agriculture and or peat.

Mosses and Marshes - showing artist Kim V. Goldsmith recording underwater video on “Burrima” near the North Marsh, Macquarie Marshes.
Kim V. Goldsmith recording underwater video on “Burrima” near the North Marsh, Macquarie Marshes, May 2020.

It also created an opportunity for under-represented voices to be heard. The stories of Aboriginal access to the wetlands, shared by Fleur and Laurance Magick Dennis of Milan Dhiiyaan, were so important. Speaking powerfully, with an emotional depth that could only come from an intimate, authentic connection with the land and its people, Fleur and Laurance referenced missing sounds in the landscape, the urgent need for resources to gather legitimate community representation, and a fundamental lack of access to Country. It was uncomfortable, but necessary, listening.

What they had to say aligned with other indigenous cultures across the globe around honouring what the Earth provides, taking only what is needed and acknowledging that we are all custodians and not owners of the land.

These basic sustainable principles are in direct opposition to prevailing systems for exploiting land and resources in most parts of the world. It seems like an impossible seismic shift is needed to change attitudes towards these basic principles in a river system with so many competing interests like the Marshes. Maybe in the interim, it’s about accepting that scientific and evidence-based languages aren’t the only way of knowing and doing, particularly if we accept that language often shapes behaviours.

Mosses and Marshes - showing art by Andrew Howe, 'Fenns Old Works' (former peat processing works at Fenn’s Moss).
‘Fenns Old Works’ (former peat processing works at Fenn’s Moss),
Andrew Howe: linocut peat ink © 2021

Complex issues require long-term thinking

The environmental issues of each site do not always present clear-cut solutions, with issues being more nuanced than they first appear. It is also questionable as to whether pragmatic solutions, allowing for as many concerns as possible to be considered, is ultimately best.

On the regulated Macquarie River of New South Wales, there are many competing interests impacting the Macquarie Marshes further downstream. River water supports towns, livestock and domestic users, industry, irrigated agriculture, the environment and recreational users. Taking a pragmatic, top-down approach using one set of established values could result in some wetland areas of the wider Marsh landscape being allowed to become too degraded to conserve. But as Laurance Magick Dennis said during the panel event: “If you’re a family and you’re walking in the bush and some of the family can’t make the walk and it’s up to you to look after those individuals, what are you going to do? Are you going to leave them behind to suffer, to starve, to die of thirst? That’s exactly what will happen to our river systems and the ecosystems around our wetlands. If we don’t look after those, they’ll be gone forever.” His point was that the parts form a whole – a family. Like a functional family or community, we’re all needed in the decision-making.

Through our work on the project, we came to understand that wilding is not necessarily a solution on its own without careful human guidance and management, and for that it is vital that local communities have an awareness of the issues, to understand where compromise might be acceptable, in addition to having access and opportunities to develop or regain a sense of ‘ownership’ in the landscape.

At the Mosses, for example, as part of their ongoing work towards restoring the peat bog, Natural England and partners are re-establishing the waterlogged, low nutrient conditions necessary for Sphagnum moss to flourish. However, it is acknowledged that some means of site management may need to continue beyond the BogLIFE project to control the growth of purple moor-grass which rapidly covers the bog surface and inhibits the Sphagnum moss. This is occurring more vigorously due to the increase in air-borne ammoniacal nutrients arising from nearby farms.

From several perspectives, we have identified how the landscapes must be considered in relation to deep time — both in terms of their prehistory and from the viewpoint of future generations. The video developed by Kim for the project’s exhibitions, An Ancient Land: a history of the wetland in chapters, references how Australia’s landscape formed over millions of years came to be explored, surveyed, staked, mapped, named, carved up and farmed by those with the sense and sensibilities of strangers in a foreign land.

Natural England knows that the work they are doing today may not come fully into effect for many centuries to come. So, how can people be encouraged to consider these timescales when the issues of today seem so urgent?

Unfinished work

The Mosses and Marshes project has broadened local, national and international recognition of these wetlands and their cultural and environmental importance. It has provided a platform from which to develop further artist residencies and projects involving the arts linked to the wetlands. We strongly believe our international exchange has created new contexts for each site that considers some of those intangible values previously overlooked, and it has started to bring fresh perspectives to the fore while recognising localised differences between our two wetlands.

New presentations of our creative work open in the Australian capital at M16 Artspace in Canberra, in April 2022, and at Outback Arts in Coonamble, New South Wales, in May. A programme of public events will continue in both the UK and Australia. The project is also entering a new phase we’ve called Values. Voices. Action., which follows up some of the key issues raised in the discussion panel. Those first tentative questions we asked ourselves back in 2018 have led to a range of actions that have given agency to a multitude of voices now invigorating this evolving project.


Find out more

The Mosses and Marshes book is available at both artists’ websites, with northern hemisphere sales handled by Andrew and southern hemisphere by Kim: Of the Mosses – Andrew Howe & EcoPULSE – Kim V. Goldsmith

The exhibition at M16 Artspace in Canberra, Australia ran to 1st May, and then at Outback Arts in Coonamble, New South Wales, until 3rd June.

Kim V. Goldsmith (in Australia) and Andrew Howe (in the UK) began working together in 2018, having been paired together through the Arts Territory Exchange remote collaboration programme. Both the artists conducted research and on-site work in their respective wetlands that informed the creation of a series of individual and collaborative artworks for exhibitions in the UK and Australia under the title Mosses and Marshes.

Kim is an environmental artist and content producer based in the Central West of NSW, Australia. She has 30 years’ experience working across rural and regional Australia in media and marketing communications. As an artist, Kim has a keen interest in the environment and sustainable regional futures that she explores through a range of digital media and writing.

Kim acknowledges and respects the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the lands on which she works and lives.

Andrew is an interdisciplinary artist and project manager, based in Shrewsbury, working solo and in collaboration with other practitioners and community groups. He uses walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, informed by over 30 years’ experience in engineering and environmental consulting. His practice includes painting, collage, photography, printmaking, books, and digital media.

You can read Andrew’s earlier post for ClimateCultures, A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #13, where his objects include a bitumen spill from an old tanker on the former industrial land at the Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve.

English Wetlands: Spaces of Nature, Culture, Imagination, edited by Mary Gearey, Andrew Church & Neil Ravenscroft (2020) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

You can read about the Marches Mosses BogLIFE project at Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserves and Wem Moss Nature Reserve at the Marches Mosses BogLIFE website.

Andrew Howe

Andrew Howe

An interdisciplinary artist and project manager using walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, drawing attention to human entanglements within a multi-species environment.

Kim V. Goldsmith

Kim V. Goldsmith

An artist exploring layers of nuance, complexity and hidden elements to present rural, regional and remote landscapes and communities in ways that make the familiar, unfamiliar.

Seeing Nature’s Wonders in the Human Heart

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White reviews fellow member Susan Holliday‘s creative guide, Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart, and finds ‘wise friends on the path’ of seeing deeply into connections, and a fellow traveller in the landscape of human nature.


1,600 words: estimate reading time = approximately 6.5 minutes


“It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds.”
— Sioux medicine man Black Elk, quoted in Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart.

Lockdown, for me and many, once I’d got through the initial shock of the newness, became an opportunity to really look, listen. To see and to hear.

To hear the birds — in my case the red kites circling the Oxford streets where I spent a large chunk of lockdown time, and to see those birds close up for the first time. And the deer, emboldened by lack of traffic, explored the concrete and the human-inhabited world. It was a time to both see and hear inquisitively at first, and then more deeply, to enjoy the artfulness and insight, and to start to peer further into the nature of the physical, and the metaphysical.

A guide into the human heart

Of course, this is the first part of the process, to see and to hear, followed then by to feel, and to know. Finding guides, wise ones, therapists, gurus, seers — in Buddhism the term is sangha, ‘wise friends on the path’ — is crucial, otherwise we mainline on experience alone.

Showing the cover of Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart
Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart cover: ‘For the Love of Spring’, original artwork © Dee Nickerson

Therapist, photographer, and seer Susan Holliday has produced a clear, close, and wise guide to the process of deeply looking — a ‘when and how to, and what we might encounter’ book that should be alongside us as we navigate pandemics, liminal times, and all our explorations of this, the human journey. Natural insight is key to Holliday’s vision: it is what we all have, and have probably buried or veneered over with the hurly-burly of life. If we unpeel, and find ways back to it — through deep looking, creative expression, and seeing through the grief and the reasons we paper over our own cracks — this heartful insight enables a visionary life full of magic and wonder, connected to and part of the natural ecosystem of all life:

“Disconnected from the vital intelligence of our hearts we look to things, mountains of things, to replenish the void in our being. We plunder the natural world around us to fill the bottomless pit within. Our myopia, it seems, is costing us the earth.”

Holliday shares six client stories from her psychotherapy practice, which go deeply into how she can hold a client’s grief seemingly in her own soul:

“When the decisive moment came, I was able to ‘capture it immediately’ because my spirit was already full of him, full of his grief and pregnant with the shape of the beautiful carefree boy who once tumbled down the hills of his moorland home,” she writes of one client, named here as Jake. Of another, Cassy, Holliday says: “She has wandered into the heart of her own wilderness.”

Her professional beholding of clients, and leading them to a place of change, which she articulates so clearly and incisively, is matched throughout with her understanding of her own striving for seeing, and sensing the world through her own arts practice — through the lens. Although none of her images are found within the book, you can see her work shared on Twitter, and the book is full of references to the writers, artists, and activists who inform her journey.

The art of seeing deeply

Showing the coast and the North Sea, by James Murray-White
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2022

I was delighted when first opening the book to see so many quotes and nods to photographer Bill Brandt, whose black and white explorations of human forms on a beach, and wartime documentary stills, inspired me so much in my early studies in image-making, that has in turn informed the last 20 years as a filmmaker.

Holliday describes herself midway through Hidden Wonders as a “traveller in the landscape of human nature”, and this powerfully resonates with me. Equipped with an MSc in Human Ecology some years ago, I too set out to navigate that path through the hills of both articulated and mediated expression. Time and again, I need to return to that centred space of heartful hearing and insight from the natural worlds within — my own microfauna of emotional fungi and mycelial vessels of coursing blood.

A visual metaphor for the human heart
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2022

“At its best I believe that therapy is akin to painting, to playing an instrument, to speaking a poem or performing a play. Like those it has the potential to lift us, both seer and seen, towards a quality of vision which is equivalent to art, in that it opens us up to the richness, vitality and truth of our existence. So to explore the nature of insight, this book asks what painters, photographers, poets, sculptors and performers have to teach us about seeing deeply.”

There is a flow of both process and experience articulated with these particular clients and their often deeply painful and acutely alive stories, and in this expansive referencing of artists’ understanding of their creative practices, coupled with current advances in neuroscience, perception, and some religious philosophies. However, Hidden Wonders is to my mind a book that someway fills that space where retreating religions in the West have allowed our own creative expansiveness to fill, if we so wish it. It is a strong challenge, not to succumb to the industrial ‘achievement’ mindset, or be lashed by depression in response to systemic failures and collapse and all its latent traps that bind us to its synthetic portals.

I’ve been rereading this book while on a break in England’s North East, staying in a small coastal town ravaged by its mining past. Elemental materials were not long ago hauled out from deep bowels beneath the town, and now, as the pandemic opens into another era here, it is currently awash with regeneration funding, promoting mining museum culture and walking breaks across moors and stunning coastline. Instead of cracking the earth and removing its core, this locality now seems to be all about promoting looking, stretching, walking, seeing, planting, and engaging with a remediated landscape.

I’ve been fixated on walking past all that, nodding and chatting to locals, admiring the many huts of the local pigeon fancying group (some 30,000 birds kept here for racing and message carrying), and getting in some serious beach time along the coast: looking, and seeing past the material, soaking up the elements and seeking to understand myself within this process of stones and sand. Ebb and flow. Time and tide. Human industry and human leisure.

I sense that we, the human-sphere, are in what writer and eco-philosopher Mick Collins calls the ‘transformocene’, not the ‘anthropocene’ as some say, where we as a species rise to transform our reliance upon industrialisation, economic dependence, and the mechanical thinking that has grown from these mindsets. As Fritjof Capra describes ‘the systems view of life’: to finally fully understand our place within the ecology of all things, perhaps returning to the biblical Garden of Eden, or in the holistic sense of animal nature within the Gaian theory, as proposed by James Lovelock et al.

Choosing another path

While this is not a book dealing with climate grief per se, it does point us toward tools of awareness, which is the key to healing from the overload of trauma, and how we respond to and hold news of this climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Holliday acutely picks up on our possible human response of calcifying, or cracking, as “Our human ecology is becoming overheated. A sign that environmental stresses are overwhelming the inherent limits of our nature.”

She wisely returns with another choice: “We could hold the reciprocal qualities of strength and sensitivity in equal regard. We could understand that resilience depends on their intimate correlation.”

Photograph: James Murray-White © 2022

Social movements, uprisings, rebellions, protests — all are about change and resistance to old ways, changing seemingly dominant narratives of doing and exploiting that ultimately damage the earth’s resources and exploit ourselves as a species. These are vital community-building events; whether or not the object of rebellion or resistance is changed, a community has been formed around a ‘thing’, and now the energy exists — and change will come. Transformation will occur, and we will overcome. Transformation of our own selves and our stuck patterns, of subtle griefs and trauma, will happen, and in this vital book, Susan Holliday gives paths and examples to return to our natural insight, and live within ‘the vital ecology of the human heart.’

“Seeing through the heart of our sorrow, we discover a realm of human nature full of hidden wonders. Reconnected to our own source of replenishment and renewal, we might begin to cherish, rather than to plunder, the natural world around us.”


Find out more

Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart: How to see through your sorrow – a creative guide to revelation and renewal by Susan Holliday (2021) is published by Troubador Publishing, where you can preview the book. You can find out more about Susan’s work as a psychotherapist and her writing and photography on Twitter @SusanHolliday0 and at susanholliday.co.uk.

James also mentions eco-philosopher Mick Collins and his proposal of the Transformocene in contrast to the concept of the Anthropocene. You can read more in Mark O’Connell’s 2018 Permaculture review of his book The Visionary Spirit. In April, Mick has a new book coming out, The Restorative Spirit, and James has recently been filming Mick for the launch.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.

On COP & the Art of Change

Climate change communicator Julia Marques helped amplify COP26 reporting from the Blue Zone in Glasgow. Here she looks at the artworks she encountered at the COP and the value of creative activity alongside the activism and negotiations.


2,570 words: estimated reading time = approximately 10 minutes


As I entered the Blue Zone of COP26 in Glasgow last November, I was struck by how artificial the place was. It seemed strange to be discussing the environment within extremely unnatural surroundings, with just a few plants dotted around.

COP plant: Showing a plant looking a bit droopy in the main thoroughfare of the COP26 Blue Zone
A plant looks a bit droopy in the main thoroughfare of the COP26 Blue Zone. Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

But my eye was looking for art. Any art. Just something to indicate that the organisers had thought about more than merely providing four walls and a roof for negotiators to agree on what each country would do to tackle climate change for the next year.

I was feeling fairly nervous and overwhelmed. This is one of the biggest summits of the year, and it’s about one of the biggest issues that we are currently facing as a species on Earth. 

I was at the COP with the editorial team of Climate Home News — an independent news outlet specialising in the politics of climate change — as their community engagement manager. Although I have been thinking and working in the climate space for several years, I am fairly new to the media world and the specialism of working in the climate politics space. There’s a lot to learn, and COP is a big part of that world so I felt very privileged to be a part of it and wanted to experience it to the fullest. 

As a community engagement manager, I am constantly learning what captures people’s attention and keeps them coming back for more. At Climate Home News, we report on a fairly niche topic and aim to appeal to climate specialists but also those who are more generally interested in what is going on in climate politics. Art can bridge the gaps between specialist knowledge and public understanding; unfeeling data and a myriad of emotions. 

We know that data and science aren’t enough; we need good communication that speaks to people’s values and worldviews. I was hoping that the COP organisers had taken this into account. I certainly wanted to see more than just MDF and concrete. I was there to work, but also to be inspired by the spectacle of COP.

Did I find any art? Well, yes actually, I did.

Into the Action Zone

After the security area and initial entrance hall, there was the Action Zone, which, funnily enough, is where I saw most people napping due to the comfy seats available there.

But this was also where a huge globe slowly turned over their sleeping heads. It was beautiful, gently showcasing the wonderful place we live and what’s at stake in the discussions taking place below it. It gave an incredibly relaxing feel to an otherwise manic venue, with 20,000 people running around each day for two weeks, on their way to meetings, debates and other events.

I personally enjoyed going to this area to take a break from the madness of the negotiations and trying to capture them on social media as part of my role at Climate Home News.

COP art: Showing 'Gaia' by Luke Jerram in the Action Zone at COP26
‘Gaia’ by Luke Jerram in the Action Zone at COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

After the Action Zone, I spotted this piece — Hurry Up Please It’s Time by Cornelia Parker. A very timely reminder to all those involved in the process, but especially the leaders. This COP included a leaders’ summit in the first two days (not all COPs do). So there would have been many world leaders walking by this piece of art. It was stark and direct, a counter to the convoluted and complex negotiations (unsurprising when you have 197 countries trying to agree on something).

COP art: Showing 'Hurry Up Please It’s Time' by Cornelia Parke
‘Hurry Up Please It’s Time’ by Cornelia Parker
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

The COP Pavilions

Further down this main corridor, I reached the Pavilions. This is the part of COP that many people say reminds them of an oversized trade show. Seemingly anyone can have a pavilion, some were country pavilions, others were themed — such as the methane pavilion — and others were run by organisations such as Chatham House.

This area was a bit of a maze but there was a lot going on and it felt like quite an exciting part of the venue. Confusing — each pavilion had its own agenda of events, which were not available anywhere other than the pavilion itself — but buzzing!

I personally enjoyed this area as a place to meet others and explore what each country or organisation wanted to showcase. A lot of the leaders and some celebrities who attended could also be found walking around this area and it was very likely that you would bump into one or two just by being there! In my case, Justin Trudeau casually ambled by as I was waiting for Leonardo di Caprio to emerge from the meeting room of the UNFCCC pavilion. I also saw Nicola Sturgeon several times, walked past John Kerry by the country offices, and brushed shoulders with Alok Sharma more than once.

However, my personal favourite encounter was with Christiana Figueres in the Action Zone. She was sitting eating her lunch when I noticed her and stood nervously summoning up the courage to go over and talk to her. Eventually, I did, and she was very happy to meet me and revealed that she is a big fan of Climate Home News. We took a photo together before parting ways, and I was thrilled. She has been a big part of previous COPs as former head of the UNFCCC, and was influential in getting the Paris Agreement finalised. 

COP talk: Showing Julia Marques with Christiana Figueres at COP26
Christiana Figueres (right) and Julia in the Action Zone at COP26

One aspect of the conference that I found pleasantly surprising was the accessibility to leaders and other people of note that you had in the venue. There were a lot of indigenous peoples attending COP and they could be seen harassing leaders over their lack of action on indigenous and environmental rights. This is something I don’t believe happens at any other conference of this scale. Kudos to COP for keeping this particular aspect alive and well.

The Indonesia pavilion, COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021
The SDG7 pavilion (“affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” by 2030)
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021
The Turkey pavilion
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

Indigenous art at the COP

Right at the back of the pavilion area, I came across a huge piece of art. Although it was quite hard to see fully due to space limitations, it still left an impression. This was the only piece of indigenous art that I saw in the entire Blue Zone. It turned out to be the Bamboo Ark Vela Mola, a sail sewn together by 37 Guna mola artists from the Gunayala islands off the coast of Panama. 

It had symbolically travelled across the sea to Glasgow and they had managed to sneak it into the Blue Zone and display it near the Panama pavilion. A ‘mola’ is a colourful hand-sewn cloth which is unique to the Guna people. The organisation behind the sail’s appearance at COP was Geoversity, and two indigenous leaders formed part of the group bringing this piece of art and indigenous messaging to COP26. 

I was glad to have found some form of indigenous art. There was also an Indigenous Peoples pavilion in the area, where various leaders could gather and share experiences. Indigenous representation is crucial to these negotiations, although much of the time these voices are not included in the main plenary meetings. 

I think the fact that the sail was not an official piece of COP art says it all — indigenous people are not barred from attending but the barriers for them to do so are higher than for others. Many had long journeys to get to Scotland and return home, with various quarantines due to Covid19 along the way. The accreditation process is online and bureaucratic, and then of course there is also the cost of travel and accommodation (something which many people struggled with, including the Climate Home team – I’d like to thank the Human Hotel for their great initiative in sourcing homestays for many delegates and attendees).

Beautifully colourful and vibrant, this piece certainly stood out and was in stark contrast to the blue and white of the rest of the venue. It’s a shame it wasn’t in a more prominent position, but I think the fact it was there at all is testament to the resilience of indigenous peoples around the world.

As I made my way further into the venue, there was a long corridor between the pavilions, the country offices and the plenary and meeting rooms. Here I found another turning globe, but this one was not so exact and had UV writing on it which only appeared under the lights at the back of the installation. These words proudly proclaimed that “people live here” with arrows pointing to all the ‘four corners’ of this particular globe.

‘People Live Here’ by Oliver Jeffers
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

This was a piece by Oliver Jeffers and seemed to me to be raising awareness of the fact that we are talking not only about climate, but about people. People do live nearly everywhere on Earth, and it can be easy to forget this when following high-level negotiations with technical language. It is people causing rapid climate change and it is people (among other beings) who are being affected by it.

I thought the sentiment of this piece was nice, but I think the writing could have been more obvious — would it not have made more of an impression to have words squeezed into every bit of land to show the scale of human occupation?

Further down the corridor there were some satirical cartoons about climate change and also some children’s messages to the leaders (although I am unsure whether they would have had time to stop and read them). The Eden Project also had a hive-like structure situated at the border between where nearly everyone was allowed and where you had to have a media, observer or party pass to get through. Hexagonal shapes creating a dome emulated the biomes of the real Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. The idea was to bring a ‘cabinet of climate curiosities’ to COP26 that represent what change is needed to tackle the climate crisis. 

I suppose this was quite a significant location for the pavilion; a physical area of transformation from a fairly accessible part of the Blue Zone to a more restricted area reserved for those who were more involved with the actual nitty-gritty negotiations. It prompted me to ask myself: Is this the transformation needed, or do we actually need to allow more people in?

The Eden Project pavilion at COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

This led to the pre-fab part of the conference, which noisily wobbled and leaked when Glaswegian wind and rain swept in towards the end of the first week. One of the plenary rooms also started leaking part way through week one, meaning they couldn’t let anyone in until they’d fixed it. I’m not sure if the people knee-deep in the process were too aware of the natural world outside making its presence felt inside, beyond being grateful not to be out in it! 

Art — cause for contemplation

There was increasingly less art as you walked through; some photos of innovators in the e-waste space and a little display on nature-based solutions. By the time I got to the media centre (all the way through the entire venue, about a 20-minute walk) the organisers had obviously given up, with only white walls and blue signs left to adorn the hallways. 

One of the corridors in the media centre
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

However, this was the concentration centre of the conference. Journalists need a place to gather their material and their thoughts, compose a piece of audio, visual or written work, and publish it to (often tight) deadlines. I witnessed many journalists miss family birthdays and children’s bedtimes so that they could report on the negotiations. I would like to acknowledge the dedication to the cause that many of them have. The media often gets vilified, but there are many reporters and editors who do care deeply about the climate crisis and diligently report on it. So perhaps in this instance, there is no need for any other art; the art is being created in a quietly studious way in this very practical place as the negotiators bustle around the rest of the venue with its more decorated areas.

There was, however, a beautiful view of the sunset from the media centre windows — Nature’s art, in all its shining glory. I was told by the more seasoned reporters that it was actually quite nice to even have windows in the media centre, as sometimes they are merely provided with walls, floor and a ceiling. In a way, this was the best art of all as the rest of the venue had little access to the outside.

Sunset from the media centre at COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

Art is there to give us cause for contemplation, to give us the space we need to think about things. Art can also prompt us to think about them in a different way, and this is what we need when it comes to climate change. We need a mindset shift to figure out how to live differently. Perhaps the negotiators, technical experts and policy makers also need to be given some time to reflect and process things in an unconference-type way. Art can help with this, and I’d like to think that the little pieces of art dotted around the venue may have made a few of them stop for a minute and wander into another world before the pull of the negotiations brought them back to where they were. It certainly helped me.

This COP was the 26th Conference of the Parties on climate change. They’ve been going since 1995. That’s 26 years of talking. Now is the time for action, and perhaps art can spur that action through imagination and time for contemplation. Let’s have more of it in future climate negotiations.


Find out more

You can explore some of the artworks Julia has featured in her post:

Gaia by Luke Jerram
Hurry Up Please It’s Time by Cornelia Parker
The Bamboo Ark Mola Vela by Geoversity (with more in
Hoisting the Mola Sail Designed by the Indigenous Guna at MAHB, the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere)
People Live Here by Oliver Jeffers.

The Eden Project brings a “cabinet of climate curiosities” to COP26 describes how the Eden Project partnered with international architecture practice Grimshaw in the delivery of the Eden Project Pavilion at COP26.

Julia mentioned the Human Hotel: the COP26 Homestay Network supported people attending the COP by enabling people in Glasgow and surrounding areas to offer space in their private homes as overnight accommodation for visitors from the climate justice movement.

Julia is Community Engagement Manager for Climate Home News whose mission is to deliver original journalism that informs and inspires action to tackle the global climate crisis. You can follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn

Julia Marques
Julia Marques
A climate change dramatist, activist and communicator specialising in social and cultural aspects of climate change who has worked in the nonprofit and media sector.

“Time to Act” — Failure & Success at COP26

Composer Lola Perrin and curator Rob La Frenais invited three artists and organisers to talk about their creative work for COP26 and their feelings about the global conference’s failure to match the warm rhetoric of its first day.


2,570 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


For many, in the days and weeks after COP26, along came a new wave of grief. Friends privately confessed to fits of uncontrollable sobbing from pure rage at international politicians still ignoring the science, otherwise they’d be in full emergency mode. The conference began with pretty speeches with presenters including David Attenborough and the Prince of Wales repeating each other’s words; “the time has come to act”. But just over two weeks later when COP26 ended, scores of new fossil fuel licences were signed, sanctioning production well into at least the 2040s.

Compare those pretty speeches to the dignitaries and the world’s media with the actions by global citizens who do indeed act — in any way they can to put a stop to the killing machine, but who are increasingly criminalised and imprisoned for doing just that. Also what of other acts, for example, birth strikes among women and some men who withhold reproduction as protest in the face of extinction, and hunger strikes that regularly appear across the world in which people decide to act by withholding food in protest at genocidal government policies? These acts rarely make mainstream news but they are there. So turning back to those pretty words on the first day of COP26 when all and sundry appealed for action, what kind of action were they talking about when it’s so hugely controversial to even mention ending fossil fuels in any final COP agreement? No wonder we cry and rage in frustration.

For this ClimateCultures post we wanted to see what three artists/organisers who took part in COP26 with creative work felt about the failure of the COP and where they will go next.

Miranda Whall is a performance artist based in Wales who crawled through the pouring rain as delegates met indoors, eventually to no avail. She expresses her frustrations powerfully in her performance and here.

Warren Senders is a musician, member of the New England Conservatory faculty and activist, and part of Music for Climate Justice which organised music events during COP26, both live in Glasgow and virtually in nine online concerts featuring 350 global musicians. Warren and Music for Climate Justice were focused on using culture to bring an indigenous voice to COP26. The concerts repeatedly broadcast this message; “Planetary Climate Change threatens our civilisation and therefore, all human art and music, there is No Time to Waste”.

Mike Stubbs is the former Director of FACT, Liverpool and has now returned to his artistic practice as well as directing ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster. His early work was based on young people’s fascination with car culture. His latest work questions this early fascination, in ‘Climate Emergency Services’ a van spray-painted in hot rod style with images from the Australian bush fires which he took to Glasgow for COP26.

We asked each artist/organiser four questions.

What did you do at COP26?

Miranda Whall

Heading to COP26 - showing artist Miranda Whall's crawling performance for Be-Coming Tree: global online performance on Aberystwyth seafront.
Miranda Whall’s crawling performance for Be-Coming Tree: global online performance on Aberystwyth seafront.
Photographer: Ashley Calvert © 2021

“On Saturday 6th November I crawled with a six-year-old potted Scots Pine on my back through the centre of Glasgow, from the Glasgow Sculpture Studios on Dawson Road to the COP26 Green Zone in the Science Centre on the Clyde Waterfront Regeneration area. Passers-by ignored, laughed, stared, cheered and filmed as the tree and I silently and determinedly made our way through heavy rain and high winds to reach our destination. The intention of my heroic/tragic/comic slow and gentle art activism was an expression of my grief, my despair and my outrage with a world dominated by corporate and personal greed, and an insistence that non–human nature, and in this case trees, be put at the centre of discussions on how to mitigate the climate emergency and ecological crisis. Animals, plants, trees, air, earth and oceans should be, metaphorically, sitting at the discussion table with heads of government and delegates.

“My hope was that crawling to the COP26 United Nations climate change conference carrying a tree that was equal in size to my body might inspire human beings to re-think and re-align their relationship to trees, seeing them not only as a resource to use and abuse but as an ally and a vital source of knowledge. We all literally need to get down from our human-centric, two-legged, dominant and hierarchical position and start recognising our non-human vegetal others as equals, and as sentient beings with a voice that we crucially need to listen to if we are to find a way out of our human-made catastrophe.”

Warren Senders

Music4ClimateJustice performance, November 6th 2021: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ Terje Isungset composer and musicians performing on instruments carved from ice.

“To be clear, I was not ‘at’ COP26. I stayed in my small house in Medford, MA. Other people from the M4CJ (Music for Climate Justice) organisation were in Glasgow. I organised and produced eight days of streamed video content: music, profiles, and interviews addressing the intersectionalities of climate activism and the performing arts. This worked out to 4.5 – 5 hours of music a day, from the 5th to the 12th of November (with a live opening event in Glasgow that I did not work on). The artists and activists we presented came from all over the world; the M4CJ ‘Festival’ was almost certainly the most diverse musical event in human history.

“Participating artists contributed a video performance and added a short spoken statement about climate change. Some of the performances were created for this event; others were archival. In several cases, the estate or trust for a major artist who was no longer alive agreed to contribute material. Interviews and panel discussions included profiles of artists, activists, musicians/composers working with climate data, ethnomusicologists & eco-musicologists, and artists & thinkers in related fields.”

Mike Stubbs

Climate Emergency Services at COP26, Glasgow November 2021. Showing Climate Emergency Services engaging with young people
Climate Emergency Services engaging with young people.
Photograph: Lou Johnson © 2021

“I presented Climate Emergency Services (CES) outside the Glasgow Transport Museum on the opening weekend of COP26 and then spent four days in Glasgow at the end. The artwork was hosted by the Coventry Biennale and Govan Project Space. Activities included the artwork appearing as a confounding, confused hot-rod/emergency vehicle to stimulate conversations on cars and climate emergency. I drove around Glasgow and managed to become part of a strange parade with other (police) emergency vehicles tagging along on the back of an organised pedestrian protest march. I was the only vehicle other than three cop cars.”

How has the failure of COP26 directed your intentions towards future actions?

Miranda Whall

“The failures of COP26 have enraged me and so empowered my determination and commitment to take this performative work much further. Up until the crawl in Glasgow I had crawled in isolated and rural locations, so my audience was mostly an infrequent passer-by. Crawling in a busy urban centre took the performance directly to a bigger and wider engaged and non-engaged public. Both on the streets of Glasgow and on the politically polarised and de-humanised highways of social media I felt simultaneously empowered and vulnerable. Down there on my hands and knees, I began to more fully realise the performance’s potential to aggravate and alleviate, to provoke and heal. And I more fully realised that this human/animal/vegetal/technological hybrid that I have created is a new ‘thing’; an alliance, a symbiotic union, a co-creating community, an interconnected future.”

Showing Miranda Whall crawling through a rainy Glasgow on the way to COP 26.
Miranda Whall crawling through a rainy Glasgow on the way to COP 26.
Photographer: Ashley Calvert © 2021

Warren Senders

“I don’t think terms like ‘success’ or ‘failure’ are applicable to COP26, or any such conference. Lacking the ability to set policy, the conference is not describable in those terms. It succeeded in conveying the current state of climate-change research to policy-makers. It succeeded in forcing climate change into the forefront of worldwide media coverage for a few days. It gave activists something to do, a way to connect … and gave the climate movement a lot to think about going forward (issues of intersectionality, of indigenous representation, of systemic discrimination, economic models, etc). It failed to generate hard policy outcomes … but to expect COP26 to result in systemic transformation was to expect that (in a hopefully soon-to-be-obsolete metaphor) the airport bus would grow wings and take off down the runway.

“Such expectations represent a popular (and entirely understandable) need for a deus ex machina which would magically solve our problems. I was not immune to that feeling; none of us were.

Showing Music4ClimateJustice performance at COP26: 'Rhythms, Words, and ... Ice!' with Aparna Sindhoor Dance Company
Music4ClimateJustice performance on 6th November: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ with Aparna Sindhoor’s Encounter, dance theatre Inspired by indigenous people’s fight for their forest.

Mike Stubbs

“It makes me want to want to continue to mingle and discuss these issues with members of the unconverted members of society, i.e. car nuts, pissed people, street dwellers, middle-class shoppers, kids and anyone not into COP26 or the environment. Climate Emergency Services is a hot rod with a gun on the roof playing extra loud birdsong, flashing lights and a sci-fi plant glowing/growing inside. It’s not a bad way of sparking up a conversation.”

What ideas do you have for your next climate-engaged work?

Miranda Whall

“I am now planning further solo urban tree crawls and collective urban tree crawls. I am also preparing to crawl in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt with a palm tree on my back for COP27 from the 7th – 18th November 2022. I will crawl for longer and further and hopefully up to, if not into, the conference and negotiation centre. In Glasgow, I reached the entrance of the Green Zone. This was ineffectual, next time I need to crawl to the entrance of the Blue Zone or its equivalent in Sharm El- Sheikh.”

Warren Senders

“I’ll go on doing what I’ve been doing all along. Daily vigils, a daily quota of political activity, intermittent public activism (marches, sit-ins, possible NVCD), and intermittent benefit concerts as part of an ongoing collaboration with M4CJ. I hope to present the first such event in May or June 2022 (I’ve organised 21 previous benefit concerts since 2009).”

Mike Stubbs

“I am trying to find a sustainable model with Creative Folkestone on how to continue the work of Climate Emergency Services and am planning to tour to festivals, motor shows and schools, integrating practical workshops on air quality monitoring and growing. Additionally, in Doncaster I am going to be announcing an open call for a new artists residency scheme on sustainability and water and a lab which will develop new critical work on climate for ArtBomb Festival 22 in August next year.”

COP26: Showing Climate Emergency Services on the way to Glasgow.
Climate Emergency Services on the way to Glasgow.
Photograph: Lou Johnson © 2021

Many people feel dismayed at business since COP26. What must happen so we’re happy in 2025?

Miranda Whall

“The wind is gusting its terrifying gusts outside my window as I write this. The wind terrified me as a child because it blew down walls and trees and shook my window, I would crawl into my parents’ bed and stick my fingers into my ears until it blew itself out. I remember loving the peace and quiet that followed. But now the wind terrifies me more than ever, because I know what it means and I know there is no peace and quiet to follow. What we must do could not be more clear — leaders must lead and businesses, corporations and citizens must follow. Simple. I am on my hands and knees pleading. I cannot articulate this better or differently.”

Warren Senders

“What would make us happy would be the governments of the world taking climate change seriously and engaging in concerted and robust collective action. Is there a mechanism to make this happen? No. The systemic inability of our governance to cope with climate change is a diagnostic indicator pointing to a structural problem in our governing mechanisms themselves. In geopolitics, hasty actions between nations are likely to be harbingers of war. The UN was developed specifically to reduce both the likelihood and the severity of such hasty actions — providing a place where disputes between nations can be discussed instead of leading to armed hostilities. That is to say: the UN was created in order to make international relations slower, more measured, more reflective. Which is a structural problem in light of the fact that what the climate crisis demands is that we all act very quickly. The UN isn’t equipped to direct concerted and robust collective international action any more than that airport bus is equipped to be an airplane.

“At this stage in the crisis, our happiness must come in the successful resolution of short-term problems. We live in ‘interesting times’, and our responsibility is to the future.”

Showing Music4ClimateJustice performance at COP26, 6th November 2021: 'Rhythms, Words, and ... Ice!' “Bhuka Tiende”, Dzapasi Mbira Group
Music4ClimateJustice performance 6/11/21: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ “Bhuka Tiende”, Dzapasi Mbira Group. Most musicians in Zimbabwe are subsistence farmers. They are already suffering from extreme climate change.

Mike Stubbs

“We will never be happy. Continue to engage the disenchanted, talk to your family, collaborate with like minds, write to MPs, become councillors, be artists, make art and protest when you can.”


Find out more

Lola Perrin adds: I was interviewed by Warren as part of M4CJ at COP26 and appeared in the concert on November 11th. I found I became gradually more and more addicted to the concerts once they started streaming on November 5th — they’re quite deeply emotional and the breadth of work gathered together from 350 engaged musicians across the world is really powerful. Here are links to the M4CJ COP26 streamed concerts on YouTube:

5th November 2021 Journey Around the World in Space and Time  
6th November Rhythms, Words, and … Ice! 
7th November Strings and Threads That Tie Us Together 
8th November Music Beyond Boundaries 
8th November M4CJ Global Launch Show 
9th November Our Island Home 
10th November Turning Art Into Activism Part I 
11th November Turning Art Into Activism Part II 
12th November From the Ancient to the Future 

Warren Senders is a musician, member of the New England Conservatory faculty and activist, and part of Music for Climate Justice. You can read about him in this 2018 piece at the Climate Disobedience Center, in a 2011 Arts Fuse feature Playing For the Planet, and a 2019 piece for The Indian Express, This Hindustani singer does his riyaz on streets and warns people about climate change. You can hear Warren in this Radio Boston interview and performance from 2010: Boston-Area Percussionists Drum For The Planet. “When Medford resident Warren Senders first learned about the effects of climate change, he felt helpless. ‘I’m no scientist,’ Senders thought. ‘What can I possibly do to help?'”

Miranda Whall is an interdisciplinary and performance artist based in Wales. She says of her crawling works, “My crawling projects are titled Crossed Paths. So far for Crossed Paths – Animals I have crawled as a sheep, badger, almost otter and I have carried out extensive research for mountain hare. For Crossed Paths – Trees I have crawled with an Oak tree, Birch tree and May tree. Other crawling projects are in development. Crossed Paths is a project about going deeply into the living landscape, ecosystems and interspecies dynamics to explore animal, plant, land and human narratives.” On Miranda’s Vimeo channel, you can watch her Showreel for COP26 Glasgow.

Mike Stubbs is an artist, curator and consultant, Director of ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster and former Director of FACT Liverpool. You can read more about Climate Emergency Services, which was commissioned for Creative Folkestone Triennial 2021.

Lola Perrin 
Lola Perrin 
A composer, pianist and collaborator on keyboard conversations about climate change with economists, lawyers, scientists, artists and other thinkers across the world.

Rob La Frenais
Rob La Frenais
An independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions, directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible.

Unfolding Stories from the Anthropocene and Beyond

Artist Ivilina Kouneva draws on her seaside walks and art-making, on tales of indigenous story sharing and experiences of others’ creativity to make imaginative links between our heritage as storytelling animals and remaking connections between past and future.


1,610 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


On the way to my art studio, I can either choose the short five-minute walk or, continue down the road till I reach the seafront, turn right, walk on the shingled beach and then up the road. I usually choose the latter.

I consider myself privileged to live by the sea, on the East Sussex Coast, for at least the past seven years. The horizontal lines and the constant changes of tidal levels, cloud formations, wind directions make me feel alive, part of a bigger picture. I usually try to focus on sounds and forms, to be fully present in the moment, but stories keep coming and going through my head. As Gregory Norminton says in his book The Ship of Fools, “every story is like a bell jar thrown into a rocky lake; it closes in its eye a roaring world, and doesn’t even know of the Universe outside; the planets spin in their orbits, stories happen without us even knowing, but still, if we turn our backs on them, they won’t stop happening.”

Water is a powerful element, loaded with meanings. The seas and oceans are the natural places for living creatures to migrate and communicate. However, they can be seen as a destructive power, a threat: tsunami, coastal erosion, flooding, the Great Flood. Water is the cradle of the world’s mythology, reservoir of stories.

We are ‘storytelling animals’. I came upon this description in Annika Arnold’s book Climate Change and Storytelling: Narrative and cultural meaning in environmental communication. What part does the storytelling play for people’s perception of the risk of climate change, related to Global Warming? When I think of climate change my first concern is for communities and the impact on their lives. Analysing my own understanding of what life stands for I realise that, for me, it is something beyond just existence and just being. It is peoples’ rituals and beliefs, often expressed and recognised through artisan objects and the process of art-making. Life, in its wholesome greatness, is full of creativity, visualisation, music, words, language. This is where nature interweaves powerfully with its rhythms and changes throughout.

In the beginning of the 2000s, I started a series of works under the title of ‘Fragile Balances’. They were born from the pure sensitivity of an artist who acknowledges the complexity of voices and narratives, the labyrinths of experiences coming from different places around the planet. At this stage I relied heavily on books and my imagination. Magic realism literature armed me with tools for mental survival and the ability to think of our world as an enormous “garden of forking paths” (Jorge Luis Borges). Unfolding a story within another story, while connecting events from the past with our current endeavours, sustains my creative practice.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Forking Paths', paper cuts collage
‘Forking Paths’, paper cuts collage
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2020

Storytelling – connection to the mystery of the unknown

I am walking along the shingled beach thinking of an event that took place during COP26 in Glasgow. My daughters, environmentally sensitive thinkers and activists, told me about the series of Minga Indigena story sharing. Before jumping to check it out and do further research online, for weeks I left myself relying only on their emotional description of kindness, openness and difference in thinking that they had witnessed. I let myself imagine it was staged in Victorian times. I saw the healer from Amazonia with spiritual drawings on his arms. I felt his natural emotional intelligence, his attempt to transcribe his beliefs and connection with nature to the bewildered audience.

I just wish I were there and could hear him saying that if we got lost in the jungle he would be there for us, but we might not recognise him as he would be the jaguar, and we should hold on to the jaguar’s tail. The immediate questions arising were: What have we done for the past 150 years? and Have we really changed? It made me think how detached and sterile our social media-obsessed world could be at moments — with the result that we find ourselves cut off from the mystery of the unknown and therefore, from all things that are not easy to articulate. However, like the stories, the unknown is out there, forming a large part of the pulsing, living systems on our planet.

Then I found an interesting relation between the Minga Indigena event and two of my paper cuts collages created in the middle of the first lockdown. My artworks were inspired and dedicated to the communities that inhabit indigenous islands. With vibrant colours and ornaments, they were made to resemble old manuscripts, imagined groups of people engaged in their everyday activities who dwell on strips of land, narrow boats, fragile wooden supports. The artworks were selected for the virtual exhibition initiated by Sweet’Art, London – The Great Leveller. There, visual artists shared their experiences as well as hopes through the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Paradise in Danger' paper cuts collage
‘Paradise in Danger’, paper cuts collage
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2021

Rooted in stories already told

Walking along the shingled beach and listening to my steps, the stories emerge from one another, with labyrinth-like pathways and unexpected turns. In the world of constant change “safety by all circumstances is an illusion”, as British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington had once said. Blurred edges and uncertain boundaries, structures with multilayered contexts might be the reality of our future.

While listening to Jocelyn Pook’s Flood with its sounds of dripping water, where Balkan folklore beautifully interweaves with spiritual singing, an exhibition at Cisternerne in Copenhagen came to my mind. In March 2019 I visited Copenhagen, a place also defined by water through its ragged topography with many canals. A devoted art gallery trotter, I went to see the underground exhibition rooms at Cisternerne, a former water reservoir, where the creative trio Superflux made their massive statement about climate change.

For ‘It is Not the End of the World’ they had flooded the gloomy catacombs with knee-deep water, imagining an apocalyptic scenario when “Humanity has come to an end”. Deeply moved I then wrote: “… it is not an attractive or beautiful (in a traditional way), or a good-for-taking pictures show (and shamefully we still do it)… So put a pair of rubber boots on, and brave your way through the cold darkness of could-be-your- future.”

I have always been inspired by how creative minds through time and space may pick similar ideas and inspirations. One might imagine such minds are all a family across time, where your stories would be heard and accepted. Communication is a multi-layered phenomenon (as Annika Arnold explains in her book). It is not a linear process and it is important at all levels. The messages we get through storytelling are essential for us, beings brought up with stories. Through narratives, we better understand our lives and where we stand.

My work is rooted in the chain of stories “that somebody else has already told”, as Umberto Eco’s noted in his podcast for ‘In the Name of Rose’. My artworks expand ideas and themes from my previous projects, about a complex world in need of balance. Water has a powerful presence as well as a variety of symbols, pin-up images from our collective memory and mythology. Decades ago I discovered the Irish-born American professor of relative mythology Joseph Campbell. What I got from his works was the firm belief that traditions and rituals for all communities gravitate around similar essential values. Before these Anthropocene times, people followed the rhythm of nature and their rituals were closely connected to its changes. Through my work I look for relevance between past and present, creating links among stories and events from different time realities. I blur the edges to challenge the imagination and provoke curiosity to archetypal models and stories from the past.

At least back then the Noah family had a solution for the Great Flood – they built an Ark.

I keep walking along the beach.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Sea Levels' oil and acrylics on canvas
‘Sea Levels’, oil and acrylics on canvas
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2021

Find out more

Climate Change and Story Telling: Narrative and Cultural Meaning in Environmental Communication by Annika Arnold (2018) is published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Minga Indigena is a collective of groups, organizations and communities from indigenous nations throughout Abya Yala (the American continent). Minga is the coming together of people when there is a calling. “The leaders of Indigenous Minga come from the highest communities in the Andes, the deepest forests of the Amazon, the islands farthest away from the continents, the driest desert in the world, the northernmost territory in Alaska and the largest reserves of water in southern Patagonia. They come to help humanity remember what it is to be ‘human’ and to invite them to join the cause for climate and biocultural diversity from a new perspective.” Minga Indígena has participated in the COPs since Rio + 20 in 2012, including Paris, Cancun, Peru, Madrid and Glasgow. You can view their presentation at COP26 here.

Narrating Landscapes: How Indigenous Storytelling Can Unlock Our Environment’s Past, at Columbia ClimateSchool’s GlacierHub blog (2/9/21) relates a better understanding of indigenous knowledge can help create links that improve our understanding of our changing climate. “This method of storytelling doesn’t always conform to scientific approaches that seek to dissect and isolate information; instead, it is an integrated wealth of information that draws from years of coexisting with the landscape a tribe inhabits. Western data-gathering rendered this knowledge static, contradicting the essential living quality of storytelling.”

Ivilina Kouneva

Ivilina Kouneva

An artist and educator using colour, drawing and cut-out to articulate complexities of climate change in our everyday lives, and create dialogues between old and new ...