In Time: Crisis, Care, Creation

Artist Margaret “Margin” Zheng felt moved to perform Lola Perrin’s work, Significantus, as part of their climate activism, and adapted the piano suite to new conditions when Covid-19 prevented public events, producing a unique concert: Crisis, Care, Creation.


1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


It is often the most peculiar motifs of circumstance that make life and art — and the art of life — tremble beautifully, in truth unveiled.

I first learned of Lola’s composition by a chance Internet-search, motivated by a serendipitous moment of curiosity. I was creating a foothold for myself in climate activism, having led a climate rally in September at my college (Haverford College) and started a hub of Sunrise Movement on campus. I knew of — and also personally knew — composers who wrote politically oriented music, and I also was familiar with composers like John Luther Adams who wrote music evocative of the mysterious, mesmerizing powers of nature. So the question came to me — it might have been in November: had anyone written a piano piece about the climate crisis?

Someone had, in the UK: her name was Lola Perrin. Elated, I ordered the score and tried it out, and, entranced, I soon had the inescapable conviction that I would perform Significantus in public someday.

Lola Perrin’s ‘Significantus’
Photograph: Margaret Zheng

After a few emails and conversations, including an email and WhatsApp exchange with Lola herself, and an application to a student performance fund offered by my college, I received in January the happy news. I had received the E. Clyde Lutton 1966 Memorial Fund. With the support of Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, I was going to perform Significantus in a concert in Earth Week — with a personal spin.

Climate activism under lockdown

The general format of the performance was to mostly follow the score: first seven movements of music, then a short talk by a guest speaker, after that audience participation in breakout groups, and finally the last musical movement, followed by a reception and informal conversation. But instead of focusing on sharing information on climate change for the audience to reflect upon, my event was to center on storytelling and emotional connection: the guest speaker was to share a personal story about how they became called to climate activism, and the audience was then to share in small groups their own stories of thinking, feeling, experiencing a world in crisis. The final movement was to be a collective improvisation, beginning with just me playing, then continuing as a duet with the guest speaker (also a performer), and finally expanding to the audience members, who were to contribute something of their own to the performance by singing, speaking, playing an ‘instrument’, dancing, whatever else they imagined, symbolizing the collective creation of a better future.

Logistics were a battle from the start, mostly because I was so unfamiliar with the challenges of planning a concert and thus approached the task too dreamily. It was not until spring break, in March, when I finally got my guest speaker confirmed, but by then all plans were in peril. The pandemic had penetrated the county where my college was, and soon after it spread all over the region. After a few weeks, what was increasingly likely became inevitable: classes were to be online for the rest of the semester, and all on-campus events were cancelled. Most students, including myself, were barred from returning to campus (exceptions including many international students and students without a safe home to stay in); I was to spend the rest of my semester at home.

I was devastated. I had such wonderful visions for a concert of compassion and creation, and now they were stolen away! The fund that was supporting the concert required performances to be in the semester the money was granted, so there was no chance for the concert to be postponed to the fall, when hopefully on-campus activities would recommence. Besides, there was intentional meaning in scheduling the concert during Earth Week, two days before the mass strikes that were to sweep the U.S. — it was the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, in a crucial year for action.

Crisis, Care, Creation

The concert was always about performing ‘in time’: not just tickling vague eternities with delicate trained fingers in hypnotic moto perpetuo, but contextualizing my performance — and generally my being — in the tensions of my times. In the great existential crisis of a humanity that seems so determined, to its own peril, to go on and on and on producing — but needs to stop and reflect and confront itself: whom is ‘business as usual’ hurting the most? (The already marginalized and oppressed: people of color and especially Indigenous people, poor and working-class people, people with disabilities, young people, etc.) And what are they saying, doing, demanding? 

I am a young, Chinese American, genderqueer person from a middle to upper-middle class background. I was born a U.S. citizen and am the child of immigrants. I was not raised in any religion, but I feel deeply spiritual, a Seeker. I exist with a particular combination of privileges and challenges, and though I cannot speak and act for anyone else, I must live with full intention as who I am, embedded in human and nonhuman space and time.

Before I sent the audience into breakout groups, I shared my own story of living in the climate crisis.
Margaret Zheng

So when I realized that the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency were really twin crises, both the result of governments caring more for concentrated profit and political power than for the health and wellbeing of people, I decided that my project — early on titled ‘Crisis, Care, Creation’ — had to continue, in whatever way it could. This was the gift I had for this moment, a gift I had to give.

The result was a Zoom-based concert on April 20th. The original format I had planned turned out to speak profoundly to the needs of the times and to require only a few adjustments: in lieu of a guest speaker/performer, I spoke my own story after the initial half-hour of music; audience members joined Zoom breakout rooms to reflect upon how they were emotionally processing the moment of multilayered crisis and to practice collective care; and the final movement still invited audience members to join me (while on mute) with their own musical, kinesthetic, or visual performances (some people even drew pictures) as I gradually broke away from Lola’s score and started improvising.

While performing, I felt thoroughly in a state of flow.
Margaret Zheng

After the initial awkwardness of speaking to a Zoom audience (since my video was pinned onto the screen, I had to watch myself as I spoke!), the experience was for me one of intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually engaging flow. I took many artistic liberties in my interpretation, breathing through the music and dancing through its spirit. I embodied yearning, awe, sorrow, numbness, anger — every emotion a different subjective time, every movement in time like a river. I spoke the first words of my personal story — “This should be my time of dreams!” — with the final chord of the seventh movement (entitled ‘We are playing with fire, a reckless mode of behaviour we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on ourselves’) still resounding, and I still panting from exertion. After speaking, I then joined a breakout room myself, shared in heart-to-heart dialogue. Afterwards, I concluded with the last movement — a joyful part-planned, part-spontaneous performance despite my not being able to hear the audience’s own improvisations — and then some last words, though by then I found it hard to speak, how exhausted and elated I was from it all. 

Imagine better, create!

Throughout the performance, my body and spirit were spellbound, and — I am told — many in the audience were too. Even without the usual physical performance space enabling a palpable sonic resonance, there was communication, fellowship, spiritual reverberance. Many were stressed and lonely, and in music, conversation, and creation, they found emotional grounding and solace. As I read the messages people sent me afterwards, I felt joy, pride, gratitude. My ‘crazy’ idea worked! — and it meant something.

Showing an artwork created by a Crisis, Care, Creation audience member
After Crisis, Care, Creation, one audience member shared with me the drawing he made during the collective improvisation as an expression of thanks. Image used with permission.

This was an event I shall always remember, as it brought people together, and it touched them deep.

I write this nearly two weeks after the performance, on May Day 2020, the International Workers’ Day, when many people in the U.S. and elsewhere — especially those deemed ‘essential workers’ during the pandemic — are striking, protesting, and otherwise mobilizing for urgent aid and protection: for safe working conditions, for accessible medical care, for rent and mortgage cancellations and an end to water shutoffs, for the release of those confined in unsafe prisons and detention centers, for a #PeoplesBailout: for the basic right to life. I stand in solidarity with the people who striked that day as well as with the people who cannot or do not strike but still call upon those with privilege to support them and to demand crucial change — both the immediate and the deep.

The climate crisis is not just about nature, and the pandemic is not just about a virus. They are both manifestations of the greater plague of capitalism and of money-run politics: life-devaluing systems that if we — the united peoples of Earth — do not soon uproot will only cause even more death and irreversible destruction. Can we act — in time? Connected with our identities, our personal and collective histories, our individual and shared longings for the future, can we move the rhythms of our world and dance a variegated, syncopated, yet more harmonious tune?

Showing Margaret Zheng's performance, Crisis, Care, Creation on Earth Day 2020
At the end of Crisis, Care, Creation, I departed from the score in partly planned improvisation, synchronously performing with each audience member.
Margaret Zheng

I would like to end with the words with which I concluded my virtual concert. Let them resonate with you, my fellow human being, a being in time:

So long as we live in a world of crisis, we must continue to practice care for ourselves and other living beings and to day by day strive to create a thriving, more beautiful future. Thus I leave you with one more question, to be answered in contemplation and in action:

How do the crises of the emerging world compel us to live anew?


Find out more

Signicantus composer Lola Perrin is a fellow ClimateCultures member and creator of the  ClimateKeys global initiative.

Sunrise Movement is a movement in the USA to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.

‘Crisis, Care, Creation’ was performed for Earth Day 2020. Growing out of the first Earth Day in 1970, Earth Day Network aims to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide.

Margaret "Margin" Zheng
Margaret “Margin” Zheng
A philosopher, artist, awakener, and spiritual intellectual, formally studying music and mathematics, informally learning voraciously about our world in transformation, involved in actions promoting climate justice.
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Signal from the Edge #3 – I Am Purpose

Writer Indiana Rivers shares a short story exploring one person’s sense of purpose. Evoking ideas of conversation with the universe to illuminate times of zoonotic pandemic and climate crisis, Indiana reflects on the presence of signals from within.


1,300 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


Indiana’s post is the third in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge of creating a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of a new signal for humanity. Is it a message — whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness? Or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense — common or alien — amidst the confusion of human being.

***

 

universe and purpose, showing moon in the sky
Photograph: Indiana Rivers © 2020

I am purpose

Hello.

We are the universe.

We have chosen to present ourselves to you as language because we feel it is the simplest and easiest way to communicate with you.

We have heard whispers from the minds of you. It is of the assumption that we have caused humanity’s current state of … Isolation. Destruction. Vulnerability.

Of course, humans love to cast blame. Even when that blame cannot reach time or form or space.

We can only observe. Humanity is in control of its own fate. Where did the first infection begin?

“Um.”

This is a rhetorical question.

“Oh.”

Digestion of a diseased animal.

Humanity’s consumption of non-human animals. Ah, yes, the origin is confirmed.

What you call ‘zoonotic’ is the isolation between the human and the animal. But what you cease to understand is the thread between every living being. A hum. A heartbeat.

Weaves us together in a tangle of chaotic uncertainty.

We have not the capacity to scribble you out. What a crisis permits is the human spirit to blaze until it burns the light —

“Sorry, hi, sorry to interrupt but why are you telling me? Am I supposed to do something with this?” The voice is coarse, dry, awkward.

That is for you to decide.

“But, why me? You could have picked anyone.”

We did not pick you, as you call it. You were randomly chosen.

A pout. “Oh, okay, well, thanks, I guess.”

Don’t thank us. We do not require praise.

“Then what do you require?”

Nothing.

A pause. Then a whisper. “You’re a barrel of laughs.”

Your attempt at sarcasm has not succeeded.

“Hey! Excuse me, you may be the almighty bloody universe but there is still such a thing as … as respect. Even from a formless … being, such as yourself. Selves. Sorry. Pronouns.”

We admire your strength.

But we do not require anything. We are communicating with you to offer you a purpose.

“Purpose?”

An echo of a voice. High-pitched and loud. “Saph, dinner’s ready!”

“Alright, Mum, be down in a sec.”

Do you consume animals, as those who were first infected?

“No. I used to but then realised it was stupid of me to think I had the right to eat them just because they’re a different species. And don’t even get me started on how eating animals is destroying the planet –”

But you’re going to tell us, we presume?

“Yes. I can be selfish sometimes but I don’t want to be a god. I’m not even sure I believe gods should exist. But it seems we’re acting as if we’re gods. Unpredictable weather patterns. Increase in carbon dioxide levels. The planet is roasting like a potato. And all you ever see on the news is the football results and lengthy discussions on what the Queen is wearing.”

You are wise, child.

Gurgles. “Wha? Really? I couldn’t even get a C on my GCSE maths exam.”

Yet you were able to see what so many of your kind cannot. The purpose we offer you is something you already recognise. A hum. A heartbeat. Made of stardust. You feel it within yourself but can never quite reach it.

“This sounds … familiar. And it’s kind of freaking me out.”

As it should.

The high-pitched and loud voice returns. “Saph! It will get cold. It’s your favourite.”

“Yes, coming, sorry. Just talking to my … girlfriend. Be right down!”

Listen to the hum of us. The vibration of us. Of you. There, you will learn of your purpose.

“I think I already know it.”

Then you have won.

***

signal and purpose - showing the sun above rooftop with aerial
Photograph: Indiana Rivers © 2020

I am purpose — context

I decided to focus on connectedness because being an optimist I find focusing on the positives of any situation is the most beneficial way to learn and develop.

I had the idea to write a conversation between the universe and a teenager because I wanted to draw upon the relationship we have with each other and how collectives of union are forming because of this crisis.

More so, I wished to look at the origins of the virus and question our consumption of animals. Even though I was primarily focused on the consequence of viruses being passed from animal to human because of this consumption, I also wanted to bring attention to how climate change has been influenced by animal agriculture.

I decided a teenager would be a comedic and authentic partner to the universe character because it is a time in our lives where I believe we are truly ourselves. On the verge between child and adult. That balance is what makes us who we are, I believe. And what is the universe if not us? We are its stardust.

At first, I didn’t know how the conversation would go. I knew the Signals from the Edge series focused on signals and messages. I thought a signal from the universe, in this context: sending a human being a message that they can be offered a purpose. In reality, by telling someone they have a purpose means they already know it. They just need to recognise it.

The piece also made me think about how I interpret the word ‘edge’. Before writing this, I had always seen the word as an ending, something that reaches a wall where there is nothing left. Now, I am accustomed to seeing the word as a place unknown. Somewhere that holds knowledge and a beingness we believe we cannot reach.

I also wanted to keep the reader guessing as to whether this is a dream sequence or some form of reality. Of course, the universe could never have a voice that we could understand but humans do and we are biologically part of the universe so … paradox?
Essentially, I wanted this conversation to highlight the signals found within us and how we can access them during times of unprecedented events. I hope Saph can bring hope to anyone of any age and teach us that the messages we send ourselves can guide us to the light.


Find out more

You can explore some of the issues around the origins of coronavirus diseases such as Covid-19 in human exploitation of animals in this report from the international NGO Traffic: Wildlife trade, COVID-19 and zoonotic disease risks: shaping the response (April 2020).

From bats to human lungs, the evolution of a coronavirus, by Carolyn Corman in the New Yorker (27th March 2020), looks at how such diseases are transmitted, and the latest research into understanding them.

And Transmission of diseases from humans to apes: why extra vigilance is now needed, by Arend de Haas at The Conversation (24th March 2020) explains how our great ape relatives are also vulnerable to coronavirus diseases — with the risk being transmission from humans.

You can find previous Signals from the Edge contributions in the form of a burning forest and the cry of a fox, and a fragment of an alien encyclopedia, cast backwards in time and in space.

Indiana Rivers
Indiana Rivers
An activist, writer, artist, drummer and witch, studying an MA in Environmental Humanities and writing on eco-anxiety and environmental impacts of animal agriculture relating to veganism.
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Fool’s Gold — the Cairn and the Wishing Well

In this piece — commissioned by artists Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman for their exhibition, Fool’s Gold — editor Mark Goldthorpe explores notions of value and care through our experience of objects as works of nature, culture and transformation.


1,700 words + photo gallery – approximate reading time: 8 minutes 


How are we to value things? The objects we make, consume, keep, curate or discard? The natural world around us? The art that explores nature and culture? Artists Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman ask questions of value with Fool’s Gold, their new two-person exhibition. And, as their title suggests, simple answers — or those that appear simple and we find so attractive on the surface — are deceptive. With time, objects of convenience, of instant desire, of proven utility can become inconvenient, spent desires, markers of futility. Creations of modernity in relationship with ancient nature: things of the now and of deep time. The everyday and the deferred tomorrow.

Transforming human being and thinghood

Matter isn’t just inert, empty until given human meaning. As philosopher Jane Bennett points out, it’s vibrant and vital, making a world where “human being and thinghood overlap … the us and the it slip-slide into each other.”

Two artists, with three pieces each, together create an imaginary and immersive landscape that speaks of our transformation of the material world. Harrison’s cairns and Schilderman’s wishing well, Schilderman’s broken glass castle and Harrison’s array of quadrats, Harrison’s winter blues and Schilderman’s spiral wall speak to each other, allow us to look through and at them and encourage us to see, and to ask… What will we leave behind us? What can we repurpose to better ends?

‘Cairns’ – discarded crisp packets, aluminium cans & rechargeable LED tea lights. Photo: Hayley Harrison © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)
‘Wishing Well’ – salt crystals & recycled glass. Photo: P.Schildermam © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)

Transformation is a common thread. Hayley Harrison finds her materials by foraging the waste she encounters in city and countryside: nature transformed and discarded is her natural resource. Pamela Schilderman’s own exploratory mode takes everyday objects and reveals through them another purpose, a new and unexpected expression.

Fool’s Gold: precautionary tales

There’s a fairy tale character to this new landscape, reframing our mundane perception of the world beyond the gallery and prompting us to see things differently. An artists’ landscape, it’s still the one that we inhabit and recreate daily through our countless choices and the compromises and constraints we live under. But the reuse and reshaping these six pieces bring about refashions the whole into something like a cautionary tale for our times. Or perhaps what academic and artist Renata Tyszczuk calls precautionary tales, which “might work with an imagination of the future based on the ethic of care and paying attention … caring as both a practice and an attitude: an attainment and responsiveness of an altered Earth and a new, strange reality.”

‘Fool’s Gold’ detail – wallpaper & fool’s gold. Photo: P.Schilderman © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)
‘Quadrats’ – recycled red plastic bags & discarded materials + ‘Cairns’ – discarded crisp packets, aluminium cans & rechargeable LED tea lights. Photo: Hayley Harrison © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)

Signs of humanity’s alteration of the natural world are all around. They are much argued over, but with no room now for outright denial that there’s a problem with the planet. The conspiracy peddlers are still out there, of course, somewhere between a flat Earth and a moon that never was touched by human bootprints. Leave them in their delusional orbits, and let us talk. We can do so without feeling we have to agree, that there’s an argument we need to win, or we must at once put the world to rights.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic? When you think of the future, do you see something that’s already happened and we must decide how best to live with, or something as yet unrealised that we must make? Either way, we have choices to make. We might choose differently, but let’s agree there’s much to care about — to care for — and that we need to be creative in how we approach this.

Artist Tania Kovats says “I’m not naive; I don’t think art can stop the climate crisis, but I think it can give us new ways to think about it … Both in very conscious ways and in very unconscious ways, because our relationship with this crisis has entered our imaginations as much as it has entered our consciousnesses.” Art helps us engage imaginatively with possibilities — within ourselves and within the world.

A large part of what we know personally about the world is built on what we see. But our perceptions are flawed and incomplete. There’s just no way we can take the whole world in: it exceeds us. Imagination helps us plug perception’s gaps, to bridge the distance between us and other. But much of the time, imagination — fed in new and dazzling ways — leads us astray. Rather than connection with reality — real reality, the mineral, microbial and growing, breathing one that sits beneath and beyond our shiny, distracting world of artefacts — it brings a widening disconnect. We’re in nature — that photosynthesising, mutating, proliferating web of beings and bedrock that’s sedimenting, accreting, eroding and circulating to long beats of time that underpin our daily lives — but increasingly we believe we’re operating apart from it. We hold it in reserve: something separate and special and, when we come up against it on screens or adventures, sometimes something truly awesome. But our imaginations, day to day, become a bit dulled to what the world really is: how long it persists, how quickly it shifts, the scale of our rising billions’ impact upon it. So our imaginations need a reset from time to time, and art can transform our perceptions of the taken-for-granted.

Evoking beauty, provoking care

Beauty is perhaps something else we take for granted. Do you look for it in a gallery but not in your waste bin or on the littered margins of our public spaces? Does it reside only in perfection — in pristine nature, in a particular industrial design? Or is it also in the flaws and fractures, the failed experiments, the detritus and ruins of past success? And what of beauty that passes, and the beauty in passing as we let go of artefacts, ideas or habits whose time is up? Cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey describes a possible ethic of ‘palliative curation’ in a world where all nature is marked by the human. This anticipatory marking of transience “suggests another way of approaching this interval of uncertainty — creating opportunities to say ‘goodbye’” to loved landmarks and objects. We might observe their “stages of unmaking” through “rituals of leave-taking that help us bridge the gap between ‘there’ and ‘gone’.”

‘Winter Blues’ – discarded umbrella frames, plastic bags, recycled plastic Christmas tree, aluminium cans & rechargeable LED tea lights. Photo: Hayley Harrison © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)
‘Crystal Clear’ – recycled glass. Photo: P.Schilderman © 2020 (installation shot at Fool’s Gold, Rugby Art Gallery, 2020)

Sociologist of science Sherry Turkle says “Evocative objects bring philosophy down to earth. When we focus on objects, physicians and philosophers, psychologists and designers, artists and engineers are able to find common ground in everyday experience.” Let us focus on objects then and, in sharing a space for conversations about ecological and climate predicaments, let’s each of us pay attention to and expand the scope of those things that are, as poet Alun Lewis expressed it, “within the parish of my care”. If it’s right that human being and thinghood overlap in a vital material world, then proper care for our objects is also care for our selves, and for the non-human selves we share the world with and seem bent on crowding out.

Discarded crisp packets turned inside out, plastic bags pulled into string to be wound and stretched, structures made from broken glass and imperfect salt crystals: frames and lenses through which to look again and see the familiar (always a deception) as new, strange, inviting. Full of potential once more, and offering containers for our hopes and for memories of nature we’d pushed down, unmarked and forgotten beneath the everyday. Build yourself a shiny cairn to honour and re-present those things of value that we’ve discarded, or now need to bid farewell. Make yourself a wishing well to express the better things we might bring about, the value we can now create. Fashion your own frame for the world and invite others to the view. Together, make a new path through the woods. And take care.

RAGM Fools Gold Installation View. Photograph: Jamie Gray © 2020
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Click on image and expand for full size slideshow with captions.


Find out more

This piece arose as a commission from Hayley Harrison and Pamela Schilderman as part of their project. Mark met with Hayley and Pamela at the British Library in November 2019, ahead of the completion of their pieces for the exhibition.

Fool’s Gold runs at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum until 14th March. It invites visitors to engage in conversations around the climate crisis and our use of materials. The exhibition is accompanied by workshops, talks, an animation and a live installation. There will be an In Conversation artist talk on Tuesday 6th March at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum at 6 pm (tickets £6). This project is funded by Arts Council England and Rugby Council, and supported by Practical Action, an innovative international development organisation based in Rugby and putting ingenious ideas to work so people in poverty can change their world.

Hayley Harrison is an artist whose work examines our disconnection with ‘nature’ and each other — via discarded materials, text, performance and video. 

Pamela Schilderman is an artist whose practice is strongly influenced by science exploring notions of identity and individuality through repetition, often juxtaposing microcosm and macrocosm as though adjusting the lens of a microscope.

The passages quoted in the text are taken from:

Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things (Duke University Press, 2010).

Renata TyszczukProvisional Cities: cautionary tales for the Anthropocene (Routledge, 2018).

Tania Kovats – Living Near Water (Start the Week: BBC Radio 4, 9/12/19).

Caitlin DeSilvey – Anticipatory history (Uniform Books, 2011). You can read previous posts where Mark reviews and discusses some of the ideas in the book Anticipatory history: Anticipatory History and The Words That Make Our Stories.

Sherry Turkle – Evocative Objects: things we think with (MIT Press, 2007).

Alun Lewis – In Hospital: Poona (1944) in Alun Lewis: Collected Poems (Seren Books, 2015).

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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A Dance with Defensiveness

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019Artist Scarlet Hall reflects on defensiveness as an embodied response to being implicated in patterns of oppression. Using movement improvisation to decentre habitual narratives and open space to attend to relationships, Scarlet is seeking ecological perspectives on defensiveness.


1,980 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 


This blog is a conversation piece midway through a short practice-based research inquiry. I am using dance improvisation to explore the affective and sensate aspects of defensiveness. Different definitions of defensiveness circulate and mingle in society. For example, in psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a set of mechanisms through which we protect ourselves; in neurobiology is it an expression of a threat state in which the nervous system is activated; and in popular articles on overcoming defensiveness, it is a cognitive verbal strategy in response to a self‐perceived flaw being brought to light by another person.

Defensiveness circulates as a concept and as a thing in social movements — my main research focus. For example, recent responses to decolonial critiques of Extinction Rebellion and responses to critiques of transphobia have both been described as defensive. In this context, defensiveness is used to describe an unwillingness to engage with how we might be implicated in patterns of oppression. What all these different approaches share is a tendency to locate defensiveness in the individual. The individual is taken as the starting point, and then defensiveness is located. Following Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions — in which she looks at how emotions work to create the very boundaries and borders that constitute subjects — I want to turn this around and take defensiveness as my starting point, and then look at how it shapes bodies and spaces.

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
On the floor
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

To do this, I am working with a small group of participants in a movement improvisation research practice. I chose movement improvisation to decentre the narratives which people are critiquing or defending and to make space to relate to how defensiveness ‘impresses’ and changes bodies. I worked with improvisation scores; sets of precise short instructions to focus movement.

Thinking ecologically

Through attending to how defensiveness moves in and across bodies, we bring an ecological perspective into view. My hunch is that an ecological perspective changes both our concept and experience of defensiveness. As we look in more detail at the happening of defensiveness, the happening becomes livelier, richer. This happening takes place across bodies and is as ecological as the local nature reserve. As with other ecologies, it can be more or less diverse, more or less homogenous. As we attend to this felt experience of defensiveness in our bodies, as part of a wider ecology, perhaps this richness becomes more visible, and the discomfort more interesting and even creative.

These creative speculations need to be kept in step with the problem of defensiveness as it arises in social movements trying to transform oppression. Defensiveness, and what to do with it, is a recurring problem in transformative anti-oppression work. People of colour and white anti-racist activists know how cautiously they must navigate conversations about racism with white friends if they are to avoid defensiveness. Trans folks and trans allies know sharply how people arrive to a conversation already defensive to the idea that they might be transphobic.

Avoiding or soothing the mainstream’s defensiveness is full-time work for people in the margins wishing to try and transform oppression as it manifests. An affect of defensiveness is to exhaust people who constantly face it whenever they attempt to push back against their marginalisation or ‘invisibilising’. There is much good reason to criticise defensiveness and demand that those in the mainstream transform their defensiveness.

I have tried to change this in myself for many years. And I still fail repeatedly. I have tried telling myself repeatedly to not be defensive, to extract from myself a more open response. But it is a stubborn creature. The mere whiff of wrongness and it starts to gather force in me. It will not be changed by reason, by will or the mind. Descartes’ philosophy, which splits mind and body and then valorises the mind over the body, is redundant for this task. I turn to his contemporary Spinoza, and more recent process philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Erin Manning and Hasana Sharp as more hopeful and practical philosophies which might assist in transforming defensiveness.

Process philosophy, or process ontology, suggests that bodies are always being made through relations. There is no body that can choose to enter into relation or not, rather we are constituted through a complex array of affects which are always jostling with each other. Affects, or simply the capacity to be affected and to affect, is how bodies are composed. These affects are sensate, organic, inorganic, cognitive, emotional, or ideal. Affect refuses the binary dualisms of nature/culture and body/mind and instead sees life constantly in the process of emerging through these intensities.

A trio: two humans and a ball of defensiveness

Dancing with process philosophy, I notice that how this research approaches defensiveness is already to affect and be affected by it. My choice to explore it through movement was in part to avoid it manifesting in violent intellectual ideas. And once in the studio, there was no escaping it. In one score I marked out in small steps a five-metre large circle in the studio and introduced this as a ball of defensiveness. I noticed that once its edges were marked out and its inner force noticed, there was no way to not be affected by it.

In the studio, participants were guided in their movement by improvisation scores. My writing in the studio describes one score in which dancers were asked to move in relation to each other and to an imagined large ball of defensiveness filling a third of the dance space.

Two bodies circle it slowly, touching and recoiling from its edge. They face each other across this affect of defensiveness. One steps in and the other hides a face under the arm. She steps in again, head dips and hips swing, she turns, faster and faster, head lifts upwards, upturned lips. The other shifts back and forth along the edge, jolts and shakes as they rub up with the ball. Suddenly she is gone across the room, legs pull her outward and she ducks down frozen. The turner carries on turning but her gaze momentarily searches out the other. She steps out the circle and kneels hands outstretched towards defensiveness. Fingers bend backwards under the weight of it. The frozen one is alive again, creeping forward, feet shuffle with the floor and the ball of defensiveness is at her shins. She bends and outstretches her hands and fingers fall back under the weight. They make eye contact and fingers curl upwards followed by palms slowly lifting.

Defensiveness - moving away Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving away
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

In my writing later, remembering the dance, I have different noticings, or movements of thought:

The intensity of defensiveness was surprising and strong. Participants’ movement pathways were affected by the suggestion of its presence. The sensations and intensity are not only felt during reactive habitual moments of daily life — it can also be felt in the safety of the studio.

The sensations and intensity differ depending on one’s relation to it. When participants were inside the ball of defensiveness there was more dynamic movement, more energy. When movers were on the outside of the ball of defensiveness, there was shrinking, hiding, cowering and aversion. It was more disabling.

“Going inside it — having thought it was [a] horrible, awful thing and sticky emotion to be in it, and then being in it, it actually felt exciting and dynamic and joyful, and there was something about, like it’s  sticky in the shadows but letting it go all around you, being in it it was very different to what I imagined it to be.” (Lucia)

There was uncertainty about how to approach it, what it would do. Being outside the ball of defensiveness was also moving with defensiveness. The sensate experience of defensiveness is habitual, with sensations following familiar pathways. In psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a refusal to acknowledge feelings. I consider this refusal as still ecological. And this refusal manifesting as movement and as felt sensation. When one was invited into this movement of refusal there was an intentionality and creativity. When one was on the outside of the ball, there seemed to be more doubt and uncertainty.

It all changed when participants attended to each other as well as the ball.

“It was something in common, some sort of complicity, we both know this thing is here. I am learning something about you, from seeing how you interact with this thing that we both know is there. It drew me into more intimacy with her as I felt feelings about how she felt towards that thing.” (Participant B)

These affects between the ball and between the movers was always shifting. While defensiveness is a sedimented and habituated pattern of sensations and relations to sensations, the event around defensiveness always exceeds these habits. There is always more going on than that which is recognisable and categorisable. 

Staying in relations

These movements of thought are uncomfortable. They are not what I hoped to say. They are not my argument. And yet I am trying to think between and with three distinct spheres: the problem of defensiveness in anti-oppression work; a curiosity towards concepts emerging from process philosophy; and a desire to research through movement in order to bring the body into conversations about transforming defensiveness.

Defensiveness - moving towards Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving towards
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

If we are to approach both thought and emotions as ecological, as always in dynamic relation with what they come into contact with, this seems to require us to stay in the relations and get quite messy. It seems to be suggesting loosening a focus on clarity, structure and argument and moving from the middle of the unknown of things.

Madelanne Rust D’Eye, a somatics trauma therapist, suggests that defensiveness, or the refusal to be curious about new ideas, is a fear of unfamiliar intensities in the body. Indeed, this seems to map across to what I witness in defensive thought — a turn to stable conceptual ideas, such as man/woman or black/white, or right/wrong. Defensiveness is a means by which we restrict and control the sensate experiences of our bodies to ones that are more familiar. Defensiveness in one body has a capacity to affect other bodies, such as marginalised folks being exhausted by meeting defensiveness when they talk about oppression.

While there are different modes of being affected by difference and uncertainty, defensiveness is a particularly common affect at present. This affect usually feels like a blocking of relation, a separation and pushing away between two bodies. When defensiveness gets characterised as a refusal this can tend to reinforce humanist ideas of the individual. Instead by dancing with defensiveness I am reminded of just how relational this separation is. Furthermore, dancing is a means to actively attend to it, to get in the middle of it with our moving responsive bodies rather than rushing to transform it. A means to attend with care and curiosity. Through attending to the experience of defensiveness, new possibilities of sensate experience and relationality become possible.

I am back in the studio with my participants shortly and intend to return to the noticings and see what movement has to say to them.


Find out more

Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions is explored in her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Psychology Press, 2004). 

You can read work by Madelanne Rust D’Eye on somatics and whiteness in her blog article, Body-Informed Leadership: A Somatic Allyship Practice.

Scarlet’s previous ClimateCultures post, You, Familiar, was a video presentation of her poem narrated over photos of clay sculptures used in a Coal Action Network action outside a government department in London, and accompanied by text from fellow CAN activist Isobel Tarr.

Scarlet Hall
Scarlet Hall
An artist who co-creates spaces of naming, questioning, healing and desiring in dedication to humans and non-humans who experience intimately the violent consequences of our disconnect.
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When Our Roar Was Birdsong

Writer Philip Webb Gregg went looking for ways to let nature get to him, and found them on a bushcraft and survival course, with Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London, and in his garden in the city.

 


2,610 words: estimated reading time 10.5 minutes 


“You have to get the fingers right in. Right between the clavicles. Don’t be shy, just dip them in. Feel the breastbone? Right, now tease it apart with your fingers. You need to make space for your thumbs. Got it? Good. Now just pop them in and pull. See? Peels like a tangerine.”

There is an almost inaudible gasp around the semi-circle as J pulls the torso off of another pigeon. Though most of us are disgusted, we’re also more than a little impressed. J has just shown us a beginner’s technique for preparing a pigeon carcass when you don’t have access to a knife. The theory is quite straightforward. J explains carefully and advises us to take notes. Then we are each handed a pigeon.

There are twelve of us on the wilderness course, and only one refuses to take part. The rest dig in, if not quite with gusto then certainly with willing. Considering it’s nine o’clock on a Friday evening and twelve hours ago most of us were sitting at a desk staring into a screen, I’d say this was pretty impressive.

J paces the semi-circle and gives help where needed. The basics for bare-hand pigeon preparation are as follows:

      • First, hold the pigeon by the legs and dangle — this constricts the bird’s breathing and induces a sleep-like state.
      • Then, make a V with your forefinger and middle finger. Take the back of the bird’s neck and delicately but confidently give a sharp tug. This kills the bird without unnecessary pain or agitation.
      • Separate wings by holding the wings in one hand and twisting the body with the other.
      • Pull head to detach.
      • Insert forefingers into the chest cavity and make room around the breastbone.
      • Fit both your thumbs into the hollow of the bird.
      • Hold with confidence and pull. You will be left with the spine and viscera in one hand (discard these) and the fleshy torso with in the other.
      • Finally, scrape the edible meat away from the breastbone.

J carefully puts the meat into a Tupperware and drops the carcase in a neatly prepared plastic bag, instructing us to do the same. When someone asks what happens to the contents of the plastic bag, he answers with a jovial grin: “Oh, don’t worry. That’ll go to the badgers tonight.”

Looking for the source

It is the 3rd of May, 2019. I am somewhere in the Peak District, about three hours into my first ever ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ course. So far it’s been an enlightening experience. We’ve covered wilderness health and safety, knife etiquette, how to make a pigeon stir-fry, and simple shelters. Now we’re sitting in the dark around a campfire at the edge of the woods. It should be romantic. It sounds romantic. What is less romantic is the dried blood I still have under my thumbnails. The smoke that insists on stalking me around the camp, filling my nostrils and making my eyes pour. Also, the cold. There is nothing at all romantic about the cold.

Bushcraft and survival in the woods
In the woods
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

I came out here looking for a way to let nature get to me, searching for the notion of nature-as-cure. Cure for our bodies, cure for our minds, maybe even our souls. Of course, nature is not a pill. It can’t be prescribed over the counter or sunk straight to the vein. The concept of nature as medication — as a commodity that can be handed over without thought or cause — is one that I deeply disagree with. It’s yet another facet of our human-centred perspective of the wider world.

Instead, I’m looking for the source. I’m hoping to be reminded of the ‘inter-connectivity’ of things. After a long winter living in the heart of London, I’ve become startlingly aware of the disconnect between the concerns of inner-city life and the real, actual worries of our changing world. This disconnect feels like a form of insanity, an illness, or an obsession with unclean things, which can only end in sickness. So, the theory goes: if this madness is man-made, perhaps I can re-learn sanity from wilderness.

Which brings me back to the pigeon blood under my nails, and the smoke of the campfire. J, our instructor, is telling us about his job. I am fascinated to learn that there has been a huge rise in the demand for bushcraft courses in the last few years.

“Yep,” he says. “Probably Brexit.” We laugh, but it’s not a joke. A recent article in The Times reported certain survivalist organisations getting “30 or 40 calls a week asking questions about Brexit.” It’s a sobering thought, and another sign of the changing world. To think there’s a national shift toward a more desperate state of mind.

Of course, it’s good for the bushcraft industry. But this is in itself is a juxtaposition, as practising bushcraft requires, well, bush: the preservation of which is rarely in the interest of a capitalist society. The figures for UK woodland are somewhat haphazard, but according to the 2018 Forest Research Woodland Statistics we currently stand at 13% — 10% in England, 15% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 8% in Northern Ireland.

Now, whether these numbers are positive or negative it’s hard to tell. Some sources see the current percentage as a huge success, stating that they’re higher than they’ve been for almost a thousand years (in 1086 the Domesday Book recorded forest levels at 15%), and comparing them to a devastatingly low 5% at the start of the 20th century. However, other organisations claim that woodland ecology in the UK is under serious threat, and British wildlife in a state of chaos. It’s certainly worth noting that the European average is far higher, at 44%. No doubt there’s a Brexit analogy in there somewhere, if anyone has the energy to find it.

J kicks some ashes over the remaining flames and declares that it’s time for bed. Early start in the morning, apparently.

“Wrap up warm,” he grins. “It’s gonna be a cold one.”

The peace of the wild?

Five hours later I’m lying under a canopy of fallen branches and bracken. The shelter is roughly two meters long and a meter wide. A classic A-frame structure, known to anyone who spent any time in the Scouts or who watches a lot of Ray Mears. It’s a clever design: not only does it shield you from the wind, it also traps your body heat and feeds it back down to your legs. However, tonight is unseasonably cold. My sleeping bag was last used in the hot hills of southern Spain, and is woefully inadequate for middle England in early May.

I lie shivering for hours, cursing my poor planning. When using a sleeping bag it’s often said that you should strip naked because the moisture in your clothing will sap your body heat. After an hour or two in nothing but slim thermals, I decide this is a lie. I resolutely and somewhat awkwardly don all of my layers, from my socks to my gloves. I’m fully dressed inside the bag and still there’s a throbbing numbness in my fingers and toes. Eventually, at around 4am, I decide to give up on sleep, and go to find the campfire instead.

Bushcraft - the embers of the campfire
The embers
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

The embers are low, barely a tinge of orange or red. But the ashes are hot and bracken is everywhere. It’s enough. Soon the fire is roaring again, and the kettle is on the flame (I hear J’s voice as I do this: “flames to boil, embers to cook”). By the light of my head torch I settle down to my notebook. Hours pass. The night is deep and full of life. Badger, rustling close. Insects and small mammals living and dying in the understory. Above me an owl asks its endless question: Who? Who? Who? The breeze moves through the trees, making laughter.

Periodically I put more wood on the fire. Logs and branches. Hazel, beech, birch. Their green wood spits and my eyes burn with smoke. They will hurt for days, I know. So much for the peace of the wild. I am long lost in my thoughts when the birdsong starts. Not just owl or bat, real birdsong. Full and loud. The illustrious chorus of dawn. A spring chant of mating and renewal.

I put down my pen and click the head torch off. I sit on a log in the dark and listen to the birds while my eyes run with smoke.

The first day

It is two weeks earlier, 15th of April. I am standing in the centre of the city of London, right outside the Houses of Parliament. They are shrouded in scaffolding like the bandages of a leper. I think: now there’s a simile.

Next to me, someone is shouting. All around me, people are shouting and roaring. I am roaring. There are banners being waved by children and grandparents alike. The sky is full of them. They show the stark outline of bird carcasses and flowers. They are all embroidered with an hourglass held within a circle. XR.

Extinction Rebellion - humans on the XR March in London May 2019
Extinction Rebellion humans
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

Over the next eleven days, four prominent roads in central London will be blocked, and a total of 1,130 people will be arrested. During these days, there will be countless conversations had between strangers about the current state of the world. Talks and discussions and poetry readings and songs will abound. It will sometimes feel like a festival. Teenagers will do cartwheels down the road. People will flirt and laugh and maybe find love on the barricades. In the dead of night, on the bridges, surrounded by police officers in wraithlike hi-visibility jackets, it will feel like the end of the world.

But all that is days away. Right now, it is the first day, and there is genuine hope in the air. Hope and determination and positivity. I walk around the square a dozen or so times, joining a march here, a debate there. Most people seem just as keen to sit on the grass and have a picnic as they are to change the world. But it is England, and the sun is shining. Maybe that’s how real revolution works, not through violence or petitions, but flasks of tea and vegan sandwiches kept in Tupperware.

At one point there is a march of giant papier-mâché skeletons, accompanied by a sorrowful jazz band, a troupe of red-clad mourners, and a coffin. The skeletons are those of animal species, extinct and endangered. People in animal masks hold high the fleshless silhouettes of ape, rhinoceros, lion, tiger, whale, etc. etc. And also: humans, soon to be extinct. A giant magpie walks among the procession, waving a placard: ‘One for sorrow…’ it reads, in thick black Sharpie.

Magpie - 'one for sorrow' - on the XR March. London 2019
Magpie on the march
Photpgraph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

I buy a roll of toilet paper with Trump’s face on from a man with a supermarket trolley overflowing with them. “For the cause!” he waves a revolutionary fist.

Just as I’m thinking of leaving, I pass the central podium. On it is a man, standing staring into space. The audience, some thirty or forty people, is enthralled, looking up at him with their mouths open. He’s holding a device in his hand, either an MP3 player or a phone, and from it trails a wire. The wire leads into an amp, and a second wire links the amp to a set of speakers on either side of the podium. From the speakers — a pair of massive monoliths standing like two-thirds of a trilithon — comes the sound of birdsong.

It booms across Parliament Square with an eerie softness. Nightingale, chaffinch, common blackbird, magpie, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, greenfinch, garden warbler, European robin, starling, lapwing, goldfinch, redshank. On and on, and on. There is utter silence in the crowd for at least 20 minutes, and then people start to laugh and cheer. They try to imitate the calls, falling into peels of laughter at the difficulty. Everybody is clapping furiously and chirruping at the top of their lungs. There is a beautiful madness to the moment that feels like sanity at last.

Bushcraft and birdsong

It is two weeks and three days later. Monday the 6th of May. I have just returned from the ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ weekend and I am in the garden of our tiny London flat, kneeling over the raised beds pulling up unwanted life. Weeding is a necessary death, I think. All around me is the furniture we’ve built from up-cycled pallets and discarded planks of wood. ‘Frankenstein furniture’, we affectionately call it.

Bushcraft - cultivating the garden in the city
In the garden
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg

Today the UN released its biodiversity report, otherwise known as the Summary for Policymakers IPBES Global Assessment. It’s a dense document, replete with all manner of figures and statistics. The numbers are intimidating and complex, but they add up to a series of simple truths:

      • Due to human civilisation, 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction.
      • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered.
      • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater recourses are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
      • Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
      • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980.
      • The amount of plastic and pollutants in the ocean have created over 400 ‘dead zones’, the total area of which is larger than the United Kingdom.

The report, compiled by 145 experts over the course of three years concludes that ‘Transformative Changes’ are needed to restore and protect nature. The current global response is insufficient.

I sit in the sunshine and listen as the radio feeds me these facts, these prophecies and warnings, and I think of ancient Rome. I think of Pompeii, of the portents of disaster that were not heeded. I think of Cassandra running toward the Trojan Horse with a burning torch in one hand and an axe in the other, screaming: “Death is within!” But of course, no one listened.

I wonder if this will be any different, as I pluck baby weeds from my bed of courgettes. I think about the nature of human nature, and the difficulty of staying sane in an irrational world. I think about revolution and wilderness and the beautiful indifference of it all. Suddenly there’s a sound. I look up into the sky.

Birdsong.


Find out more

The ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ weekend course Philip took part in is run by Woodland Ways, a family-run bushcraft company employing a small close-knit and highly experienced team of individuals.

The Dark Mountain Project recently published Questions for the Woods by Caroline Ross — who enters the liminal territory of the forest and forges a wild camp by a fallen oak — as part of their new ‘Becoming Human’ section, which explores the physical, psychological and experiential aspects of our current predicament and how we might realign our bodies and minds with the living world. 

The 2018 Woodland Statistics report is available to download from Forest Research.

You can find all the news and actions from XR, and how to get involved, at Extinction Rebellion.

And if you’d like to consider birdsong and, among other things, the difficulty of human reproduction of it – in this case through music – you might take a look at my piece, Interstices of Things Ajar, from March 2017…

Philip Webb Gregg
Philip Webb Gregg
A writer of fiction and non-fiction, focusing primarily on storytelling and eco-criticism to explore the complexities of nature in conflict with the human condition.
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