Queer River and Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place

Artist James Aldridge shares insights from Iain Biggs’ book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place and resonances with his own projects exploring the value of outsiders’ viewpoints and voices not often heard in discussions on the Earth Crisis.


3,000 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes


When we both attended an online event in March featuring fellow ClimateCultures member Iain Biggs, editor Mark Goldthorpe invited me to write a post about the book Iain had co-authored — Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies. My first thought was that I wasn’t the right person to write a review as I’m not an academic but an artist who uses their arts practice to carry out research into the role of art within place-based learning, largely (though not exclusively) outside of academia.

It was when Mark reassured me that he wasn’t looking for a traditional book review, that this piece of writing evolved, an exploration of how my practice as an artist working with human and non-human communities of life relates to and could be informed by the themes of the book.

Cover of Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, by Mary Modeen and Iain Biggs

Interestingly, once I began I realised that, despite first appearances, Mary and Iain didn’t specifically intend their book to be read by academics:

“Although our professional experience is within the arts and academic research, we hope to encourage you, whatever your background, to understand your skills and knowledge through this book within larger intra-related ensembles of practices and endeavours.”

Much of my current work takes place as part of Queer River, a research project I set up in 2020, which explores the values of queer perspectives on rivers and other wetlands, to inform what they need from us in a future affected by climate breakdown. As such my research is exploring the value of an outsider’s viewpoint, of voices and experiences that aren’t often heard within discussions on the Earth Crisis.

Queer River gives me the freedom to set up opportunities that I don’t find available elsewhere, to consider how my experiences inform my understanding of ‘ecologies of place’ and how my arts practice (my creative engagement with these places) can offer ways of seeing and being with them that I don’t often see reflected within mainstream discourse.

Ecologies of place: showing Queer River - Boat and Body, an art work by James Aldridge
Queer River – Boat and Body. Museum of English Rural Life, Reading
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

So far I’ve been invited to work with staff and students from Ashridge College and Glasgow University, have exhibited with other rurally-based queer artists at Reading University’s Museum of English Rural Life, and presented in a range of arts and community settings.

In the introduction to the book Mary and Iain write: “…we would be the first to advocate that readers reflect carefully on the socio-political implications of this text on the basis of your own experience.”

For me this was a promising start, an acknowledgement by the authors that the writing included in the book, although they may be speaking from ‘a privileged position’, is an attempt to “…move thinking away from the sovereign self and its hyper-individualism so as to stress ‘mutual, dialogical, participatory and horizontal relations’”.

One thing that I particularly value about the way that Mary and Iain write is the sense that the reader is being invited in and welcomed. The introduction in particular is sprinkled with phrases that invite the reader to take the concepts explored within it and to make them their own.

So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person? I decided to try and leave that question to one side, rather than risk putting up barriers unnecessarily, accept the authors’ invitation, and continue reading.

Although the book contains several in-depth explorations of artists’ practices, in this piece of writing I’ve concentrated on how/whether it speaks to my own.

Disciplinary agnosticism, Geopoetics & queer perspectives

One key thing I wanted to explore is what the key phrases used in the subtitle actually mean, and whether/how the concepts they represent relate to my work; Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies.

The authors write that they prefer “to identify our concerns with the field of geopoetics seen through the lens of mutual accompaniment rather than… replicate the presuppositions of possessive individualism”. They continue “The dominant social order (‘the master’s house’) that has been built on possessive individualism has become… so toxic, that it is destroying not only the fabric of human society but the ecologies upon which all things depend.” They go on to explain how the division and categorisation of knowledge and practices leads to a fragmentation “which has immense personal, social and environmental implications,” which “in turn makes it too easy for individuals to disregard the consequences of their actions.”

At this point I feel that we are acting from a very similar position. In Queer River, and my wider practice, I start from the viewpoint that we have become unable to experience ourselves as continuous with the rest of what we call ‘Nature’, or to recognise the harm that we are carrying out as a result, and that through walking, talking and making with (human and non-human) others, we can start to glimpse our true interconnected nature.

Mary and Iain describe their approach as ‘disciplinary agnosticism’ which allows them to work with and hear from a range of people, including those that they describe as having knowledge and experiences that “sit outside of disciplinary thinking”. In Queer River my own methodology is to walk, talk and make with others (archaeologists, botanists, writers etc) allowing our perspectives to interweave and find their own balance, in a similar way to disciplinary agnosticism’s “…multiple aspects of understanding that overlay and inter-combine”.

Ecologies of place: showing Vale of Pewsey walking pages, an art work by James Aldridge
Vale of Pewsey Walking Pages
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

Queer River gives me the freedom to follow the work wherever it wants to go, and to come to know a place with the river and its human/non-human inhabitants. Although I set up the project, the work isn’t ‘done’ by me alone, it arises through dialogue, and depends on an openness, a shared commitment to not knowing where we are heading.

Similarly, the authors quote Kenneth White in his description of Geopoetics as being “more than poetry concerned with the environment… Geopoetics is concerned fundamentally with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world… a place where all kinds of specific disciplines can converge. Once they are ready to leave over-restricted frameworks and enter into global (cosmological, cosmological, cosmopoetic) space.”

In exploring and sharing how the book informs my understanding of my Queer River research, it’s useful to look at some of my writing on Queer perspectives.

In A Queer Path to Wellbeing, a previous piece for ClimateCultures, I wrote:

“Not fitting in can be hard, being excluded when you want to belong. But when you realise that what you are excluded from are the very structures that are denying people the opportunity to experience the reality of the world of which they are a part, it can become a privileged position, a bird’s eye view of the divided terrain.”

If you’ve not grown up fitting in then you don’t necessarily accept or become constrained by some of the divisions and boundaries that Mary and Iain describe. For me, queer perspectives come with the potential for an ability to blur binaries and see beyond culturally constructed barriers. When you don’t fit the categories that a culture provides for you, you can be left with a kind of a superpower of seeing through the walls of categorisation.

As I wrote in A Queer Path to Wellbeing:

“My experience of exclusion from mainstream society was traumatic, and has left me hyper-aware of other’s actions, of the danger of being open about my sexuality in certain situations. Yet these experiences have also given me a chance to experience kinship with the more than human world, in ways that I might not otherwise have accessed, should I have slotted more easily into the role set out for me.”

I’m not able to go into a huge amount of depth on all aspects of Mary and Iain’s book, as it touches on a range of rich, creative practices, so I’m concentrating on what strikes me first and most deeply, the relationship between the disciplinary agnosticism that they describe the need for, and the opportunities that queer perspectives provide.

Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies

When thinking and reading about Deep Mapping, I started with the idea that this was the more natural fit for my practice. I’ve always been fascinated by maps and mapping. All my work is concerned with the way that art can facilitate coming to know a place and oneself through relationship, a reciprocity that arises out of reaching out to touch and being touched in return, of experiencing continuity with what is generally externalised as Nature.

Ecologies of place: showing Mapping Connections, an art work by James Aldridge
Mapping Connections – Drawing with Alder Cone Ink
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

As part of this work, I make drawings and rubbings, I write and collect, to document and process my experiences. The art objects are evidence of our interwoven nature, they map what is beyond my everyday awareness, what I don’t know consciously. But is this all deep mapping?

Last week I took Queer River to Glasgow at the invitation of Glasgow University as part of The Dear Green Bothy, “an open space where researchers, artists and communities can gather to respond creatively and critically to the challenges of the ecological crisis”. I spent time collaborating with local rivers, artists and others for the Queer River, Wet Land Project. In my walking, talking and making with others, I aim to set up a space for dialogue, between us (both rivers and people) and within ourselves. Our bodies, emotions and intellect come together, drawing from in-the-moment experiences and past encounters.

On each walk, there is a framework there to support us: a planned route along the river, a set of resources, a time to meet and to end, and an invitation to share a description of our work beforehand; but there is also a commitment to letting go of that planning when it serves the group, and a deliberate amount of space left for not knowing. Not knowing what we are going to say, what the weather will be like, what we will notice on the day, and how/whether we will choose to record what we notice.

Ecologies of place: showing collaborators on the Queer River, Wet Land project
Queer River Wet Land collaborators, Glasgow: Minty Donald, Cecilia Tortajada, Ingrid Shearer and Rachel Clive
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

Mary and Iain write that “in imagination and dreams, deep maps must always exceed our ability to realise them.” I take this to refer to the importance of being in a state of not knowing. The documentation produced on Queer River walks maps what happens as it happens, with a chance to reflect on and make sense of it retrospectively; otherwise we are limited to what we already know, and what we have been taught to see/experience.

They continue “..deep mapping projects may have little in common beyond a sense of their being an open-ended creative process deployed over an extended period.”

Recently in Queer River, I wonder whether the documentation is always necessary. Sometimes it is key to my understanding, sometimes it facilitates the dialogue, but occasionally it feels like I’m doing it to show that it is an art project, that there is something concrete to show for it, when actually the process of walking, talking and noticing is enough. In that case, where does the art exist? Without the documentation, the art object, what kind of art is it — a performance?

“Whether or not we wish to call what emerges from this process a ‘map’ (or the process itself ‘mapping’) seems to me less important than the fact that it is taking place at all… deep mapping can be looked upon as an embodied and reflexive immersion in a life that is lived and performed spatially.”
— Les Roberts, quoted in Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place.

After my time in Glasgow, and particularly my conversations with artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice, I’m starting to understand that my practice has always prioritised process over product, and to wonder whether describing elements of it as performance could actually liberate it even further.

As for the concept of a Slow Residency, although Mary and Iain don’t expect the slowness to be taken literally, I see it connecting with my own exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, using art and embodied experience to listen to what the world needs us to hear, rather than parachuting in to project our own ideas of what a place is or needs onto it.

In this time of ecological collapse and climate breakdown, it is tempting to charge about ‘taking action’, but there are many kinds of action that are needed. Perhaps counterintuitively, when individuals and organisations around us are declaring an emergency, we need opportunities to slow down and to notice the reality of the situation we are living in, taking time to learn from human and non-human others with whom we share our locality. For me, that is what my arts practice, and Queer River specifically, is for.

Space beyond binaries in ecologies of place

I’m still working my way through Mary and Iain’s book. I’m enjoying reading a chunk and letting it settle, before dipping back in again. Iain has kindly donated a copy to the Climate Museum UK library (I’m an Associate Artist with CMUK), as he’s keen that the book reaches more people, via libraries and other organisations. So we will be able to use it as part of CMUK’s work, engaging with a range of cultural, educational and community-based organisations, sparking conversations around the Earth Crisis, art and interdisciplinarity.

As a consequence of my time in Glasgow with Minty and our fellow collaborators, we will be working on Queer River, Wet Land Part 2, putting together a performance score that people will be able to download and use to inform explorations of their own local rivers, before coming together to share reflections at an online event this Autumn, linked to COP26.

Queer River, Wet Land – Glasgow
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

As I take Queer River forward, I’ll carry questions with me as a legacy of reading the book and writing this piece, considering further the relevance of deep mapping, geopoetics and slow residencies. Returning to the question that I posed earlier — ‘So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person?’ — I find myself remembering that Queer Theory and quantum physics (which offers much in the way of inspiration around dialogue and multiplicity) offer me a space within which I can claim both positions; the right to exist both inside and outside of academia, outside and inside of the mainstream. A space within which my lived reality has room to grow, in a way that fits both my personal experience and the underlying ecological reality:

“The queer methodology attempts to combine methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic compulsion toward disciplinary coherence.”
— Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity.

“What is essential here is the presence of the spirit of dialogue, which is in short, the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of common meaning.“
— David Bohm, On Dialogue.

Perhaps that’s not so far away from Iain and Mary’s disciplinary agnosticism after all.


Find out more

The online event with Iain Biggs that James attended in March 2021, Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, was part of a series from the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies by Mary Modeen and Iain Biggs is published by Routledge (2021); you can preview the introduction and several of the book’s chapters at their site. Iain has written about his motivations for co-authoring the book, with a brief outline of the chapters, in his ClimateCultures post, Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place. You can also read recent posts on his own blog, such as After Disciplinarity? Mutual accompaniment, ensemble practices, and the climate emergency, where he shares the text of a talk he gave to Breaking Boundaries, a postgraduate student conference at Cardiff University. 

Queer River is the practice-led research project where James Aldridge collaborates with human and non-human others to explore the relationship between: diverse experiences of rivers and other wetland environments, including those of people from the LGBT+ community; Queer perspectives on Climate Justice; the impact of the climate and ecological crisis on river ecosystems and communities; and wetland regeneration and rewilding.

In the Queer River, Wet Land project, James is walking, talking and making with Glasgow-based artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice at Glasgow University, and others to document their experiences of the River Clyde and Molendinar Burn. The project focuses on the interrelationship between the water and the land, in an exchange of practices that draws on work with their local rivers, and the substrates that they flow through/over. The collaboration is part of the Dear Green Bothy — a programme of free public events and activities marking Glasgow’s hosting of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, and demonstrating the vital role played by the arts and humanities in understanding and addressing climate emergency.

James mentions his exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, and you can read more about his approach in Slowing Down, Going Deeper on his blog. James is an Associate Artist with Climate Museum UK which was founded by independent researcher and creative Bridget McKenzie.

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

James Aldridge
James Aldridge
A visual artist working with people and places, whose individual and participatory practices generate practice-led research into the value of artful, embodied and place-based learning ...
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Seeing the Flint Water Crisis

In our first accompaniment to Longer, a new ClimateCultures in-depth feature, arts researcher Jemma Jacobs introduces her recent study of the Flint Water Crisis and environmental racism as seen through one photographer’s work to make visible hidden perspectives.


1,830 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Longer is the new ClimateCultures offering of works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog: essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces them here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it. Jemma’s essay for Longer is The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis.

***

Environmental violence is racially discriminative; this is something I have always known, and my recent research provides mounting evidence to support it. When my Master’s course provided me with more opportunities to build on this knowledge — and add to the academic field in some way — I thought it would be dismissive to ignore the patterns of racial discrimination that I have recognised within the Anthropocene discourse.

At Goldsmiths University, I am completing a Master’s in Contemporary Art Theory. I have found that the Visual Culture department gives me the scope to explore topics utilising various schools of thought. With sustainability, environmental justice and art being three of my major interests, my course has given me the space to explore their intersections. Within the course I have explored Black Aesthetic Theory with regard to black music and poetry and the intersection between ecology and art theory, along with notions of power and subjectivity. Having completed my undergraduate degree in History of Art, my interest in visual culture remains strong. My move to Goldsmiths supported my growing curiosity in theory and environmental issues while allowing me to base my explorations within the visual. So, when given the chance to expand on my knowledge on the Anthropocene and its intersection with racial narratives, I decided to explore the Flint Water Crisis through the photographic lens of LaToya Ruby Frazier. My essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis is published today on ClimateCultures.

The Flint Water Crisis & the Black Anthropocene

Beginning in 2014, with its effects predicted to last for many more years to come, the Flint Water Crisis saw the water of a community in Michigan become toxic. The health of adults and children was put in danger. Residents of Flint experienced a range of impacts, from hair loss to miscarriages and disease. Children’s brains were affected, showing damage to their learning, behaviour, hearing and speaking skills. The issue sits deep within a history of environmental racism, particularly when understood with these facts: the crisis was caused by the distinct ignorance and mishandling of those with power, in a city where over half are black or African American and over one third in poverty. The catastrophe highlights racial power imbalances that can be recognised globally. It therefore proves the need to expand on the idea of the Anthropocene – humanity as a whole is not the cause of the changing climate which we see today. Rather, the western powers of white supremacy. Kathryn Yusoff’s concept of the ‘Black Anthropocene’ recognises the inextricable link between the history of racial and environmental violence — arguing that one cannot exist without the other. Ultimately, environmental neglect has its roots in colonial ideas of power and possession.

Flint Water Crisis - showing Flint Water Plant
The Flint Water Crisis Is Ongoing
Photograph: George Thomas CC 2016 Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/hz536n/27805760502

Exploring the discriminatory aspects of the Flint Water Crisis through photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier provides a perspective that is otherwise left invisible. She gives visibility to the black community, emphasising their strength and perseverance within such a catastrophic moment. The title of her photographic series alone, Flint is Family (2016-2021), readdresses the imbalance of power underscored by the crisis. Frazier is an incredible American artist who draws off her own childhood in late 20th century Braddock, Pennsylvania. There, she experienced a declining economy and city. Frazier’s 2001-2014 series The Notion of Family captures the ‘ghost-town’ in a documentary way that sets up her style for later works. Expanding on the neglect she experienced herself, Frazier’s perspective on the Flint Water Crisis is extremely valuable in underlining the American experience, while demanding justice.

Living in the wake

In preparation for my body of work, I read many texts that gave me a theoretical understanding of the black experience. This work is imperative but does not override how I am part of the western white bias that is caught in the colonial modes of thinking that my work seeks to dissect. Making myself open to black authorship was not only important but essential prior to any exploration. Doing so allowed me to approach Frazier’s images with deeper consideration of historical patterns of injustice. Essential contemporary works, such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, grounded my study of the Flint Water Crisis in a history of racial injustice. Sharpe, specifically, allowed me to explore the existence of colonial attitudes within contemporary society as black communities live ‘in the wake’ of slavery. Her work permitted an investigation into the term ‘wake’ and its various denotations: such as the wake of a ship, referencing slavery but also its everlasting impacts in society today; and the act of being awake.

As mentioned before, Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None grounded this within a more environmental framework. Alongside this, Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything exposed me to the notion of the ‘sacrifice zone’ — “whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable.” This allowed me to see the city of Flint in a way that those in power at the time did: as geographically disposable.

Flint Water Crisis
Protestors march demanding clean water outside of Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan.
Photograph: Flint Journal © 2015

My research confirmed and extended my knowledge of the need to recognise power disparities within our changing climate and how they are intimately tied to modes of governing. Seeking a recognition of this, my paper views Frazier’s photographs as making visible the invisible. The community of Flint were ignored, their health left to decline as those in power denied the state of their water system. Frazier’s series sheds light onto those communities and shouts their significance.

Visual culture as a positive force

In a world where our environment is being neglected, abused and exploited, black communities are disproportionately impacted. The mistreatment exhibited in the Flint Water Crisis is symptomatic of the greater black American experience at large. In my paper, I explore how contemporary inequities can be traced to the colonial period, how the importance of water is symbolically linked to such concepts. I explore how the visuals of photography reveal the climate crisis as compounding injustices that have been present for many years.

While it is important to be critical of those with power, especially those who use it in discriminatory ways, Frazier provides an alternative approach, one which should be focused on more: how it may be more productive to shed light on those vulnerable to that force. Lifting up communities who are at a disadvantage, especially when they’re portrayed as active agents and not simply passive victims, can work to bring equity to societal relations. Frazier undoubtedly produces a positive force. Her use of the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic arouses curiosity and emphasises the normalcy of racial discrimination. In her documentary photographic style, Frazier provides an intimate insight into the crisis — an understanding that photojournalism within the media is unable to fully render.

Flint Water Crisis - LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019 https://www.ted.com/talks/latoya_ruby_frazier_a_creative_solution_for_the_water_crisis_in_flint_michigan

Environmental violence can manifest in a variety of ways. The Flint Water Crisis acts as a prime example of its unjust and discriminatory pattern. Frazier’s photographs work brilliantly as a counter, productively expanding and flipping the narrative. My exploration of this in my paper helps to magnify links between past and present inequalities, while simultaneously adding to the discussion of visual arts and its contribution to historical understanding.


Find out more

You can read Jemma’s full essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis, with a full bibliography. Visit our new Longer feature for more pieces from our members.

Unfortunately, we are not able to share LaToya Ruby Frazier’s images here but you can see her series (and video) Flint is Family, and other works, at her website. “In various interconnected bodies of work, Frazier uses collaborative storytelling with the people who appear in her artwork to address topics of industrialism, Rust Belt revitalization, environmental justice, access to healthcare, access to clean water, Workers’ Rights, Human Rights, family, and communal history. This builds on her commitment to the legacy of 1930s social documentary work and 1960s and ’70s conceptual photography that address urgent social and political issues of everyday life.” You can watch A creative solution to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the TED Talk Frazier gave on the Flint Water Crisis, her Flint is Family project and the work with communities in Flint that the project has helped to fund.

You can find out more about the Flint Water Crisis in The Flint water crisis: how citizen scientists exposed poisonous politics a Nature (2018) review of two books on the issues (The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy and What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City), and a series of articles published by The Guardian over several years.

Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) is published by Harvard University Press. In The last humanist: how Paul Gilroy became the most vital guide to our age of crisis, The Guardian profiles Gilroy and his work. You can also explore Tate’s use of the term Black Atlantic and work by artists inspired by his book.

Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake (2016) is published by Duke University Press. On the violent language of the refugee crisis, published by Literary Hub (11/11/16), is an excerpt from the book. It is among the books that Ashlie Sandoval writes about in the “Books I Teach” series from Black Agenda report (19/2/20). 

Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018) is published by University of Minnesota Press. Yusoff examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the earth under colonialism and slavery. You can read a review published by New Frame (28/8/19), a not-for-profit, social justice publication with “a pro-poor, pro-working class focus that aims to report faithfully and informatively about the lives and struggles of ordinary people.”

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2015) is published by Simon & Schuster, where you can read an excerpt. You can explore more at the This Changes Everything website.

You can read about the use of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’ in photography in So what exactly is deadpan photography? from New York Film Academy (2014).

Finally, you can find out more about MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths University of London.

Jemma Jacobs

Jemma Jacobs

An arts researcher focusing on climate communication within the Anthropocene and its relationship with art, and drawing attention to those suffering disproportionately from climate change impacts.
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The Art of Reimagining Managed Retreat

Artist Yky shares ideas and artworks he presented to an international conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around ‘managed retreat’ — and how artists need to engage with pedagogy to contextualize and reimagine responses to climate change.


2,440 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


In June 2021, Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York City organised a four-day conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around the theme of ‘managed retreat’. This conference covered a broad spectrum of topics, but all of them were meant to discuss resilience, relocation, and climate justice when facing the consequences of flooding. I was invited to discuss how art could address the challenges of climate-caused relocation.

At what point managed retreat? Columbia Climate School conference 2021

It was no surprise to me that, amongst key issues, it was recognised that most practitioners facing climate change and resilience challenges had no adequate professional preparation in terms of communication. Scientists are often blamed for not being able to see the value of unconventional narratives. But artists also have their share of responsibility. During this conference, it appeared that the meaning we give to the words ‘managed retreat’ and how to bring pedagogy into the process were two essential issues. To give more insights on the way art should address the question of communication improvement, I presented five of my works that question how vulnerabilities may turn natural hazards in disasters.

‘Managed retreat’ — advancing in a different direction?

Art provides powerful narratives, enabling us to bridge the gap between scientists and non-expert citizens. It gives a better understanding of the world. Its vision of reality enriches the collective debate, enabling a significant change by shifting the perspective to more open-minded views. It gives the opportunity to understand reality differently, either using our sense of understanding or our sense of emotions, or both. Facing disasters, be it due to climate change or others hazards, artists will use their skills to convey the message they find appropriate. Most often, the vulnerabilities that shape such disasters translate into a scope of artistic representations which are direct, realistic, emotional, strong, and visually meaningful.

But, seen from the artistic point of view, translating into a piece of art the meaning of ‘managed retreat’, though terribly actual, is much more challenging. During my presentation, one of the questions sent through the Q & A session asked “is the word ‘retreat’ appropriate to discuss the topics of the conference?” I think this was one of the most interesting questions, as indeed, the word ‘retreat’ can have a negative perception. It is linked to this idea that you have been defeated and that there is no other alternative than withdrawing and leaving the field to the ‘enemy’. Flooding-caused displacement cannot ignore our attachments to a community or a place. It needs to address social and environmental justice issues as integral parts of the retreat management. But at the same time, it is ambiguous. What do fairness or justice mean when dealing with the unavoidable tradeoffs linked to forced evictions, when prioritising access to retreat resources, when ignoring the fact that indigenous communities have tribal rights that are too often ignored by our post-colonialist behaviours?

But what about understanding retreat as ‘advancing in a different direction’? Could we think of retreat as being a way to reimagine, reinvent, redefine processes to give the environment its full place, promoting visions radically different from massive human movements? Undoubtedly, the creativity and imagination required to propose new scenarios, even ones seen as utopian, are the privilege of artists. But how can we describe the complexity of urban space from the artistic perspective? How could artists translate into their works the unpredictability of our future as described by Carl Folke of the Stockholm Resilience Centre?

There is a need for all artists to better understand some concepts. ‘Resilience’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘risk management’ are not interchangeable words. When sustainability calls for more efficiency, resilience is more focused on redundancy. Both need to be linked, and the conditions providing a synergistic effect between the two concepts are key when looking for the path to reimagine ‘managed retreat’. Artists don’t need to be experts, but they need to know how to address through their skills the issues related to climate disasters. Empathy is not enough; there is a need to better engage with scientists, to better contextualize the concepts so that such concepts, through an artistic expression, help non-expert citizens to understand how and why retreating from flooding-prone areas and moving to safer ground can also meet their needs.

Bringing pedagogy into the process

The scientific community may understand complex concepts but without appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people, for a simple reason: facts are not enough. We also need the right narrative and, in this respect, art can help.

There are many examples of associations, like Art of Change in France, Artseverywhere in Canada, or Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, with talented artists who are committed towards climate change. And some of them bring artists and experts together to imagine and propose answers and ideas for adaptation and transformation. But few are engaged together in a pedagogical process. However, artists need to recognise their social responsibility and be involved in an artistic approach consistent with the objectives we are trying to reach. Some of them may find it difficult to leave their comfort zone: going beyond a natural sensitivity finding its expression in a painting, in a sculpture or in a poem is not easy, and sometimes not feasible. But artists can also engage in improving our well-being and well-living, using their skills to increase our collective awareness, through a designed pedagogical approach together with scientists in a co-working exercise.

Ultimately, the threats and challenges we all face are so high that being committed towards non-expert citizens becomes a duty. A pedagogical approach is not needed simply to make non-expert citizens aware of the challenges they face; but it is definitely a requirement if artists want to play a role in explaining the systemic nature of socio-ecological threats shaping our vulnerabilities.

Pedagogy cannot be decreed; it needs to be learned. And in the specific case of hazards and related disasters, teaching is cognitively challenging. When both experts and artists decide to join their skills, Paulo Freire can be very helpful. Freire was a Brazilian educator and sociologist who dedicated most of his work to vulnerable communities. His work — most of it can be found online — was about how knowledge should be transferred from teacher to learner, and the core was based on the idea that unequal social relations build the path to a “culture of silence” which is created to oppress. To this extent, it leads to questioning the systemic nature of inequalities in our society, shaping the vulnerabilities that lead to disasters. ‘Teachers’ following Freire’s principles, will need to develop the critical consciousness of ‘learners’, aiming to build a “cultural action for freedom”.

Managed retreat: the art of critical thinking

Redefining ‘managed retreat’ in such a way that the focus moves from disruption in human occupancy to promoting new visions incorporating issues of gender, race and equity questions the nature of artistic approaches. How can they be consistent with the duty to (re)educate communities about conceptual processes which themselves had their share of responsibility in creating inequalities? In line with Freire’s approach to giving more importance to questions than to answers, artworks should prioritise such issues. By doing so, art will engage in this ‘critical thinking’, seen as the cornerstone that enables us to reconsider what has been taken for granted when this is needed.

In the five works I showed during the conference, and seen below, the property of argentic paper to darken when exposed to light should be seen as an allegory of ephemerality, questioning the value of what lasts in time. Each is a diptych of two photographs illustrating a given urban space impacted by a natural hazard. While the first one is stable in time, the second image darkens — with some parts disappearing as the argentic emulsion turns black. It is the comparison between the two photographs that will lead the viewer to question the resilience level of the urban space. Being ephemeral, this work can be seen as having no value, unless its value lies in the questions it raises.

“Only the ephemeral is of lasting value.”
Eugène Ionesco (playwright, 1909-1994)

Shakes 

‘Shakes’ questions how resilience can be implemented in the case of widespread destruction by earthquakes, which are devastating at different levels. They impact the cities, the organisations and the persons. But they also talk about an irrational fear, which is the destruction of our matrix. In this diptych, the second picture darkens in time in such a way that only the broken glass path remains, referring to our fears and vulnerability, while two attributes of our cultural heritage — a Le Corbusier building and the Golden Gate Bridge — are endangered even when not destroyed

Yrban resilience: Showing Shakes, a diptych by artist Yky
Shakes, a diptych: D0 and D+
Artist: Yky © 2018

The Japanese paradox

The Japanese paradox’ is all about the difference between risk management and urban resilience. It is well-known that the Japanese culture of risk management is almost second nature. But do we really speak of urban resilience, the way we understand it, when philosophical and/or religious principles refrain from addressing the norms that sometimes need to be reconsidered? In that work, darkness in time is detrimental to the city and its inhabitants, confronting the great wave of Hokusaï, symbolising the almighty nature that no one can stop.

Managed retreat: showing 'A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+', a diptych by artist Yky
‘A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+’, a diptych
Artist: Yky © 2018

La Seine

La Seine’ was taken during the substantial flood in Paris three years ago. And this work is about the adaptation of historical cities’ urban environment. How far are we ready to go in losing our cultural heritage, and what does this mean in terms of resilience?

Managed retreat: Showing 'La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+' by Yky
‘La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist Yky © 2018

NB: ‘Shakes’, ‘The Japanese paradox’, and ‘La Seine’ were showcased just before the pandemic during the Art of Resilience exhibition organised by the World Bank in Washington DC.

Do cities learn from getting burned?

This work was inspired by the Australian tragedy that we all remember but is also related to the ongoing and never-stopping fires in California. And it speaks of the moment where cities will be impacted, and not only the wild-urban interface. It also questions our inability or difficulty to learn from aboriginal traditions in terms of fire risk management.

Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2019

Is NYC retreat inevitable?

This work refers to the different issues discussed during the conference. It was inspired by an article published last year in the online journal NewCities in which the CEO of the Star City group explained why he decided to leave the Hudson River area where he was living and why he did not believe any longer in urban resilience. This work concluded my presentation, not only because it refers directly to the conference topic, but also because not being able to explain to non-expert citizens the meaning of urban resilience should be seen as a collective failure.

'Managed retreat: Showing 'Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2020

Find out more

You can explore the programme for the At What Point Managed Retreat? conference and watch videos of all the sessions. Yky explores many aspects of urban resilience in a changing climate in his Resi-city blog about his work picturing urban resilience seen from the citizen point of view: for example, Exploring spirituality in the urban frame. Some of the artworks featured in this post — including Shakes — were exhibited at Art of Resilience, organised by the World Bank in Washington, DC. In Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link, his earlier post for ClimateCultures, Yky offers further thoughts on art as a pedagogic tool and imagines a conversation between citizens, a scientist and the artist himself as they consider Shakes.

You can read about the language we associate with coastal change and particular responses such as managed retreat in You can’t resist the sea: Evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon, a 2009 paper by geographer Stephen Trudgill.

Yky mentions the work of Carl Folke and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. You can download and read Resilience: Now more than ever, an article co-authored by Folke for Ambio: A journal of the Human Environment in 2002 and shared as part of the journal’s 50 years celebration in 2021: “As proffered in the Ambio article, resilience is about learning from and developing with change, rather than managing against change. Resilience is about having the capacities to live with complexity, uncertainty, and change, abrupt or incremental, and continue to develop with ever changing environments. This includes both adaptation and transformation.”

Among the organisations bringing together artists’ responses to environmental and climate change, Yky mentions: Art of Change in France, which was created in Paris in 2014 ahead of COP21 and “highlights the role of artists and creativity as accelerators of the ecological transition and acts on an international scale”; Artseverywhere in Canada, “a platform for artistic experimentation and exploration of the fault lines of modern society”; and Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, “mobilising the arts and culture to take action on the climate and ecological crisis.”

The work of Brazilian educator and sociologist Paulo Freire is celebrated by the Freire Institute, an organisation for transformative community-based learning, and many other organisations around the world (which you can find listed at the Freire Institute). “Freire developed an approach to education that links the identification of issues to positive action for change and development. While Freire’s original work was in adult literacy, his approach leads us to think about how we can ‘read’ the society around us. For Freire, the educational process is never neutral. People can be passive recipients of knowledge — whatever the content — or they can engage in a ‘problem-posing’ approach in which they become active participants. As part of this approach, it is essential that people link knowledge to action so that they actively work to change their societies at a local level and beyond.” Freire wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, translated into English in 1970.

Yky mentions Anthony Townsend, the CEO of the Star City group, who decided to leave the Hudson River area over climate resilience concerns when the river flooded Hoboken, New Jersey: Our Inevitable Retreat is the article Townsend wrote for NewCities. “The plan I came up with was simple — move inland and uphill. To my disbelief, the housing market hadn’t skipped a beat. Once I finally pulled the trigger, my condo sold in less than a week, at a profit.” 

Yky
Yky
A citizen artist exploring urban resilience whose photographic works use argentic paper's response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces.
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Solarpunk — Stories for Change

Writer Mick Haining discusses the role of stories in helping to bring about change — to mobilise, not paralyse — the XR Wordsmiths group that he’s part of, and their call out for new Solarpunk stories that give us hope.


1,530 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes


Stories form and change the way we think and therefore act. The ‘stories’ we are told as children by our family tell us about our relatives, our neighbours and the place in which we live and we form attitudes and behaviour as a result. Growing older, we read and watch TV — we may not fight in Vietnam or Yemen but the stories we swallow help us decide who the ‘good guys’ are. Reality at times makes us doubt the veracity of some stories but never all. There’s a difference, of course, between stories that constitute our communication of events to one another and stories that are deliberate works of art. It’s the latter I deal with here. (As an ex-teacher, I became used to student excuses that were clearly works of fiction but not intended as works of art…)

Clever stories can shake earlier beliefs — I was OK as a young man with capital punishment until I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Stories may be warnings about what to avoid. The 1966 film War Games by Peter Watkins showed graphically and horrifically what could happen in the event of a nuclear air-strike on the UK — it seems credible that it and two subsequent films, Threads and The Day After, have actually helped the planet avoid a nuclear conflict. Stories, though, can also show us not just what to avoid but a goal to aim at.

Promoting our bond with life

The human race, steadily and somewhat blindly, has been creating the conditions for a future about as bleak for the whole planet as a nuclear war would create. There’s a growing sense of how cataclysmically awful that might be from an increasing number of ‘stories’ in the media and in art. That in itself might prompt some to change their lifestyles — even from a sample of only 100 U.S-based readers, a 2018 Yale study found that climate fiction (‘cli’fi’) nudged readers “in a slightly more progressive direction”. However, the same study concluded: “​From the emotions these readers described, it is clear that their affective responses were not only negative but demobilizing.” For us — humanity — to find a way to cope with and maybe mitigate the climate extremes that we have already locked in, we need stories that will not paralyse but mobilise. We need stories that will give us hope, stories that will not just ‘nudge’ but inspire readers to act in ways that show respect for the nature without which we could not possibly exist. We need stories to help us create societies that appreciate and promote our indissoluble bond with life in all its magnificence on the only planet we have.

That’s where Solarpunk comes in. I am a writer with XR Wordsmiths and we are launching a showcase for writing stories in that genre. Some of you may be in the position I was in a few months back — despite shelves full of books and an age full of years, I had never heard of Solarpunk. To save some of you the trouble of looking it up on Wikipedia, their definition is that “Solarpunk is an art movement that envisions how the future might look if humanity succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges with an emphasis on sustainability problems such as climate change and pollution”.

Solarpunk architecture
La cité des habitarbres
Art: Luc Schuiten © 2021

I’ve personally never written anything myself in a purely Solarpunk style though I did write a series of short stories set in the quite near future where I imagined a small group living on a very small peninsula who were rediscovering skills that instant meals and supermarket shopping had eroded. Their names relate to what they contribute to the community — the central character is ‘Reader’ and there’s Little Crabber, Big Fisher, Cobbler, Wireman, Knotter and a pile of others. It’s a little like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker though set much, much closer to the present day and thus the mutations of cultural conventions are in their infancy — the local bandits are called ‘vikings’ even though they know all about horses and nothing about ships. In the first story, ‘Easter’, the hero’s daughter sings a Christmas carol… 

It isn’t that the characters have “succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges” but they have found a way of surviving that doesn’t just bring constant fear — Reader still finds time to read to his daughter and on the extraordinary day when snow falls for the first time in the lives of most of the inhabitants, there’s a snowball fight and a snowman built.

Solarpunk — writing as hope and defiance

Solarpunk - XR Wordsmiths callout for stories of a better future

For our XR Wordsmiths showcase, we say that: “whether you are totally new to the world of eco-fiction or a seasoned enthusiast, this contest is open to any adult, teenager, or child who wants to combine their passion for writing with getting the message out there about the climate and ecological emergency.” 

Maybe, like me, you don’t quite have the nerve — yet — to be arrested at a demonstration. That’s probably why I’m with XR Wordsmiths. There are several dozen of us but only a small core of about half a dozen get together via Zoom every Sunday at 4.00 p.m. to work out ways of welding words that might move people to rise peacefully and effectively against the authorities that seem to move like sloths in relation to the climate and ecological emergency.

We were XR Writers for a while but there’s another group of XR Writers who are actually published authors so we gracefully changed our name to avoid confusion and better match our work — we write letters, slogans and we’re even on the verge of completing a book for publication, a gardening handbook, in fact. If that seems a little odd as a form of rebellion, our intention is not to teach people how but to persuade them to take gardening up as an act of hope and defiance — you don’t plant a seed in the belief that it will never germinate. If any of you reading this want to join us on a Sunday, you’d be most welcome!

But here, then, is your chance to rebel through the Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase. This is your chance to put pen to paper and to put people on the path to a better future than might be the case. You may not find many or even a single, complete answer to all of the problems we have been piling up but, as an Al Jazeera piece in 2014 declared, “this is a life-or-death situation now, one in which even partial solutions matter.” So — tell us a story. Transform our futures, one word at a time…


Find out more

You can submit as many stories as you like to the XR Wordsmith Solarpunk Showcase, there are three age bands and the word limit is 2,500. Submissions do, sadly, have to be in English at present but subsequent years may differ. The submission deadline is 14th September 2021.

You can find full details of the open call for stories (and a few prompts to get you started) at Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase — which also links to a Definitive Guide to Solarpunk from Impose Magazine, exploring fashion, architecture, technology, literature and more. You might also like to read At the very least, we know the end of the world will have a bright side, a 2018 Longreads review of the growth of solarpunk, Solarpunk or how to be an optimistic reader at The Conversation (19/7/19), or A Solarpunk Manifesto (2019). Inside the Imaginarium of a Solarpunk Architect (10/6/21) reviews the work of Belgian architect Luc Schuiten, one of whose images is used in this post.

The winning entries will be selected by a panel of judges that includes eco-poet, writer and ClimateCultures member Helen Moore (who wrote about her own writing practice in our recent post Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature), children’s climate fiction writer Gregg Kleiner, Ecofiction YouTube vlogger Lovis Geier, and Green Party politician Zack Polanski. Winners will have their stories published in the XR Global blog and on the Rapid Transition Alliance website. Other prizes include three £1000 scholarships to the world’s first global online climate school terra.do. 

You can explore XR Wordsmiths via their site and blog (get in touch via xr-writers [at] protonmail [dot] com), and Mick also mentioned XR Writers, whose work is featured on the main Extinction Rebellion site, including a podcast.

There is also XR Creative, an evolving anthology of songs, fiction and poetry that’s inspiring, meaningful and original, and that reflects the principles, concerns and values of the Extinction Rebellion from a global, regional or local perspective. You can read three of Mick’s Tales from the Nab at XR Creative: Easter, The Journey, and The Flare.

You could also read Mary Woodbury‘s two-part series on A History of Eco-fiction and David Thorpe‘s two-part series on The Rise of Climate Fiction; and there’s more on the power of stories to promote (or resist) change in Mark Goldthorpe‘s post The Stories We Live By.

Mick Haining

Mick Haining

A retired drama teacher and writer of short stories, plays and haiku on nature -- and 'rebel haiku' on post-it notes left in significant sites, usually
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Talking to the Crisis

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on a follow-up conversation between interviewer Julia Marques, performer Daniel Bye, creative producer Tessa Gordziejko, artist Jennifer Leach and geographer Matt Law on experiences of darkness, attitudes to uncertainty and opportunities for creativity.


2,660 words: estimated reading time 11 minutes + audio


In January, Julia Marques spoke with five fellow ClimateCultures members to explore what art and environmentalism bring to each other, and how they combine the two in their work.

We published Julia’s full-length interviews with Daniel Bye, Andrea Carr, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law and Jennifer Leach alongside her own reflections on the exchanges here. Her post also featured short clips from each interview, touching on topics such as: how art can galvanize environmental action or thinking, or simply help us to face the mounting sense of crisis; how collaboration with others in artistic practices can be part of our making sense of climate and ecological crisis, and how an appreciation of the ‘everyday ecology’ of our lives and surroundings — which art can celebrate — serves to shift our consciousness beyond simply the facts and news stories. And, as the interviews also revealed, an artistic mindset rewards attention to those usually very generalized words ‘collaboration’, ‘sustainability’, ‘optimism’ and even ‘creativity’ itself in ways that inform particular approaches to the processes, materials and practices of bringing environmental awareness into the heart of everything we do; and celebrating the small acts and experiences of creativity every bit as valuable as making and marking the large, public works.

Together, those five recordings offer rich insights into the work of different artists and researchers that — although the interviews draw mostly on theatre for their examples and ideas — have value for creative practices in all fields and across many disciplines. And, as Julia said, discussions such as these are part of the much bigger conversation that we’re engaged in and need to expand and develop further. If you haven’t already done so, do take a look at her post and the interviews.

Deepening the dialogue

It was therefore a natural development of those first one-to-one conversations — one that Julia and I discussed early on — that we try and bring together as many of the participants as possible, to see if they could develop some of those individual ideas further. So I was delighted when Tessa, Jennifer, Dan and Matt were able to join Julia in a Zoom call one evening and see where the conversation might take them. We’ve presented this here as three shorter audio clips.

In the first session, Julia, Tessa, Jennifer, Dan and Matt catch up with each other’s work since the initial interviews six months ago, and how these projects and new activities continue to explore the themes they discussed. We find out about recent work, much of which has a shared focus or experience of land: land access and edgelands in song and film; art on the land and creating green woods for future generations; moving into a new personal landscape, listening and waiting to see what comes as work that has to be real and not just noise; engaging with the end of our way of living; working with new artists.

The second session then picks up on a couple of those themes, teasing out some convergences and divergences around ideas and language around darkness and light in our experiences of the world, and around useful distinctions between uncertainty and ambiguity.

Finally, there’s a short discussion around whether we can see the climate and ecological crisis as an opportunity for creativity.

As with all such dialogue — in these times especially — provocations and reflections such as these do not offer definitive responses or an end to the questioning and the circling back to previous ideas and exchanges. Instead, they are a process, feeding off and into all our explorations, sparking new connections and possibilities. In that spirit, we hope these will prompt further conversation, on these pages and beyond.

Conversation is creative

Although I was not part of any of the sessions, on listening to the recordings I certainly felt myself to be in conversation with the ideas and the examples flowing between the participants. One of the joys of sitting in the background of ClimateCultures is receiving the materials that members send in for our blog; whether I experience them initially as offers of ideas, or as first drafts for discussion or as complete pieces, there’s always a point early on where what’s coming to me as fresh perspectives from a creative mind spark off my own associations, questions and conversations — with myself and what I thought I knew beforehand, and with the contributor. Each post is a prompt for to me to think afresh on the issues we’re facing and the ways that I choose to perceive and to act on them. I hope that’s the way they’re received and responded to by others. Creativity is a conversation and conversation is creative, and both open up the world and our place within it.

Listening in on talk of the darkness, of the different ways of understanding what it is and what it offers and requires of us, I was struck by my sympathy both with Dan’s opening response to Julia’s prompt on how we respond to darkness and ending:

“It’s hard isn’t it? There is so much darkness, it’s hard to know which bit to try not to look at! Hard to know where to bring the light. And I think especially this past year, so much of it has been about getting through to the next day with the people nearest.”

and Jennifer’s plea, as “a great fan and protector of the darkness”, that we not always fall into its characterisation as supposedly negative:

“There’s something about that insistent light, that insistent need for the light that I think is part of the reason that we are really at this point of existential crisis. Because, the darkness … there’s great beauty in it, great restfulness in it, there’s a chance for restoration, there’s a chance for quietness, for peace. It’s the fundamental part of regeneration … Without the seeds going underground you wouldn’t get the harvest, and without death in life you wouldn’t have life.”

life in conversation: showing 'bud' by Jennifer Leach
Bud – mixed media on paper
Image: Jennifer Leach © 2021

Tessa reflected on the fact that Julia’s original interviews occurred in the middle of winter and now this conversation was unfolding as the longest day of the year approached, and on the different relationships with darkness that these two midpoints offer:

“I quite enjoy the winter darkness, and wintering as an idea …closing down a bit and being underground… Now we are nearly at the longest day of the year … and a different kind of darkness occurs then. It’s a very short darkness and quite a magical darkness, and it’s late coming … And there’s a different sense of the darkness we are facing as our human narrative, which is nonetheless there but — there can be something quite joyful about it.”

Conversation with the season: Showing a Solstice Firewalk, by Tess Gordziejko
Solstice Firewalk
Photograph: Tessa Gordziejko © 2021

To me, what lies between these personal responses to questions of what the darkness and endings mean, and what it means to live with them, is not so much a disagreement as a web of complementary insights into the complexity of human experience, and — as Matt picked up on from Jennifer’s point on life going underground — the shared cycles of nature that we’re part of and are part of us:

“There’s a really nice image of going from the biosphere, the world of the living, into the lithosphere, the world of the rock, and then back out — what springs out of that again. … If we are thinking about anxiety about an environmentally changed future, and we have this idea of participatory mourning or solastalgia, maybe focusing on these minutiae — well look at the regeneration that comes, the sense that nature finds a way.”

Tending our patch

While one reading of ‘darkness’ feeds into the sense of endings and of loss and of ‘end times’ — feelings that we’ve all experienced or witnessed with great force during these times of global pandemic as much as with the continuing slide into ecological catastrophes around the world — other readings can also bring an appreciation that we can sometimes choose to approach endings, even loss, in more positive ways. For one thing, there can be joy in the beauty that has been experienced and generated along the way, and that is still there or yet to be created. And there’s the opportunity to imagine, anticipate and therefore work to bring about the better ways of surviving the worst and thriving beyond that.

Sometimes the response to changes that can feel overwhelming is to focus on the nearby, the achievable — towards, as Dan puts it, a move where

“people have turned towards tending their own patch of grass … trying to make the practices in the areas over which they have control good practice … That feels to me like an understandable response to a perceived inability to be heard or to make a difference … and a good example to others who might have the wherewithal to do so.”

It’s a metaphor he returns to, suggesting that the arts, while often termed an ‘industry’ is not a monolith but “an ecology. It’s a lot of people’s separate patches of grass which happen to overlap and share root systems and share weather, and that actually tending your own patch well and in an exemplary fashion can be part of effecting systemic change.”

In convreation with the land: showing a still from the film These Hills Are Ours by Bevis Bowden
These Hills Are Ours, by Daniel Bye & Boff Whalley
Film by Bevis Bowden © 2020

The more such patches there are the better the ecology, as Tessa points out, and “art off grid” is part of the way forward. And Jennifer picks up this theme of personal patches of creativity and the possibilities of intimate connection as a place of feasibility, and embracing the home-made — meaning the creative work by the hearth rather than in the public arena — “without losing the sense of quality” may be needed now more than ever: “So, not to feel that what we are doing is a waste of time, not to feel that we need to lose it, but there are ways of making it very real in a very different way.”

This sense of nurturing a personal creativity and embracing that small-scale engagement is perhaps reflected at a larger scale in Tessa’s observation that the word humility has its roots in humus, the living soil, and that maybe seeking a more humble approach is a species-level response too. “We are going to be humbled anyway so maybe a conscious and deliberate humbling of ourselves in the way that we envisage the way we live and the way that we learn…”

The act of leaving that thought hanging in the air is perhaps in its own way a tentative bridge between the personal and the global dimensions, a recognition of the enormous scale of action and consciousness that’s being asked of all of us alongside the creative responses that any one of us might feel able to develop. As later discussion suggested, looking to all this for a creative ‘opportunity’ is perhaps off the mark. Climate change and ecological depletion are what we are immersed in, and while some might choose to continue to not hear the alarm bell — and it’s certainly not possible to listen to it at full volume all the time — the crisis is nevertheless “an insistence rather than an opportunity,” as Dan puts it.

“It’s present in everything I do,” Tessa admits, “whether it’s explicit or implicit. … It’s much more immersive for me. Although not everything I make is about the climate crisis, everything happens in that framework.”

Where the opportunity lies, Matt suggests, is for art

“to sculpt a vision of something to be hopeful about, and also to connect people with stories that when they read about them in the news they don’t relate to at all because it’s happening to people who live on the other side of the planet or who will live 50 years from now. And that’s a really important opportunity.”

in conversation with the past: showing Matthew Law coring for evidence of past environmental change
Matthew Law coring for evidence of past environmental change in Hertfordshire
Photograph: Alice Short

And that space of opportunity is also shaped by our grasp of ambiguity, which Dan identifies as “something being both the case and not the case at the same time” and as “the root of metaphor and faith in whatever, in anything.” As Tessa says, creativity works with ambiguity all the time, not seeking to pin everything down. For Matt, “within scientific process there is a world of uncertainty. A lot of my work is rooted in archaeology and there is so far you can take the evidence before you have to make an inferential leap…”

That sense of grasping both the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’ and not always striving to resolve that ambiguity is also a leap, an imaginative one. And it offers a creative resistance to the urgency that, although very real, can drown out the value of diversity in all we do in the face of existential crisis; a generosity towards diversity, even when it maybe looks like an unwelcome dilution of the singular effort, the struggle to get everyone on board with ‘the answer’. As Jennifer expresses it:

“All of these things are important, all of our ways are important, the fighting is really important, the resistance is really important, the refusal to lie down and just accept it — and the opposite is also true: the people who embrace it, accept it, who move through it in peace and centredness without resisting it, that’s also important. It’s going to be messy and there are no clear answers, there never are. There’s going to be tatters round the edges. That’s life and evolution and who are we to resist it, in a way?”

The interplay of light and dark, of ambiguity and understanding, of ambivalence and ideas of decline and regeneration, and of the small, patchwork acts and the large, singular ones — these make up part of the rich soil in which art, research and all creative work thrive and can inform our activism. There is this and much more in the conversations that Julia, Dan, Tessa, Matt and Jennifer have shared with us here. I hope you enjoy listening in and maybe exploring where their conversation sits with and talks with your own experiences, ideas and work. As Matt observes at one point, there’s an interesting thread through their conversation that’s not the one he thought they’d be talking about at all, and you might find your own threads there too and want to pick at the discussion in different ways…

It’s something we’d like to do more of. ClimateCultures — an initiative that, as Julia expresses it, “brings different worlds together” — welcomes your voice too. If you want to share your own reflections and responses to the conversations, do get leave a comment, and members can get in touch with their own post for the blog.


Find out more

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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You can watch Julia’s earlier interviews with Dan, Tessa, Jennifer, Matt and Andrea in her post Conversations with Work That Connects.

In this new conversation, Tessa mentions that she’s been listening to the podcast The Great Humbling, where futurist Ed Gillespie and writer and co-founder of A School Called HOME Dougald Hine ask “How will they look in hindsight, these strange times we are living through? Is this a midlife crisis on humanity’s road to the Star Trek future – or the point at which that story of the future unravelled and we came to see how much it had left out?” In a series of conversations, they explore whether “our current crises are neither an obstacle to be overcome, nor the end of the world, but a necessary humbling?”