Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs shares thoughts on the place of artists, and of creative ensemble practices, in a culture of possessive individualism that must urgently address its chronic failure of imagination in the face of eco-social crisis.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


“Art is a parasite that feeds upon the corpus of culture. Its insularity is just a conceit….”
– Simon Read

One — driven to be part of the problem

The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss is Maddy Paxman’s account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique. She writes:

“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life.”

This sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she loved deeply, a man very clearly ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry, gives me pause for thought. In part because I recognise all-too-clearly the need to paint that she speaks of. In part because I think that, indirectly, her observation relates to the performance artist Andrea Fraser’s claim that artists are not part of the solution to our current socio-environmental crisis, as many assume, but part of the problem.

That sounds like a betrayal of both my own work and that of many people I deeply admire, at least until I think about the art world’s financial reality, its ‘big hitters’ — Jeff Koons, John Currin, Damian Hurst, Odd Nurdrum et al. What is the nature of the work such artists produce if not an expression of the culture of possessive individualism, the global economics the culture feeds and is fed by, and the deepening epistemological crisis in which current presuppositions about creativity are embedded? And that’s clear even before we link these things to an environmental situation that, in all probability, is now nearing its terrible endgame.

Two — the Great Derangement

As it happens, Andrea Fraser is simply restating in variation concerns raised by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley and, most recently, the writer and academic Amitav Ghosh. Despite a lifetime spent making and teaching art, I find myself sharing their various concerns. So I want to raise two possibilities.

Firstly that, if we have a stake in the arts, we should now very seriously consider in what ways the arts, in the culture of possessive individualism, have and are enacting just the chronic failure of imagination that Ghosh calls the ‘Great Derangement’. Not as some kind of quasi-masochistic guilt-trip in the best Protestant tradition, but as a necessary step to re-orienting our notions of creativity.

Cover to 'The Great Derangement' by Jill Shimabukuro
Cover to ‘The Great Derangement’
Artist: Jill Shimabukuro

Secondly, that we might ask ourselves whether the tendency to psychic monomania that Maddy Paxman describes as ‘driven-ness’ can be addressed by radically rethinking the nature of creative activity from a more inclusive perspective. Might it not be both more productive and more accurate to consider the attention and skills associated with arts practices, not as an end in themselves that justifies the artist as a ‘driven’ individual, but as catalysts or models for larger ensembles of heterogeneous skills, concerns and activities? Ensembles that would retain the psychic (if not necessarily the economic) benefits of a creative practice, but at some distance from the assumptions, expectations, and protocols central to the hyper-professionalised art world to which Andrea Frazer refers. Considering increasingly heterogeneous creative practices as compound ensembles might be a useful step towards reversing the situation in which art serves to perpetuate the culture of possessive individualism, and with it the Global North’s Great Derangement.

Three — ensemble practices

In the past I’ve used the term ‘mycelial’ to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates the roles and skills of citizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor and, more recently, fortune-teller and student of shamanism. Maybe ‘ensemble practice’ is a better term, more able to consolidate the more inclusive understanding I’m reaching for. To stress an individual’s mycelial entanglement in multiple, interconnected tasks, connectivities and interdependences, all of which will, to a greater or lesser extent, involve creativity understood inclusively. If nothing else, the concept of ‘ensemble practices’ posits the parallel notion that individuals are themselves compound, multi-relational ensembles, supporting by extension a view of the artist that does not presuppose an exclusive hyper-individualism.

ensemble practices - Akin: art by Lucy Gorell Barnes
Akin: compost, strawberries, Letraset, pencil, watercolour and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Four — between self and other

I think we now need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. We are in reality, of course, constituted quite differently, in and through our connections, attachments and relationships. Consequently, I’m intrigued by the distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make in proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a ‘life-as’ at one extreme and ‘being-as-becoming’ at the other.

‘Life-as’ requires massive investment in a monolithic psychosocial identity, one that must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not reinforce its coherence. It lacks, that is, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse — fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended.

The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple. To face our eco-social crisis, we must now find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. This cannot be done by investing in any ‘life-as’, including ‘life-as an Artist’.

ensemble practices - I am done with apple picking now: art by Luci Gorell Barnes
I am done with apple picking now: knife marks, apple juice, watercolour, pencil and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Five — placing the artist

Do we now need to differentiate ‘life-as an Artist’ from an involvement in making art that’s ultimately predicated on the understanding that the self cannot be reduced to a categorical identity? Isn’t this what’s implicit in Edward S. Casey’s distinction between a ‘position’ as a fixed postulate within a given culture and a sense of ‘place’ that, notwithstanding its nominally settled appearance, is experienced through living experimentally within a constantly shifting culture? If so, then isn’t what ‘places’ those who acknowledge the ensemble nature of practices itself predicated on negotiating multiple psychic, social and environmental connections, attachments, and relationships? On an open engagement with the productive tensions between experience and category, reality and representation, life and language?


Find out more

Iain’s notes on ensemble practices relate to a book chapter he has recently submitted for the ecology section of an anthology, The Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, which should be published later this year. “These are, as the title suggests, simply notes and lack the references, etc. which will appear in the final chapter when it sees the light of day.”

When working on these notes, Iain had in mind the work of two visual artists. Simon Read — who he quotes at the beginning — is an artist who fosters projects on a collaborative basis and who has immersed himself in environmental debates where collaboration on an interdisciplinary level is vital. Luci Gorell Barnes — who has herself recently joined ClimateCultures — is a visual artist whose participatory practice and responsive processes aim to help people think imaginatively with themselves and others. Iain and Luci have worked together on various projects, including a ‘deep mapping‘ workshop that I took part in at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in 2018. When I approached Luci, she generously agreed for me to use her images as an accompaniment to Iain’s text.

You can read more of Iain’s reflections on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016, published by University of Chicago Press) on his blog.  In the book, Ghosh asks “Are we deranged?”, seeking to explain our imaginative failure to grasp — at the level of literature, history, and politics — the scale and violence of climate change.

Fellow ClimateCultures Member Cathy Fitzgerald uses the term ‘eco-social art’ for her own works, which she also describes as ensemble practices: “often involving art and non-art activities and many ways of knowing from art, ecophilosophy, science and traditional and local knowledge and practical experiential knowledge.”

Directing The Children

Climate change dramatist Julia Marques looks to her recent experience directing a play about environmental crisis to ask how community and other positive features of amateur dramatics groups might offer us routes into addressing the climate emergency itself.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


“We need a director for our spring production. Julia, why don’t you direct an environmental play?”

And, as quickly as that, I was in charge of the next production of my local amateur dramatics group, the Beaufort Players in Ealing, West London.

I’m not sure I fully understood the task at hand when I accepted the job, as I have only ever directed one other production (which was not a full-length play) in a previous amateur arts society. It turns out that directing requires high levels of multi-tasking, including the ability to create posters, choose set colours, help source props, secure a sound and lighting team, write a piece for the programme and ensure your cast have adequate costumes and makeup. This is in addition to the stereotypical, but fairly accurate, job of telling actors where to go and how to deliver lines on stage.

Building community

I found the experience thrilling, stressful and rewarding in equal measure. You have the power and the responsibility to shape the play in whatever way you want, to interpret it how you see fit and to focus on what you want the audience to get from it. But, as the famous quotation says, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and directing is no exception. Everything is riding on your leadership and the decisions you make — the buck stops with you. However, it is also thrilling to have a whole team of people standing by you every step of the way, and I wholeheartedly believe that this is what amateur theatre groups do best — community. I have come to the realisation through this process of directing that I do truly think that amateur dramatics societies could be used as a model for community-building that could indeed help with the environmental situation we find ourselves in today.

Play - showing Hazel & Robin. Photograph byThomas Cobb
Hazel: “Robin makes wine. Elderberry. Gooseberry. If he offers you the parsnip it means he wants to get you drunk, it’s absolute filth.”
Photograph: Thomas Cobb © 2019

A sense of community is a glorious thing; you feel supported and safe. You have people you can talk to (in this case, about where to find fake blood and whether we can emulate a flood on stage or not), people who share your sense of purpose and are with you till the bitter end! They share your vision and work with you to make it a reality — simply wonderful. Can you imagine if we used this dynamic to work towards a more Earth-centred way of living where we all supported each other through the transition and reached our goals together? What would that world look like?

Let’s look at some of the main elements of a local am dram group and how these could possibly form a community model for greater ecological sensibility.

‘The play’s the thing’

Common purpose — this is not a new idea, most societies are exactly that, a group of people with a shared interest. It’s what you do with this that counts. In an am dram group, you are a team and everyone pitches in and does a bit of everything. Very often, being in a play means not only acting but helping with the set, props, costume, hair and make-up, front of house, selling programmes and drinks, lighting, sound, prompting, directing, producing, designing and general moral support. I think the support offered in this sort of situation is invaluable. I have heard it said that members of amateur groups are often more dedicated than those in professional companies. This may be surprising as everyone is a volunteer — no one is getting paid. Perhaps this flexibility and willingness to help with whatever needs doing is the key. People are not stuck doing one job, they are actively encouraged to do as many as they can! This sense of freedom and the responsibility granted to people is empowering, and maybe that’s what we need for more environmental action. You are involved, empowered, active and purposeful. When people feel these sentiments then things really get moving.

There is a committee that meets regularly to discuss how the group is doing, made up of a chairperson, treasurer, secretary and some ordinary members. Tasks are divided up and reported on, productions discussed and minutes taken. Leadership is still needed but the group is carried by its members.

Small is beautiful — there are many am dram groups of varying sizes, but I think there is probably an optimal size for everyone to feel included in the group and to feel as though they are familiar enough with others in the group to feel comfortable there.

We work towards a production three times a year. Having an end goal motivates people, spurs them into action. You can’t underestimate that sense of achievement when the curtain opens and a fully-formed show spreads its wings to take flight. The thought, “I was part of making this happen”, is a powerful one.

In a previous post for ClimateCultures, I discussed the idea that theatre can provide us a ‘space for thought’. As part of an acting group, you have time together and time apart. This affords you both space to think and space to act. Previously, I had only focused on the audience members being afforded the space to think within the performance but this is true of those involved in the performance too. Let’s take the actor; they are given a script (much of the time) and direction but then they must also go and learn their lines by themselves and practise the actions they have rehearsed. Space to think individually and space to act communally. This space to think is important both for the audience and the cast and crew.

Could we combine these elements — common purpose, sense of inclusivity, familiarity, and working towards an end goal, being given responsibility and tasks to do, and creating both a communal and individual space for thought and action  — to form enviro-action groups to increase our ecological connections?

Moving beyond business as usual

Back to the play. The one I finally settled on is The Children by Lucy Kirkwood. It was published and first performed in 2016 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It revolves around three retired nuclear engineers who helped set up a plant on the east coast of England which has been damaged by a tidal wave before the play begins. Two of the characters are a married couple and the third is an old friend and colleague who appears unannounced at the start of the play. The reason she has come is not revealed until the middle, and I will not spoil it for those of you who wish to read or see it, but suffice it to say that she offers them a life-defining decision to change their ways or simply continue as before (‘business as usual’, I believe is the phrase).

HAZEL: How can anybody consciously moving towards death, I mean by their own design, possibly be happy?

Showing the play poster for Beaufort Players Present The Children
Beaufort Players Present …
Poster design: Brigite Marques © 2019

This obviously echoes recent global events, and not only climate-change related ones. This is fairly insightful of Lucy Kirkwood, as she started writing the play years before it was published. It also really brings us face to face with the idea of generational responsibility, and asks us if we have the ability to consider future generations while making decisions today. This resonates with indigenous practices in which, as researcher Liz Hosken says, “indigenous leaders are also accountable to past, present and future generations”. This is an extremely difficult concept for many of us who are not part of an indigenous group to get our heads around, as we are such short-term thinkers usually. Considering anything more than simply one generation into the future is somewhat mind-blowing; what will that world even look like? We have no way of knowing for sure, but at least we can play our part in ensuring that it is a little better because we made it so.

ROSE: It’s a good thing though, isn’t it?
ROBIN: What?
ROSE: Well. Learning to live with less.
ROBIN: Well you might have to.

The opinions flowing from the audience reflected my own feelings for the play — it’s a beautiful mixture of laughter, tears, playfulness and significance. Each section is thought-provoking in its own way. The choices the characters have to make are ones we ourselves are also being faced with. The play’s overall theme for me is how you value your life and the lives of others and what you are willing to sacrifice for them; what does selflessness really mean? Woven into this, Kirkwood adds inter-generational decision-making, guilt and responsibility, all contained within the four walls of the cottage kitchen and the three corners of a love triangle!

Play - showing Robin, Hazel & Rose. Photograph byThomas Cobb
Robin: “Our age, you have to show no fear to Death, it’s like bulls, you can’t run away or they’ll charge”
Photograph: Thomas Cobb © 2019

I think it would be almost impossible at this stage not to mention Extinction Rebellion. The group — eco-activists using civil disobedience and direct action — nearly reached their goal of two weeks of disruption in London earlier this year. Their actions started shortly after we had finished our play, which was unplanned I might add! Perhaps this is a new type of community that is forming to create environmental awareness and action. They certainly made an impact and managed to disrupt some of the central parts of the city.

ROSE: I do understand now, that for the world to you know completely fall apart, that we can’t have everything we want just because we want it.

Another model of community-based action is being enacted through the Transition Towns movement. As Liz Hosken says, “social movements such as Transition Towns in the industrialised countries are the beginning of the recognition of our need to reconnect with place in order to find identity, well-being and to learn once again how to live with ecological integrity, in compliance with the laws which inherently govern our lives”. In my local borough of Ealing, our Transition group has influenced the council to declare a Climate Emergency — before the UK parliament did so. Transition groups are community-led and really do work at the local level to inspire members to move towards an environmentally-focused way of being that is beneficial to all.

ROSE: You have the power to … you have a power. You have power.

My own vision is to have more people feel they are part of something, even if that is only a gardening group or a clean air petition: to feel as though they have a community. This is what the Beaufort Players have given me, and it really does help you feel happier and more purposeful, which is what we need when it comes to the environment. There is so much doom and gloom and we must move beyond that if we are to act with passion rather than stagnate in fear.

Just as with the characters on a stage, we must find our part to play in the ensemble of life.


Find out more

Lucy Kirkwood’s play The Children is published by Nick Hern Books (2016).

You can read Julia’s previous post for ClimateCultures, Space for Thought, where she reflects on her research at that time for an MA in Climate Change: Culture, History, Society, and the role that theatre can play in opening up space for us to take in what climate change means for us. 

Liz Hosken’s Reflections on an Inter-cultural Journey into Earth Jurisprudence is published in Exploring Wild Law: The Philosophy of Earth Jurisprudence (edited by Peter Burden, 2011: Wakefield Press).

You can read more about Transition Towns — and find transition groups and activities nearest to you — at Transition Network.

Extinction Rebellion has many local groups and resources on its site, and Culture Declares Emergency lists its signatories, including Royal Court Theatre — where The Children was first performed — and many other theatre and other cultural organisations. Royal Court’s Executive Producer Lucy Davies is also a ClimateCultures Member and her post, Artists’ Climate Lab, describes a special week of creative activities she and others devised for artists working in London’s leading theatres.

Dancing with Darkness

'I wonder what darkness means now?' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the DarkArtist and writer Jennifer Leach recalls the journey from a sharing of darkness at a climate conference for artists and scientists, and the year-long festival she created in its honour, to her new book, Dancing in the Dark.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


In 2016, Festival of the Dark was born on Winter Solstice in Reading, and ran for a full year. It had bloomed remarkably quickly from a seed planted at the TippingPoint climate conference — Doing Nothing Is Not An Option — that had been held in Warwick in June of that year. These TippingPoint conferences had for many years brought together scientists and artists, in the context of climate change; the scientists brought the facts, the artists the imagination to creatively take these facts along with their work and out into the world. The 2016 conference could not, initially, shake off a persistent sentiment of doom. Many scientists said they had little new to say, many artists felt they had tried and failed to effect change. Many delegates felt we were still hooked on looking for solutions, rather than extricating ourselves from that singular goal and extending our sight over a wider terrain.

What is it that we fear?

Yet something developed over that weekend that was unpremeditated, and I believe it was the presence of a coterie of particularly feisty women who may have had something to do with it. They began talking about the heart, rather than the head. One delegate counted the number of times the men said, ‘I think’, and the number of times the women said, ‘I feel’. One delegate humorously objected to being told, ‘Doing Nothing Is Not An Option’ and she set up a break-out group called ‘Doing Nothing IS An Option’. I was too busy lying under a yew tree doing nothing to go, but I hear a remarkable rainbow appeared from nowhere and spread across the wall of the small unprepossessing room in which they sat. By the end of the weekend we were talking of a new spiritual paradigm, a shift of focus from the head to the heart. There was no point, many of us agreed, in trying to find solutions until we had fully explored why and how we had arrived in this place of self-motivated disaster. Why are we acting as we are? What is it that we fear? What is it that we are resisting?

It is a much longer story than I can tell here, but in the course of the conference, someone suggested that there could be a day set aside for all theatres in the UK to turn off their lights and play in darkness, or by candlelight. This throwaway suggestion, one of many in a series of brainstorming sessions, brought about such extreme reactions that a small group of us attended to the energy generated and set up a breakout group to explore the darkness. Why was the darkness seen as Luddite, why was turning off the lights seen as a reactionary action, an action that contained within it all that people loathe about the ‘environmental lobby’? Why is darkness seen as non-progressive, as negative?

Showing Jennifer Leach's suggestion for Learning to Love the Dark - a discussion at Doing Nothing Is Not an Option. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
Learning to Love the Dark – a discussion at Doing Nothing Is Not an Option, June 2016
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe

I recall feeding back from our group to the plenary session, and slightly tongue in cheek saying we’d hold a festival in Reading, at the end of which we’d turn off the lights across the town. ‘If it can happen in Reading [which it didn’t quite!], it can happen anywhere.’ So was born Festival of the Dark, which opened around four months later, with full Arts Council funding.

Darkness honoured

I did not know where the Festival came from, it surprised me, and I did not know what it wanted. It was perhaps conceived as being grand; it ended up sweet, subtle, subterranean, dancing beneath the streets of Reading like the Holy Brook whose waters do likewise. It did not end with the sweeping gesture of a great Lights Off ceremony (in a corporate town at the height of the Christmas shopping season?!), yet soft candles, and faces lit by campfire stories, and even darkness, came to be its keynotes. It softened as the year progressed, and the steely imperatives of its inception transformed into a more mellow weave. Yet what it held was radical, daring, brave, and those who chose to participate showed courage. The festival ended in darkness on 21 December 2017. After a night of food, music and reminiscence, as we watched snatches of video from each of the Festival’s 21 events, we stood unable to see one another, arms around each other, and sang. A quite glorious community anthem slipped out from the darkened windows of a generous venue, now boarded up, and escaped into the night.

Darkness - the gathering for The Night Breathes Us In, part of Festival of the Dark, . Photograph by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes
The Night Breathes Us In – part of Festival of the Dark, March 2017
Photograph: Georgia Wingfield-Hayes © 2017 georgiawingfieldhayes.org

I wrote Dancing in the Dark for the Opening Ceremony and in many ways it became a signifier for me, for the Festival itself. Its unknown origin, its uncanny form, its darings and challenges, and its unswerving message of quiet assurance that ‘all shall be well’ came in from outside my self. The work, I am sure, bubbled up from our sharp ancestral past, when death, hunger and danger were ever-present and the skull was a bed-fellow for the living. It wove through the starry heavens of Galileo who unhooked us from the secure centre of a human-anchored universe, and flung us out into orbit around a foreign star. It took me deep into my own heart, to a place of fear, and asked me to jump, into the racing pulse of the unknowable, and the unknown. And it led back out into the weightless universe where, divesting of the small and false securities that keep us tied to fear, there is to be found a joyful liberation in our magnificent insignificance.

'I do not know what darkness meant then' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the Dark
‘I do not know what darkness meant then.’
Artist: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Freed from the tyranny of our dread

I worked with a dear friend on presenting the piece. She brought music to it. On four long nights we found ourselves in a back garden multifaith temple, in midwinter, breathing the words over candles and a calorgas heater, cold but entranced. The magic happened here. Strong ancestral stirrings were at work, and we felt perhaps that we and our ancestors were clumsily mapping out a new way to work with these crazy descendants who don’t, to misquote Hamlet, know a hawk from a chainsaw.

The ‘performance’ itself was imperfect. A childcare crisis arose minutes before we began, we broke a microphone in the dark, and we could not see. It mattered not. The power was in the process, in the imprecise nature of the very real exploration of imagination that began with the words, the music, and later the images, and which are now loosely harnassed in the pages of a book.

A conference cannot avert a crisis. A Festival cannot. A book cannot. We do not, in fact, know whether anything can, not even the accumulation of every great head initiative and every great heart initiative focused right now on the calamity of climate emergency. What I do know is that the courage to make tangible our rightful fear, to acknowledge it, and to launch ourselves into it, will profoundly change us, and liberate us from the tyranny of our dread. And in this, every small creative contribution adds one more small stone to place upon the communal cairns of our courage. Welcome waymarkers on unknown paths. 

Darkness - 'Is this not so?' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the Dark
‘Is this not so?’
Artist: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Find out more

Dancing in the Dark is available to order for a very limited time — and in a limited edition print run. This Kickstarter campaign — which has already ensured that the 48-page, richly painted story-poem will be printed and delivered to its backers — closes early on the morning of this coming Sunday — 18th August. On the project page, as well as examples of words and images in the book, you can hear Jennifer give a short reading from it.

Jennifer’s recent post, Earth Living — Now, Facing the Storm, explores some of the ‘questioning tales for a world’s ending’ she told at the recent Earth Living Festival in Reading, and the relaunch of her Outrider Anthems enterprise as a sanctuary of creativity. 

You can read On Night in the Daytime, my ClimateCultures review of Night Breathes Us In, which was an event from Dark Mountain Project as part of the Festival of the Dark. The Dark Mountain website features two other accounts from members of that organisation’s team who took part: Charlotte du Cann, and ClimateCultures Member Sarah Thomas

With Far-heard Whisper, O’er the Sea

Artist Rebecca Chesney describes her explorations creating With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea for exhibition in Newlyn this year — taking inspiration from the town’s tidal observatory and its unique role in revealing the UK’s rising sea levels.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


At the end of 2018 I was invited to make new work for inclusion in an exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall. As my work looks at our relationship with the landscape and is usually connected to specific places, I organised a trip to Newlyn in January this year to help me understand the place better, and to explore its location, learn its history and meet people working and living in the town.

Tidal observatory

One of the first things to pique my interest was hearing that Newlyn has a tidal observatory. A plain little building standing next to the lighthouse on the south pier, it looks more like a fishing shed than how I imagine a tidal observatory might look. Not usually open to the public, it was the director of the gallery, James Green, who organised permission for us to visit and gain access to the building. It felt really special to go inside this modest old outhouse with an enormous significance.

Newlyn Tidal Observatory, next to the lighthouse
Newlyn Tidal Observatory, next to the lighthouse
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

The observatory was built in 1915, along with two other observatories (at Dunbar and Felixstowe) to establish a national height system to provide vertical reference levels related to a measure of mean sea level. In 1921 the Ordnance Survey decided that there should be only one national datum and selected Newlyn as the most suitable of the three. Hourly recordings of sea level were used to determine an average that could be related to the head of a brass bolt set in the floor of the Newlyn observatory and this brass bolt is the benchmark from which all heights in mainland Great Britain are measured.

The Newlyn Tidal Observatory Datum
The Newlyn Tidal Observatory Datum 
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Although old equipment remains in the observatory it is now fully automated, with data collected every second via Global Navigation Satellite System technology.

Following my visit I met with local historians Richard Cockram and Ron Hogg. My work and ideas have always benefited from discussion with others: those who share a common interest, or have a passion for a subject I am exploring too. Looking at the same theme from different angles can produce some exciting conversations. They told me more about the history of the building, its importance and how they helped to get the observatory declared a grade two-listed building by Historic England at the end of 2018.

It was only when they mentioned never gaining access to the Observatory themselves that I realised how special my visit was and how lucky I am to have been inside (they have since organised an open day at the Observatory and been inside, so I don’t feel too bad now).

Although the Observatory was built to establish a datum for height across the country, it is the sea level records that have become so valuable for the study of climate change.

Sea level recording at Newlyn Tidal Observatory
Sea level recording at Newlyn Tidal Observatory
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Drawing out a vast truth

Providing the longest and most accurate tidal information in the UK, the Observatory has continued to record sea level data for over 100 years. And with these records showing that mean sea level at Newlyn has been increasing, I decided to use this information to make new work for the exhibition. Rising sea level is an environmental, social, economic and political issue: it is about land loss and displacement and will impact us all. And although it is a complex, multi-layered issue I think it is important to keep reminding people that climate change is happening.

While looking into the subject I noticed that sea-level data is typically shown in a short graph, a spiky image rising over half a page (or computer screen). But I wondered if it would have a bigger impact if I lengthened how the information is displayed. I wanted visitors to the exhibition to see time in front of them and to understand that every millimetre makes a difference. Trying different methods and materials and stripping back any labelling I decided that a pencil line on graph paper was a subtle yet visually effective way to show the information. Comprised of 102 individual record cards, the finished drawing is 8.75m in length. Each of the specially made record cards represents a year and the pencil line across it shows the mean sea level recorded at Newlyn for that year. Viewed all together the line undulates and slowly rises across the gallery wall. Minimal in its execution, the drawing holds a vast truth: sea level is rising.

The title of the drawing, With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea, is a line taken from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Written in 1797, I think the theme of the poem is still relevant today.

'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea'
‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Installation at Newlyn Art Gallery 2019
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

In May 2019 I was invited to speak at an event in the gallery alongside Richard Cockram, the local historian I had met earlier in the year. Richard gave an illustrated talk revealing his interest in the Observatory, outlined the history and also spoke of how his research contributed to a book published by the Newlyn Archive in 2018, The Newlyn Tidal Observatory.

Ten Years - part of 'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea' Artist: Rebecca Chesney
Ten Years – part of ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

I followed by detailing how my trip in January inspired me to make the work and where I got the data for the drawing (individual station data is available online via the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level). I also related the drawing to my other works in the exhibition: Forewarning, a three-screen video and sound installation considering land erosion on South Walney Island off the coast of Cumbria (filmed in 2018); and Far, three large hand screen prints showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes (2017). All these works represent the themes I continue to explore and am keen to learn more about into the future.

Four Years - part of 'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea'
Four Years – part of ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Find out more

Invisible Narratives at Newlyn Art Gallery also included the work of artists Lubaina Himid and Magda Stawarska-Beavan and ran from 23rd March until 15th June.

Ordnance Survey plaque at Newlyn Tidal ObservatoryYou can discover more about the Newlyn Tidal Observatory’s history at its designation page on the Historic England site and on the Penwith Local History Group site, and about its role in measuring sea level as part of the National Tide Gauge Network. Rebecca also mentioned the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level, which was established in 1933 for the collection, publication, analysis and interpretation of sea level data from the global network of tide gauges.

The Newlyn Tidal Observatory, compiled by Richard Cockram, Linda Holmes, Ron Hogg and Frank Iddiols (2018, edited by Pam Lomax) is published by the Newlyn Archive. ISBN 978-0-9567528-4-0

You can find Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in full at Poetry Foundation. ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’ is taken from Part III.

Rebecca’s work Far — showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes — was featured in her previous ClimateCultures post, Near / Far, in February 2018. And you can find out more about Rebecca’s other work that formed part of the Invisible Narratives exhibition, Forewarning, at her website.

Unpacking Deep Time in Our Living Present

The living presentClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews the Deep Time Walk field kit’s latest addition — an attractive and engaging set of cards that explores our planet’s 4.6 billion year timeline and offers us thoughtful paths into the living present.


approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes  


The same creative team who brought us the innovative Deep Time Walk app in 2017 has now released this beautifully illustrated pack of cards, laying out the timeline and the story of the development of the Earth and its life over our full 4.6 billion years. It’s a mini-encyclopedia and pocket guide to the origins and meaning of being human in our home world.

Deep Time Walk cards
Deep Time Walk cards

From Earth’s origins (4,600 million years ago) and Late Heavy Bombardment (4,100 MYA), through the arrival of the first RNA molecules (3,800 MYA) and life’s Last Universal Common Ancestor (3,700 MYA) to the oldest fossils (3,400 MYA), this is a story of great detail and complexity that the pack’s writers — Geoff Ainscow, Dr Stephan Harding and Robert Woodford — have done a remarkable job of condensing into captivating and compelling prose. A whole team of artists have produced images to complement a narrative that could at times overwhelm us with technical ideas — ‘horizontal gene transfer’ (2,600 MYA), ‘Ediacarans / Cambrian explosion’ (500 MYA), ‘energetic mitcochondria’ (1,800 MYA) — but which never holds up the story. Many of the cards also come with very short quotations from scientists, thinkers and artists:

“The sediments are a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we will read in them all of past history.”

– Rachel Carson

“The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else.”

– Nan Shepherd

“The world is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

– Thomas Berry

“People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures — bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful — call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.”

– Richard Powers

Showing our ancient origins: Late Heavy Bombardment; Plate Tectonics; Snowball Earth
Ancient origins: Late Heavy Bombardment; Plate Tectonics; Snowball Earth

Each card covers 100 million years and, in around 150 words, does an admirable job of relating the known facts and the theories that give us our current understanding of where we’ve come from, just how far life on Earth has travelled in a succession of staggering biochemical novelties, biotic explosions and mass extinctions, and the humblingly brief span of time that is the story of our own species within this slow-fast-slow dance of the living planet.

The dawn of humans arrives 47 cards into the timeline — with the very next card bringing us to the present and into the Anthropocene. Breaking the steady pace of 100 million years per card to allow for this sudden explosion of various human species, the domination of Homo sapiens and our accelerating growth as a species and a world-shaping force, those last two cards in the sequence cover just 1 million years — “By about 500,000 years ago, early humans were making clothing to keep themselves warm, building shelters, creating fire and utilising hand axes.” If the card makers had stuck to the prehuman timescale of around 150 words per 100 million years, I reckon Homo sapiens — and the invention of words themselves — would have merited only the last syllable of the final word in the Anthropocene Epoch’s card: ‘extinction’.

The living present — a future on the cards

Fortunately, the story does not end there and the cards themselves continue, posing questions of our common future — ‘stabilised or hothouse Earth?’ — and offering suggestions for positive action and radical hope. The idea of these cards is itself an offering of action and hope in what it encapsulates as ‘the living present’: an opportunity to pause after the 4.6 billion year journey of the cards’ narrative and “take time to ground yourself again amidst the emotions that may be arising.” It’s an invitation to breathe with a renewed awareness of what the oxygen in your breath actually means in the long story of a living earth, what its exchange with carbon dioxide in your lungs means for our collective moment on Earth, and the work that your own particular community of microbes is doing with you here and now — inside the entity that you regard as ‘you’ — and your place in the community of beings now, as well as past and future:

“The influence of the deep past and the interdependence of the living present is all around you: it is your wider body, your greater self, our common home.”

Showing our life story: Eurkaryotic Cell; Pond Life; Cambrian Explosion
Life story: Eurkaryotic Cell; Pond Life; Cambrian Explosion

Fittingly, then, the model for the cards — though complementary to the app itself, which is most likely to be experienced solo, whether on your favourite walk or in an encounter with some new place (either way, revealed as a localised but globally connected assemblage of soil, water, rock, sky and living beings) — is as a communal exploration, a conversation with others. You might share the pack with a friend or group as you walk together: perhaps taking turns to read out loud through the timeline; perhaps, stopping to consider some of the science and what it reveals in the living scene around you; maybe leafing through some of the illustrations and seeing what comes up in reflection on some of the questions you might share about the ecological and climate crises of our time.

Humanity’s place on Earth

The Living Present card poses a few ready questions to get just such a discussion started. “How do you feel about humanity’s place and impact on Earth now? … What strikes you about Earth’s long evolution?” My favourite question is probably “Has your sense of time shifted?”; whereas the ultimate challenge of “What can you do to help humanity shift towards a deep ecological consciousness?” is probably too daunting for most of us, even (or especially) after such an encounter with the immensity of Deep Time. It’s hard to feel at one and the same time the great immensity of the living planet over timescales vastly exceeding the brief flicker of our own existence, and to conjure the sense of the needed difference that one moment of thought in one lifetime among so many billion human lives can help to create. That is the paradox of our present times and of our personal time on Earth, however. And, as the cards neatly demonstrate, the resolution to the paradox and the key to avoiding a feeling of despair at the sheer scale of the challenge is that we are not alone. Immediately after posing that possibly overwhelming question, the card wisely advises: “For group work we recommend Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects and the book written with Chris Johnstone, Active Hope.” These cards are stepping stones within a much larger landscape and offer us that necessary bridge to action.

Understanding our time: The Dawn of Humans; Anthropocene Epoch; The Living Present
Our time: The Dawn of Humans; Anthropocene Epoch; The Living Present

Some of that action will be new thinking, questioning, conversation and further reading. Take the cards out again with a new group and see what emerges in your walk together through the woods, along the river, through the city park, beside the coast.

Some of it might be assembling with others — for street action, for political opposition, for culture-changing proposition. Take your appreciation of Deep Time into this present moment of crisis and opportunity.

Some of it might be working alone — creating stories, art, video, music or poems from your encounters with the cards and with the living world, putting the two into dialogue — and then coming together to share these artistic expressions in a public space, a private venue, a platform like ClimateCultures or a new site of your own creation.

Some of it might be devising and organising new walks with others in your communities, using these cards and your previous experiences with them or with the app as a means to simply share space and time and a little breathing room in the world.

Joining the Scientist and the Fool

As the introductory card explains, “We hope the pack empowers others to express Earth’s deep history in a multitude of forms, with the openness to imbue them with meaning to connect hearts and minds across different cultures and traditions.”

Whether you’ve already used the app or have yet to try it, I recommend you also (re)immerse yourself in the story told there by the Scientist and the Fool and introduce it to someone else. How might the two of you retell the journey? What questions arise, and who else might you find to explore them with? The app also works as an audio book for a sedentary journey, though travelling far with your own brain. And the script is now available as a short book. So there are many ways to explore Deep Time ideas and to bring them to life in your encounters with the world and with others. Many ways of thinking through and discovering your next step.

“What will you do with this one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour”

– William Blake


Find out more

The full field kit — app, audiobook CD, script and cards — is available at the Deep Time Walk site. And you can read the ClimateCultures review of the original app, Taking the World for a Walk; the app itself has been updated since then, with a range of new features described here.

Joanna Macy’s The Work That Reconnects was republished by New Society Publishers in 2014 in an updated version, as Coming Back to Life. You can explore Macy’s work at JoannaMacy.net and the ideas that the book explores and the work it inspires at The Work That Reconnects Network.

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy by Chris Johnstone and Joanna Macy was published by New World Library in 2012.