The Ocean as Abject: Painting as Installation

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

In this welcome return by one of ClimateCultures' earliest contributors, visual artist Mary Eighteen brings us up to date with her collaboration with video artist (and fellow ClimateCultures Member) Julien Masson. In the earlier post - The Ocean as Abject: Between Seduction and Defilement - she explored how their project "invites viewers to imagine a world where the ocean, as we know it, is on the trajectory to extinction. Both painting and video are presented together, to accentuate this experience." Here, Mary focuses on the concepts of framing within painting and video as a means to provide the visual encounter with abjection.

Our project is ready to launch in terms of seeking the correct exhibition space. The appropriation of Kristeva’s abjection, by reversing the abject as human trauma and positing it within the world of oceanic trauma, remains central to the work.

When preparing or proposing ecological scenarios for an exhibition that invites the spectator to view and consider the abjection of our oceans, it is important that our frame itself also challenges the oceanic problems facing humanity. Both of us have explored this in relation to the idea of the architectural space provided for our proposed exhibition.

The viewer and the frame

Our further research into spectatorship, regarding the viewer and the frame, responds to Paul Sharit’s concept of “presenting and viewing a film as close as possible to the conditions of hanging and looking at a painting.” (1) Therefore, for The Ocean as Abject, I have as a painter responded to a process of painting as installation, so that spectatorship is addressed not as an observational exercise, but as a concept of thought in terms of viewer participation. To this end the viewer is invited to contemplate both video and painterly installation within the structure of the frame.

In my previous post I presented my painting Abjection 1 and said:

“I have produced three further paintings which are narrow (70cm wide), and in two vertical sections. With a nod towards installation the paintings will each sit on a set of steps that will be in line with the canvas and flush with the wall.”

Since then the steps have been made and suitably sprayed black with car spray paint.  It can be seen from the images here that the paintings aligned with the steps are moving towards installation. The steps are symbolic of a possible sixth extinction, and of the steps we need to make to prevent such an occurrence. The frame therefore challenges spectatorship on two levels. The steps incite interest by deconstructing formal notions of the frame. In doing so, the viewer is invited to question further the purpose of the artwork. Subsequently they must consider the powerful insights evoked by the exhibition.

Abjection 2
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2018
www.maryeighteen.com

Steps to the future

The three paintings — Abjection 2, Abjection 3, Abjection 4 — are the beginning of a body of work that embraces this notion of the frame. While the top smaller sections on all three (70cm x 60cm) make a reference to landscape, albeit in an abstracted manner, the lower long canvases (70cm x 122cm), suggest a disruption of flow that symbolises a world where meaning has started to collapse. The steps are a prelude to that plausible collapse and invite the spectator to consider this conundrum. They make reference to both ecological concerns as well as exploring the art object in relation to the frame.

Abjection 3
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2018
www.maryeighteen.com

While the paintings — unlike video — are static, the steps are a move away from the manner in which a canvas is so often traditionally presented. This could be further investigated by also interrogating the way in which painting can be displayed on a wall. After his death in 2015, Ellsworth Kelly’s last paintings were exhibited at Mathew Marks Gallery in New York (May 5th to June 25th 2017). In his critique of the exhibition, Terence Troullot shares Branden Joseph’s quote on the artist, “The wall is part of the painting and always has been.” (2) Troullot’s own summary of Kelly’s painting White Diagonal Curve (2015) suggests that “a crescent shaped white canvas set against an all-white partition wall, seems to be part of the background, and yet escaping from it as well, outwardly moving in all directions.” (3) In relation to Troullot’s observation The Ocean as Abject makes it essential that frame as well as painted image emanates the idea of a sullied ecology. This is to ensure an enlightened spectatorship, by presenting painting via a disrupted surface that not only interrogates the viewer but also the architectural space within which it is exhibited. By ‘disrupted surface’ I mean that, in my case, the nature of displaying a painting is challenged by the addition of the steps.

Painting, video and architecture

Similarly, Julien Masson’s video for The Ocean as Abject (which can seen in the earlier post) was initially presented as a concept in three parts. It was suggested that the video would work well as a series of slow panning shots stacked (in strata), on one screen or in succession. This makes me think of montage and the whole idea of assembly or editing. In his thesis Eisenstein’s Theory on Montage and Architecture Jeffrey M Todd states that “Montage then deals with the combination of several dissimilar elements which through their assemblage establish new meaning “(4) For me this statement elaborates the purpose of our proposed exhibition. The Ocean as Abject juxtaposes painting and video for the purpose of evoking an ecological awareness for the spectator, and this assemblage as installation uses the designated architectural space to convey meaning and purpose via the frame.

Abjection 4
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2018
www.maryeighteen.com

“If as Eisenstein suggests, film and by extension, moving image installation descends down one line from architecture, then another branch must necessarily proceed from painting, that other creature of duration.” (5) Within the historic links of architecture and painting, punctuated by the more recent mercurial rise of video art and installation, The Ocean as Abject will in the end be defined by the architectural space provided. Within this space, spectatorship must then focus on the frame in order to transcend the meaning and purpose that lies beyond the frames presented.

Together, Julien and I have created work that aligns a relationship between video and painting, but we have also considered work that has the flexibility to relate to the architectural space that it will be exhibiting in. In her book Installation and the Moving Image, Catherine Elwes says “There are obvious continuities across both practises arising from formal considerations — both moving image and painting organise pictorial elements: shapes, textures, colours, light and dark into readable signs, for the most part defined by the frame.” (6)

Two artists — one a fine artist and painter, one a multimedia artist whose work straddles both video and the visual arts — have addressed how the frame can be used to heighten awareness of the worrying conditions that are affecting the survival of our oceans’ future, and in turn our own.


Find out more

Notes from Mary’s text:

  1. Elwes, Catherine: Painting, Approaches to Painted Surfaces in Installation and the Moving Image, p21. Wallflower Press. 2015
  2. These Are The Last Great Paintings Ellsworth Kelly Made Before He Died: Terence Troullot, Artnet News, 4th May 2017. This essay includes the painting, White Diagonal Curve (2015).
  3. Troullot: Ibid
  4. Todd, M Jeffrey: Eisenstein’s Film Theory on Montage and Architecture. A Thesis Presented to The Faculty of Division of Graduate Studies. Georgia Institute of Technology. 1989
  5. Elwes, Catherine: Painting, Approaches to Painted Surfaces. In Installation and the Moving Image, p21. Wallflower Press.  2015
  6. Elwes: Ibid

You can find more of Mary’s work at her site. Julien Masson’s video as part of this collaborative project appears in the earlier post The Ocean as Abject: Between Seduction and Defilement  and you can find more of his work at his site.

ClimateKeys – Moving Climate Conversations Centre Stage

— approx reading time: 11 minutes

Composer Lola Perrin returns to ClimateCultures with this round up of her own and many others' experiences of ClimateKeys - the major, global initiative she set up to bring together musicians, experts and audiences to engage in climate change conversations.

The latest ClimateKeys concert took place at the end of November in a candlelit art gallery under the arches in Waterloo as part of PowPowPower, a month-long series of arts events linked to climate change. Violin and cello duo, Fran & Flora, performed their virtuosic style of sonorous Eastern European folk music, at times bursting into truly beautiful acapella singing. Their set was followed with a talk by Nolan MacGregor whose premise was that the increasingly absurd system of commodity production is one of the chief factors in driving climate change. MacGregor then facilitated a conversation, with audience members sharing comments and ideas. Afterwards we were treated to a final piece of music before viewing the climate change art in the gallery and retiring to the bar where conversation about climate change, and the music, continued. 

Performers Fran & Flora with ClimateKeys guest speaker, Social Theorist Nolan MacGregor at PowPowPower

ClimateKeys is an initiative I founded that pairs concert musicians with climate change experts across the world to provide new opportunities for conversations. At the October gala launch in London ten pianists performed to a full house, with the music being interspersed with talks by Sir Jonathon Porritt, the Truth about Zane campaign and Hannah van den Brul. During October and November thirty-three concerts took place in nine countries. The speakers were scientists, policy experts, physicians, economists, radio journalists, legal experts, ecologists, psychologists and other specialists, all giving talks within the setting of a concert performance. Comments, photos, videos have been coming in to give a snapshot view of the concerts, for example;

“The audience members really wanted to talk and learn, and the discussion lasted longer than I thought it would … for me personally, this was incredibly rewarding.” (Political Science Professor Matt Hoffmann, who collaborated with pianist Erika Crino in Toronto.)

“Helping spark discussion and lay the foundation for civic engagement among my peers tonight made me feel like I was making a tangible difference in the world.” (Caroline, performer and audience member at a Syracuse University London ClimateKeys concert.)

“It’s important to think, talk and do something for future generations. The unusual blend of music and ecology is a good environment to make the audience think about climate change, everyday local problems (plastic bags, biodiesel, heating …). Thanks to ClimateKeys we have this wonderful collaboration of our Music and Technical Schools.” (Speaker Jovanka Vicentic, Ecology teacher, who collaborated with young pianists in Serbia.)

“One audience question was on how prepared we should be to compromise. If we choose to be vegan, does that mean we can continue to fly around the world?” (Extract from description of the conversation at Cynefin’s concert in London with guest speaker Julia Marques, climate change dramatist.)

“The general manager from the venue was very happy too and was also interested in more projects with us.” (Pianist Neslihan Schmidt, who performed with Dr Andrzej Ancygier in Berlin.)

Pianist composer Marija Ligeti Balint’s ClimateKeys concert in Pancevo, Serbia made the pages of local newspaper Pancevac, 17th November 2017 www.pancevac-online.rs

Excitingly, musicians responded in ways I hadn’t anticipated; creating inspired programmes around what climate change means to them and choosing works reflecting nature, the chaos of climate change and the constancy of the Holocene. Composer Alexander Schwarzkopf was inspired to complete and perform his work Liquid Piano, which “investigates evaporation, drought, flood, frost, birdsong and imaginary radio waves from outer space. Repetition is an important element of these compositions as it is integral to the processes of the natural and manmade world.”  Liquid Piano caught the imagination of local news media and triggered further climate change discussions.

New work is also emerging from the concerts. Florida ClimateKeys speaker, physician Dr John Strasswimmer, who collaborated with Duo Gastesi-Bezerra and artist Justin Guariglia, produced an imaginative video in response to both ClimateKeys and his research using spectroscopy.

Opportunities to imagine, to begin talking

The ClimateKeys concept grew out of my ninth suite, Significantus, for piano, a guest speaker (who gives a talk on positive response to climate change) and a conversation with the audience. Climate Outreach founder George Marshall kindly brainstormed with me and told me that “two thirds of people who are asked when they last had a conversation about climate change say they’ve never had a conversation about climate change.” This made me think that moving the conversation into the centre of whatever we do in life is vital, so I moved it into the centre of my concerts. I’ve been performing Significantus since September 2016 and have collaborated so far with nearly twenty speakers, reached around 600 audience members and possibly created over 1,500 conversations due to the ripple effect. Now that other musicians are using that same concert formula in ClimateKeys, many hundreds more climate conversations are taking place than I alone can achieve. 

ClimateKeys talks are given without projections or PowerPoint presentations, leaving the imagination free to roam. The audience may get a surge of images running through their minds, perhaps the lobster with a Pepsi logo tattoo, or the plastic islands in the seas, or the recent fire in California that burned an area larger than the size of New York City, or the millions of homeless Bangladeshis wading through floodwaters, or shrinking, low lying coastlines in the global South, or oil spills in Dakota, or Black Friday over-consumption, or Chinese smog, or children in the Democratic Republic of Congo mining minerals for our smartphones … the list goes on. Such overwhelm can create a catatonia, but the job of the guest speaker is to negotiate around our potential stupor and suggest positive directions in which to engage; for example, revising our rate of meat consumption, or re-designing our economy so that we live within nature and not at its expense, or putting renewable energy into place in developing nations to fight poverty without increasing warming emissions, or the role of digital innovation in environmental justice, or lobbying politicians around carbon pricing … The speaker synopses on the ClimateKeys website give an overview of the talks.    

“Fremd” (strange)
Exhibited at PowPowPower, London, November 2017
Artist: Frederik Marks © 2017
https://www.instagram.com/sh0tkiller

In every corner of the global effort is a myriad of features, responses, ideas, solutions, proposals, foundations, experts, schemes, charities, activist groups. Each day, if we choose to seek it out, and especially by searching on social media, we see more analysis, more reports, more research papers, more conferences, more expertise, more comment. Navigating around increasing flows of information on climate change, choosing what to focus on, trying not to miss the glaringly important, attempting to marry big solutions with individual choices: it is complicated.  

ClimateKeys concerts are opportunities to practice talking – or in some cases, to begin talking – about climate change. The first wave of concerts was timed to take place during COP23, to raise public engagement with Bonn. To some extent this was successful as several concerts got  local newspaper, TV and  radio features, including front page coverage in Trump’s local paper, Palm Beach Daily News (I understand that he  does read this one!). It was noticeable that there was no coverage by the BBC and UK press, despite numerous efforts. Two ClimateKeys speakers were COP23 delegates; Banja Luka’s Professor Goran Trbic and Berlin’s Dr Andrzej Ancygier.

Local coverage by the Palm Beach Daily News, 4th November 2017 www.palmbeachdailynews.com

Necessary, desirable and achievable

Ancygier is a policy analyst and a contributor to a new report, 2020 The Climate Turning Point, which took centre stage at COP23. I watched the livestream from the session, 2020: The necessary, desirable and achievable turning point to safeguard our climate. Chaired by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, heavyweight panelists Christiana Figueres (former UNFCCC Executive Secretary), Johan  Rockström (Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre), Hans Joachim Schnellnhuber (founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research), and Kevin Anderson (Chair of Energy and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre), made presentations on how, if global CO2 emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, or even remain level, the temperature commitments set in Paris and the Sustainable Development Goals the world agreed to in 2015 become unattainable. The speakers agreed on outcomes although there was some disagreement on methodology. Good questions came from the audience and online viewers.

I recommend watching this session in its entirety (see link below). But to briefly summarise the ten-minute presentations: 
  • Figueres spoke of 2020 being a critical turning point in which we reach peak emissions and thereafter drive emissions into a steadily descending curve to avoid a much steeper rate of reductions later on. In this latter scenario, the curve will look more like a cliff edge and in such a speedy transition society would not be able to support citizens; numerous, sudden job losses would make for social upheaval and unrest. Although she actively engages with an increasing number of corporations, not enough businesses currently work from this perspective.  
  • Anderson argued for mitigation (emissions reduction) to become a COP focus through the top 10% of individual emitters in the world (climatologists are in this 10%) reducing their emissions to the level of the average European and thereby lowering global carbon emissions by 33% straight away. He believes COP itself should “lead by example” and reduce its own footprint. Anderson suggested that the requirement of a zero carbon energy system is a lower total energy consumption (or ‘smart 21st Century energy use’ as Zero Carbon Britain describes this), and so fundamental systemic change is needed in which we all must start playing our part now.
  • Rockström detailed clear technological steps to keeping within the 1.5°C limit, and argued for the removal of fossil fuel subsidies as an immediate priority.
  • Schnellnhuber suggested new private-public partnerships to fund the transition away from employment in dirty energy, proposing that money in tax havens be put to better use and liberated into new investments in clean energy. Schnellnhuber is an adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel and so it’s revealing to think that this type of debate might be happening in the German government.

Repeated themes ran through the session; “it’s all about Time”, “don’t be late”, “we’ve known what it is we must do”, “we’re saying we must start doing this by 2020”, and “the procrastination must stop.” So, what will happen if, despite COP outcomes, the procrastination does not stop?

Taking on procrastination

Shortly after signing the Paris Agreement in 2015, in a gut-wrenching moment, British Prime Minister David Cameron slashed subsidies for solar panels. In the Budget right after this year’s COP and its focus on the year 2020, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced tax incentives prolonging North Sea oil and gas investment. A month earlier, Brazil announced it was proposing a bill to give subsidies worth $300 billion to oil companies to drill off its shores. Given that the clear message from Bonn is that emissions need to peak two years from now and then go into a steady decline of 6% per year to stay under the carbon budget and have the chance of meeting the 1.5°C limit by mid-century, we don’t have time to sit around just in case, miraculously, in the next twenty-four months, the required amount of political will somehow shows up.  

When political processes fail, the next step is to turn to the law. Perhaps that next step has already arrived. More and more, we see litigation around the world: the UK government being sued for illegal pollution levels; the US government for stealing a stable climate from American teenagers; 47 countries for not protecting Portuguese schoolchildren from climate change. In a brand new case, Plan B (co-founded by a former government lawyer) is suing the UK government for climate inaction, in a move that has recently drawn support from leading doctors who published a letter in the British Medical Journal on 7th December 2017. Helpfully, Plan B has also made its website into a source of litigation information for the international community. And at the Cambridge Literary Festival in November, ClientEarth founder James Thornton spoke of how the Chinese government is currently training lawyers to sue the Chinese government (yes, you read that correctly!) if it doesn’t meet its own targets.   

The day after the M2020 presentation in Bonn, climatologist and founder of the innovative televised Global Weirding series Katharine Hayhoe was in conversation with George Marshall at University Church of St Mary in Oxford. Hayhoe was there to talk about her work communicating climate change to ‘dismissers’ (her preferred term for deniers) in the heartland of Republican Texas. I attended and was glad to bump into fellow ClimateCultures member, author Deborah Tomkins, as well as Cardiff ClimateKeys speaker, environmental psychologist Dr Stuart Capstick. Deborah and I had a conversation a few days later. We discovered we’d both been inspired by Hayhoe’s account of having been invited to present a one-hour talk to an oil company in Texas; after two and a half hours they still didn’t want to let her go, asking what they should do to become part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem.

This Texan tale, along with the need to stop the political procrastination and immediately remove fossil fuel subsidies described by the panel at COP23, and the role of litigation are four guides to lead my development of ClimateKeys into 2018.

Moving out of the concert hall

After such a strong start, courtesy of the many musicians and speakers who gave concerts in October and November, ClimateKeys is set to carry on initiating more such collaborations in 2018. However it was always the plan, once ClimateKeys was established, to add new types of concerts. Inviting musicians with portable instruments means that concerts can be performed anywhere, not just in music spaces. This has started to happen quite naturally, for example with musicians such as Fran & Flora performing ClimateKeys in an art gallery. So, why not follow Hayhoe’s lead and aim for a concert in the Shell Building in collaboration with their Chief Climate Change Advisor, perhaps with a performance by a string quartet? Or in Tesco’s head office with their packaging planners? Or at the British Museum in partnership with board members to discuss fossil fuel subsidies, their own link with the industry, and climate change? Perhaps such cultural events are opportunities for new leaders to emerge within companies, and this will inspire new collaborations with ClimateKeys.

ClimateKeys at Syracuse University London, 14th November 2017

It’s widely recognised how the activities of the high carbon world cause climate change and how the impacts are greater on the low carbon world. Tragically, recent statistics suggest that around four environmental defenders in indigenous regions are killed each week. When Pope Francis states in his Encyclical that we “have to save Creation”, he is surely including those courageous activists standing up to the causes of climate change and being killed in the process. All who are standing up, from the indigenous defenders, to the Pope, to treehouse dwellers in Germany preventing an expansion of lignite mining, to Mary Robinson and the M2020 panelists, to school children taking governments to court, to authors of climate change novels, to climatologists speaking to communities, all are in the same wide mass movement I increasingly see as a form of international service (that I, for one, wish was compulsory). ClimateKeys hopes to play a part in bringing more corporations to this service. They are urgently needed.

Find out more

You can catch up with the speaker synopses and other news from the performances so far, and with new developments, at the ClimateKeys site.

There is a video from the ClimateKeys concert in Istanbul on 14th November, where guest speaker Ömer Madra, former lecturer of humanitarian law and co-founder of Açık Radyo” (Open Radio), said “As an academic, a writer, a broadcaster and a grandfather, I humbly feel that it is my utmost duty to ‘take arms against a sea of troubles’ and fight with this ‘ultimate absurdity’ to the end. This is the demand which originates from the responsibility of the intellectual.” Pianist Birsen Ulucan said “The people who surround me in Istanbul, where I will perform ClimateKeys, are not actually aware of the consequences of climate change.” 

Check out PowPowPower for more on their recent climate change arts events.

You can read about the Truth about Zane campaign, which is calling for an Independent Panel Inquiry into the death of 7 year old Zane during the February 2014 floods in Surrey, UK, and to protect the public.

You can watch the video of the COP23 seminar, 2020: the necessary, desirable and achievable turning point to safeguard our climate, on the Uppsala Centre for Sustainable Development website – and read about and download the 2020: The Climate Turning Point report at the M2020 site.

You can read about Plan B and their actions to sue the UK government, as well as other legal actions and resources, at the Plan B site. There is an article, Leading doctors back legal action to force UK government to cut carbon emission, at the website of the British Medical Journal.

Katharine Hayhoe’s TV series is available on the Global Weirding YouTube channel, and you can watch a film of Katharine talking with George Marshall at the ClimateOutreach site – where, of course, there is loads more about COP23 and communicating climate change.

Visit the Palm Beach Daily News site for their coverage of ClimateKeys – as possibly read by Donald Trump. The article states that “the concert ties in with Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene, an exhibition featuring works that evolved from artist Justin Brice Guariglia’s flights over Greenland with NASA scientists studying the effect of melting glaciers on sea level rise” and that local ClimateKeys presenter Dr John Strasswimmer “is a dermatologist who is researching a tool that could be used to detect skin cancer using spectroscopy, a technology employed by NASA to measure the contents of the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The Guardian reports on Environmental defenders being killed in record numbers globally and you can watch a film, “Keep It in the Ground”: As COP23 Ends, Activists Protest at Europe’s Largest Open-Pit Coal Mine, at the Democracy Now website.

The full text of Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato ‘Si, is available at the Vatican site.

Questioning Venue? Space for creative thinking...  

Where would you take ClimateKeys to engage a new audience? Be specific -- choose your venue. Would it be at a company, a council, a call centre, a cultural hub, or a countryside location? And who would be your local expert, and your preferred musician?

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

By Understanding COP23, We Can Help COP24 Succeed

— approx reading time: 3 minutes

One of the great benefits of working with TippingPoint on its final set of events over the past couple of years was meeting such a number and diversity of great people, all working in their different ways on the creative challenges of environmental and climate change. This is a theme which James Murray-White picks up in this joint Members' Post by him, Lola Perrin and Paul Allen. 

In their video, James and Lola discuss with Paul his experiences at the COP23 climate change conference in Bonn - which also featured in his recent ClimateCultures post, where he looked ahead to COP24 in 2018. As Lola says here, "it’s vital to know what happened at COP23 so we can make our strategies on how to work towards making COP24 a success;" and this three-way discussion - with others' questions posed via Facebook - is a valuable insight for those of us who couldn't be there in person.

One weekend in November, film maker James Murray-White and composer Lola Perrin travelled to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales and met with Paul Allen, Project Director for CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research. With live questions from a Facebook audience, the three discussed the highs and lows of COP23 and what is possible in the transformation to a post-carbon world. This is the short video of their conversation.

Lola Perrin

“I followed COP23 quite closely on Twitter, watching live video events, and reading blogs and Facebook posts from attendees. What could be possibly be missing from this list… Mainstream media? You’re right. Despite the very survival of our civilisation being at risk, mainstream media seemed not to care very much about COP23 during the whole two weeks of the event, with very little coverage of the work going on in Bonn. Yet it’s vital to know what happened at COP23 so we can make our strategies on how to work towards making COP24 a success.

“Holding a Facebook live Q&A with Paul was a good opportunity to find out more about what went on in Bonn and share that conversation with others. Before the interview started, we made the decision to keep it short. Although we could have spoken for an hour or more, by keeping the film to fifteen or twenty minutes, we felt more people would watch the whole of it, and perhaps we would take care not to be repetitive. This was a good decision; on listening back I think the conversation is concise and to the point. People sent in questions in advance or also during the live video feed.

“And as a bonus, we sat in my favourite room at CAT – although it was cold it didn’t matter much; there was an aroma of wood in the air, and gorgeous views of slate on one side and forest on the other – an inspiring environment for sharp, hopefully positive, thinking.”

James Murray-White

“I’m delighted that Doing Nothing is Not an Option – TippingPoint’s 2016 conference at Warwick Arts Centre – gave me the opportunity to meet inspiring creative activists. This recent weekend is just one example of a positive outcome from that gathering: travelling to Wales with Lola to interview Paul at the awesome Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, and then hosting the video of that here on ClimateCultures – created by Mark, who was such a key part of DNNO’s organisation.

“The issue of climate change is tough and throws up daily challenges – in seeing its effects, trying to communicate ways to respond, and simply by carrying around the knowledge of human impact upon planet Earth. But here is a small example of a few folk coming together to discuss, dissect and communicate, and then using this platform to put our efforts into the world and explore practical, creative and positive opportunities rather than spreading doom and gloom. I’m grateful for it, and for the warm, committed people who I’m proud to call my friends in this shared effort.”

 

Find out more

You can read more about Paul’s recent experiences at COP23 at the Centre for Alternative Technology blog – and about the challenges for next year’s talks in his recent ClimateCultures post, The Beating Heart of COP24

You can download Zero Carbon Britain resources and sign up for the next Zero Carbon Britain training course.

Explore the official UN climate negotiations process at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

COP ClimateCultures Callout 

Were you at COP23 or related events here in your community? Do you have experiences, arts ideas or creative suggestions about what we can take from COP23 - or what was missing - and could help make COP24 what we need it to be? Use the Contact Form to send in comments or contributions for more COP-related posts and content here at ClimateCultures. And check out our 'Questioning the COPs' creative challenge with Paul's recent post, The Beating Heart of COP24

 

Doggerland Rising #2: Sinking Into the North Sea

— approx reading time: 9 minutes

In part 1 of Doggerland Rising, Justina Hart introduced her poem, which was commissioned following the 2016 Weatherfronts conference. Drawing on advice from experts at Durham University, she investigated the prehistory of Doggerland, the lowland plains inhabited by mesolithic people before sea level rise created the North Sea. In this concluding part, Justina completes the story of her research and reveals how the poem's characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.

Click on the map to read Doggerland Rising #1: Walking Across the North Sea.

Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 10,000 BC), which provided a land bridge between Great Britain and continental Europe
Source: Wikipedia (‘Doggerland’)
Artist: Max Naylor © 2008

Reading academic papers – a new vocabulary

Following the day at Durham University spent meeting with palaeo-scientists to discuss all things Doggerland, they emailed me numerous papers to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. With six weeks to go till the commission deadline, I focused on reading and journaling to help the ideas bubble up.

Studying an area where knowledge is expanding rapidly I found to be exciting and addictive. Although the Doggerland concept had emerged in the early twentieth century, it didn’t take off until the late 1990s when Professor Bryony Coles at the University of Exeter examined and wrote about the archaeology of Doggerland; and until researchers at Birmingham University (Vince Gaffney among them) in the 2000s used data from oil and gas drilling maps to chart the submerged landscape of the Southern North Sea.

I started a Doggerland journal in my writing program, Scrivener, jotting down salient points and ideas every day. Early on in reading the academic papers, one thing that struck me was the intriguing sounds of many of the scientific words and terms used to describe investigation into the North Sea. Here are a few:

aggradation, bathymetric, borehole data, eustatic, isopach, progradation

The mysterious half-understood (to me) quality of these words sparked my first draft for part I of my six-part poem. Scientific exploration provides an entry point both into the writing and into the Doggerland landscape:

Wade in with palaeogeographers,
archaeologists, palaeogeologists,
cartographers who swim
into the past for a living, 
who disturb and reconfigure depths.

Later on, I realised that these palaeo-scientist characters were part of the poem’s scaffolding that could be removed. The start of the finished part I of the poem now addresses the reader directly as scientist-investigator and everyman. He dips a hand into the North Sea and comes face-to-face with one of his Mesolithic ancestors:

A man hallooing as if to himself
paddles through shallow waters. 
He looks ahead, squinting;
he can almost see you, you him.

Letting go of research and sinking into the sea

Having immersed myself in the research, the next step was to let go of it – taking whatever I’d absorbed with me – and allow myself to sink into a place from which the poems might flow. That was the idea anyway. It felt risky: the research was a safety raft without which I could end up all at sea.

Giving myself the gift of this time to sink or swim was – as a jobbing writer/editor where paid tasks must take priority – the privilege of having a commission. What joy to be given licence to write and research poetry in prime client time. I unplugged from the internet for consecutive mornings and, in silence, held the idea of the sequence lightly in my mind, listening for what might surface.

I used others’ writing, music, photographs, and my own visits to natural landscapes to tickle the poetic synapses. Early on I found a jazz song that I took as a soundtrack for my project, Mi Negra Ave María, by Roberto Fonseca. Soaring and anthemic, it includes the lyrics:

And Atlantis can once again
Rise from the ocean
And the musical, beautiful sound will resound
And shake in every tree …

I read poetry with watery and icy themes (the polar wilderness gave a useful sense of remoteness and strangeness).

Druridge Bay, Northumberland
Photograph: Dr Louise Callard © 2017
https://www.dur.ac.uk/geography/staff/geogstaffhidden/?id=10523

I wanted to make a research trip to Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast as recommended by the Durham scientists, but it was too far afield. Instead, with help from my partner as driver, I went on a long madcap jaunt from Staffordshire down the M1 and M25 to one of my old stomping grounds on the Kent estuaries to photograph mudflats. I also took pictures of trees in bogs in Osmaston, Derbyshire. These landscapes became the stage set for the inundated Dogger Island.

Here is a note from my journal:

5 November 2016 – research trip to northern Kent: Visited the Medway, got excited on seeing marshes, then just beyond the sea at Allhallows and took pictures as the sun was going down. Landscape very flat and I was bitter around the ears, although it would have been 2-3 degrees warmer then [i.e. in the Mesolithic].

After a time, interesting things started cropping up in my journal. Here’s a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing:

The voices [in the poem] are strong. They are alive. They are speaking to us but also to themselves as though there’s this thin film of water called time between us … They talk to themselves and the meaning trickles to us across this film. They can kind of see us through this film too, and not.

“Doggerland swamps”
Photograph: Justina Hart © 2017
http://justinahart.com

The first character emerges – let’s call him Shaman

One day as I was writing my journal a character emerged urging ‘Follow me, follow me, follow me’. So I did, trusting his voice more as time went on. At first he acted as a guide, taking me back in time to the Mesolithic; later he made his way into the poem. It felt exciting channelling a Mesolithic character, as if I was bringing someone back from the dead whose bones lay under the North Sea. He seemed to relish the chance to live again.

This man, aged twenty-five or thirty, becomes the character we meet in section I, and who we follow through the poem. If he or someone like him did exist, perhaps he was a Mesolithic shaman because of his time-travelling and piloting abilities. Archaeologists know that such roles existed in tribal groups because they have unearthed objects such as deer skulls used as masks in spiritual ceremonies; they’ve also found standing stones or menhirs beneath the waves.

This is the kind of thing my nameless shamanic character whispered to me. It made its way into the poem in section II: 

‘Look in the water. Look in the pool I’m looking at. The pool that is brackish, filled with     saltwater, the river’s still. Giant oaks are asleep in it. I leave something there for you, a clue about me. I take off my necklace and cast it in, it’s like casting a spell – that one day we will come this way again.’

Drafting the whole sequence was like walking a tightrope over the North Sea. I had never written such a long poem in different voices before and did not know that I could complete each section until I had its first draft down.

So I navigated my imaginative North Sea – and the poem – by degrees: first I was a quarter of the way across, then a half, then three-quarters … Since each section had to come from deep down, as if from my own internal sea, each time it was a case of listening, having faith, holding my breath until at last I was rewarded with each poem’s content, form and language. All the sections had to tie together and tell a story as well, of course.

After writing the first four poems (out of the total six), I attended a small poetry festival in London, Second Light’s The Song of the Earth. I found the workshops by poets such as Jemma Borg and Hannah Lowe very helpful for renewing my inspiration, and the festival provided a much-needed break from my own company. I came back and wrote the last two sections.

Mesolithic red deer mask, discovered at Starr Carr, Yorkshire, 1951
Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sharing the poem – feedback and editing 

Had the poem succeeded? It felt to me that the commission had moved my poetry on, but the proof’s in the pudding. I sent the finished draft to fellow West Midlands poet, Sarah James, who generously read it, suggested tweaks and commented, “It all reads beautifully and feels very crafted and finished”. I was over the moon. The poet Myra Schneider kindly read and fed back in detail before I submitted the final version. “It’s a real achievement – a step forward,” she said. I am indebted to these poets and other readers.

Myra pointed out that the poem needed some linguistic fine-tuning to get it ‘as close to Anglo-Saxon as possible’, as this would be more in keeping with the prehistoric setting. So before filing, I spent a few hours scouring the poem for Renaissance and post-Renaissance words and concepts. I scrapped ‘lurid’ (mid-seventeenth century), replacing it with ‘violent pinks, blues, greens’. ‘Sulking’ (late eighteenth century) became ‘turned sour’, ‘unnavigable’ (early sixteenth century) became ‘where evil spirits hide’, and ‘foraminifera’ (mid-nineteenth century) was changed to ‘tiny sea animals’. A whole passage like:

Here I come: pushed from the delta’s mouth
into blue – blue is my element and green –
the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …

was transformed with simpler, more concrete language into:

Here I come: pushed from the river’s veins
into blue – blue is my dwelling place –
the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …

Myra also spotted an anachronistic use of the country names, ‘Germany, Holland, France’, in a refrain in part IV of the poem, which is voiced by the tribe’s ancestors. This started life as:

Yet once we were kings who strolled through
paradise to Germany, Holland, France.

Few readers might have noticed – and the rhythm worked well – but having put so much work in, it was important to get all the details right. I turned to Dr Jim Innes for help. ‘How might our Mesolithic ancestors have referred to these lands?’ I asked.

‘They would have had names for these areas I suppose, but we can’t know. I would perhaps have said something like ‘the eastern high ground beyond the plain’ and the same for Britain, only ‘western’. That doesn’t tell the reader exactly where though, so maybe … ‘the uplands beyond the eastern plain’ or similar.’

Here’s the final refrain:

Yet once we were kings who strolled through 
plains rich as paradise to the uplands beyond.

 I sent the finished draft to the Durham scientists for fact checking and so they could see what I’d made of the research. All good except Jim spotted I’d used the phrase ‘heading inland’ in section VI, when people would have had to cross water to get to Britain. Jim also checked the date in which I’d set the poem: 

‘The dates look fine. Our main radiocarbon date from Dogger peat at -27 metres depth is 8140 radiocarbon years ago, which comes out when calibrated as 9300-9000 calendar years ago. Other dates suggest that the Dogger island was finally fully submerged by about 8000 calendar years ago, or a little before.

Personal insights – leaving the Mesolithic

The Weatherfronts commission was the first time that I’d ever been paid to write poetry. Symbolically this was deeply important to me as I was being remunerated for writing something I love, and this made a real difference to my craft. Previously, I always fitted my fiction and poetry around the freelance writing and editing I do for commercial clients; now, for the first time, creativity could take centre stage.

Not surprisingly, focusing on my poetic craft during the best, most productive hours of the day meant that my poetry improved. I began to value my work as a poet more and started seeing it as on an equal footing with my client writing. I was able to set and rise to a more difficult poetic challenge than I’d otherwise have attempted. I had not felt such joy in any paid work I’ve done in years, and loved the luxury of the reading and generative time.

Collaborating with the Durham palaeo-scientists was another revelation and joy. The only careers advice I recall receiving at university was ‘Don’t go into academia’, and yet the researchers seemed to thoroughly enjoy their working lives. Thanks to Weatherfronts, I now know that I’d  welcome the chance to do other collaborative projects with researchers and universities in the future.

The collaboration completely changed the nature of my Doggerland poem. If I had attempted to write it without talking in-depth to the scientists, I believe that it would have looked very different. Gradual if dramatic climate change (coastal erosion, low-lying island nations at risk of submergence) and migration are more akin to what our Mesolithic ancestors were experiencing, and more akin to what we’re experiencing in the twenty-first century. The scientists helped me and the poem to take this focus.

By the end of the project, I began to envy our Middle Stone Age ancestors for the simpler rhythm of their lives, their multi-skilled resourcefulness, and even (medical advances aside), their quality of life. Pulling out of ancient time and leaping forward to the present day came as a wrench.

Find out more

You can read the full lyrics to Roberto Fonseca’s Mi Negra Ave MarÍa and play the track.

Explore the poets who gave Justina feedback: Sarah James and Myra Schneider. and Dr Jim Innes‘ research into human palaeoecology, particularly in relation to Mesolithic communities and their impact upon the environment.

And you can find out about Second Light Live workshops and publications.

There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website. Doggerland Rising and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.

Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking... 

"When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?" 

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ClimateCultures interview

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One of our Subscribers passed on one of our recent Re:Culture mailings to the folks at Manchester Climate Monthly - MCFly. Marc Hudson, MCFly editor and climate change policy researcher, contacted me for an interview.

Manchester Climate Monthly – or MCFly – “exists to inform and inspire and connect people in (Greater) Manchester who are taking or who want to take action to improve the quality of their lives and communities and to prepare for the changes that are coming because of climate change and energy price rises.” There’s all sorts of interesting and useful stuff on their site.

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