A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #5

— approx reading time: 6 minutes

It's a pleasure to welcome back writer Nick Hunt for the latest post in our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Nick's contribution of three objects traces one path from our present into a future which he reminds us will not stay forever on any one course. He returns us to a longer view, of a past which honours the power and beauty of natural forms - the human and more-than-human.

This seventh generation

On a grubby brick wall in Hackney Wick a small brown plaque bears the words: FIRST PLASTIC IN THE WORLD. It is bolted high on the wall, and few people passing by ever raise their eyes to see it.

A hundred and fifty years ago there would have been flat-capped workers on these streets, smoke billowing from chemical factories, the solvent stink of dyeworks. Now there are flat-capped hipsters, smoke drifting from narrowboats on the canal, the solvent stink of graffiti paint. This is the seventh generation of the Plastic Age.

Plaque to Alexander Parkes, Hackney, London
Photograph: Plaques of London
www.plaquesoflondon.co.uk

In 1866 the empire had a problem. The efficiency of industrial slaughter had surpassed natural capital reserves, and resources once abundant were becoming scarce. Whale oil, used for everything from lighting to industrial lubrication, was in sharp decline due to collapsing whale stocks. It was peak whale oil. But new techniques for extracting rock oil boosted the petroleum trade, and drills took the place of harpoons on industrialisation’s frontline. 

Around the same time, ivory – used to make ornaments, cutlery handles, piano keys and billiard balls – was running out as well. It was peak elephant. A substitute was invented by a man called Alexander Parkes: a hard, smooth, synthetic plastic made from nitrocellulose, better known as Parkesine, the first manmade plastic in the world.

(It is one of the stranger ironies of industrialisation: that petroleum saved the whales and plastic saved the elephants. Or at least that was how it seemed, before the icecaps started melting and plastic clogged the seas. Now it appears the world’s largest mammals merely had a stay of execution.)

Parkesine was first produced in the Parkesine Works in Hackney Wick, a zone of London dominated by dyeworks and chemical factories. It was a commercial failure, and the company folded two years later. But other plastics swiftly followed: xylonite in 1869, celluloid in 1870, and in 1907 Bakelite paved the way for mass production, disposable culture and the consumer boom. In its ever mutating variety – polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polytetrafluoroethylene – plastic would enter every home, replacing not only ivory but metal, glass, stone and wood, never decaying, never corroding, obsoleting organic matter. It would change the composition of the oceans, working its way up the food chain from bottom feeders to apex predators, and enter the geological record to become part of the planet itself. It’s hard to conceive of a more successful example of market penetration.

That small brown plaque says nothing of this, and most people don’t notice it’s there. But a carrier bag wafts on the breeze, and discarded plastic bottles litter the road underneath, like devotional offerings at the shrine of their creator.

Sun machines: the future for now

I moved out of Hackney Wick years ago and came to live in Bristol again, but inevitably London pulls me back. It means I spend too much time in the limboland between the two cities, going up and down the M4. The view through the smeared coach window is of transport infrastructure, road-signs, scrappy woodlands, fields. But over the course of the last few years this vision has started changing. 

The green fields are gradually vanishing from the flanks of the motorway, covered by a tide of grey: row upon row of darkly reflective panels angled to the south, ranks of mathematical squares in place of pastureland. Officially they are called solar farms, evoking bucolic rural scenes, but – as people who genuinely love the land have pointed out – more truthfully they are solar factories, electricity machines to fuel mankind’s expansion.

Sometimes flocks of nonplussed sheep are nibbling between the rows, competing with the machines for the energy of sunlight. 

Sometimes the angle of the sun turns the fields into a mirror, a blinding metallic glare that hurts the eyes to look at.

Solar ‘farming’ Photographer: unknown

Of course I know the arguments: they are infinitely less worse than climate-changing power stations, more palatable than nuclear plants, less intrusive than wind turbines. And I know that the fields they’re replacing, monocropped and glyphosated, are hardly natural anyway but products of tens of thousands of years of human meddling and control, reaching back all the way beyond the Neolithic. But the solid fact remains: a shiny plasticated skin has been clamped upon the land. What was green is turning grey. As an environmentalist I am supposed to applaud the sight, but it fills me with despair.

This will not be the future forever, but it is the future for now. The culture that makes these things will pass, but its objects will remain. 

The long past of the Long Man

When traffic is bad, or an accident has closed too many lanes, the coach occasionally detours past the white horse on Cherhill Down, created by cutting turf away to reveal the gleaming chalk below. Only a few centuries old, this monument is by no means ancient – unlike the more stylised white horse at Uffington, which dates back over three thousand years – but the mindset it represents seems to me very, very old: an honouring of the power and beauty inherent in animal forms, an act of devotion, of attention, that reaches back to the horses sketched in charcoal on Paleolithic cave walls. From the window of a Megabus such a vision is absurdly romantic, but these interventions in the landscape were surely intended to have that effect: to lift our eyes from the road, away from our self-involved routines, into other ways of seeing, into other aeons.

Last summer my mother and I walked the South Downs Way, which runs for a hundred miles along the top of the chalk down, on which human feet have beaten tracks for at least eight thousand years. The colours are very simple there – the green of grass, the yellow of wheat, the white of chalk, the blue of sky – and the walking is simple too: you keep the sea to your right and keep going east. On one of our last evenings of walking, aching after eighteen miles, we dragged ourselves on a limping extension to see the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk outline of a figure holding a staff in each hand, cut into the sloping turf of a Sussex hill. Nobody knows how old he is – he might have been made any time from the Iron Age to the sixteenth century – and nobody knows what the staffs represent. But they look like walking poles.

The Long Man of Wilmington
Photograph: Cupcakekid 2003 Creative Commons (CC)
Source: Wikipedia (‘Long Man of Wilmington’)

We stood in silence at the Long Man’s feet and eventually turned for home. Maybe it was partly exhaustion, but both of us were strangely moved. Even though we had offered him nothing, we felt as if we had left something behind.

Find out more

As well as Wikipedia, of course, you can read more about the history of plastics it this BBC News brief guide and this interesting piece from Scientific American

The Union of Concerned Scientists has this brief overview of the environmental impacts of solar power.

Among the many sites discussing ancient land art such as the Long Man of Wilmington, Britain Explorer has this quick but interesting guide to ‘The Top Ten Geoglyphs in the UK and the World’.

You can find more of Nick’s writing at Nick Hunt – and ClimateCultures is pleased to have Nick’s own selection of passages from his new book, which you can find via the links on his Profile page.


You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Nick’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures next month.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

 

Doggerland Rising #2: Sinking Into the North Sea

— approx reading time: 8 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?" 

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

 

Anticipatory History: Living With the Question

— approx reading time: 2 minutes

In what I hope will be the start of a new 'Conversations' strand within ClimateCultures, environmental artist Linda Gordon responds to my review of the book Anticipatory history. Linda reflects on personal memories and intimations of change, and offers a recent example of her ephemeral art.
You can read my original review of Anticipatory history here. And you can download the book's introductory essay from the publisher's link on that page.

Are we, as Anticipatory history suggests, largely not culturally equipped to respond thoughtfully to environmental change, or to imagine our own futures?

The trouble is that places and the objects within them (natural or manufactured) seep into our consciousness and become part of our personal inner world, complete with its private collection of received stories.

Looking at Mark’s reference from the book, “Many of these changes… will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes…”, I remembered that many years ago, when I was living in East Sussex, someone living a few miles inland from the Seven Sisters cliffs demolished a World War II pillbox (a concrete machine gun emplacement) that was sited in their garden, in order to make his garden more pleasant. This was followed by a vociferous outcry from local people, and at first, I thought: “It’s his garden, and he can do what he wants!” Then I realised those people probably saw his act as part of their world being destroyed, and therefore threatening their sense of identity.

Not far from where I live now, is one of my favourite trees. Nothing particularly outstanding about it – but it is special to me because I return to it again and again in times of trouble. If it keeled over tomorrow in a gale, and died – I would feel a few moments sadness, and then accept it as a natural part of life’s processes. But if someone deliberately and illegally killed it, say, in order to cram in an extra housing unit for pure profit, I should find it extremely difficult not to react with outrage!  

It is my view that people’s wellbeing and felt experience should be respected and fully taken into account during times of change, and when planning ahead. (The same goes for other lifeforms too). However, I don’t currently believe that looking to history and story-telling, in itself, will do very much to help us to cope with “changing landscapes, and to changes in the wildlife and plant populations they support”. I tend to think it is more a matter of paying close attention to the present moment.

I like how the authors are taking an exploratory approach to this whole question, rather than attempting to formulate any rigid conclusions, and definitely think it is important to keep living with the question, and allow the intelligence of life itself to inform and guide our actions.


‘Time to Let Go’ Photograph: Linda Gordon © 2017 www.lindagordon.org.uk

The photo is of an ephemeral work I made in Bucks Valley Woods, North Devon, at the end of September, at the time when all the sweet chestnut fruits were falling. The title is Time to Let Go.

Creative conversations for the Anthropocene

Want to share your response to my original review or to Linda's thoughts? Send in a mini-post of your own - and why not complement it with a piece of your own work or someone else's, as Linda has done? Or use the Contact Form to suggest a topic for ClimateCultures to explore as a conversation.

Of Fire, Ice and Earth

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

In a new Members' Post from film maker James Murray-White, we have his review of the current exhibition at the award-winning GroundWork Gallery in King's Lynn. Fire & Ice brings together three artists: photographers Gina Glover and Jessica Rayner (mother and daughter) and potter Hilary Mayo.

GroundWork Gallery is dedicated to artwork directly focused on the environment. Previous exhibitions have looked at birdlife, trees, forests and the art of wood, and stone; and their first exhibition featured a specially commissioned piece using River Ouse mud by Richard Long, showing alongside work from his friend Roger Ackling, themed on sunlight and gravity.

It’s an art space that inspires and draws in, and I for one have become a huge fan of GroundWork and its ethos since I encountered it during that first show. Curator Veronica Sekules has created a unique space that brings environment-focused art to us all, from the ground up.

Fire and Ice continues the elemental theme and brings together a mother and daughter with a potter, using still and moving images juxtaposed with pottery to explore how energy is embodied in ice and fire and clay: what it means to humanity, as a thing of beauty and as an object of power, sometimes destructive.

‘Melted World’
Photograph: Gina Glover © 2017
www.ginaglover.com

Gina Glover’s still images take the viewer on an arc from the landscapes of Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen, showing wonderful glaciers framed as aesthetic, to a series titled Poisoned Water Runs Deep looking at fracking in the United States. The glacial images are in colour, and have an ethereal beauty, as art that we would wish to hang on our walls; and the fracking images – black and white, stark, cropped closely – dominate a whole wall. The controversy over fracking is well known – and we in the UK are seeing it come upon us right now. I’m hearing shocking stories of police and private security guards attacking protestors who are trying to prevent the fracking equipment being set up on land in Lancashire. A friend of mine has been hospitalised after peacefully protesting but being violently pulled and dragged from the public roadway.

Glover’s work makes the damage to the land and atmosphere clear, but it is also the future damage that reveals itself: as one example, fracking taking place on North Dakota farmland, with cows grazing nearby – the animals, the grazed land, the water, and the soil and sky all being irreversibly polluted. This is necessarily political work, and needs to be seen. At an event on using climate change imagery recently, run by the NGO Climate Outreach at the London Reuters Office, I saw a provocative presentation by Canadian photographer; Robert van Waarden has taken this investigation one step further and photographed and interviewed those living on the fracking line as it criss-crosses the US. His images show the human face of this issue: Glover’s work emphasises the environmental issues which this chaotic rush for energy produces.

‘Poisoned Water Runs Deep’
Photograph: Gina Glover © 2017
www.ginaglover.com

The experience of these contrasting images close by on the ground floor gallery is stark. They are interspersed with Jessica Raynor’s work: her images and footage present energy in its active form, as tantalising to humans; perhaps like ‘fool’s gold’, ever elusive and drawing us further into its secret. I loved the dynamic dissection in 365 Faces of the Sun: 365 images of the sun flickering before us and drawing us in to its magic and power.

‘365 Faces of the Sun’
Art: Jessica Rayner © 2017
www.jessicarayner.com

Raynor’s work, she says, comes out of an inquisitive response, “reacting to nature through wonder.” I was also drawn in by her video work Conversion, which shows the burning of a bale of straw, looping backwards and forwards. It represents creation, blooming and death, and her work in total is reminiscent of the best of ideas shaped within the films of Stanley Kubrick

There’s a surprise on the way up to the upstairs gallery, where another of Rayner’s images hangs. The Wood-Pile is a graphite drawing of wood chips, used in the production of biomass. I love the reference to Robert Frost’s poem:

“I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labour of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay”
The Wood-Pile, Robert Frost

‘The Wood-Pile’
Artist: Jessica Rayner © 2017
www.jessicarayner.com

Upstairs, Hilary Mayo’s pottery dominates the room. As the son of a potter, I’m biased towards this art form, and usually have to be restrained from my inner instinct to reach out and caress clay, as my youth was spent playing with wet and dry and fired clay, the tools and wheels and assorted craft involved in making. I love the way that slip drips down the vessels, marking a lighter territory upon the darker hues seen as landscape through Mayo’s physical vocabulary.

‘MEANDER I’ (hand built stoneware)
Art: Hilary Mayo © 2017
www.hilarymayoceramics.com

Mayo’s work was made after a trip to Iceland, and follows the contours and colours of that land, encrusted and dipped upon pottery forms, made as vessels. The power of energy bubbling up underneath that land, spewing out in geyser form, spills out onto Mayo’s clay, and represents force and passion, light and dark entwined. Her large-scale piece, Deliquesce sits in the window of the ground floor gallery – or more accurately, squats, like a hewn tree root, powerful and watchful.

Mayo cites an important quote by Walter Benjamin as her influence: “History lies before the eyes of the observer as a petrified, primordial landscape.” 

Also upstairs, facing Hilary Mayo’s pottery, Gina Glover shows Melt, a series of 12 circular aerial images of the Greenland ice sheet. GPS references for each image are shown on each. Glover has made an almost perfect artistic record here of the fact of glacial melt, a crucial climatological indicator. Climatologists estimate that were all of this ice to melt, the world’s oceans would rise by approximately 23 feet. Groundworks Gallery, Kings Lynn, and most of East Anglia up to where I write this in Cambridge – the flat fens – would be under water.

The three artists complement each others’ practice within their unique disciplines, and have been brought together in Fire & Ice in a way that points an audience beyond the simple constraints of human understanding to deeper connections with the base elements that underpin planetary life and consciousness. These artworks ridicule human obsessions with energy creation, and connect us to the beauty and deeper power of the raw elements of this planet. 

‘Volcanic Black Container’ (stacking set)
Artist: Hilary Mayo © 2017
www.hilarymayoceramics.com

Note: James is an Artist-Associate at GroundWork Gallery. He filmed an event there on 28th October – facilitated by environmentalist Tom Burke OBE – at which the three artists gave presentations about their work. The film will be available on the GroundWork Gallery website soon – and you can see a promotional film James made for the gallery.

Find out more

You can see more of the exhibition Fire and Ice exhibition – which runs until 16th December 2017 – and the work of GroundWork Gallery at their website. GroundWork has recently won the highly prestigious Nick Reeves Award for Art & Environment, awarded by the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management’s Arts and Environment Network. 

You can see work by the individual artists at their sites: Gina GloverJessica Rayner and Hilary Mayo. James mentions the work of Canadian photographer Robert Van Waarden.

You can read Robert Frost’s poem The Wood-Pile on The Poetry Foundation website (and I recommend the appropriately themed Fire and Ice).

You can discover more of James’ work at his site, Sky-Larking.

Questioning power? Space for creative thinking...  

'A thing of beauty and an object of power' is how James refers to the embodiment of energy in ice and fire and clay on show here, and our connections through art to planet, culture to nature. How might human and more-than-human powers play out for you in a creative response to our energy concerns? 

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

Action, Participation, Feeling: Where’s My Igloo Gone?

— approx reading time: 9 minutes

In our latest Members' Post, Adam Ledger of The Bone Ensemble and the University of Birmingham discusses the process of devising "Where's My Igloo Gone?" and the challenges of making participatory theatre about climate change as something that we can collectively address.

Oolik is an ordinary girl who goes on an extraordinary journey to save her igloo home. On her way she meets some exciting friends to help her – including YOU!

So says the back of the flyer advertising The Bone Ensemble’s family performance Where’s My Igloo Gone?, which is soon to be re-rehearsed before a national tour. What this strapline tries carefully to invite is involvement in a participatory performance about home, community and climate change. It is for children 5+, but clearly wants to draw their parents/carers into, as the marketing blurb continues, an ‘Arctic world of soaring snow geese, pet husky dogs and starry nights… and the kind of cold that makes your skin tingle!’. And this has been the key.

Climate change art (if we accept there is such a category) is, of course, an emergent practice. Some work, especially visual art and installation, reflects the materiality of the environment, inviting us to encounter the natural world. There is some dance work, some music, some theatre (and, as the bit I know most about, bear with me while I dwell on that).

There has been a crop of interesting ‘climate change’ plays, and performances that are more like performance lectures. The latter includes director Katie Mitchell and Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion (2012), about the a/effects of population growth (now there’s a film of the subsequent book), and her later (2014) collaboration with writer Duncan Macmillan and scientist Chris Rapley, 2071. These performances are stuffed full of unequivocal scientific fact in an attempt to ‘prove’ climate change; Emmott’s Cambridge office was even minutely reconstructed on the Royal Court’s stage; and Rapley sat in front of wondrous video graphics.

Even more visually impressive is Motionhouse’s Broken (2013), in which astonishing feats of acrobatics-dance happen in front of a sophisticated videographic backdrop. Physically astonishing too is As the World Tipped (2011, Wired Aerial Theatre), incorporating, again, video with feats of aerialist performance and, as the name implies, a big, up-ending stage. At its conclusion, the crowd were visibly and audibly inspired by its projected call to arms, ‘Demand change now’, clearly a huge step forward from the dismaying conclusion of the earlier Ten Billion, which ends (I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the swearing isn’t mine) “we’re all fucked…”

…well, we might be, but let’s hope not; let’s ‘demand change’, and seek, as artists, to keep shifting work on from the apocalyptic; looking at even my short list of work above, there is quite a visual narrative of the negatively spectacular going on. Of course, work is still developing, and there is already a noticeable arc, but what are we meant to do – physically, actively, emotionally – with just a negative reflection of the increasingly obvious issues around us? Can we also find ways to go beyond ‘demand change’?

Where’s My Igloo Gone?
Photograph: Pamela Raith Photography © 2017
http://pamelaraith.com

Thinking (too) big

Where’s My Igloo Gone? didn’t start with the idea of making a participatory performance for a limited audience of only forty – which we are expanding now for its national tour to sixty. A few years ago, capitalising on The Bone Ensemble’s foray into the outdoor arts and festival scene, we decided to try to build an igloo in the middle of the summer countryside. It had to be big enough to hold a reasonable audience (as many will know, making work that is in any way ‘intimate’ brings immediate commercial problems), couldn’t get too hot, and had to be made of sustainable material. Oh, and it had to have a blackout so that we could have lights. Which meant that we had to find sustainable and, crucially, silent power. This was getting complicated…

We got a bit of funding to explore ideas and to incorporate homespun electronics into the mix. Even though we found ways to link our ongoing interest in voice and music to big LEDs, making them light up with our burgeoning, and often unreliable, artisan knowledge of raspberry pis and Makey Makeys, building what was effectively a portable theatre was becoming way too expensive, time consuming, and far too difficult. Trips to scientific labs to look at the latest eco materials and mega-batteries were interesting but taking us away from the very people we wanted to think about and, eventually, connect with: our audiences. What had emerged through all this experiment, play (and downright headache) were, though, the beginnings of two characters, who later became Oolik and Ooman in Where’s My Igloo Gone?, and an interest in Inuit culture; a demographic of indigenous peoples which, like so many around the world, is affected by the changing environment, of which they are so intuitively aware. Rather than a sort of outdoor installation, what seemed urgent was the need squarely to address climate change and find new ways that theatre, and in our case theatre for young people, could do this.

We started again: there would be a human story, there would be characters and situations with which audiences could empathise and, above all, there would be a positive, empowering message. Funding was cobbled together from Arts Council England’s ‘Grants for the Arts’ scheme (GfA) and the University of Birmingham and, in September 2015, we undertook a short ‘RnD’ phase. This could also foreground how we might develop our earlier participatory work on Caravania!, a twenty minute performance for only six people at a time in a 1980s caravan (yes, really) into a politics of participation, of a shift from mirroring the environmental problems around us to a positive experience. Rather than (as can happen) guilt, blame or feeling stuck as to what to do, we would try to offer a feeling of empowerment. And we would stage the show in the round so that everyone could see and take part.

At this first stage, an important decision was taken: the characters would not speak English, but a made up language we call ‘Iglooish’. On a practical level, this was about the show being accessible to everyone (and, of course, we were going to go on a world tour! That remains an ambition, but a 40+ date national tour is pretty satisfying in the meantime), but also obliges the effort of communication with characters a little bit ‘other’ and, importantly for the climate change issue, are not necessarily English-speaking, familiar figures, but ones who globalise the debate.

Where’s My Igloo Gone? was subsequently commissioned by mac birmingham and the Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton and, with the support of a second GfA award and funding from several Trusts and the University of Birmingham, was created in November 2016, when it was shown regionally, at Pontio, Wales, and in a special school. Concerns of accessibility have been expanded: our work has been made accessible to d/Deaf audiences too, with the help of the wonderful Caroline Parker MBE, sign-signing diva and all round good egg.

Story-making

Where’s My Igloo Gone? is at heart a pretty straight story, a quest triggered by a crisis, that of Oolik’s melting igloo (itself clearly an exaggeration of climate change effects). But our starting point is, then, quite consciously the state that some of the aforementioned work often ends with. Oolik’s subsequent adventure sees her meet a set of animals, including – something of a hit – the Walrus (who is a bit flatulent), get caught up in a storm, confront an oil company boss and deal with becoming displaced – she, too, is a climate refugee, a very real consequence of contemporary environmental change. So Oolik exemplifies someone who experiences peril, gains insight, experiences failure, yet takes action.

How to explain climate change became one of the greatest challenges in devising. The science is complicated; data has to be brought together from a number of sources to demonstrate cause, effect, possible scenarios (basically, what 2071 does). Young audiences are often eco-minded, but our early visits to our partner schools to test ideas confirmed that not many know the terminology ‘climate change’ and certainly not the causal processes.

Where’s My Igloo Gone?
Photograph: Pamela Raith Photography © 2017
http://pamelaraith.com

Caught in a storm, Oolik meets a scientist, Ting Tang Zood, quirky, charming and a bit silly, who doesn’t speak Iglooish of course, nor English, but a fizz-pop sort of language of ‘science’. Stuck in linguistic incomprehensibility, Ting Tang Zood’s solution to explain environment change is to draw the basics of global warming (an apparently simple solution but one of those devising obstacles that seem to take forever to sort out…). This offers, too, a layering of the aural aesthetic as Oolik taps along on a tin cup and joins in a few rude noises to demonstrate how plane emissions are just like those of an altogether different sort…

This slightly silly, interactive scene puts Oolik, crucially, in the same place as her young audience friends; she learns about environmental cycles alongside everyone else in a situation where everyone becomes a kind of Oolik. Optimally, the sequence informs and empowers in playfully providing not only fundamental environmental knowledge but suggesting that, if the root cause is actually simple, if highly damaging, human activity, then a root solution might be to want do something different. Since she realises climate change has affected her personally, our empathetic relationship with Oolik extends also to an investment in Oolik’s next step, the decision to confront the oil boss to find out why drilling is taking place around her and make that stop. Oolik becomes a kind of vicarious climate change activist.

You can’t, I think, just throw people inside a show; immersive theatre work (and some other artworks) can do this much better in that this type of practice also typically comes with some sort of place/space that spectators are inside – immersed in. In our case, we move from simply clapping along to a song, or adding a sound effect with a simple musical instrument, to a few – then all – spectators involved in a sequence. Nevertheless, for us, the audience is always there and is often referred to, included, or made complicit in a scene. A key to inviting participation is just that – it is never a requirement, but always a respectful, if direct, invitation. We have had no real issues here, discovering with pleasure that our audiences want to get involved. But it needs to be taken step by step.

Near the beginning of the piece, our characters ask spectators to draw a picture of where they live – in the Inuit languages, ‘igloo’ doesn’t just mean an ice house, but a home, a shelter. The point is we all need an igloo. This is an example of a relatively straightforward mode of participation, at once communal and individual, yet connects spectators to the characters in terms of the themes of the work yet to unfold. Later, everyone participates in the encounter with the politician. It is here that the drawings of spectators’ various ‘igloos’ return when everyone brandishes them when participating in a protest! Of course, this is meant to be fun, but it also models what could happen outside the theatre, where audiences might be encouraged to give voice. The work is not, then, about ourselves as individuals, but ourselves as a community wanting and doing something different.

“The climate is changing, but people are not.”

At the 2015 ‘2 Degrees’ festival at ArtsAdmin, the book There is Nothing that is Beyond Our Imagination was launched. In it, Henrietta Moore writes

“The climate is changing, but people are not. Politics is about story-making. A new politics would require new stories. Now, in contemporary political life, apocalyptic imaginaries infuse the whole climate change debate. What are the alternative stories?”

As well as, in our case, how climate can be made central to theatre for young audiences, ‘alternative’ stories might encourage feeling, thought, conversation and potential behaviour change. Moore is right: few media items about climate change seem to be more imaginative than offering a stock illustration of a polar bear stuck on a piece of ice. Yes, it happens but, again, what are we meant to do with such an image? It risks being a visual trope and the iconography of stasis.

Climate change can seem a distant, abstract and difficult to understand phenomenon. Although the world has dangerous clowns who claim that the whole thing is a conspiracy (do some people really believe that or is it a convenient (post)truth?), what can art and artists do? We can continue to make climate change real, around and about us now, not letting it seem an overwhelming, distant issue. We can work together towards awareness and change by first offering and sharing in particular, human ‘alternative stories’. As a citizen of the world, it is hard to know what to do, but, where we can, if we make artworks that place situations into dialogue through skill, artistic craft and objects and events of beauty, we can offer a different normalcy.

Where’s My Igloo Gone?
Photograph: Pontio, Wales © 2017
https://www.pontio.co.uk

As Anthony Gormley asks in ‘Art in the time of global warming’

“Is it possible to re-think art and take it from this finished-object status and make it into a verb, a participatory, open space, a place of transformation and the exchange of ideas and reflection on our state and status?”

Our work is not some sort of perfect example. Before re-rehearsal in a few weeks and the launch of the national tour (supported by a third GfA), I want to look closely at the participatory parts because, whilst we have to make frameworks, an audience’s agency can be compromised; and, although we have made ourselves very informed and especially careful, I want to think more about how we handle the diverse cultural aspects. Still, we are making a particular and new form in the context of a certain type of theatre audience. We also offer an example of how theatre can approach climate issues not by staging a negative, inevitable problem – as if we were inside some sort of disaster movie – but something that we can collectively address.

So a performance of Where’s My Igloo Gone? simply cannot end unless everyone works together. Audience members participate in changing the set and build a structure that becomes a new home for Oolik and Oomam. Everyone is welcomed inside this newly created igloo.

Find out more:

You can find a trailer and the tour dates for Where’s My Igloo Gone? and more at The Bone Ensemble.  

Adam mentions some of the other plays that have addressed climate change issues over the past few years. 

  • Katie Mitchell and Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion (2012) was reviewed by Official London Theatre 
  • Katie Mitchell’s 2014 collaboration with writer Duncan Macmillan and scientist Chris Rapley, for  2071 was reviewed by the Guardian and Telegraph.
  • Motionhouse’s Broken (2013) was also reviewed by the Guardian.
  • Wired Aerial Theatre‘s information on As the World Tipped (2011) also includes a video about their R&D for the production.

The essays that Adam mentioned appear in the following books:

  • Henrietta L. Moore and Renata Salec’s essay (2015) ‘How to create climate for change’ was published in There is Nothing That is Beyond our Imagination, ed. Claudia Galhós. Torres Vedras: ArtinSite, p. 56.
  • Anthony Gormley’s essay ‘Art in the time of global warming’ (2010) was published in Long Horizons: an Exploration of Art and Climate Change  by Julie’s Bicycle and the British Council). The full guide can be downloaded as a free pdf from Julie’s Bicycle.

 

Questioning an end? Space for creative thinking...  

"Adam says of Where’s My Igloo Gone? that the 'performance simply cannot end unless everyone works together." In our changing climate, where is the end of participation - and therefore of performance in your own creative work?" 

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