Walking With the Word ‘Justice’

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on some of the participants’ insights from a workshop exploring the word ‘Justice’. This was the first in the short Environmental Keywords series from the University of Bristol during February and March 2022.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes


It was during an online Creative Environments workshop from the University of Bristol last September, led by Dr Paul Merchant, that I first came across his work with the Centre for Environmental Humanities there, and he mentioned the idea of looking at keywords associated with the forthcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow. Later, he brought together a group of interested people inside and beyond the university for an informal exploration and we offered to support the idea of a project. We quickly settled on a short investigation into three words that have complex meanings and usages in different disciplines and contexts and where there is an ever-present risk of groups talking past each other as we grapple with the urgencies and nuances of our climate and biodiversity predicaments. 

Paul and facilitator Anna Haydock-Wilson devised a series of workshops and, while I can’t be at the workshops myself, we agreed I should follow up each one with short discussions — by email or Zoom — with the researchers, community group members and creative practitioners who take part. My aim is to explore their insights from the events and their experiences of the different keywords.

As such, this post is not an account or evaluation of the ‘Justice’ workshop or an ‘objective’ overview of that word and its meanings — even less, an attempt at a definition. I hope it’s a fair reflection of some of the things participants have shared with me once they’ve had some distance from the workshop. And that it offers one way in to further conversations on justice, how we talk about it, and its role in helping us navigate our climate and environmental futures. I encourage all ClimateCultures members and other visitors to our site to offer their own insights and responses, ideas and examples.

Fresh encounters

This group’s exploration of the word ‘Justice’ began with a ‘Walk and Talk’ in the Easton area of Bristol. Participants — as local residents, community project workers and activists, writers and artists and researchers — met, shared ideas of justice and made personal notes as they walked, about what this means for them in an environmental context. Everyone then gathered back at the local community centre to share their perspectives on the walk and their own work or involvement with the issues, and split into two groups for a role-playing game. In that session, each group made a ‘justice map’ of the local area to help bring their ideas into focus, before a final discussion together at the end.

Sharing the word 'Justice' - showing the workshop group on its local walk
Easton Walk & Talk
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

One of the community participants said of the session as a whole: “It was a great group of people, and I found it really interesting to have representatives from both academic and non-academic backgrounds in the same room and to hear about the different types of work people are doing linked to climate. I would love to find more ways to translate some of the research and work being done into projects we’re doing locally at a very grassroots level. I’m really glad these workshops have begun, and I think there’s a lot of work for us to be doing to make sure the spaces where words like justice are discussed are shaped by people who have traditionally been on the receiving end of injustice.”

Another said: “I really loved that there were people from very different backgrounds there — both cultural and from the work they did and the experiences they had, on all those fronts.”

A third person told me how: “It has motivated me and confirmed a value for what I do. It was good to have different perspectives in a room coming from different backgrounds or professions. I also really enjoyed the game Anna devised with the role-playing — thought that worked well.” 

One member of the group shared a couple of strong and, it seems to me, complementary memories from the introductory walk — of “the river Frome overflooding under a motorway bridge” and of “how easily conversation flowed with everybody.” Another explained how “I see the environment as a key factor to enable or disable people being exposed to it. On our walk, we had lots of opportunities to explore this and how this might contribute to environmental justice.” Someone else told me how in “an interesting conversation I remember … I noticed that much of her thoughts surrounded the ‘why’, which I felt was powerful.” 

As a prelude to shared conversation within the usual ‘workshop’ environment of a closed room — such as the community centre offered later on — a walk allows for a more open-ended mix of private thought, personal encounter with the local environs and chance conversations with different people one-to-one. In a way, it’s a little like an extended version of that experience when we first arrive at a venue for an event: the bumping into new people at the initial pre-conference tea or coffee, but with the added fuel of fresh air, new perspectives gained out-of-doors and the ever-changing location brought by physical movement. After all, we don’t normally expect to be walking around for a meeting.

The fact that the walk preceded the formal part of the workshop — was actually integral to its design — was clearly appreciated. For one participant, this spoke to a core aspect of our own nature. “Through being active and interacting with the world, particularly walking around, we have a chance to develop new neurons. And our brain, as with other parts of our body, is changing depending on the environment and our interactions. … The physical and the mental go hand in hand and the environment is crucial as it provides the stimulation you need, both on the physical and the mental side.” In this sense, our personal environment — and therefore our shared environment, as social animals — is embodied within us; the boundary between ourselves and the ‘external’ world, where our body stops and the world begins, is not fixed in the ways we commonly think.

“In fact, where our body starts is an interaction between our brain, our environment and our body and the way our senses work to define what is actually around us. We do this all the time. We have to combine what we see, what we hear, what we feel to be able to know what ‘belongs’ to an object, to us, to someone else.”

Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

Here, then, justice starts to have a very direct relationship with personal experience and with being in and moving around a place. But — like an urban river — that relationship can be submerged, can sink out of our conscious mind until a new context brings it to our attention. As one person fed back to me: “The walk made me notice things which I sometimes take for granted, or you just accept them as they are. Like poor, not thought out architecture in this instance. The grotesque wheelchair access at the train station; the motorway. So if an area has been poorly designed, what are our rights to change anything? Things feel so set in stone sometimes, we don’t know we actually have a voice to change things.” Another pointed out how “We have this idea when we talk about disability or inclusiveness, this tendency to restrict it to someone in a wheelchair or who is blind. But that’s more or less it. Anybody else, with all the sensory variability that is out there and all the consequences that has, is not at all considered.” 

Our urban and others spaces can design in forms of injustice, as illustrated above: embedded in the ways we become accustomed to think about what should even be part of that design process. While this can be addressed through greater care in new design codes, attention will always be needed to what lies outside the efforts to improve these. You cannot code everything. Standards cannot capture all the ways that our dynamic natural environment and we as diverse humans interact. Like a river, the human and the more-than-human break out and exceed the boundaries and order we try to impose.

A testing ground for conversations

While in some places, some people and communities do find voice and agency — their own ways to make change happen — in too many places many cannot: “I considered the active involvement in a neighbourhood — guerilla gardening in a small patch close to the Bristol-Bath trainline — vs no involvement in the garden/play space square in a concreted-over sad excuse for a playground in a social housing complex.” This participant had spoken with another “about the will or capacity of people to do such things to a space outside their own house boundaries” — capacities that can be bound up with different, perhaps overlapping identities.

“We spoke about cultural differences, about new residents from other countries not wanting to stand out, or draw attention to themselves. I have noticed behaviours before with poor recycling rates, with the problem being the visible bins — where residents did not want their neighbours to see what they consume. There is a social status which needs to be upheld. This is the same for people participating in the flea market as traders of second-hand goods. New residents i.e. first-generation arrivals from other countries, need to prove themselves to others from their own cultures that they are being successful.”

Someone else shared how in the group session another member of the group had “mentioned the word justice terrifies some people. It never occurred to me to think that, but made me make the connexion with my fear of the police. I will be very careful to define what it means to me when engaging in conversation with others. From now on I will make sure that when I talk, ‘Justice’ and ‘Environment’ are together.” A point echoed by another person, who said to me: “It was really useful to connect the word and concept of justice as a focus to the environment. It anchored the importance of the issues for me.”   

The word 'Justice' - showing a flooded road under a local bridge
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

Another comment gets to the heart of the matter, sharing how in their work with local communities: “a common theme that has come up when speaking with people is how disempowering the language used around climate can be and the negative impact it can have on people feeling that they don’t belong in ‘green’ spaces. Based on that feedback, I’d been thinking about ways we could start working together within our community to build more shared understanding of what the words often used in climate action and decision-making mean, so that more people can use them and the power they hold. When Paul got in touch about the workshop on justice, I was keen to get involved, seeing it as something of a testing ground of how we might begin having these conversations.”

I was sent a link to locally-led research demonstrating how resilient blue spaces are connected to higher quality of life, from which this participant concluded: “so the quality of more greenery around rivers, which we consider good for our wellbeing, would be rather seen in spaces with less deprivation. The justice of the river itself — so majestic round Snuff Mills [a park in the Stapleton area of north Bristol], and in flood it is a powerful beast — to then be turned into a drainpipe and hidden away under concrete for the last bits of its journey into the city. … You feel differently as you follow the river, depending on where it is.”

This also starts to point me to a wider or expanded sense of justice. If environment, body and mind are in relationship within and around each of us and ‘social justice’ contains something of that relationship then — just as where our body ends and the world starts is less fixed than we suppose — justice must encompass something of the wider natural world as well as ‘society’. Something in that phrase, ‘The justice of the river itself’ — a river that has its own life in itself, a powerful beast, and yet is forced into concrete, underground, away from us — speaks to injustice on a more-than-human scale.

Seeing the word 'Justice' - showing a local window with a poster, 'Stop fly-tipping'
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

A noun, a verb? In a word, Justice

When asked how they felt about the word ‘Justice’ now, whether this was different since the workshop, one participant said “It feels a lot closer to the bone,” while I’ve already quoted another: “From now on I will make sure that when I talk ‘Justice’ and ‘Environment’ are together.” A third person shared that “I would say that justice used in this climate conversation felt very complex. Already all intertwined, decision-making done with consideration to every living being and their livelihoods is ‘Justice’.”

A further response suggests that a process such as this walk-and-workshop itself is an enactment of what we are seeking: “That’s for me ‘justice’: the listening, the learning and the working together.” And what flows from that might be something that retains a diversity, that “we would start to think of whether we can develop what we call almost a shared mental model … where we know which angle we are coming from but we have an understanding of where they might all fit together. And then instead of having a fixed outcome, rather think of it as a theory of change; how can we change these things and move together to something that is more just, more resilient?”

To appreciate the ‘angle we are coming from’ and how others’ paths intersect, converge, overlap our own, is an expansion of our own map, our mental model, into something larger and shared, although always incomplete. Two conversations gave me different impressions of an area I’ve never visited but can imagine from my encounters with other places I’ve lived or worked. Different but, importantly, not necessarily conflicting — and both speaking of injustice.

One was an email where a few lines provided almost a prose poem: “the trainline with lots of freight trains, high pollution in a local neighbourhood; the architecture at the train station; graffiti and street art; River Frome, DIY skatepark; the lack of green in neighbourhoods, pocket parks; then finally the council estate with a concreted over play park. Had a few trees, but I was surprised and shocked actually at such a loss of opportunity.” 

The other came during a Zoom call, reflecting on the same scene as “On one hand a very sad space but on the other almost an amazing space, when you think about the way the youth make it their own. The dumped sofas, the building rubbish and rubble and whatever, integrated as obstacles into the skatepark; the graffiti going over them as if they are becoming part of the landscape; the ceiling of the M32 with an enormous graffiti, it’s the skeleton of an animal, which brings in almost the life and the change of all these things. The River Frome then going over its edges, going onto the car park, where it can come out and starts to become a river again. So all that is to see how nevertheless life takes over. The walk to the train station there, the little path where the flowers break out to try to get their own space. That’s actually really nice. And I think that by gentrifying that area that community would lose a lot. That’s where justice comes in again: how do you approach such things without destroying what the community creates to survive? That was one of the things where I hadn’t appreciated just how much they’re making that space liveable for them and useable.”

I also saw something of this possibly creative tension between different ways of living in, of seeing, the same ‘environment’ in what another person shared as one of their strongest memories of the event: “the feeling that some areas, particularly those with lots of graffiti, gave a harsh feeling to the area. As graffiti is a huge part of Bristol’s character it’s not a question about removing it but more about offsetting it in the areas it’s the most prominent by revitalising playgrounds and greenspaces.”

Fencing in the word Justice: showing a graffiti area behind a barrier
Photograph by a workshop participant © 2022

Maybe a vision of justice might be something fluid, able to move with people and environment and the others we share it with. And part of that flow might be to recognise not just that justice must include the many and the diversity that we are and share, but the seemingly conflicting forms and appreciations of what is ‘good’.

What does the word ‘Justice’ mean to you?


Find out more

See below for comments on this post – and contribute your own to be part of the conversation!

Environmental Keywords is a short interdisciplinary project at the University of Bristol, investigating three keywords — ‘Justice’, ‘Resilience’ and ‘Transitions’ — that are common in the environmental discourses that shape how we think of, talk about and act on the ecological and climate predicaments facing us.

With funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the project is led by Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Environmental Humanities, and involves colleagues from different departments and disciplines, as well as local community groups, ClimateCultures members and other creative practitioners.

The project focuses on three workshops in Bristol, facilitated by Anna Haydock-Wilson complemented by online content here at ClimateCultures:

‘Justice’ — Wednesday 16th February 2022
‘Resilience’ — Wednesday 9th March 2022
‘Transitions’ – Thursday 24th March 2022

You can find out more at our new Environmental Keywords section, including the suggestion to explore an ‘undisciplined glossary of our three keywords: do let us have your thoughts, questions suggestions and examples via the Leave a Reply box on this post or via our Contact page. 

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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Unfolding Stories from the Anthropocene and Beyond

Artist Ivilina Kouneva draws on her seaside walks and art-making, on tales of indigenous story sharing and experiences of others’ creativity to make imaginative links between our heritage as storytelling animals and remaking connections between past and future.


1,610 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


On the way to my art studio, I can either choose the short five-minute walk or, continue down the road till I reach the seafront, turn right, walk on the shingled beach and then up the road. I usually choose the latter.

I consider myself privileged to live by the sea, on the East Sussex Coast, for at least the past seven years. The horizontal lines and the constant changes of tidal levels, cloud formations, wind directions make me feel alive, part of a bigger picture. I usually try to focus on sounds and forms, to be fully present in the moment, but stories keep coming and going through my head. As Gregory Norminton says in his book The Ship of Fools, “every story is like a bell jar thrown into a rocky lake; it closes in its eye a roaring world, and doesn’t even know of the Universe outside; the planets spin in their orbits, stories happen without us even knowing, but still, if we turn our backs on them, they won’t stop happening.”

Water is a powerful element, loaded with meanings. The seas and oceans are the natural places for living creatures to migrate and communicate. However, they can be seen as a destructive power, a threat: tsunami, coastal erosion, flooding, the Great Flood. Water is the cradle of the world’s mythology, reservoir of stories.

We are ‘storytelling animals’. I came upon this description in Annika Arnold’s book Climate Change and Storytelling: Narrative and cultural meaning in environmental communication. What part does the storytelling play for people’s perception of the risk of climate change, related to Global Warming? When I think of climate change my first concern is for communities and the impact on their lives. Analysing my own understanding of what life stands for I realise that, for me, it is something beyond just existence and just being. It is peoples’ rituals and beliefs, often expressed and recognised through artisan objects and the process of art-making. Life, in its wholesome greatness, is full of creativity, visualisation, music, words, language. This is where nature interweaves powerfully with its rhythms and changes throughout.

In the beginning of the 2000s, I started a series of works under the title of ‘Fragile Balances’. They were born from the pure sensitivity of an artist who acknowledges the complexity of voices and narratives, the labyrinths of experiences coming from different places around the planet. At this stage I relied heavily on books and my imagination. Magic realism literature armed me with tools for mental survival and the ability to think of our world as an enormous “garden of forking paths” (Jorge Luis Borges). Unfolding a story within another story, while connecting events from the past with our current endeavours, sustains my creative practice.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Forking Paths', paper cuts collage
‘Forking Paths’, paper cuts collage
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2020

Storytelling – connection to the mystery of the unknown

I am walking along the shingled beach thinking of an event that took place during COP26 in Glasgow. My daughters, environmentally sensitive thinkers and activists, told me about the series of Minga Indigena story sharing. Before jumping to check it out and do further research online, for weeks I left myself relying only on their emotional description of kindness, openness and difference in thinking that they had witnessed. I let myself imagine it was staged in Victorian times. I saw the healer from Amazonia with spiritual drawings on his arms. I felt his natural emotional intelligence, his attempt to transcribe his beliefs and connection with nature to the bewildered audience.

I just wish I were there and could hear him saying that if we got lost in the jungle he would be there for us, but we might not recognise him as he would be the jaguar, and we should hold on to the jaguar’s tail. The immediate questions arising were: What have we done for the past 150 years? and Have we really changed? It made me think how detached and sterile our social media-obsessed world could be at moments — with the result that we find ourselves cut off from the mystery of the unknown and therefore, from all things that are not easy to articulate. However, like the stories, the unknown is out there, forming a large part of the pulsing, living systems on our planet.

Then I found an interesting relation between the Minga Indigena event and two of my paper cuts collages created in the middle of the first lockdown. My artworks were inspired and dedicated to the communities that inhabit indigenous islands. With vibrant colours and ornaments, they were made to resemble old manuscripts, imagined groups of people engaged in their everyday activities who dwell on strips of land, narrow boats, fragile wooden supports. The artworks were selected for the virtual exhibition initiated by Sweet’Art, London – The Great Leveller. There, visual artists shared their experiences as well as hopes through the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Paradise in Danger' paper cuts collage
‘Paradise in Danger’, paper cuts collage
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2021

Rooted in stories already told

Walking along the shingled beach and listening to my steps, the stories emerge from one another, with labyrinth-like pathways and unexpected turns. In the world of constant change “safety by all circumstances is an illusion”, as British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington had once said. Blurred edges and uncertain boundaries, structures with multilayered contexts might be the reality of our future.

While listening to Jocelyn Pook’s Flood with its sounds of dripping water, where Balkan folklore beautifully interweaves with spiritual singing, an exhibition at Cisternerne in Copenhagen came to my mind. In March 2019 I visited Copenhagen, a place also defined by water through its ragged topography with many canals. A devoted art gallery trotter, I went to see the underground exhibition rooms at Cisternerne, a former water reservoir, where the creative trio Superflux made their massive statement about climate change.

For ‘It is Not the End of the World’ they had flooded the gloomy catacombs with knee-deep water, imagining an apocalyptic scenario when “Humanity has come to an end”. Deeply moved I then wrote: “… it is not an attractive or beautiful (in a traditional way), or a good-for-taking pictures show (and shamefully we still do it)… So put a pair of rubber boots on, and brave your way through the cold darkness of could-be-your- future.”

I have always been inspired by how creative minds through time and space may pick similar ideas and inspirations. One might imagine such minds are all a family across time, where your stories would be heard and accepted. Communication is a multi-layered phenomenon (as Annika Arnold explains in her book). It is not a linear process and it is important at all levels. The messages we get through storytelling are essential for us, beings brought up with stories. Through narratives, we better understand our lives and where we stand.

My work is rooted in the chain of stories “that somebody else has already told”, as Umberto Eco’s noted in his podcast for ‘In the Name of Rose’. My artworks expand ideas and themes from my previous projects, about a complex world in need of balance. Water has a powerful presence as well as a variety of symbols, pin-up images from our collective memory and mythology. Decades ago I discovered the Irish-born American professor of relative mythology Joseph Campbell. What I got from his works was the firm belief that traditions and rituals for all communities gravitate around similar essential values. Before these Anthropocene times, people followed the rhythm of nature and their rituals were closely connected to its changes. Through my work I look for relevance between past and present, creating links among stories and events from different time realities. I blur the edges to challenge the imagination and provoke curiosity to archetypal models and stories from the past.

At least back then the Noah family had a solution for the Great Flood – they built an Ark.

I keep walking along the beach.

Storytelling - showing Ivilina Kouneva's 'Sea Levels' oil and acrylics on canvas
‘Sea Levels’, oil and acrylics on canvas
Artist: Ivilina Kouneva © 2021

Find out more

Climate Change and Story Telling: Narrative and Cultural Meaning in Environmental Communication by Annika Arnold (2018) is published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Minga Indigena is a collective of groups, organizations and communities from indigenous nations throughout Abya Yala (the American continent). Minga is the coming together of people when there is a calling. “The leaders of Indigenous Minga come from the highest communities in the Andes, the deepest forests of the Amazon, the islands farthest away from the continents, the driest desert in the world, the northernmost territory in Alaska and the largest reserves of water in southern Patagonia. They come to help humanity remember what it is to be ‘human’ and to invite them to join the cause for climate and biocultural diversity from a new perspective.” Minga Indígena has participated in the COPs since Rio + 20 in 2012, including Paris, Cancun, Peru, Madrid and Glasgow. You can view their presentation at COP26 here.

Narrating Landscapes: How Indigenous Storytelling Can Unlock Our Environment’s Past, at Columbia ClimateSchool’s GlacierHub blog (2/9/21) relates a better understanding of indigenous knowledge can help create links that improve our understanding of our changing climate. “This method of storytelling doesn’t always conform to scientific approaches that seek to dissect and isolate information; instead, it is an integrated wealth of information that draws from years of coexisting with the landscape a tribe inhabits. Western data-gathering rendered this knowledge static, contradicting the essential living quality of storytelling.”

Ivilina Kouneva

Ivilina Kouneva

An artist using painting and cut-out compositions to deepen understanding of the fragility of life in current times, and working with communities to 'de-pollute' our minds ...
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The Art of Reimagining Managed Retreat

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


2,440 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


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

At what point managed retreat? Columbia Climate School conference 2021

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

‘Managed retreat’ — advancing in a different direction?

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

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

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

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

Bringing pedagogy into the process

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

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

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

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

Managed retreat: the art of critical thinking

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

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

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

Shakes 

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

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

The Japanese paradox

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

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

La Seine

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

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

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

Do cities learn from getting burned?

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

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

Is NYC retreat inevitable?

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

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

Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Deepening the dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation is creative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tending our patch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the opportunity lies, Matt suggests, is for art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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You can watch Julia’s earlier interviews with Dan, Tessa, Jennifer, Matt and Andrea in her post Conversations with Work That Connects.

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

Gulp! Water Choices, Stories and Theatre

Gulp! flyer for The Bone Ensemble theatre projectTheatre-maker and arts academic Adam Ledger shares the thinking behind Gulp!, The Bone Ensemble’s project on global water issues, and the challenges of creating an engaging and participatory family drama on environmental issues, inequalities and opportunities during Covid-19.


1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


It seems strange to be putting down some thoughts about a theatre project that couldn’t quite finish its tour because of the COVID-19 crisis. But the ongoing situation makes me reflect on art-making, connection, on possibilities before, during and after the peculiar feeling of simultaneously being stuck but too busy. And all in the context of a world dealing with a pandemic, how to emerge from lockdown, and where — outside of the four walls we are obliged currently to occupy — another set of issues remain: of environmental challenges and inequalities, but also opportunities. So as lockdown gripped, the skies over major cities began to clear as pollution dispersed, yet at the same time the UNESCO World Water Development Report was published. Its headline findings make for grim reading:

climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, threatening the effective enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation for potentially billions of people. The alteration of the water cycle will also pose risks for energy production, food security, human health, economic development and poverty reduction, thus seriously jeopardizing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Gulp! flyer for The Bone Ensemble theatre project

Gulp! More than a drop

It is in these contexts that there are only two ways forward: to do nothing, too often what seems to be the environmental policy of those who purport to be our leaders; or to do at least something. On offering feedback on The Bone Ensemble’s second environmentally-themed family theatre performance, Gulp!, all about water, one rather ill-judged, academically-cocky comment that came my way was ‘how is this more than a drop in the ocean?’. This is an odd way of thinking. Put it this way; if you throw some sort of recyclable plastic item straight in the bin, you’re harming the planet in an almost immeasurably small way. If you put it where you should, in a tiny way you’re triggering help. What choice should you be making?

Back in 2018, the impetus to make Gulp! came from a bit more than a drop, and actually before we created its forerunner, Where’s My Igloo Gone?, a piece about climate change (as a theatre company, we do tend to take on the big stuff..!). We began to realise just how ridiculous bottled water and the consumer con-trick around that ‘industry’ is, let alone the environmental impact of bottled water. We began to think more widely about water. Like the previous production, we wanted to create a positive, participatory experience for our audiences, made up of children 7+ and their families and carers. We continued to hold fast to earlier principles; we would reject dystopian imaginaries, the dramatic tropes of the disaster movie, which we had seen in some work. In no way do we have all the answers, and there is ongoing reflection about the strengths and weakness of the work, but it seems to us that a fundamental dramaturgical shift (the form and content of the work) has to be from a bleak mirroring of a problem, to a principle of empowering and empathetic stories and experiences.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp! with audience participation
Gulp! participation
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

No work can happen without a web of partners. Our theatre-making has been significantly funded by Arts Council England, several trusts and venue partners, the University of Birmingham and through a collaboration with Severn Trent Water. In the academic bit of my life, the two pieces combine to create a practice as research and ‘impact’ project around the efficacy of empathetic, positive dramaturgies of performance and the environment. We also benefit from ongoing relationships with a set of scientists and, because our work is made to be accessible, with advisory d/Deaf artists and those that help us with ‘relaxed’ performances.

Working together in water scenarios

In terms of empathy, both shows have a central character, who undertakes a kind of journey. This has been crucial as a dramatic strategy, and one which is actually pretty classic. Spectators (in order to involve everyone, there are only sixty at a time) see someone in a situation and it’s important that they can somehow identify with them. The story of Gulp! centres on Maya (the name means ‘water’ in Hebrew) who — wait for it! — gets sucked up a tap! Early on, we had also decided that the feel of Gulp! should be contemporary, whereas the earlier Where’s My Igloo Gone? was quite ‘other’, perhaps a folk setting of some kind. In Gulp!’s recognisable world, complete with adverts for bottled water (ours is cheekily called ‘EviClever’), Maya gets spat out of the tap in various locations: a city experiencing a flood; a rural location being polluted by discharge from a factory; the ocean; a desert. Spectators see Maya getting into problems, but as a kind of coda to the story, through participation they help Maya to sort things out: they lend their sandbag cushions to hold back flooding, protest at the ‘baddie’ polluting factory boss, by working together they help to bring water to the elephant at the empty watering hole. Drawing on earlier experience, the show also features no spoken English, in part to reach EAL (English as an Additional Language) and d/Deaf audiences, but also to stimulate a communicative world of sound, partly comprising the made-up language of ‘Waterish’. Overall, too, the audience help make the show’s soundtrack, which we layer live with a loop-station.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp! in performance
Gulp! performance
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

The real problem was finding a story that would ‘hold’ the topic of water. Climate change — and this is, of course, a big generalisation — is a ‘thing’, a more or less tangible issue. It is a recognisable problem, but there appears to be some means of addressing it. For many people, water is just not a problem — we turn on the tap and water comes out of it — it is instead a phenomenon with which we have a relationship. Made up of several perspectives, ‘water’ won’t easily be marshalled into a storyline. Yet it is one of the few, and indeed fundamental things that unites all of us globally, even if many in the world have no tap and no clean water. One of our scientific advisors, Professor David Hannah (University of Birmingham) thus shared how water can be conceived as part of a continuum: too much, too little, too dirty. Part of the narrative answer was to have Maya ‘land’ in different scenarios which, if you look back at the list of locations above, are underpinned by this conception. In the heat of rehearsal (something actual, rather than virtual, in August 2019!), we wrestled still more with the dramaturgical organisation, eventually also conceiving of water as a set of binaries: global and local; need and taking for granted; and also through climatic extremes (heat and flood); and human interventions such as access, control and denial. These themes also hold the topic together across the story.

Small choices matter

Over 2019-20, the production toured extensively to schools, theatres, community and rural settings. Funded by Severn Trent Water, we also produced three thousand copies of what we quite grandly called a ‘children’s graphic novel’, a comic-book version of Gulp! beautifully illustrated by Emily Jones. This was given out free after many performances and also made available digitally. Emily found a way also not to use English in the book; where necessary, the characters speak or think pictures in speech bubbles. Severn Trent Water also produced a very extensive education pack to go with the show and took part in post-show discussions, as well as funding twelve performances in six diverse schools local to us. We also created a ‘PPP song’, which cheerily celebrated what should only go down your loo: paper, pee and poo!

And, of course, we had to gather feedback through several mechanisms. One of the more usual is to use post-show questionnaires. Analysis of their free-text responses (we tried to resist too-leading tick-box questions…) demonstrated that a quarter of people confirmed their changed perception around water use and waste; another 25% of respondents wrote about their changed behaviour in terms of consumption, significantly around the use of plastics. A further 25% of respondents most explicitly wrote that they would cease the use of bottled water. Perhaps this is a response to the thread of ‘EviClever’. But I hope too because of the ocean scene, when plastic objects are turned into an underwater world: at first beautiful, but then where plastic-bag jelly-fish get caught in a turtle’s jaws, and a plastic water bottle is swallowed by a tarpaulin whale. As the UNESCO report also says, water is a direct way we experience climate and the way we understand it, use it and what we allow to be in it (the report speaks of adaptation and mitigation) has global consequences. Again, small choices help.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp and small choices on water
Gulp! choices
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

I’m not a social scientist, a scientist, or even much of an overtly political-environmental activist; I’m a theatre-maker and an arts academic and I have to start from that point. At times, I have to resist or at least find a way to work with some of the instrumentalisation that creating this kind of work attracts, appearing at worst as the academic capitalism that imbues some of the institutional aspects. On the other hand, there is a great pleasure in meeting the spectator’s gaze. This is the real meaning of the work.

Environmentally-based artworks cannot be only negative, nor comprise only information, like some kind of illustrated lecture. Participation is one means whereby spectators often end up modelling a different behaviour, showing how change and intervention are possible. A factually-informed but inherently well-made, emotive piece of artwork really stays with people. If you want to shift people’s knowledge, intentions and, perhaps, behaviour, a means to engage what really leads to change needs to happen. Ultimately, this is people’s hearts and minds.


Find out more

You can read Adam’s ClimateCultures post on The Bone Ensemble’s 2017 climate change production: Action, Participation, Feeling: Where’s My Igloo Gone?, and explore The Bone Ensemble website.

As well as Co-Artistic Director with The Bone Ensemble, Adam is also a Reader in Theatre and Performance at the University of Birmingham, and you can find out more about Gulp! at the university’s Performance and the Environment website — including the lyrics and music for the PPP Song. You can read the e-book of Gulp!, illustrated by Emily Jones, on Issuu, with further resources at the back of the book. Plenty of things to do at home and at school!

The UN Water Development Report 2020 – Water and Climate Change is available at the UNESCO website, along with a ‘Main Messages’ download.

For an explanation of the d/Deaf distinction, see this post from the Royal Association for Deaf People. 

Adam Ledger
Adam Ledger
An artistic director interested in how art practices can bring empowering messages about climate, and a senior lecturer in Drama and Theatre Arts (University of Birmingham).
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