Entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and artist Nicky Saunter shares the Hope Tales project she’s working on to find creative ways to make sustainable futures and talk about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change.
1,170 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes approximately
My work with the Rapid Transition Alliance is frequently a strange mix of dreadful fear and awe-inspiring hope. Our field is bang in the middle of climate change and therefore features a daily stream of reports, commentary, data and science on how poorly we tiny humans are doing in curbing our overconsumption and weening ourselves off our drug of choice that is fossil fuels. It is a veritable tsunami that threatens to overwhelm us every day: as wide as it is deep and moving faster every day. It can seem too large to approach with any purpose or clarity. Feelings of panic and hopelessness start to flutter in our bellies — you are probably feeling this already. What is more, climate change is now part of a ‘polycrisis’ — a perfect storm of catastrophic issues, from social division and isolation to pandemics and ecological breakdown.
Grim stuff indeed. But then suddenly in comes a story about yet another person or group who get together — often without much money to start with but a big idea — and do something that is simply brilliant and gives us hope for the future. And I can take a breath again.
Creativity for building change
The significance of this maybe lies less in the actual idea and the ‘fix’ that is being applied to a particular part of this vast issue. Instead, it lies in the inspiring way that single humans continue to work together in the face of impossible odds to cooperate, create and heal — often with surprising success. Despite what pundits would have us think Darwin said about the survival of the fittest and the drive for ruthless competition, we are excellent at cooperating and skillful at creative thinking. We are also capable of fast, practical action. The bit we find hardest is to stop either scaring ourselves witless or putting our fingers in our ears and waiting for all the horrible stuff to go away. How do we open our eyes, follow the science and use our creativity to design and build a new future together on this beautiful planet?
Our Hope Tales project focuses specifically on this feeling; looking at creative ways to make a sustainable future, and talking about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change. Hope Tales is a collaboration between the Rapid Transition Alliance, the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex and the New Weather Institute, using the power of story to investigate real hope for our future. The Rapid Transition Alliance is known for its research and publications on “evidence-based hope” — stories from the near and distant past that illustrate how real rapid change might be made. But the Hope Tales work has pushed further into the field of creativity, using fiction, poetry and art to stimulate both thought and action on potential new ways of living on Earth.
Air, Land, Water – Hope Tales in place
The concept is simple: to gather a group of people in a specific place for a few hours to share short performances of their work on a given topic. The overarching theme is Hope and each event looks through the lens of a further elemental subject. So far, we have looked at Air in a beautifully appointed vintage cinema in Crystal Palace, considered the Land in earthy Somerset in an old woollen mill, and felt the pull of Water in ancient Colchester as part of the Essex book festival. We have held a pinecone on our palm while telling the story of a tree planted by suffragettes, we have woven local plants into plaits in thanks, we have watched oysters clean river water of our filth, and we have listened to the tale of two plaice swimming the seas of Eastern England. We have met a lot of new people, shared spaces and tea and mince pies with them, laughed and gasped in equal share, wondering at the ideas of others and the beauty of their self-expression.
Once the event is over, the content prepared for this one-off performance is then compiled into a small and beautiful book, called a ‘chapbook’. Chapbooks were small, cheaply produced books widely sold and highly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sold by a ‘chapman’, they were used to publish popular or folk literature, almanacks, children’s stories, folk tales, ballads, political prospectuses, poetry and religious tracts. Our own chapbooks follow this tradition of broad subject matter, bite-sized pieces for easy reading and made to be shared and passed on.
Pandemic learning in action
There is something about the forming and sharing of creative work in an intimate space for a one-off performance that generates excitement, concentrated listening and a keen enjoyment of what others bring. It also reminds us how such interactive and collaborative forms of entertainment are so much more fulfilling to all than the treadmill of consumption we so often ride.
Part of the inspiration for this work came from the global pandemic, during which a flourishing of creative, homemade entertainment was shared and enjoyed worldwide without huge investment or any financial purchases being required. The Rapid Transition Alliance documented this flowering of generosity and creativity in a series of short reports that looked at examples of positive stories. Remember how nature returned and deer wandered through empty shopping malls? How ballerinas unable to dance on stage took to their kitchens and balconies for impromptu performances watched by millions stuck at home? How people of all skill levels took up pencils, paints and brushes, tried sculpture, made their own clothes, sewed and crocheted for each other? How we mended our old stuff, swapped it with others, cooked for those who couldn’t and planted seeds once again?
Hope Tales is taking the pandemic learning and putting it into action with a real focus on place. We try to choose towns that are not big, wealthy or famous for anything in particular. We are showing the diversity of the ordinary and the stories that lie around us in droves, just waiting to be heard and acted on.
The next Hope Tales event is at the fabulous Margate School on 31st October from 6.30-9pm. Join us.
You can explore the work of the Rapid Transition Allianceto share inspiring and varied examples of rapid transition and show what kind of changes are possible, how people can help to shape them, and what conditions can make them happen.
The New Weather Institute is a co-op and a think-tank, created to accelerate the rapid transition to a fair economy that thrives within planetary boundaries. The Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex supports academic communities build partnerships with policymakers and the public so that research and education at the University of Essex can improve people’s lives.
In the second of three collaborative posts reviewing Ecoart in Action, artists Claire Atherton, Beckie Leach,Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter find plenty to discuss in a sample of the book’s rich collection of international ecoart case studies, complementing its earlier activities.
2,000 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + optional 18-minute video
The book Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities has contributions from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners. This is the second part of a three-part review from four members of the ClimateCultures network, conducted as a set of conversations and short personal texts.
In their first post — Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People — participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton, teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach, environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd and entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter looked at some of the book’s 25 suggested activities and shared their experiences trying some of them. They’ve since met again on Zoom to share their thoughts on Section 2 of the book, which offers a wide range of 26 case studies from around the world.
As with the ecoart activities they discussed last time, part of the value of this conversational approach has been the different affinities and interests that our four reviewers bring to the exercise and the different access points they find in the case studies. The book’s intended audience is, of course, very diverse in terms of practices, backgrounds and areas of focus, and different readers will want to apply their learning from the case studies in different ways.
Free range conversation
While one of our artists read all the case studies to explore the range of theories and approaches, others flicked through, picking one or two case studies that most resonated with them. An early part of the conversation picked up on what is naturally a more theory-based quality to case studies compared with suggestions for practical activities, and how the book navigates the pros and cons of this. What Genevieve had identified as the ‘dip-in-and-outable’ approach of the activities in Section 1 is clearly an advantage here too.
Claire: “What I like about it is that it goes into a lot more detail and you’ve got some of the theory and some of the pedagogy behind it, in terms of why they’d done what they’ve done. And I liked the more academic approach [but] I wouldn’t read through all the case studies from the start, because they are long and weighty.”
Genevieve: “I was really glad that, like the first section, it wants you to read on; it’s been designed to be really accessible. It’s littered with these diagrams and graphics. For me, that kept my attention because big blocks of text, I just find that too much. I really value that there’s the same approach as with the participatory, ‘how to’, part — the same style of presenting it is in this more theoretical side. It feels more digestible to me.”
Nicky: “Some of them are quite text heavy but they are broken up very clearly… Being the ‘action’ person, sometimes I went straight to the outcome section and looked at that and thought ‘That looks interesting’ and went back and read it. And sometimes it was useful to read it in that order so I knew what they were getting at.”
Beckie: “I think I’m slightly torn between how theoretical they were, that theory side — and feel that reading all the case studies together would get very repetitive in a way, whereas dipping into one or two was really nice — but also, as case studies of things that happened with people in them, I didn’t quite feel like I got enough of the people and their stories and how they found it. Which maybe is coming from a different angle.”
That last point was important to Claire too, who as a community artist feels that knowing what the people involved got from the project would help her decide what and how to take from the case study: “At the end of the day, the reason that I do what I do is for the people that I’m doing it for.” And Genevieve took this further, reflecting on how some of the themes in the case studies address climate justice or violence in different contexts, which can be “a really personal, direct experience, and something more of that could have been amplified. That ‘humanness’ of it.”
As you will see in the video extract from their free-ranging conversation, as well as taking ideas from several of the book’s case studies and their personal impact, our four reviewers took these and the book itself as opportunities to touch on important questions: what is included in ‘ecoart’ and who decides, what remains accessible and for how long after a project has ended, what is the legacy, and how might this field of practice become more visible with funding for cross-disciplinary work? In some ways, this book is an embodiment of the value of these questions and current responses to them.
Ecoart case studies: creative activism
Each reviewer also offered a short text to say more about the case studies they picked out.
As I seemed to be drawn to case studies that focus either on broad community-wide projects or single engaging actions, I decided to choose one of each to comment on here.
Sick-Amour is the name given to Joel Tauber’s case study on a tree in a “sea of asphalt” in front of the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. Over a period of time, Joel lobbied on behalf of this tree’s health, drawing attention to its beauty and the possibility that it could be propagated. Using film, community participative sculpture, and a local programme to take care of over two hundred of its “babies”. There is a reality and poignancy to this case study, as the original tree was chopped down some time later — a sad and shocking end to such a compassionate and inclusive piece of work. But the babies survive to make new trees for other places in the future.
Artist Residencies for Environmental Change is at the other end of the spectrum — a series of activities by a variety of artists along the thirteen kilometres of Plum Tree Creek in Taiwan, polluted by rapid industrialisation, high-density population and intensive agriculture. Together they engaged over 80,000 people over more than a decade. Five different local artist teams used participatory programmes to create a huge range of activities together with educational institutions, NGOs, professionals and local residents. The main idea was to re-engage people in this fairly new town with their environment through this single river, which had been artificially straightened and was struggling ecologically. Partnerships with international artists brought different perspectives and activities, ranging from puppetry to walking maps, story-led conversations to local business engagement.
These two examples — and there are many more in the book — give a flavour of the range and scale of the work described. Whatever your own practice and working environment, there is something here you might replicate or gain inspiration from.
The range of case studies in EcoArt in Action is exciting — there is such a variety of projects. For the purposes of this exercise, I have focussed on one (but it was very hard to choose). I was drawn to Kerry Morrison and Chrissie Tiller’s The Faculty of Social Arts Practice. This case study draws important links between socially engaged arts practice and Ecoart practice, looking at how both are collaborative and interdisciplinary. This is a boundary that my arts practice regularly walks and I found nuggets of gold in the suggested activities as an artist, and in their pedagogical approach as a teacher, particularly around the exploration of individual and collective identity and embodiment.
The case studies are short and I would have loved to see more depth — either from an artistic or pedagogical viewpoint (or both) — and heard more on the contents of the activities and experiences of participants. I can see beautiful ideas emerging about trust and risk, vulnerability and not knowing.
After reading this case study I am left wondering how I can find ways to let go of control in my practice — how can I collaborate more? Can I collaborate beyond the boundaries of species and discipline?
When we moved on to exploring the Case Studies section of the EcoArt in Action book, there was one image that stopped me in my tracks whilst flicking through the pages. Basia Irland’s Ice Receding/Books Reseeding is a fascinating case study of climate art. The image of a young child sitting on the bank of a river, ‘reading’ a book that — in the place where the words and images might be — sprouts lines of living seeds. The child sits with their legs crossed on the floor and their hands open, as if the stories of the living plants might be absorbed into their body from their still presence. I loved this example of climate art, which deftly balances expressing the melting and rising of sea levels with the quenching and reseeding of land.
This book carved from ice has, as Irland describes, been recreated around the world. In the way of water, my own imagination swells from the idea that each book melts and another book freezes from the same matter, flowing through the world’s water courses. For me, this case study is a beautiful example of an environmentally ‘light touch’ creative project, which is ephemeral in nature, whilst connecting with people and seamlessly communicating its rich complex message — I’m inspired!
It’s not enough to simply make art about the environment; as this book demonstrates, when you consider the lifespan and impact of the work beyond its installation or engagement, that’s ecoart in action.
I was drawn to Mo Dawley’s Wondering the Artist Book (an ecoinspiracy), as I am currently designing and producing a professional development and wellness support programme for Freelance Artists and this caught my attention. As it states in the overview, “the artist book [is] a consciousness-raising art form that conspires to question weary paradigms by inspiring wonder through multisensory connectivity”.
I was most interested in the different examples that are quoted throughout the case study and enjoyed looking up all the examples (although it must be noted that not all the links were active, which led to an interesting discussion about digital legacies and what happens when websites are no longer active or you leave a place of work and are removed from the website).
I totally resonate with Mo Dawley’s comment “At its essence, the artist book experience helps us to discover that our willingness to be open and engaged is ‘activism'” and I look forward to using the concept of Artist Books within my programme and await, excitedly, the outcome.
This has been a review of the book’s second section, which offers 26 different ecoart case studies. For their discussion on Section 1 — with 25 activities for artists to experiment with — see Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People.
Farmer and author Paul Feather seeks the meaning of our planetary crisis, and names that can reflect its super wicked nature, in local spaces of resistance that serve as the wombs from which deeper understanding will be born.
2,000 words: approx reading time = 8 minutes
When we name our planetary crisis, it’s something like a birth. The problem is born into our dialogue and its umbilical cord is cut off from the organism that created it in the first place. When we name it the Climate Crisis, our dialogue is constrained by that name, and we respond to that crisis differently from a crisis named Runaway Capitalism or Mass Extinction. Even if we acknowledge that these other framings are relevant, naming the problem centers a particular way of thinking.
People have thrown names at the planetary crisis like it’s an indecisive couple’s new baby. We could call it the Anthropocene. And then there’s Patriarchy. How about Settler Colonialism, or maybe something with Justice in it? — so we sound woke. Sometimes I prefer broad, sweeping names like Polycrisis or Ontological Failure, but at the end of the day, we should probably admit we don’t really know what’s going on.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a science person. There’s a lot of carbon in the atmosphere; and while we can debate about where exactly to put the lines between species — there are about to be a lot fewer of them. These are things we can measure. But in between and all around the measurements there’s this thing that we’re all going through, and it’s hard to say exactly what it is.
So what shall we call this thing we have made together?
In social planning, a wicked problem is one that defies solution because it is closely intertwined with other problems, and solutions are constrained by different stakeholders with different worldviews and values.1 Beginning in about 2007, people began to talk about the climate crisis as a ‘super wicked’ problem, because it had all these wicked traits of complexity and social divisiveness, and also additional difficulties presented by an urgent timeframe and by social injustice wherein the nations who have the most responsibility for climate change and the most power to affect it also have the least incentive to do so.2
There’s actually an added bit of complexity that this framework leaves out, because while it acknowledges that the legacies of colonialism and slavery have shaped the power structures that now make climate change ‘super wicked’, these scholars typically don’t question whether these power structures are the most useful tool for addressing the crisis.3 This is a social planning and social engineering approach: it’s easy to assume that something so big as climate change would have to be addressed by the multinational corporations and governments who hold the levers of power in our society.
In this respect, the wicked problem framework fails to address added epistemological and ontological legacies of colonialism (i.e. colonization of the mind) that have been explored by at least forty years of Western scholarship4 — and a far longer Indigenous awareness of that legacy — that implicate this rational, engineering-centered onto-epistemology with the origins and development of the global crisis.5 This added level of complexity questions the whole framing of the crisis as a problem in need of solutions, but fortunately rather than leaving us with ultra-wicked problems, it’s more like some of the variables cancel out, and things actually get simpler.
Baby gets a new name
If we acknowledge that social engineering is not really a viable approach — that not only do the complexity of the problem and unjust power relations (i.e. its super wicked nature) doom that strategy to failure, but that the whole engineering paradigm is built on colonial notions of power and control that further implicate us with the crisis — then the framing of the crisis changes. We are no longer invested in designing complex international legal interventions to bring down CO2 emissions, nor even controlling the power structures that would presumably do this. It’s not even clear that we’re still centering CO2, because coloniality of power and knowledge are now part of the dialogue. This new framing follows the umbilical cord of the climate crisis to better integrate the origins of that crisis: the baby gets a new name.
When we stop trying to engineer our way out of wicked problems, and when we frame the crisis to include coloniality of power and knowledge, we become participants in the crisis rather than the detached observers that engineers must always be. We are no longer debating how to optimize the behavior of billions of (other) people to soften ecological collapse; but rather asking, how do I personally respond to a crisis formerly known as climate change that increasingly defines the human experience?
This does not mean that our response is a solo act unconstrained by social norms and arising purely from personal experience. On the contrary, there is a great deal of meaning to be found by interacting with communities that are already establishing social norms that oppose the systems of power that continually enact the ongoing crisis.
Communities of resistance
My personal experience is that communities who actively challenge the dominant systems of power and knowledge arise from local resistance movements. In my own search for meaning, I have found the most clarity of purpose when participating in defense of specific places and people from equally specific governments and corporations. I believe that these spaces of resistance are the wombs from which a deeper understanding — even potentially a name — for our crisis will be born.
I have most recently spent time in the Atlanta forest, where a community of forest defenders has been enacting an abolitionist society without police for over a year. This community implicitly rejects a socially engineered response to the more-than-climate crisis, because individual autonomy is a central value. This is both a strategy to ensure group security in a community that is consistently under attack, but also an anarchist conflation of ends and means wherein the resistance community is structured to reflect the values of the society we aspire to create.6 Nonetheless, even in such a community there are obvious social norms and expectations that constrain individual action — and, for me, development and understanding of those norms is arguably as important as defending the forest: they are one and the same. This experiment in abolitionist society has been consistently attacked: at this writing about twenty people have been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, and one forest defender has been killed by police. The violent suppression of this movement is an unfortunate testament to its success and potential.
Previous conflicts have illuminated connections between power, policing, and climate: as for instance in the brutally repressed resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline,7 or Enbridge Line Three.8 In the Atlanta forest, these connections between hegemonic power and the more-than-climate crisis are particularly transparent. The forest is a key safeguard against climate instability for local communities, and the underlying conflict threatening the forest is the city’s agenda to expand policing with an immense new training center. This unique pairing of threats (climate and policing) explicitly connects climate agendas with abolitionist narratives that some scholars are already integrating into mainstream environmental justice dialogues.9 Finally, the movement’s centering of the site’s history and removal of the Creek/Muskogee Nation in the 1800s followed by forced labor on the Old Atlanta Prison Farm explicitly synthesizes decolonial, abolitionist, and mainstream environmental justice narratives. This ‘perfect storm’ of issues, place, and history situates Defend Atlanta Forest to make unique and lasting contributions to our mutual understanding of power, coloniality, and crisis.
The climate crisis is real, but it is exceedingly abstract. It does not feel easy for individual humans to find a meaningful response to this super wicked global problem. It lives in the atmosphere or in tiny molecules of CO2. It does not have a place. It is not a useful concept for orienting ourselves or making individual decisions — and in that sense it is almost meaningless.
Places like the Atlanta forest are the crucibles where people and movements spill over into each other and where new movements and new meanings are born.10 We participate in this process — and to some extent we do shape it — but our understanding and language is equally shaped by the places themselves as they are uniquely situated in history and space. If we will find our way through these confusing times, we will need simple answers to wicked problems; and we will find them in the trees, in the deserts, on city streets. We will find them where other seekers have gathered to fight for something meaningful together and in doing so to create a community bound by something that no amount of policing can destroy.
Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.
Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S., & Auld, G. (2007) Playing it forward: Path dependency, progressive incrementalism, and the ‘‘super wicked’’ problem of global climate change. Paper presented at International studies association convention, Chicago, Il, February 28th–March 3.
For example, see Lazarus, R. J. (2008) Super wicked problems and climate change: Restraining the present to liberate the future. Cornell L. Rev., 94, 1153. Although Sun, J., & Yang, K. (2016) The wicked problem of climate change: A new approach based on social mess and fragmentation. Sustainability, 8(12), 1312 does make some gestures toward less engineering-oriented approaches.
e.g. counting from Wa Thiong’o, N. (1986) Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature (republished 1991 East African Publishers). See also a decent literature review in Clement, V. (2019), Beyond the sham of the emancipatory Enlightenment: Rethinking the relationship of Indigenous epistemologies, knowledges, and geography through decolonizing paths. Progress in Human Geography, 43(2), 276-294.
Davis, H., & Todd, Z. (2017) On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 2017, 16(4): 761-780.
Land C and King D (2014) Organizing otherwise: translating anarchism in a voluntary sector organization. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organisation 14 (4): 923-950.
Burrell M, Grosse C and Mark B (2022), Resistance to petro-hegemony: A three terrains of power analysis of the Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota. Energy Research & Social Science 91
Mittal P (2021) Extraction, Indigenous Dispossession and State Power: Lessons from Standing Rock and Wet’suwet’en Resistance. The Arbutus Review 12(1): 121-141.
Pellow D N (2017) What is Critical Environmental Justice? Cambridge: Polity, and also Menton M, Larrea C, Latorre S, Martinez-Alier J, Peck M, Temper L, and Walter M (2020) Environmental justice and the SDGs: from synergies to gaps and contradictions. Sustainability Science 15: 1621–1636
Perkins T (2021) The multiple people of color origins of the US environmental justice movement: social movement spillover and regional racial projects in California. Environmental Sociology 7(2):147-59.
Find out more
Defend Atlanta Forest, or Stop Cop City, is a decentralised social movement in Atlanta, Georgia, United States — where people occupying trees are being charged with terrorism. In Property ≠ Life, a recent piece he wrote for Resilience.org, Paul discusses the nature of violence and non-violence; “Stop Cop City is explicitly contesting the nature of violence, and this is profound for a society that is based on the violent exploitation of others: a society that doesn’t seem to know who it is without that violence, and whose customary language doesn’t differentiate destruction of life from destruction of property (or when it does seems to value the latter).”
2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes + optional: up to 26 mins video clips
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe describes the context for this innovative review:
In Autumn 2021, researcher and producer Chris Fremantle and I discussed a review of Ecoart in Action. Chris had co-authored this practical volume with other members of the Ecoart Network to showcase a wide range of ecoart activities, case studies and provocations to use with classrooms and communities. My discussions with interested members suggested a ‘multi-voiced’ approach: a collaborative process, generating dialogue from different practitioners’ insights. This review approach is well suited to the nature of the book — and ClimateCultures is all about stimulating creative conversations.
Our four artist-reviewers — participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton; teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach; environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd; entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter — work in different contexts and practices around the UK, based variously in South East London, Wiltshire and Norfolk. They held an ‘orientation’ Zoom call to introduce themselves and discuss possible approaches, before coalescing around the idea of together taking the book’s three parts, producing a blog post for each section.
A collaborative review – orientation
Their initial conversation brought out the book’s value as an inspiration, a resource with stories of contributors’ different approaches to ecoart, and a rich reference book of examples, artists and theories; there are clearly many ways to approach it.
Claire: “It’s a book you can use to get inspiration from in terms of your own ecoart practice, but also to look at different people’s approaches. To me, it’s a reference book, one you would go to and say ‘I’ve got this project, I want to work with this group of people, what could I do?’”
Nicky: “I found it interesting with some of the theory. I tend to duck away from the theory, and sometimes it can be useful. It was interesting to see where some of those practices came from, even if you don’t really need that in order to ‘do it’. So it being a reference book is useful: there’s intellectual learning, and practical learning and experiential learning that could come out, and I liked that: you don’t have to take all of it but there’s quite a lot there to take.”
Genevieve: “One of things I liked is there’s the practical examples and the process, that’s really important to me: it’s not just an activity that’s plucked out of nowhere, it’s grounded in something, and as you go through there’s the sense of people’s biographies, people’s stories — that it’s rooted. As a resource, it’s ‘dip-in-and-out-able’, because it’s not linear. You can flick it open and find something. And it’s introducing me to practices and artists I wasn’t aware of. For me there was a real sense of discovery, and now there’s so many wormholes to go down and people and projects to look up.”
Beckie: “I think there’s something important about how intangible ecoart is, and it’s not something usually you can go and see in a gallery or there’s not big shows of it because it’s not something that you can show in that way. And that makes it very hard to be aware of what’s going on and to experience it. So there’s something really valuable in seeing all the international practices and how it might be interpreted differently in different cultures.”
Settling on the post-per-section approach, the four decided they’d each scan the different entries in each section, share which ones grabbed them most to work with and then come together for a Zoom to compare experiences and reflect on the book. They’d then send in texts and images, with my role being to bring these together with clips from the Zoom recordings for added depth.
Discussing what use ecoart is in the world, they homed in on the Venn diagram from the book’s introduction, and how — as Claire observed — “It gave it a space in which it exists.”
Claire: “It’s difficult when you’re moving away from traditional art practice; where do I sit, who am I? Am I a scientist, am I community worker, am I an artist? Well actually I’m all three of those things, to a certain degree. So that’s how I’ve looked at this book — it can help me to explore those three different facets within myself and bring those together in terms of my practice. … Arguing for its (ecoart’s) value, this book can really help in positioning that.”
Nicky: “We have a system that so clearly splits people between being scientists and being artists. Most people tend one way or another but use both, and can be very strong in both areas, and other areas as well. So I liked that, and it feels inclusive and therefore very positive. Sometimes even the word ‘art’ can feel quite exclusive in itself, to people who feel it’s not their space.”
Our reviewer-artists came at Section 1 with different needs, reflecting some of the diverse uses the book is likely to be engaged in. While Beckie wanted activities to try with her own toddler as an example of a non-formal teaching environment, and Nicky selected ideas to use spontaneously with a couple of young people in her own garden, Genevieve was looking for something to use with a set group of people in a session she already had planned, and Claire wanted the book’s help in creating a workshop she’d been commissioned to deliver in the New Year.
The immersion in Section 1, on ecoart activities, came just before Christmas. As it happened, Beckie couldn’t join in just yet because of family circumstances, so the first of the Zoom sessions went ahead with just Claire, Genevieve and Nicky, with Beckie then able to send in her reflections for this first post.
Planning ecoart activities
I purchased the book when it launched in 2022 and I was excited to have lots of inspiring ecoart ideas to draw from. As a community artist, I work with groups in an iterative way – the previous activity informs the next through reflective practice – so it has been refreshing to have external input to spark ideas. I was invited by a local arts university to run a talk with a workshop element to students, as part of an annual week-long programme encouraging students to try something new, explore different creative practices, and experience new ways of thinking and doing. This was the ideal chance to draw upon this book’s wisdom!
When I was flicking through the book, I found it really useful to have a ‘key’ to each activity in Section 1. For example, I knew I was looking at something suitable for undergraduate or graduate students, for a two-hour session and with an estimated group size of 10. The Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage activity by Cameron Davis stood out for me, as it fitted this context. Whilst the activity began with a walk as a core element for inspiring the activity that followed (which would be my own ‘usual’ format in my participatory arts practice), this wasn’t possible in the format I was delivering. The brief was for a talk with a workshop element, so I instead brought along a range of objects that had been collected in journeys from participants at previous projects and through my own arts practice.
I started reading the book with an open mind, wondering which of my various groups might be up for participating in an activity. In the back of my mind, my criteria were: less than a day in timescale; something I could do in my local neighbourhood; low cost as I would not be using it in paid work.
Part 1 of the book is easy to read, with the consistency of layout meaning it is easy to find what each activity entails, how long it might take and what sort of audience it is suitable for. I quickly picked out a few activities that appealed to me and suited the criteria:
Award Ribbons for Places: making and giving awards to favourite places in a particular outside area, and sharing your reasons for your award. (This is the one I chose.)
Story Circles: people in a group each telling a story on a theme, adding to the overall richness and different points of view. (A bit too verbal and performative for my participants.)
Rethinking Fashion: exploring the footprint of fashion and making sustainable alternatives. (Too much time for my participants, but I would love to do this with our local XR group perhaps.)
Botanical Art Banners: studying local plants and painting findings onto banners for display. (I love this and think it’s a great way to appeal to different groups who might be interested in detail and science too.)
Lines of the Hand: using the lines on the palms of our hands as a starting point for patterns in the wider natural world. (This looks great.)
After initially being drawn to the activities Awards Ribbons for Places and Perceiving Embeddedness Through Collage, time commitments meant I wasn’t able to deliver either activity before our scheduled chat, so I used the book as a reference tool to provide inspiration for a forthcoming workshop I have been commissioned to deliver in January. Looking through the list of activities was simple and straightforward and I have chosen Story Circles as I feel this has the most relevance to my audience. I will report back on the delivery of this activity in future blog posts.
I spent a lot of time looking through all the activities to see the audiences, number of participants, duration etc in order to find one that fit the parameters of my commission. It would be helpful to have a grid at the beginning of the book that gives an easy way to drill down, based on audience type, ability (able-bodied / sitting activities), duration etc so that you can see instantly the activities, case studies and provocations that are relevant to your specific brief.
I found this section of the book quite intimidating – it is dense and packed full of interesting ideas, but lacking pictures. Actually the premise of a lot of the activities was quite simple and accessible once I got into the text. I was drawn to Creating Rituals, Aborescence: a Score, and Cultivating an Ecocreative Mindset. I wonder if there is a way to format the activities so they are a little easier to read through quickly and adapt for different audiences?
It was challenging to adapt the activities to a non-formal teaching environment — but I think my particular context was also challenging as I wanted to find things I could do with my toddler and all of the activities in the book were designed for older participants and many required a much longer time frame.
Working with ecoart activities on the ground
To find flow with my adaptation to the Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage activity plan, I framed the exercise around stories: how we’re each guided by different stories, values and experiences, and how this feeds into community arts practice. In my introductory talk, I shared examples of the elements that inform my work (I talked about these as my ‘deep roots’), and shared a couple of case studies of community arts projects that have evolved from these ideas (these are the ‘emerging shoots’). I was inspired by Davis’s ideas in the activity introduction on “embeddedness within this dynamic living whole we call life”, and reinterpreted this with my own drawing and thought process about these relationships.
What I found particularly interesting about working from Davis’s idea was voicing someone else’s ideas and considering my own connection with them. It was useful for me to experience, as a facilitator. The provocations that particularly stood out to me were: “do you feel, in any way, that your object chose you?” and “entertain the notion that your object has presence”.
The group were really responsive to the activity and, whilst collage materials were made available to the group, they all chose to work in drawing throughout. To warm-up, I also added in some extra short exercises, some simple drawing methods that celebrated the qualities of the objects. The group generated some really thoughtful and evocative ideas in response to the objects they chose, including childhood memories, noticing the details and enjoying the texture, and reflecting on how their ideas could find a place in the world. I will certainly be using this activity as a starting point in different contexts, and can also see how it could be adapted for different ages and settings.
Within our given timeframe, I happened to have two teenagers staying with me who did not know each other, one of whom is very shy and not strong at communication. I wanted something with a very low entry point, involving minimal art skills and some physical outside activity. The length of time was given as one day, which gives time to delve into the historical and social background of a place, but I found the activity could easily be shortened if focused on a more basic “what do you love here” question. We took about two hours and used my garden, which is large and has wild and woody areas as well as more open traditional lawn spaces, many trees, bushes and sheds. I hoped there would be enough interest for them.
After explaining to the two girls what we would be doing, we walked around the garden, looking for places we particularly liked, making a few comments, touching trees and plants, getting a feel for the place. Having each chosen two places we particularly liked, we went inside to create our own ‘awards’. I also participated, so I wouldn’t be hovering over them too much. I had some basic card, ribbons and string for hanging and paints/pens for decoration or writing that would all be biodegradable and so could be left outside to disappear naturally. I made a sample label-type award to help and one girl copied this, while the other made her own shapes and hangers. They seemed to crack on immediately with an easy understanding of what they were doing, despite one of the girls often finding art activities very difficult as she is unable to think of what to do. The prescriptive nature of this was helpful here.
We then went back outside, circling round to each of our own chosen favourite places, gave our awards and said a few words about why we had chosen this place. It was interesting to see we had all chosen different places and that we all chose trees and shrubs of some kind rather than the built environment. There was an instant connection to nature and an appreciation of its beauty not noticed before.
The girls seemed to find it fun and participated in taking photos and I found it quite moving to see their direct connection with other living organisms.
I only touched on the possibilities of this activity, which could include so much more about a place and would work with bigger groups and over longer periods of time. Its flexibility is impressive.
In the end we spent some time doing the Creating Rituals activity – making snow rock trolls and feeding the birds and squirrels. This was really fun and feeding the birds and squirrels together has continued as a regular activity – and I am thinking a lot about everyday rituals.
In the following clips from their Zoom chat, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky share additional insights into how they worked with the ecoart activities in the book:
Clip 1 (6 minutes): Example activity – Awards Ribbons for Places.
Clip 2 (9.5 minutes): Example activity – Lines of the Hand; the book’s value as something you can come at as a starting point, a detailed, theory-led instruction, or a source of interesting thinking to spark your own ideas for activities.
Clip 3 (6.5 minutes): Example activity – Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage; the book as a rich source of references you can follow up.
Clip 4 (4.5 minutes): Using the book as inspiration for planning your work; issues navigating the book for different contexts; example activity – Story Circles.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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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.