Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’

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


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


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

One — driven to be part of the problem

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

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

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

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

Two — the Great Derangement

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

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

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

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

Three — ensemble practices

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

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

Four — between self and other

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

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

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

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

Five — placing the artist

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

Directing The Children

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


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


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

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

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

Building community

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

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

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

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

‘The play’s the thing’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving beyond business as usual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

When Our Roar Was Birdsong

Writer Philip Webb Gregg went looking for ways to let nature get to him, and found them on a bushcraft and survival course, with Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London, and in his garden in the city.

 


approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes  


“You have to get the fingers right in. Right between the clavicles. Don’t be shy, just dip them in. Feel the breastbone? Right, now tease it apart with your fingers. You need to make space for your thumbs. Got it? Good. Now just pop them in and pull. See? Peels like a tangerine.”

There is an almost inaudible gasp around the semi-circle as J pulls the torso off of another pigeon. Though most of us are disgusted, we’re also more than a little impressed. J has just shown us a beginner’s technique for preparing a pigeon carcass when you don’t have access to a knife. The theory is quite straightforward. J explains carefully and advises us to take notes. Then we are each handed a pigeon.

There are twelve of us on the wilderness course, and only one refuses to take part. The rest dig in, if not quite with gusto then certainly with willing. Considering it’s nine o’clock on a Friday evening and twelve hours ago most of us were sitting at a desk staring into a screen, I’d say this was pretty impressive.

J paces the semi-circle and gives help where needed. The basics for bare-hand pigeon preparation are as follows:

      • First, hold the pigeon by the legs and dangle — this constricts the bird’s breathing and induces a sleep-like state.
      • Then, make a V with your forefinger and middle finger. Take the back of the bird’s neck and delicately but confidently give a sharp tug. This kills the bird without unnecessary pain or agitation.
      • Separate wings by holding the wings in one hand and twisting the body with the other.
      • Pull head to detach.
      • Insert forefingers into the chest cavity and make room around the breastbone.
      • Fit both your thumbs into the hollow of the bird.
      • Hold with confidence and pull. You will be left with the spine and viscera in one hand (discard these) and the fleshy torso with in the other.
      • Finally, scrape the edible meat away from the breastbone.

J carefully puts the meat into a Tupperware and drops the carcase in a neatly prepared plastic bag, instructing us to do the same. When someone asks what happens to the contents of the plastic bag, he answers with a jovial grin: “Oh, don’t worry. That’ll go to the badgers tonight.”

Looking for the source

It is the 3rd of May, 2019. I am somewhere in the Peak District, about three hours into my first ever ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ course. So far it’s been an enlightening experience. We’ve covered wilderness health and safety, knife etiquette, how to make a pigeon stir-fry, and simple shelters. Now we’re sitting in the dark around a campfire at the edge of the woods. It should be romantic. It sounds romantic. What is less romantic is the dried blood I still have under my thumbnails. The smoke that insists on stalking me around the camp, filling my nostrils and making my eyes pour. Also, the cold. There is nothing at all romantic about the cold.

Bushcraft and survival in the woods
In the woods
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

I came out here looking for a way to let nature get to me, searching for the notion of nature-as-cure. Cure for our bodies, cure for our minds, maybe even our souls. Of course, nature is not a pill. It can’t be prescribed over the counter or sunk straight to the vein. The concept of nature as medication — as a commodity that can be handed over without thought or cause — is one that I deeply disagree with. It’s yet another facet of our human-centred perspective of the wider world.

Instead, I’m looking for the source. I’m hoping to be reminded of the ‘inter-connectivity’ of things. After a long winter living in the heart of London, I’ve become startlingly aware of the disconnect between the concerns of inner-city life and the real, actual worries of our changing world. This disconnect feels like a form of insanity, an illness, or an obsession with unclean things, which can only end in sickness. So, the theory goes: if this madness is man-made, perhaps I can re-learn sanity from wilderness.

Which brings me back to the pigeon blood under my nails, and the smoke of the campfire. J, our instructor, is telling us about his job. I am fascinated to learn that there has been a huge rise in the demand for bushcraft courses in the last few years.

“Yep,” he says. “Probably Brexit.” We laugh, but it’s not a joke. A recent article in The Times reported certain survivalist organisations getting “30 or 40 calls a week asking questions about Brexit.” It’s a sobering thought, and another sign of the changing world. To think there’s a national shift toward a more desperate state of mind.

Of course, it’s good for the bushcraft industry. But this is in itself is a juxtaposition, as practising bushcraft requires, well, bush: the preservation of which is rarely in the interest of a capitalist society. The figures for UK woodland are somewhat haphazard, but according to the 2018 Forest Research Woodland Statistics we currently stand at 13% — 10% in England, 15% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 8% in Northern Ireland.

Now, whether these numbers are positive or negative it’s hard to tell. Some sources see the current percentage as a huge success, stating that they’re higher than they’ve been for almost a thousand years (in 1086 the Domesday Book recorded forest levels at 15%), and comparing them to a devastatingly low 5% at the start of the 20th century. However, other organisations claim that woodland ecology in the UK is under serious threat, and British wildlife in a state of chaos. It’s certainly worth noting that the European average is far higher, at 44%. No doubt there’s a Brexit analogy in there somewhere, if anyone has the energy to find it.

J kicks some ashes over the remaining flames and declares that it’s time for bed. Early start in the morning, apparently.

“Wrap up warm,” he grins. “It’s gonna be a cold one.”

The peace of the wild?

Five hours later I’m lying under a canopy of fallen branches and bracken. The shelter is roughly two meters long and a meter wide. A classic A-frame structure, known to anyone who spent any time in the Scouts or who watches a lot of Ray Mears. It’s a clever design: not only does it shield you from the wind, it also traps your body heat and feeds it back down to your legs. However, tonight is unseasonably cold. My sleeping bag was last used in the hot hills of southern Spain, and is woefully inadequate for middle England in early May.

I lie shivering for hours, cursing my poor planning. When using a sleeping bag it’s often said that you should strip naked because the moisture in your clothing will sap your body heat. After an hour or two in nothing but slim thermals, I decide this is a lie. I resolutely and somewhat awkwardly don all of my layers, from my socks to my gloves. I’m fully dressed inside the bag and still there’s a throbbing numbness in my fingers and toes. Eventually, at around 4am, I decide to give up on sleep, and go to find the campfire instead.

Bushcraft - the embers of the campfire
The embers
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

The embers are low, barely a tinge of orange or red. But the ashes are hot and bracken is everywhere. It’s enough. Soon the fire is roaring again, and the kettle is on the flame (I hear J’s voice as I do this: “flames to boil, embers to cook”). By the light of my head torch I settle down to my notebook. Hours pass. The night is deep and full of life. Badger, rustling close. Insects and small mammals living and dying in the understory. Above me an owl asks its endless question: Who? Who? Who? The breeze moves through the trees, making laughter.

Periodically I put more wood on the fire. Logs and branches. Hazel, beech, birch. Their green wood spits and my eyes burn with smoke. They will hurt for days, I know. So much for the peace of the wild. I am long lost in my thoughts when the birdsong starts. Not just owl or bat, real birdsong. Full and loud. The illustrious chorus of dawn. A spring chant of mating and renewal.

I put down my pen and click the head torch off. I sit on a log in the dark and listen to the birds while my eyes run with smoke.

The first day

It is two weeks earlier, 15th of April. I am standing in the centre of the city of London, right outside the Houses of Parliament. They are shrouded in scaffolding like the bandages of a leper. I think: now there’s a simile.

Next to me, someone is shouting. All around me, people are shouting and roaring. I am roaring. There are banners being waved by children and grandparents alike. The sky is full of them. They show the stark outline of bird carcasses and flowers. They are all embroidered with an hourglass held within a circle. XR.

Extinction Rebellion - humans on the XR March in London May 2019
Extinction Rebellion humans
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

Over the next eleven days, four prominent roads in central London will be blocked, and a total of 1,130 people will be arrested. During these days, there will be countless conversations had between strangers about the current state of the world. Talks and discussions and poetry readings and songs will abound. It will sometimes feel like a festival. Teenagers will do cartwheels down the road. People will flirt and laugh and maybe find love on the barricades. In the dead of night, on the bridges, surrounded by police officers in wraithlike hi-visibility jackets, it will feel like the end of the world.

But all that is days away. Right now, it is the first day, and there is genuine hope in the air. Hope and determination and positivity. I walk around the square a dozen or so times, joining a march here, a debate there. Most people seem just as keen to sit on the grass and have a picnic as they are to change the world. But it is England, and the sun is shining. Maybe that’s how real revolution works, not through violence or petitions, but flasks of tea and vegan sandwiches kept in Tupperware.

At one point there is a march of giant papier-mâché skeletons, accompanied by a sorrowful jazz band, a troupe of red-clad mourners, and a coffin. The skeletons are those of animal species, extinct and endangered. People in animal masks hold high the fleshless silhouettes of ape, rhinoceros, lion, tiger, whale, etc. etc. And also: humans, soon to be extinct. A giant magpie walks among the procession, waving a placard: ‘One for sorrow…’ it reads, in thick black Sharpie.

Magpie - 'one for sorrow' - on the XR March. London 2019
Magpie on the march
Photpgraph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

I buy a roll of toilet paper with Trump’s face on from a man with a supermarket trolley overflowing with them. “For the cause!” he waves a revolutionary fist.

Just as I’m thinking of leaving, I pass the central podium. On it is a man, standing staring into space. The audience, some thirty or forty people, is enthralled, looking up at him with their mouths open. He’s holding a device in his hand, either an MP3 player or a phone, and from it trails a wire. The wire leads into an amp, and a second wire links the amp to a set of speakers on either side of the podium. From the speakers — a pair of massive monoliths standing like two-thirds of a trilithon — comes the sound of birdsong.

It booms across Parliament Square with an eerie softness. Nightingale, chaffinch, common blackbird, magpie, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, greenfinch, garden warbler, European robin, starling, lapwing, goldfinch, redshank. On and on, and on. There is utter silence in the crowd for at least 20 minutes, and then people start to laugh and cheer. They try to imitate the calls, falling into peels of laughter at the difficulty. Everybody is clapping furiously and chirruping at the top of their lungs. There is a beautiful madness to the moment that feels like sanity at last.

Bushcraft and birdsong

It is two weeks and three days later. Monday the 6th of May. I have just returned from the ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ weekend and I am in the garden of our tiny London flat, kneeling over the raised beds pulling up unwanted life. Weeding is a necessary death, I think. All around me is the furniture we’ve built from up-cycled pallets and discarded planks of wood. ‘Frankenstein furniture’, we affectionately call it.

Bushcraft - cultivating the garden in the city
In the garden
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg

Today the UN released its biodiversity report, otherwise known as the Summary for Policymakers IPBES Global Assessment. It’s a dense document, replete with all manner of figures and statistics. The numbers are intimidating and complex, but they add up to a series of simple truths:

      • Due to human civilisation, 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction.
      • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered.
      • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater recourses are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
      • Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
      • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980.
      • The amount of plastic and pollutants in the ocean have created over 400 ‘dead zones’, the total area of which is larger than the United Kingdom.

The report, compiled by 145 experts over the course of three years concludes that ‘Transformative Changes’ are needed to restore and protect nature. The current global response is insufficient.

I sit in the sunshine and listen as the radio feeds me these facts, these prophecies and warnings, and I think of ancient Rome. I think of Pompeii, of the portents of disaster that were not heeded. I think of Cassandra running toward the Trojan Horse with a burning torch in one hand and an axe in the other, screaming: “Death is within!” But of course, no one listened.

I wonder if this will be any different, as I pluck baby weeds from my bed of courgettes. I think about the nature of human nature, and the difficulty of staying sane in an irrational world. I think about revolution and wilderness and the beautiful indifference of it all. Suddenly there’s a sound. I look up into the sky.

Birdsong.


Find out more

The ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ weekend course Philip took part in is run by Woodland Ways, a family-run bushcraft company employing a small close-knit and highly experienced team of individuals.

The Dark Mountain Project recently published Questions for the Woods by Caroline Ross — who enters the liminal territory of the forest and forges a wild camp by a fallen oak — as part of their new ‘Becoming Human’ section, which explores the physical, psychological and experiential aspects of our current predicament and how we might realign our bodies and minds with the living world. 

The 2018 Woodland Statistics report is available to download from Forest Research and the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) Global Assessment Summary for Policy Makers is available from IPBES.

You can find all the news and actions from XR, and how to get involved, at Extinction Rebellion.

And if you’d like to consider birdsong and, among other things, the difficulty of human reproduction of it – in this case through music – you might take a look at my piece, Interstices of Things Ajar, from March 2017…

‘What You Need Will Come to You’

Kaupapa Māori approachesEnvironmental artist Laura Donkers follows her initial post on eco-social art engagement with her experience as Visiting Doctoral Researcher, moving to Aotearoa New Zealand from July to November 2018 to expand her research by exploring Kaupapa Māori approaches.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


In her previous post, Laura introduced the form of eco-social art engagement she’s developed in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, working with communities’ embodied knowledge to help develop climate literacy.

***

My research journey led me to undertake a period of research in Aotearoa New Zealand. It came about through a chance discussion with a New Zealand artist I had met while at a DRAWinternational artist residency in France. She introduced me to the research practice of Māori artist and scholar Dr Huhana Smith, who in the mid-2000s developed a PhD project at Kuku Beach, Palmerston North, working with her local tribe to reinstate the river, estuary and beach ecosystem according to traditional cultural principles. I was fascinated to read how the community had responded to the project, but also was intrigued to find out what the term Kaupapa Māori — literally ‘a Māori way’ —  actually meant. I knew that Māori were the indigenous people of New Zealand, but was not really familiar with their culture of interconnectedness. However, it became apparent from further research that their understanding of their embeddedness in the natural world was similar to something I had recognised in the Uist community, but due to my own incapacities had felt unable to express.

Perhaps a greater knowledge of Kaupapa Māori might give my research the underpinning framework that I felt it was missing? So I expanded my project methodology and combined artistic methods with a modified version of Participatory Action Research that drew from Kaupapa Māori Theory, an academic approach that retrieves space for Māori voices and perspectives, particularly where it affords new perspective into community-led collective thinking and action. My hope is that by including Kaupapa Māori Theory my research can help other communities understand how to address issues of universal concern, such as climate change adaptation, and help restore an understanding of sustainable living.

Kuku beach Photograph by Laura Donkers
Kuku beach
Photograph: Laura Donkers © 2018

Understanding Kaupapa Māori 

I wanted to learn first-hand how Kaupapa Maori is realised in a community. Through university contacts, I approached Elam School of Art to propose a period of research. I met with the Head of the School and learned that Kaupapa Māori praxis underpins teaching and support of their students within the contemporary art framework. Given that I was a trained artist, I felt this would provide a context to experience Kaukapa Māori in an accessible way, and hoped to learn from practitioners, lecturers, and students how mutual trust, respect, reciprocity and kinship manifest in the art school situation.

Over the course of my five-month residency I came to appreciate that I was expecting much more than was possible from a relatively short period of research. Not least, my minimal understanding of the practice of Kaupapa Māori left me unable to articulate what I had hoped to find. And I had the feeling amongst the people that I spoke to that Kaukapa Māori was not really practised in the school in the way I had understood. However, the uncertainties that arose through my questioning slowly led to helpful suggestions of other outlets where I might find answers, and eventually I found my way to groups and individuals in the wider community who were able to share with me their experiences.

Meeting with weavers 

I found the process of searching for points of contact and connection to be difficult and disheartening at times. Initial meetings with academics and practitioners were straightforward to arrange, but they did not seem to go anywhere. I often found the experience more like an interrogation than a discussion and it was hard to pin down whether I was speaking to someone who was interested in my research or just checking my motives. Follow-up discussions never materialised and this left me without the necessary dialogue to explore the subject of Kaupapa Māori in practice. It seemed that the more questions I asked the less clarity I gained, and I wondered how I could achieve the outcome of the research I was seeking. I had arranged to meet a renowned master weaver who was a friend of my supervisor but also, by chance, of a neighbour in Uist. I looked forward to this meeting but had no idea where it would lead.

We met at Auckland’s Memorial Museum where a number of master weavers were gathered in the ‘Te Awe’ Project Room. ‘Te Awe’ is a vast stock take and digitisation exercise being carried out by Auckland Museum to examine 10,000 Māori Taonga — highly prized objects or natural resources. The women had been selected from across the country for their supreme expertise and worked together to agree on specific definitions for the different techniques present in the Korowai (ceremonial cloak) laid before them.

Members from the Taumata Mareikura and Auckland Museum Staff view a few examples of taonga Māori textiles in the collection
Members from the Taumata Mareikura and Auckland Museum Staff view a few examples of taonga Māori textiles in the collection
Source: www.aucklandmuseum.com

They graciously came to greet me, and despite my ignorance, the gravitas of the occasion was palpable as I observed the reverent manner in which the Korowai were examined, and the quiet discussions amongst the weavers as they approached a consensus. And then it was time for tea, further discussion and an unexpected invitation to attend a marae (a communal and sacred meeting ground of Māori people) at the weekend, which I eagerly accepted.

This extraordinary encounter marked a turning point, and I went on to meet a myriad of people who welcomed me. Through quiet explanation and discussion, I slowly began to understand Kaukapa Māori in practice, and its comparability to practices I was all too familiar with from the years spent living in Uist. The gentle acknowledgement of each other’s rights through principles of mutual respect involving face to face encounter; looking, listening and then speaking; sharing and hosting; caution; and not trampling on the rights, personal prestige and character of each other. 

‘What you need will come to you’ 

However, it was a phrase conveyed to me by an artist-weaver that most sums up my research journey in Aotearoa New Zealand. She recounted her experience of having to learn to overcome frustration as she developed her weaving skills by eventually accepting the premise of her weaving teacher that ‘what you need will come to you’. A simple mantra that perhaps all researchers should hold to — that over time and with a little humility you will find what you are looking for.


From our contemporary perspective, it can be difficult to trust that you will find what you need. Will there be time to allow that process to happen? How will you know this is what you needed? Is this a valid methodology?

An extraordinary opportunity opened up for me just as I was preparing to leave. I followed up a chance introduction at Auckland Council’s climate change workshops and was invited to meet with some of the team at the Kaipatiki Project to discuss potential ways of working together in the future.

As part of my SGSAH AHRC Creative Economies scholarship, I could propose an artist-in-resident placement with a non-academic institution, and the Kaipatiki Project’s regenerative approach to working with community and environment seemed to offer an ideal location. SGSAH accepted my proposal for a three-month artist residency, which would further develop my understanding of Kaupapa Maori Theory, this time at community organisation level. 

So, for three months, I am exploring how my creative approach relates to and can contribute towards the organisation’s underpinning objective to help communities live more sustainably, and together we will develop ways to unleash the creativity of the community to identify opportunities to solve local environmental challenges.

I am just beginning this residency and am keeping a diary of my experiences. I’ll be happy to share these in future ClimateCultures posts!

I wish to thank my host Associate Professor Peter Shand, the tutors and students at Elam School of Art and other Professors at Auckland University who helped me on my way, as well as many other artists, weavers, practitioners, and members of community groups who listened, questioned and advised me during my all too brief sojourn in Aotearoa New Zealand. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank my funders Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities for their Visiting Doctoral Researcher Award that made this visit possible. 


Find out more 

Laura’s previous post, introducing her artistic practice and research, is Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy

DRAWinternational caters for fine artists, applied artists, musicians or writers in pursuit of new and dynamic form, in preparation for exhibition, publication or postgraduate qualification. 

Dr Huhana Smith is a visual artist, curator and principal investigator in research who engages in major environmental, trans-disciplinary, kaupapa Māori and action-research projects. She is co-principal investigator for research that includes mātauranga Māori methods with sciences to actively address climate change concerns for coastal Māori lands in Horowhenua-Kāpiti. Huhana actively encourages the use of art and design’s visual systems combined in exhibitions, to expand how solutions might integrate complex issues and make solutions more accessible for local communities.

You can find out more about the principles and practice Kaupapa Māori research at the website of Katoa Ltd, a Māori – Indigenous research organisation.

‘Te Awe’ is a vast stock take and digitisation exercise being carried out by Auckland Museum 

Kaipatiki Project has, since 1998, been inspiring communities to live sustainably by restoring local bush reserves with community and developing environmental education programmes for all ages. 

Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy

Eco-social art - Berneray Community Polycrub, 2016Environmental artist Laura Donkers works with the embodied knowledge of communities, through a form of eco-social art engagement, to help develop climate literacy. Laura describes her approach and experience with local communities in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.


approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes  


This is the first part of two, and in her next post Laura discusses her move to Aotearoa New Zealand to expand her research as part of her final year of a practice-led PhD at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at Dundee University.

***

For the last thirty years, I have lived on the southern island chain in the Outer Hebrides, known as the Uists, where I work as a horticulturalist, artist and researcher. The population of fewer than 5,000 people is largely indigenous and is widely spread across several islands, with between four and fifteen people per square kilometre inhabiting small, close-knit townships of all occupations needed to sustain a community. The archipelago’s economic activities are reliant on the primary industries of tourism, crofting, fishing and weaving and dependent on the environment for continued livelihoods. 


I feel I belong to this place; I both know and am known by my community. Without this social embeddedness, I could not have undertaken the sort of research I do, which relies on mutual trust and understanding, as well as a familiarity with the way that individuals and societies work at a local level. It’s a community that is interconnected across several planes of knowledge. Connected to the land, sea, seasons and with strong intergenerational and societal bonds, people exhibit a broad skills base extending across several identities; and, with shared spiritual connections and an interest in heritage and genealogy, people continue to pass knowledge on through generations.

It is natural then that I am interested in how eco-social art can be used strategically to promote sustainability in small island communities. Through the process of research for my PhD, I have come to understand that this is done best by working with the community’s own embodied knowledge, and I want to be able to show the importance of this.

My practice-led thesis aims to show that a specific set of knowledges accumulated through lived experience can help to improve ecological and social regeneration. My research reveals the role and value of this community embodied knowledge as a method for reengagement. Together with an eco-arts approach, this can bring local people, community organisations and national partners together into an open learning environment to develop ways of adapting to climate change.

Embodied knowledge, eco-social art

So what is community embodied knowledge?

I have found it to exist where people know each other through familial and experiential ties, are attached to their place/environment/land and utilise intergenerational knowledge to understand their own existence. It is also a practical form of wisdom, or practical reasoning, that is about individual ability to make good choices, based on understanding what is the right thing to do in the circumstances.

So, embodied knowledge helps us get to the deeper kinds of change that are needed at this time of climatic upheaval. When faced with challenges, practical rural-based people do not have it in their nature to just sit back and wait for others to act, but instead use their lived experience and inherited bank of knowledge to make decisions about what to do. However, in this new climatic regime, changes at a local level can be subtle (while still ultimately catastrophic) as they creep into everyday experience and become the new norm. While rural people are well placed to adapt to change, they share wider society’s lack of experience in understanding what irrevocable changes they will need to adapt to. In my opinion, it’s here that valuable reengagement opportunities lie, where ordinary practical people, local organisations and national bodies should come together and share knowledge and practices that may achieve solutions for local survivability.


And socially engaged art practice?

This is anchored in community-led development and uses art to draw the community into talking about and acting on social, political or environmental issues. It involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction, and this is, at some level, where the art lies. It is led by artists who recognise that the community is the expert in their own lives, and works with them to cultivate that understanding more widely.

Reimagining place

So, place-making led by artists can revitalise communities: art and cultural activities involving local individuals and groups in collaborative activities with national organisations to develop meaningful public spaces where people can meet, celebrate and identify with each other. This kind of arts engagement can provide critical reflection and an alternative to the dominant social developmental discourse that can exclude the less vocal, less confident, less certain members of society, especially where historically these indigenous knowledges have been suppressed.

Many of the examples of this kind of ‘place-making’ are carried out by artists working in urban communities: Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s skills building projects develop the community’s capacity from ‘communication to construction’, to transform their roles into co-producers rather than merely consumers. However, I feel that the extensive productive capacities already present in rural communities require artists to take a different approach here.

A more rural approach begins with recognising the importance of the characteristics mentioned earlier regarding communities’ valuable interconnected knowledge and deep links to their places, and how they make use of their environments to sustain their livelihoods. So, finding a way to work that respects and upholds embodied knowledge is key to developing a good working relationship before even thinking of trying to shift mindsets for a changing climate. This is as much about showing the community the value of their own knowledge as it is about conveying how this form of knowledge can help other communities and wider society to re-think how to act locally elsewhere.

An example of my work is the Machair Art project. Machair is one of the rarest habitats in Europe: a fertile low lying grassy plain that only occurs on exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Machair Art was a collaboration between myself and artist Olwen Shone for the Conserving Scottish Machair LIFE+ project. It encompassed the year-long cycle of the machair in the form of four field trips to various crofting locations, exploring the themes of harvesting, seaweed, ploughing and wildlife. Students also attended drawing and photography sessions after school. 

machairart film short from Laura Donkers on Vimeo.

As part of my work combining embodied knowledge with eco-social art practice, therefore, I develop practical and theoretical engagements that rekindle old tacit knowledge and skills to help communities reimagine their places as ‘climate change prepared’. My eco-social arts activities centre on developing climate literacy through social, intergenerational activities and range from drawing and photography days-out, to long term strategies that establish community food growing sites. Planned actions, shared vision, co-intelligence and co-management strategies help build a deeper understanding and potential for assimilation into everyday life, with actions informed and underpinned by the local embodied knowledge of crofters and contractors, as well as local specialists and advisors. 

Another short film I made, Tha Mi a Bruadair — I Have a Dream, shows the possibilities of rural education. In this case, through the Crofter Course run at the local high school, Sgoil Lionacleit, Isle of Benbecula, we engaged young people in land stewardship in their communities.

This video project was part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ Global Art, Farming and Peace project for Vancouver Biennale 2014-16, and was shown as part of Raising Farmers’ Voices for ArtCOP21 in Paris — an initiative by artist Shweta Bhattad, ‘Faith in Paris’.

Climate literacy: knowing and not knowing

A community’s embodied knowledge develops through its approach to change. While changes come about in all societies — alterations in population, climate, prices, policies, availability of healthcare, schools provision, and so on — tiny communities feel these much more acutely than larger populations. In places like Uist, they have learned that adaptation is always possible. There is no choice but to find a way to overcome challenges, and this produces resilient, adaptable people who can transform and sustain their lives as they need to.

The mindset of communities in places like Uist involves a very different experience of living than in the urban context. Understanding this means appreciating that these communities exist between knowing and not knowing. I will attempt to explain this and how I think my eco-social art abilities can work with these forms of knowledge to include climate literacy.

Rural knowledge is based on communities’ own capabilities to make and produce something to live from. Knowing the materials they require and how to access them calls on acute observational understanding and an ability to wait for the right signs. Counter to this runs not knowing whether they will achieve their goal this year. They cannot know for certain whether the materials (e.g. seaweed) will be available or sufficient, whether the right conditions (e.g. gales that bring the seaweed inshore) or signals (e.g. rainfall or lack) will appear, and finally whether these will enable the task (e.g. harvest) to be completed in time. Of course, they will achieve something of their aims, but they strive always with the hope that this year will be a good one that they can celebrate: that they can have some reserves, can feel a little satisfaction. This ability to live within these two states of knowing and not knowing comes through intergenerational knowledge, developing skills to source and make materials, and engaging deep durational and seasonal knowledge as well as acute capabilities to observe and to wait.

My eco-social arts process draws attention to wider issues of concern brought on by climate change and encourages reflexive reassessment via new thinking and doing that draw on the community’s existing materials, methods and processes. Our relationship develops through a collaborative process that respects existing knowledges and hierarchies, but introduces an alternative mindset that references climate change knowledge. While this is not at odds with a society dependent on the environment for its livelihoods, the way it is introduced needs sensitive handling in order for it to be considered rather than rejected. I occupy a different space, from another perspective, and can draw links to relevant information that can translate into local understanding.

Making space for climate conversations 

I wish to activate and expand the potential of art as an agent of social intervention, community building, and cultural change. I have found the best way to do this is through an open-call process where participants self-nominate. What follows is built around close listening and dialogue and, importantly, showing this through projects that reference the participants’ experiences, concerns and ideas.

Essentially, what we create together is a space for the community to enter, influence and direct themselves. They start to have ‘climate conversations’ that make sense and lead on to transformative climate-aware actions that they take themselves. The artistic aspects help with visualisation and the creation of new spaces (e.g. Community Food Growing Hubs) to reconsider and reflect on recent local changes, whether increasing levels of social isolation, poor diet or mental health issues, as well as the potential climate change impacts of sea level rise, and increased food costs. The visualisations offer another view on the situation, enabling participants to see and hear themselves speaking and acting.

Eco-social art - Berneray Community Polycrub, 2016
Berneray Community Polycrub
Photo: Laura Donkers © 2016

The creation of these spaces fits in with the community’s inherent qualities of knowing and not knowing. It feels true and believable, and sets parameters that are achievable and, in the end, self-determining.

Looking beyond the west   

My work is about understanding mutuality through an artform that’s concerned with human interactions and social context acting in spaces of the everyday: negotiating the personal, social and political — in place. It’s about working with each other to gain new understandings of how to live in a changing world.

I contend that community embodied knowledge is a valuable resource that is not properly understood at present, and so cannot be truly valued. During my studies, I have come to appreciate something of the cultural disparities between the Western disregard for this knowledge and indigenous societies’ world views. These are based on interconnected environmental and spiritual values, and recognise human dependence on ecosystems and our influence on them through the use of land, water and air. As with the island community in Uist, this knowledge has come about through extended processes of observation and interpretation. But in non-western societies, the interconnected world view influences how they value their knowledge, affording a context for understanding from an embodied perspective that references the natural world, its materials, and conditions, in a natural state of co-existence. 

To explore this point, I have been undertaking comparative research in Aotearoa New Zealand to gain perspective on the role indigenous communities with long-standing interconnected relationships with their natural environment can play in highlighting the importance of practical local knowledge. Māori see themselves as integral parts of ecosystems, and know that their basic necessities such as materials, health, good social relations, security, and freedom of choice and action are provided directly and indirectly by ecosystems. Knowledge of this interdependency supports their ability to care for their land and their people.

This part of my research — which I will turn to in my next post — focuses on learning how regenerative practices can influence the governance of resources and help to develop flourishing communities. And I am also looking at what maybe limits how we can transfer such a model to other places and contexts. 


Find out more

The term ‘Eco-social Art’ was first coined by artist-researcher (and ClimateCultures Member) Cathy Fitzgerald as part of her PhD by practice The Ecological Turn: Living Well with forests to explain eco-social art practices.

The Rotterdam-based artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s work engages with the setting up of ‘collaborative production’ between people involved in processes of urban development.