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.
Actor, director and cultural entrepreneur, Giovanni Enrico Morassutti shared case studies of creatives in residence, of climate theatre and community engagement with an international conference, exploring strategies for encouraging cross-disciplinary projects to address the biodiversity and climate crisis.
1,800 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes
In November 2022 I was invited to give a presentation to ‘Create the Future’, the international conference on opportunities in the arts organised by the TransCultural Exchange at Boston’s Colleges of the Fenway, Massachusetts USA. I focused on Environmental, Climate Change, and Sustainable Art Practices.
I was invited to the conference by artist and curator Mary Sherman and my presentation was sponsored by the TransCultural Exchange’s Betsy Carpenter Foundation and the Rudi Punzo Memorial Fund.
Being part of the conference as a panelist along with American artist and curator Janeil Engelstad, cultural innovator Gordon Knox, and Ute Meta Bauer, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, enriched my understanding of artistic practices dealing with ecological and climate-related topics. During the panel, we focused on how creative residencies can provide artists with direct access to understanding climate change.
Art Aia – Creatives In Residence
I presented strategies for encouraging activities and opportunities for cross-disciplinary projects incorporating art, theatre, science, environmentalism, and business. I described a few case studies such as the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice, a residency programme sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Practices in the Arts, and a think tank for sustainability in the arts and culture. I curated and organised this programme in 2018 together with Gudrun Filipska from the Arts Territory Exchange, a nonprofit organisation in the arts that is creating vast global opportunities for artists. Two international artists (Kelly Leonard and Beatrice Lopez) got the opportunity to stay at Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, exploring their ecological art practices by sharing, after a year’s correspondence, their perspectives on sustainability.
Art Aia – Creatives In Residence (AACIR) is a cultural centre, a creative residency, located within an agricultural centre situated in the Friulian countryside near the town of Sesto al Reghena in the province of Pordenone, Italy. Its aims are artistic research and experimentation in the area, information, and promotion of art and culture locally and internationally, promoting exchanges and collaborations between individual artists and groups of various nationalities and backgrounds. I founded Art Aia – Creatives In Residence to create a place for artistic production and research that focuses on the creative process and facilitates cultural exchange across borders. The main focus of our programmes is climate change art and theatre and sustainable art practices. I am glad to perform a leading role in the organisation, and this work represents my contribution to the Climate Justice movement.
AACIR also intends to raise awareness and call for action on issues related to global warming, climate change, and the risks that biodiversity is facing. During the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice, for instance, Kelly and Beatrice also met Prince Guecello di Porcia, among other eco-entrepreneurs, and discussed the intertwining of sustainable business and art practices. Guecello is the owner of Cantina Principi di Porcia, a sustainable farm and vineyard that limits the use of environmental resources thanks to technological innovation.
While visiting his farm, the artists walked with a large filtering fabric in front of a large deposit of processed soy to emphasise the necessity of filtering and recycling. The fabric was then hung up in one of the art spaces of Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, along with the residue of processed soy from the winery as a symbol of a sustainable future, creating the artwork ‘Filter’. The ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice has been an opportunity to create connections between people coming from different fields, creating a dialogue and opening up strategies for interdisciplinary sustainable practices.
I was pleased by what Guecello said referring to Art Aia – Creatives In Residence during the Circular Economy forum in Milan in 2020, that its initiatives offer opportunities to discover a territory almost completely unknown to tourists from a unique perspective. He was very impressed by the work of Beatrice and Kelly, especially by their capacity to express the concept of sustainability through their artworks. About the local environment, Kelly Leonard was affected by the verdancy of the area surrounding AACIR. She said: “I found the area of Italy to be too green, too rich, too comfortable…”
Climate Change Theatre Action
The other case study I dispensed in Boston was based on climate change theatre. I participated in Climate Change Theatre Action 2021, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented biennially to coincide with the United Nations climate change COP meetings.
I contacted the prominent Italian environmental association Legambiente to collaborate on the production of an event near the Tagliamento river, which is considered the last morphologically intact river in the Alps. I decided on such a location in respect of its authenticity. Its canals and water make me feel connected to nature and life. I think it is crucial to create occasions to share the delicate balance of Planet Earth that we have drastically violated in the last 50 years. In Friuli Venezia Giulia, the region where my art residency is located, Climate Change Theatre Action involved different partners, both public and private. The Regional Environmental Protection Agency sent one of their scientists to illustrate climate changes at local and global levels, reconnecting what is happening in the territory to phenomena on a global scale: their causes, effects, and possible actions to limit and cope with climate change. The municipality of Morsano al Tagliamento hosted part of the conference in the historical landmark of an old furnace.
To produce the event, I launched grassroots fundraising to connect with the region and foster community involvement. The first part of the event had the character of an informational meeting for citizens. Several local artists took part, such as Silvia Braida. And Edoardo Marcon, owner of the company La Casa del Sole, explained how photovoltaic panels work and provided a solar power station to give clean energy during the event.
For Climate Change Theatre Action sul Tagliamento, as a theater director, I presented the play When, written by playwright Wren Brian. We rehearsed the play at AACIR, where actresses Viviana Piccolo and Clelia DelPonte could focus on its environmental message. I decided to direct this play because of its universal meaning to reconnect with nature, to re-establish a connection with Mother Earth.
In the production, I also added some recordings of memorable speeches delivered by young activists including Greta Thunberg and Severn Cullis-Suzuki — also known as “The Little Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes” when she addressed the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. I was moved by their courage and spontaneity and I thought that such recordings could express a sense of urgency and be a good addition to the composition of the play. I discussed my creative choice with Wren Brian, and not only did she like the idea but, as a Canadian living in Treaty 1 territory, the ancestral and traditional homeland of Anishinaabe people, she also suggested I do some research on Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe Indigenous rights advocate from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. I was impressed by Autumn Peltier’s activism on the issue of water protection, and since the play was staged by the river, I decided to include part of her speech as well.
Our team installed a climate ribbon — inspired by The Climate Ribbon project that started in New York City at the 2014 People’s Climate March — which featured a large tree where anyone who wished to do so was able to express, by writing on a ribbon, their thoughts on what they love and what they fear losing due to climate change. Also, in Friuli, by hanging ribbons on the tree, each participant expressed their solidarity and will to fight against climate chaos.
Together with the Regional Environmental Protection Agency, we also created an online questionnaire where people could reveal anonymously their fears about the climate crisis. The phrases collected online, such as “the sound of the wind blowing in the trees” or “the snow”, were transcribed on ribbons and displayed during Climate Change Theatre Action sul Tagliamento.
My effort is to strengthen the ecological component of AACIR through further cultural and artistic initiatives and through the restoration of some spaces to be repurposed for artistic practices in harmony with the natural environment of the territory. I am glad that Art Aia – Creatives In Residence is recognised abroad. Being invited as a speaker to the Transcultural Exchange Conference in Boston and tapping into their network of artists, curators, residency directors, grantmakers and international arts professionals — as well as judging the work of other artists in the portfolio of review sessions — all expanded my horizons.
I believe a multidisciplinary approach to the topic of climate change can raise awareness and increase solidarity among different partners. These projects created a kind of connection between people that led to collective civic action, political expression, community dialogue, and shared cultural experiences, seeing art as a vehicle for understanding environmental issues, and better reflecting on practical solutions to prevent the climate crisis and to foster sustainability.
Find out more
Create the Future was TransCultural Exchange’s 2022 International Conference on Opportunities in the Arts, in Boston, Massachusetts USA from 4th – 6th November 2022. TransCultural Exchange’s mission is to foster a greater understanding of world cultures. They do this through large-scale, global art projects, cultural exchanges and educational programming.
Explore the residencies and other activities of Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, an international art residency for artistic production and research that combines art, environmental sustainability and ecotherapy practices. AACIR focuses on the development of the creative process, facilitating cultural exchange across borders. It is located near the Comune of Sesto al Reghena in the north-eastern Italian region Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
An actor, director, cultural entrepreneur, founder of Art Aia - Creatives In Residence, promoting environmental and biodiversity protection, inviting communities to take action on the climate emergency.
Composer Lola Perrin and curator Rob La Frenais invited three artists and organisers to talk about their creative work for COP26 and their feelings about the global conference’s failure to match the warm rhetoric of its first day.
2,570 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes
For many, in the days and weeks after COP26, along came a new wave of grief. Friends privately confessed to fits of uncontrollable sobbing from pure rage at international politicians still ignoring the science, otherwise they’d be in full emergency mode. The conference began with pretty speeches with presenters including David Attenborough and the Prince of Wales repeating each other’s words; “the time has come to act”. But just over two weeks later when COP26 ended, scores of new fossil fuel licences were signed, sanctioning production well into at least the 2040s.
Compare those pretty speeches to the dignitaries and the world’s media with the actions by global citizens who do indeed act — in any way they can to put a stop to the killing machine, but who are increasingly criminalised and imprisoned for doing just that. Also what of other acts, for example, birth strikes among women and some men who withhold reproduction as protest in the face of extinction, and hunger strikes that regularly appear across the world in which people decide to act by withholding food in protest at genocidal government policies? These acts rarely make mainstream news but they are there. So turning back to those pretty words on the first day of COP26 when all and sundry appealed for action, what kind of action were they talking about when it’s so hugely controversial to even mention ending fossil fuels in any final COP agreement? No wonder we cry and rage in frustration.
For this ClimateCultures post we wanted to see what three artists/organisers who took part in COP26 with creative work felt about the failure of the COP and where they will go next.
Miranda Whall is a performance artist based in Wales who crawled through the pouring rain as delegates met indoors, eventually to no avail. She expresses her frustrations powerfully in her performance and here.
Warren Senders is a musician, member of the New England Conservatory faculty and activist, and part of Music for Climate Justice which organised music events during COP26, both live in Glasgow and virtually in nine online concerts featuring 350 global musicians. Warren and Music for Climate Justice were focused on using culture to bring an indigenous voice to COP26. The concerts repeatedly broadcast this message; “Planetary Climate Change threatens our civilisation and therefore, all human art and music, there is No Time to Waste”.
Mike Stubbs is the former Director of FACT, Liverpool and has now returned to his artistic practice as well as directing ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster. His early work was based on young people’s fascination with car culture. His latest work questions this early fascination, in ‘Climate Emergency Services’ — a van spray-painted in hot rod style with images from the Australian bush fires — which he took to Glasgow for COP26.
We asked each artist/organiser four questions.
What did you do at COP26?
“On Saturday 6th November I crawled with a six-year-old potted Scots Pine on my back through the centre of Glasgow, from the Glasgow Sculpture Studios on Dawson Road to the COP26 Green Zone in the Science Centre on the Clyde Waterfront Regeneration area. Passers-by ignored, laughed, stared, cheered and filmed as the tree and I silently and determinedly made our way through heavy rain and high winds to reach our destination. The intention of my heroic/tragic/comic slow and gentle art activism was an expression of my grief, my despair and my outrage with a world dominated by corporate and personal greed, and an insistence that non–human nature, and in this case trees, be put at the centre of discussions on how to mitigate the climate emergency and ecological crisis. Animals, plants, trees, air, earth and oceans should be, metaphorically, sitting at the discussion table with heads of government and delegates.
“My hope was that crawling to the COP26 United Nations climate change conference carrying a tree that was equal in size to my body might inspire human beings to re-think and re-align their relationship to trees, seeing them not only as a resource to use and abuse but as an ally and a vital source of knowledge. We all literally need to get down from our human-centric, two-legged, dominant and hierarchical position and start recognising our non-human vegetal others as equals, and as sentient beings with a voice that we crucially need to listen to if we are to find a way out of our human-made catastrophe.”
“To be clear, I was not ‘at’ COP26. I stayed in my small house in Medford, MA. Other people from the M4CJ (Music for Climate Justice) organisation were in Glasgow. I organised and produced eight days of streamed video content: music, profiles, and interviews addressing the intersectionalities of climate activism and the performing arts. This worked out to 4.5 – 5 hours of music a day, from the 5th to the 12th of November (with a live opening event in Glasgow that I did not work on). The artists and activists we presented came from all over the world; the M4CJ ‘Festival’ was almost certainly the most diverse musical event in human history.
“Participating artists contributed a video performance and added a short spoken statement about climate change. Some of the performances were created for this event; others were archival. In several cases, the estate or trust for a major artist who was no longer alive agreed to contribute material. Interviews and panel discussions included profiles of artists, activists, musicians/composers working with climate data, ethnomusicologists & eco-musicologists, and artists & thinkers in related fields.”
“I presented Climate Emergency Services (CES) outside the Glasgow Transport Museum on the opening weekend of COP26 and then spent four days in Glasgow at the end. The artwork was hosted by the Coventry Biennale and Govan Project Space. Activities included the artwork appearing as a confounding, confused hot-rod/emergency vehicle to stimulate conversations on cars and climate emergency. I drove around Glasgow and managed to become part of a strange parade with other (police) emergency vehicles tagging along on the back of an organised pedestrian protest march. I was the only vehicle other than three cop cars.”
How has the failure of COP26 directed your intentions towards future actions?
“The failures of COP26 have enraged me and so empowered my determination and commitment to take this performative work much further. Up until the crawl in Glasgow I had crawled in isolated and rural locations, so my audience was mostly an infrequent passer-by. Crawling in a busy urban centre took the performance directly to a bigger and wider engaged and non-engaged public. Both on the streets of Glasgow and on the politically polarised and de-humanised highways of social media I felt simultaneously empowered and vulnerable. Down there on my hands and knees, I began to more fully realise the performance’s potential to aggravate and alleviate, to provoke and heal. And I more fully realised that this human/animal/vegetal/technological hybrid that I have created is a new ‘thing’; an alliance, a symbiotic union, a co-creating community, an interconnected future.”
“I don’t think terms like ‘success’ or ‘failure’ are applicable to COP26, or any such conference. Lacking the ability to set policy, the conference is not describable in those terms. It succeeded in conveying the current state of climate-change research to policy-makers. It succeeded in forcing climate change into the forefront of worldwide media coverage for a few days. It gave activists something to do, a way to connect … and gave the climate movement a lot to think about going forward (issues of intersectionality, of indigenous representation, of systemic discrimination, economic models, etc). It failed to generate hard policy outcomes … but to expect COP26 to result in systemic transformation was to expect that (in a hopefully soon-to-be-obsolete metaphor) the airport bus would grow wings and take off down the runway.
“Such expectations represent a popular (and entirely understandable) need for a deus ex machina which would magically solve our problems. I was not immune to that feeling; none of us were.
“It makes me want to want to continue to mingle and discuss these issues with members of the unconverted members of society, i.e. car nuts, pissed people, street dwellers, middle-class shoppers, kids and anyone not into COP26 or the environment. Climate Emergency Services is a hot rod with a gun on the roof playing extra loud birdsong, flashing lights and a sci-fi plant glowing/growing inside. It’s not a bad way of sparking up a conversation.”
What ideas do you have for your next climate-engaged work?
“I am now planning further solo urban tree crawls and collective urban tree crawls. I am also preparing to crawl in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt with a palm tree on my back for COP27 from the 7th – 18th November 2022. I will crawl for longer and further and hopefully up to, if not into, the conference and negotiation centre. In Glasgow, I reached the entrance of the Green Zone. This was ineffectual, next time I need to crawl to the entrance of the Blue Zone or its equivalent in Sharm El- Sheikh.”
“I’ll go on doing what I’ve been doing all along. Daily vigils, a daily quota of political activity, intermittent public activism (marches, sit-ins, possible NVCD), and intermittent benefit concerts as part of an ongoing collaboration with M4CJ. I hope to present the first such event in May or June 2022 (I’ve organised 21 previous benefit concerts since 2009).”
“I am trying to find a sustainable model with Creative Folkestone on how to continue the work of Climate Emergency Services and am planning to tour to festivals, motor shows and schools, integrating practical workshops on air quality monitoring and growing. Additionally, in Doncaster I am going to be announcing an open call for a new artists residency scheme on sustainability and water and a lab which will develop new critical work on climate for ArtBomb Festival 22 in August next year.”
Many people feel dismayed at business since COP26. What must happen so we’re happy in 2025?
“The wind is gusting its terrifying gusts outside my window as I write this. The wind terrified me as a child because it blew down walls and trees and shook my window, I would crawl into my parents’ bed and stick my fingers into my ears until it blew itself out. I remember loving the peace and quiet that followed. But now the wind terrifies me more than ever, because I know what it means and I know there is no peace and quiet to follow. What we must do could not be more clear — leaders must lead and businesses, corporations and citizens must follow. Simple. I am on my hands and knees pleading. I cannot articulate this better or differently.”
“What would make us happy would be the governments of the world taking climate change seriously and engaging in concerted and robust collective action. Is there a mechanism to make this happen? No. The systemic inability of our governance to cope with climate change is a diagnostic indicator pointing to a structural problem in our governing mechanisms themselves. In geopolitics, hasty actions between nations are likely to be harbingers of war. The UN was developed specifically to reduce both the likelihood and the severity of such hasty actions — providing a place where disputes between nations can be discussed instead of leading to armed hostilities. That is to say: the UN was created in order to make international relations slower, more measured, more reflective. Which is a structural problem in light of the fact that what the climate crisis demands is that we all act very quickly. The UN isn’t equipped to direct concerted and robust collective international action any more than that airport bus is equipped to be an airplane.
“At this stage in the crisis, our happiness must come in the successful resolution of short-term problems. We live in ‘interesting times’, and our responsibility is to the future.”
“We will never be happy. Continue to engage the disenchanted, talk to your family, collaborate with like minds, write to MPs, become councillors, be artists, make art and protest when you can.”
Find out more
Lola Perrin adds: I was interviewed by Warren as part of M4CJ at COP26 and appeared in the concert on November 11th. I found I became gradually more and more addicted to the concerts once they started streaming on November 5th — they’re quite deeply emotional and the breadth of work gathered together from 350 engaged musicians across the world is really powerful. Here are links to the M4CJ COP26 streamed concerts on YouTube:
Miranda Whall is an interdisciplinary and performance artist based in Wales. She says of her crawling works, “My crawling projects are titled Crossed Paths. So far for Crossed Paths – Animals I have crawled as a sheep, badger, almost otter and I have carried out extensive research for mountain hare. For Crossed Paths – Trees I have crawled with an Oak tree, Birch tree and May tree. Other crawling projects are in development. Crossed Paths is a project about going deeply into the living landscape, ecosystems and interspecies dynamics to explore animal, plant, land and human narratives.” On Miranda’s Vimeo channel, you can watch her Showreel for COP26 Glasgow.
Mike Stubbs is an artist, curator and consultant, Director of ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster and former Director of FACT Liverpool. You can read more about Climate Emergency Services, which was commissioned for Creative Folkestone Triennial 2021.
Climate change dramatist and activist Julia Marques introduces a series of lively and engaging conversations she has recorded with fellow members. Artists and researchers explore their experiences with wide-ranging topics which inform the creative work that ClimateCultures celebrates.
2,970 words: estimated reading time 12 minutes + videos
The inspiration for this journey into podcasting came from the imposed self-isolation that we are all currently facing because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that we have faced (on and off) for nearly a year now. As a fairly extroverted human, I miss connecting. I miss collaborating. I miss conversing in 3D; the whole-body language that cannot be translated through a flat screen, no matter how hard we try. As a human being, there is also a need to create. So, working within the current limitations, I decided to set about creating a podcast for ClimateCultures members to become more acquainted with each other. I started with a small pilot group of five members all linked to theatre practice in some way: Daniel Bye, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law, Jennifer Leach and Andrea Carr.
I am myself a theatre maker, mainly with amateur groups at a community level, and I discovered the melding of the two worlds of theatre and environmentalism during my climate change studies at King’s College in London a few years ago. I also directed and produced The Children by Lucy Kirkwood in 2019 with my local theatre group. Having worked in the environmental NGO sector for a bit, I decided to foray into the business startup world last year and set up a business with a team-mate that aimed to connect media professionals with environmental community stories.
As well as being interested in why people have joined ClimateCultures, when they first decided to combine art and environmentalism and what they are working on now, our conversations explored what art and environmentalism bring to each other – and more along the way.
I’ve included a short clip from each conversation, with links to the full interviews in the notes and in their ClimateCultures member profiles.
“Galvanising the faithful”
‘Preaching to the choir’ is a common criticism in environmental circles. However, writer and performer Daniel Bye doesn’t think this is a problem because even among the broadly like-minded each person brings their own interpretation of a situation and how to take it from here to there. As Dan points out, there would never be another rally or march if all you were trying to do each time was convert people who don’t share your views. There is power in gathering with like-minded people who are also individuals nonetheless and carry their own life history and views and opinions with them. Everyone can bring something to the table.
Daniel Bye on ‘galvanising the faithful’
I think there is a lot still to be learnt from faith communities and religion – often overlooked in the climate change discussion. For many years they have successfully galvanised the faithful and ‘preached to the choir’ to great effect. The ‘guardians of the Earth’ narrative is one that many people will identify with — we have been given this wonderful planet by a higher power and we need to take care of it.
Dan spoke to me about How to Occupy an Oil Rig, and his more recent piece These Hills Are Ours made with Boff Whalley of the band Chumbawamba. The first is more overtly political and has very clear links to climate change. The second is more subtle about the subject matter, but it is very much linked to our connection with the natural world — walking the path between urban and country with different groups of singers.
There is something about walking that has magical properties; we step on the ground in order to walk — “that patch of ground upon which you tread to go to the local shops” as writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach put it in our discussion. Walking is our constant connection to the physical earth that we live on. We also walk on marches — to have our voices heard. We walk to get us somewhere, but also as a leisure activity. Walking slows us down, we have time to appreciate what’s around us. With no other means of transport, we walk. There is huge potential in walking too, as initiatives like Slow Ways are showing – walking connects us.
When watching the videos of the walks that the choirs were able to do with Dan and Boff, you get a sense of something powerful in a group of people all singing together on top of a hill. Voices into the wind, feet planted on the ground, nothing else around but grass and stones. They have made a journey, and this journey has brought them here — but the journey is not yet finished. The art is in the process, not the product. They hope to make more performative journeys later this year.
“Just enough beauty to stay with the darkness”
As you watch the singers trudge up the hills with Dan, you can see the hardship that must be gone through before they reach the peak and sing for joy. You must go through the darkness to reach the light — there cannot be light without darkness. Jennifer and writer, performer and creative producer Tessa Gordziejko are sure of this. If we cannot stay with the darkness then we will forever be chasing the light. Tessa quotes Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project: “Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down.” This reminds me of Donna Harraway’s Staying with the Trouble and the work of Joanna Macy — climate work very much rooted in psychology. Tessa is in fact connected to the Climate Psychology Alliance and has started to weave tapestries using social dreaming — untethering what is sitting on the bottom of our lakes of consciousness and letting it ‘bob to the surface’.
Tessa Gordziejko on ‘Facing the darkness’:
Tessa also likes to weave music into her work; she says it helps to immerse people in the work so they feel part of it. There is also an element of dance – she misses dancing with people – as a way of connecting when words run out, and of circus performance via her collaborations with circus artist Mish Weaver. Dancing, music, song — these elements run throughout Tessa’s work, and Dan’s too.
“You learn as much as you teach”
We all go into situations with preconceived ideas of how things will be. What art does is make it okay for us to be uncomfortable with the way things actually turn out — as we figure out what’s really going on. Art embraces uncertainty, as does science. The not knowing is what drives both pursuits. And for both, the process is as important as the results. It would make sense then that the two join forces so that we can all welcome the unknown with open arms.
As a geographer, Matt Law has been introduced to the power of art as connector. He is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department that addresses environmental issues. The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is the result; a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group. Plans to tour it have been put on hold but will hopefully go ahead later this year.
Being an educator, Matt really feels as though the process of using art to communicate science has been as much of a learning process for him as it has been for any of the students he has taught. His work on the project Future Animals with Professor Jaqui Mulville from the archaeology department at Cardiff University was the spark that ignited his interest in merging art and geography to make sense of climate change.
Matt Law on ‘You learn as you teach’:
“Ecology begins on your doorstep”
Jennifer Leach looks out of her window at a holly tree and tells me that if everyone could see this tree then there would be no need for words to explain the beauty of the natural world in which we live. The beauty lies in the ordinariness of the thing. The everyday ecology.
I really think this is crucial for that all-important shift in consciousness from understanding something with our heads to really feeling it with our hearts. Big, lofty ideas are not going to get us far — ordinary, everyday things are what will change hearts and minds. And art has a way of celebrating the ordinary, of holding it up to the light so that we can really see it for the beautiful thing that it is. Jennifer identifies this in the work of American visual artist Joan Jonas who celebrates the ordinary, albeit in a thorough and intentional way.
Jennifer Leach on ‘Ecology on your doorstep’:
Jennifer herself has made canvasses out of plastic bags used in an art exhibition and organised the Festival of the Dark, where people were encouraged to re-embrace the seasonal cycles of dark and light. As she puts it:
“It’s only by being still, by being quiet and by completely embracing the fact that death and decay – endings – are part of our cycle that you learn to live in harmony with everything else that lives within the seasons of nature. We are the only species that don’t.”
She’s currently working on Duende with fellow ClimateCultures member Andrea Carr — a project that came to life through one of those preciously ordinary things that we now crave; a chance meeting on a staircase, and a conversation about Federico Garcia Lorca at a TippingPoint gathering. The unnamed catastrophe in Duende has forced two insects to hide underground — a strange portent of what became reality in 2020 for many of us. This piece is still a work in progress, and Jennifer and Andrea are looking to collaborate with others who appear in connection with this project. However, as Jennifer says, “what’s become super clear to me now is that my work is not about product, it is about process”, so you could say that the art has already been created.
“Our new brief”
So, what is the way forward for environmental theatre? For designer and scenographer Andrea Carr, it is the vision that all artistic practice will hold the environment at the centre of all it does — so the prefix ‘eco’ will no longer be needed. She has pioneered this approach to making theatre, and now she has joined forces with other scenographers and created Eco-stage, a soon-to-relaunch platform which will serve as a library of eco-theatre work and a space for dialogue on the topic.
Andrea has her own set of values which she has defined on her own terms, and she encourages others to really think about what these highly generalised words mean to them as well:
Creativity – “cultivating curiosity” Sustainability – “where the dreamer … the idealist and the pragmatist will work together” Collaboration – “active listening”, “developing openness”, “pooling expertise”, “welcoming and honouring diversity” Radical optimism – “celebrating and noticing what works and doing more of it”
She also speaks of honouring the materials that we use to create art — these things that we regard as single-use but have a life that extends far beyond our imagination.
Andrea presents us with our new brief: to place the ‘eco’ at the heart of everything we do.
Andrea Carr on ‘Our new brief’
One thing that really inspired me in my conversations with these five people was that each was proud of all of their work, large and small, and no one was afraid of making something that may or may not fly. All creative work is valid. Having spent a year in the business incubator world where you are constantly asked how ‘scalable’ your idea is, it was really nice to be reminded that ‘small and quiet’ is also worth something and this is where change starts — at the local, smaller, community level. This has inspired me to pursue more of my own environmental community theatre work, to put something out there and see where it goes. After all, if we don’t act now, then when will we?
I would like to thank Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea for their time and their great insights into making environmental art, and life more generally! The videos of my conversations with them are all available below, and in their profiles in the ClimateCultures Directory.
Conversations such as these are part of the bigger conversation on art and climate change and how to make sense of the world we live in. The idea is also that they will become part of a spiderweb of conversations starting with the ClimateCultures community, reaching further and further out until they include all members and eventually beyond. So I’m hoping this first set will also spark more conversations and collaborations within our community. If you’d like to be part of future discussions – just let me or Mark know!
Do watch Julia’s full conversations with Dan, Tessa, Matt, Jennifer and Andrea below. This post and our brief summaries here give just a flavour of what they discussed!
Theatre writer and performer Daniel Bye discusses the value of dialogue with the community of other makers, and shares his experience of creating work (including How to Occupy an Oil Rig and, more recently, These Hills Are Ours) as starting points to bring people together, galvanise those with existing environmental awareness, reach new audiences and have impact beyond the performance, expanding the opportunity for activism.
Writer, performer, creative producer and activist Tessa Gordziejko discusses her involvement with the Climate Psychology Alliance and Dark Mountain Project as inspirations for work such as Breath[e]:LESS and The Divided and explorations of ‘social dreaming’ as ways to address our emotional responses to climate crisis. Tessa also shares plans for a deep adaptation project working with the land and conversations around the campfire.
Environmental change and sustainability researcher Matt Law shares his experience of crossing academic boundaries, coming to climate theatre as a geographer and bringing arts and geography students together for The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul). He also discusses art, music and performance as ways to explore ways of engaging people with environmental histories and futures, and being connected to a community.
Artist, writer, performer and storyteller Jennifer Leach shares her environmental passion as a creator of projects such as The Festival of the Dark, reconnecting with nature’s cycles of life and death, and learning how the process is as important as the product. She shares ideas behind Duende, her new collaborative project with Andrea Carr, and the importance of finding what feeds you rather than what drains you.
Designer and scenographer Andrea Carr shares her childhood model for environmental action, developing her core values through works such as Orlando after Virginia Woolf, Stuck and The Chairs, working on eco-scenography with other designers to directly incorporate ecological thinking into theatre and make activism visible. She also discusses Duende, her new collaborative project with Jennifer Leach as hybrid encounters with times of ecological uncertainty through stories, song, imagery and myth.
As well as exploring these members’ activities via their ClimateCultures profiles, you can explore the following links for film and other materials from some of their theatrical works mentioned in the post: Daniel Bye — How to Occupy an Oil Rig and These Hills Are Ours; Tessa Gordziejko — Breath[e]:LESS; Matt Law — The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul); and Andrea Carr — Stuck. And you can read about Jennifer Leach’s journey from a ‘sharing of darkness’ at a climate conference for artists and scientists, and the year-long festival she created in its honour, to her recent book in her post Dancing with Darkness.
Slow Ways is a project to create a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities as well as thousands of villages.
The Dark Mountain Project is making art that doesn’t take the centrality of humans for granted, tracing the deep cultural roots of the mess the world is in, and looking for stories that can help us make sense of a time of disruption and uncertainty.
The Climate Psychology Alliance is a network focusing on climate change not as a scientific problem waiting for a technical solution, but as a systemic problem that engenders fear, denial and despair, forces uncomfortable dilemmas about justice, nature and equality into consciousness and challenges all of us in modern societies both personally and politically.
The Future Animals project on art, Darwin and archaeology included artist Paul Evans, Ciara Charnley from the National Museum, Wales and bioarchaeologist Jacqui Mulville from Cardiff University.
Eco-stage is a public commitment and positive declaration to work ecologically in the performing arts sector. It includes a set of intersecting values, objectives and provocations for engaging with ecological practice. The pledge is envisioned as a conversation starter to help bring an ecological ethic to performance production and as a tool for motivating action.
Theatre-maker and arts academic Adam Ledger shares the thinking behind Gulp!, The Bone Ensemble’s project on global water issues, and the challenges of creating an engaging and participatory family drama on environmental issues, inequalities and opportunities during Covid-19.
1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes
It seems strange to be putting down some thoughts about a theatre project that couldn’t quite finish its tour because of the COVID-19 crisis. But the ongoing situation makes me reflect on art-making, connection, on possibilities before, during and after the peculiar feeling of simultaneously being stuck but too busy. And all in the context of a world dealing with a pandemic, how to emerge from lockdown, and where — outside of the four walls we are obliged currently to occupy — another set of issues remain: of environmental challenges and inequalities, but also opportunities. So as lockdown gripped, the skies over major cities began to clear as pollution dispersed, yet at the same time the UNESCO World Water Development Report was published. Its headline findings make for grim reading:
climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, threatening the effective enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation for potentially billions of people. The alteration of the water cycle will also pose risks for energy production, food security, human health, economic development and poverty reduction, thus seriously jeopardizing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Gulp! More than a drop
It is in these contexts that there are only two ways forward: to do nothing, too often what seems to be the environmental policy of those who purport to be our leaders; or to do at least something. On offering feedback on The Bone Ensemble’s second environmentally-themed family theatre performance, Gulp!, all about water, one rather ill-judged, academically-cocky comment that came my way was ‘how is this more than a drop in the ocean?’. This is an odd way of thinking. Put it this way; if you throw some sort of recyclable plastic item straight in the bin, you’re harming the planet in an almost immeasurably small way. If you put it where you should, in a tiny way you’re triggering help. What choice should you be making?
Back in 2018, the impetus to make Gulp! came from a bit more than a drop, and actually before we created its forerunner, Where’s My Igloo Gone?, a piece about climate change (as a theatre company, we do tend to take on the big stuff..!). We began to realise just how ridiculous bottled water and the consumer con-trick around that ‘industry’ is, let alone the environmental impact of bottled water. We began to think more widely about water. Like the previous production, we wanted to create a positive, participatory experience for our audiences, made up of children 7+ and their families and carers. We continued to hold fast to earlier principles; we would reject dystopian imaginaries, the dramatic tropes of the disaster movie, which we had seen in some work. In no way do we have all the answers, and there is ongoing reflection about the strengths and weakness of the work, but it seems to us that a fundamental dramaturgical shift (the form and content of the work) has to be from a bleak mirroring of a problem, to a principle of empowering and empathetic stories and experiences.
No work can happen without a web of partners. Our theatre-making has been significantly funded by Arts Council England, several trusts and venue partners, the University of Birmingham and through a collaboration with Severn Trent Water. In the academic bit of my life, the two pieces combine to create a practice as research and ‘impact’ project around the efficacy of empathetic, positive dramaturgies of performance and the environment. We also benefit from ongoing relationships with a set of scientists and, because our work is made to be accessible, with advisory d/Deaf artists and those that help us with ‘relaxed’ performances.
Working together in water scenarios
In terms of empathy, both shows have a central character, who undertakes a kind of journey. This has been crucial as a dramatic strategy, and one which is actually pretty classic. Spectators (in order to involve everyone, there are only sixty at a time) see someone in a situation and it’s important that they can somehow identify with them. The story of Gulp! centres on Maya (the name means ‘water’ in Hebrew) who — wait for it! — gets sucked up a tap! Early on, we had also decided that the feel of Gulp! should be contemporary, whereas the earlier Where’s My Igloo Gone? was quite ‘other’, perhaps a folk setting of some kind. In Gulp!’s recognisable world, complete with adverts for bottled water (ours is cheekily called ‘EviClever’), Maya gets spat out of the tap in various locations: a city experiencing a flood; a rural location being polluted by discharge from a factory; the ocean; a desert. Spectators see Maya getting into problems, but as a kind of coda to the story, through participation they help Maya to sort things out: they lend their sandbag cushions to hold back flooding, protest at the ‘baddie’ polluting factory boss, by working together they help to bring water to the elephant at the empty watering hole. Drawing on earlier experience, the show also features no spoken English, in part to reach EAL (English as an Additional Language) and d/Deaf audiences, but also to stimulate a communicative world of sound, partly comprising the made-up language of ‘Waterish’. Overall, too, the audience help make the show’s soundtrack, which we layer live with a loop-station.
The real problem was finding a story that would ‘hold’ the topic of water. Climate change — and this is, of course, a big generalisation — is a ‘thing’, a more or less tangible issue. It is a recognisable problem, but there appears to be some means of addressing it. For many people, water is just not a problem — we turn on the tap and water comes out of it — it is instead a phenomenon with which we have a relationship. Made up of several perspectives, ‘water’ won’t easily be marshalled into a storyline. Yet it is one of the few, and indeed fundamental things that unites all of us globally, even if many in the world have no tap and no clean water. One of our scientific advisors, Professor David Hannah (University of Birmingham) thus shared how water can be conceived as part of a continuum: too much, too little, too dirty. Part of the narrative answer was to have Maya ‘land’ in different scenarios which, if you look back at the list of locations above, are underpinned by this conception. In the heat of rehearsal (something actual, rather than virtual, in August 2019!), we wrestled still more with the dramaturgical organisation, eventually also conceiving of water as a set of binaries: global and local; need and taking for granted; and also through climatic extremes (heat and flood); and human interventions such as access, control and denial. These themes also hold the topic together across the story.
Small choices matter
Over 2019-20, the production toured extensively to schools, theatres, community and rural settings. Funded by Severn Trent Water, we also produced three thousand copies of what we quite grandly called a ‘children’s graphic novel’, a comic-book version of Gulp! beautifully illustrated by Emily Jones. This was given out free after many performances and also made available digitally. Emily found a way also not to use English in the book; where necessary, the characters speak or think pictures in speech bubbles. Severn Trent Water also produced a very extensive education pack to go with the show and took part in post-show discussions, as well as funding twelve performances in six diverse schools local to us. We also created a ‘PPP song’, which cheerily celebrated what should only go down your loo: paper, pee and poo!
And, of course, we had to gather feedback through several mechanisms. One of the more usual is to use post-show questionnaires. Analysis of their free-text responses (we tried to resist too-leading tick-box questions…) demonstrated that a quarter of people confirmed their changed perception around water use and waste; another 25% of respondents wrote about their changed behaviour in terms of consumption, significantly around the use of plastics. A further 25% of respondents most explicitly wrote that they would cease the use of bottled water. Perhaps this is a response to the thread of ‘EviClever’. But I hope too because of the ocean scene, when plastic objects are turned into an underwater world: at first beautiful, but then where plastic-bag jelly-fish get caught in a turtle’s jaws, and a plastic water bottle is swallowed by a tarpaulin whale. As the UNESCO report also says, water is a direct way we experience climate and the way we understand it, use it and what we allow to be in it (the report speaks of adaptation and mitigation) has global consequences. Again, small choices help.
I’m not a social scientist, a scientist, or even much of an overtly political-environmental activist; I’m a theatre-maker and an arts academic and I have to start from that point. At times, I have to resist or at least find a way to work with some of the instrumentalisation that creating this kind of work attracts, appearing at worst as the academic capitalism that imbues some of the institutional aspects. On the other hand, there is a great pleasure in meeting the spectator’s gaze. This is the real meaning of the work.
Environmentally-based artworks cannot be only negative, nor comprise only information, like some kind of illustrated lecture. Participation is one means whereby spectators often end up modelling a different behaviour, showing how change and intervention are possible. A factually-informed but inherently well-made, emotive piece of artwork really stays with people. If you want to shift people’s knowledge, intentions and, perhaps, behaviour, a means to engage what really leads to change needs to happen. Ultimately, this is people’s hearts and minds.
As well as Co-Artistic Director with The Bone Ensemble, Adam is also a Reader in Theatre and Performance at the University of Birmingham, and you can find out more about Gulp! at the university’s Performance and the Environment website — including the lyrics and music for the PPP Song. You can read the e-book of Gulp!, illustrated by Emily Jones, on Issuu, with further resources at the back of the book. Plenty of things to do at home and at school!