Dystopian Farming: An Inquiry

For animist farmer and author Paul Feather, 2024 brings a creative inquiry into ‘dystopian farming’ as resistance as well as sustenance, and a search for joy and meaning that makes our dire times tolerable: the potential for liberation.


1,100 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


I have been farming for twenty years, and I’ve had some success in growing food. Enough success that people ask me lots of questions about it, and that I have several hundred pounds of sweet potatoes, yacón, pumpkins, and potatoes stacked in crates in the cellar alongside shelves full of canned tomatoes, pears, and pickled everything. Enough that I don’t feel overworked in producing all of this. I have been farming for twenty years, yet I still don’t feel like I know how to do it — even less do I know how to talk about it or how to answer your questions about farming.

Farming dystopia. Showing Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains.
Farming dystopia: Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains. Photograph: Terra Currie © 2023

Whether I have answers or not, people continue to ask how my farm works. So, in pursuit of these answers that I don’t yet have, in 2024 I will make an inquiry into what I do. I shall call it ‘Farming Dystopia’, because I feel that dystopia best describes our cultural and ecological context. I resonate with the words of Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte who points out that “some indigenous peoples already inhabit what [their] ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future” in which settler colonialism has so drastically altered people’s environment that it is harder to obtain the traditional foods and materials that they have relied on for millennia. He emphasizes that in spite of this unfortunate reality, “we do not give up by dwelling in a nostalgic past even though we live in our ancestors’ dystopia.”1

This dystopia does not only affect Indigenous people (even if it does affect them most severely). We all live in a world of façade and confusion, where every practice, including farming, requires some not-quite-tolerable measure of exploitation half perceived, but partly veiled by the cognitive dissonance that makes it possible to get through the day. The present dystopia is a soul-numbing experience for anyone, at best; and a terrifying and dangerous one for far too many.

Farming for liberation

If I would honestly describe my farming methodology, acknowledgment of our dystopian context would have to be the jumping-off point. I am farming within a dystopian context. I am inside The Matrix. It is Nineteen Eighty-Four, and this is a Brave New World. Dystopian farming is a means of sustenance and also resistance. It is a frank admission of our dire context, but also — maybe even primarily — a search for the joy and meaning that makes that context tolerable.

This inquiry originates as an attempt to answer questions about my farming methods, and so its initial structure will be blog-like: if I can’t ‘explain’ my methods, perhaps I can narrate them every week or so. However, I would also like to de-center my own methods, because farming is extremely context-dependent. I have no real way to know whether my particular methods will be helpful for people with different access to land, different body types, different social and family structures, different climates … different everything. In the dystopian context, the value of a method is in its potential for liberation, and I don’t know how much my methods can liberate others, especially people with less privilege than I have enjoyed. I would like to be able to answer that question.

If my inquiry is to be successful, it will also have to include other voices, other platforms, and other knowledge. Perhaps it will evolve away from a personal blog to become more like a book, a zine, or a journal article. If there is dialogue, we could even borrow the format of a podcast.

For now, I will inquire and write. My initial reflections have been about the curious mix of liberation and obligation that goats bring into my life. As I make small daily movements in preparation for spring seeding, I will snap pictures and share thoughts about how to coax another round from the dirt. What do I owe the dirt for this?

Dystopian farming in dialogue

As I hope to include others in this inquiry, I think it is helpful to situate dystopian farming in a broad dialogue about global agriculture. Without making prescriptions about what people should or shouldn’t be doing in contexts that I haven’t experienced, I hope I can narrow the scope of the inquiry in a way that invites the participation I am looking for.

I think that dystopian farming should be agroecological and radically holistic. Agroecology is a broad framework that includes dimensions of science, social movement, and practice.2 It is true that like many frameworks, the concept of agroecology is partially coopted by institutions3, so for this inquiry we retain the multidimensionality of agroecology and emphasize its roots in peasant social movements such as La Via Campesina.4 We also use it as a framework that addresses multiple scales: from the ecology of a single farm plot all the way to the global food system as a whole.

This inquiry will naturally interact with dialogue about permaculture — which along with ‘regenerative farming’ seems to have captured much of the imagination of the ecological farming movement — but we should critique these frameworks for their extraction of Indigenous farming practices while failing to integrate Indigenous critiques of modernity. Permaculture and regenerative agriculture have also failed to credit Indigenous people for their intellectual foundation or adequately address the legacies of settler colonialism. This is not something I will critique on the basis of morals or ideology, but because the approach I describe as dystopian farming is radically holistic and acknowledges that failure to integrate these critiques makes our farming practice more damaging to the land, weakens our social movements, and undermines our scientific foundation.

Showing Full Life Farm logo
Full Life Farm. Design: Terra Currie

Finally, dystopian farming is pragmatic. There is room for abstract discussion — and possibly even fiction — but in the end we must have sweet potatoes and a cellar to put them in. Obviously my initial inquiry is personal and fundamentally anecdote, and perhaps that is all it will ever be. But this is also an invitation — or maybe it’s a manifesto to co-create something far more interesting than anecdote or my personal critique of a farming ethos that fails to address the deeper crises of our modern dystopia.


References

[1] Whyte, Kyle Powys, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene”, in The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities (2021, Routledge).

[2] Steve Gliessman (2018) Defining Agroecology, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 42:6, 599-600.

[3] Omar Felipe Giraldo & Peter M. Rosset (2017) Agroecology as a territory in dispute: between institutionality and social movements, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:3, 545-564.

[4] Val, V., Rosset, P. M., Zamora Lomelí, C., Giraldo, O. F., & Rocheleau, D. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina I. The symbolic and material construction of agroecology through the dispositive of “peasant-to-peasant” processes. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 872-894; Rosset, P., Val, V., Barbosa, L. P., & McCune, N. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina II. Peasant agroecology schools and the formation of a sociohistorical and political subject. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 895-914.

Find out more

You can find Paul’s Farming Dystopia blog at his website with Terra Currie, where they discuss Full Life Farm — the ecological experiment they established in 2007 on five acres in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains – as well as present their art and writing and health and education work.

Paul Feather

Paul Feather

An animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics.

“Where Have All The Birds Gone?”

Artist Michael Gresalfi shares an artwork that uses repurposed materials dating from before our mass communications ‘information age’ to witness the extensive decline of bird species and populations in his local area and the loss of natural spectacle.


820 words: estimated reading time = 3 minutes


My wife and I have lived here in our home, located in Boyds, Maryland, USA for more than 32 years. Our backyard is adjacent to a 2,500-acre regional park. Black Hill Regional Park is comprised of fields, forests, streams, ponds, and a large lake.

Over the past decade, we have noticed the precipitous loss of so many species that we previously observed, including native bees, butterflies, beetles, salamanders, frogs, toads, turtles, and birds.

Not only have we lost a number of bird species, the quantity of remaining bird populations has drastically diminished. In the past, during both the Spring and Fall migratory seasons, we would watch in awe as deep and dark ribbons of migrating birds flew overhead, oftentimes extending for many miles and for half an hour or more.

Over the past years, this substantial loss of both species diversity and populations has influenced the direction my art has taken. I find myself responding to this human-induced global environmental onslaught with an increasing focus on creating climate change focused art, and where possible relying upon recycled and repurposed materials when making my art.

If you have not watched my narrated art and science integrated slide show ‘Our Changing Planet’ please do so. My large installation “What Man Has Wrought” likewise is also available here on the ClimateCultures website.

Post-it board – sixteen reasons for bird species losses

Bird species in decline. Showing "Where Have All The Birds Gone?" Artwork by Michael Gresalfi
“Where Have All The Birds Gone?” Artwork by Michael Gresalfi © 2023

This repurposed work originated with my purchase of a 1970s-era post-it board, which I then transformed into a climate change focused work of art.

I began with a 19.5″ x 27.5″ canvas framed and unpainted machine-stamped post-it board that included the outlines of birds sitting along attached twine, along with one-inch-sized clothes pins.

Prior to the introduction of the ‘Information Age’ and the advent of personal computers and particularly smartphones, people kept track of upcoming events on paper calendars and notepads and through the use in their homes of post-it boards.

I found this post-it board, equipped with the eight intact strings and a few miniature wooden clothes pins at my local Goodwill store. The canvas was untouched, no gesso, no paint. The birds were simple outlines, and not colored. The price tag on the back indicates it was sold in the ‘pre-barcode era’.

I purchased it for US $5.00 and proceeded to paint both the background and the birds with various acrylic paints. I then used vintage filing folder plastic file tabs and associated cardboard name tags, along with purchased colorful one-inch clothes pins to create this climate change focused work.

The twenty short post-it notes posted on this repurposed board (in order) are as follows:

*Where Have All The Birds Gone?

*In the past 50 years 30% lost in N. America

*2.4 Billion have disappeared since 1970

*MANY CAUSES MAN INDUCED

*CLIMATE CHANGE

*HABITAT LOSS

*CO2 INCREASING

*SEED BEARING PLANTS DISAPPEAR

*INSECT LOSS

*PESTICIDES

*HERBICIDES

*FERTILIZERS

*MONOCULTURES

*DEFORESTATION

*POLLUTION

*CATS

*TOO DRY

*TOO WET

*TOO HOT

*TOO MUCH!

My future goal is to broaden my focus on the many other diminishing and lost species that I have observed here in my backyard and within the adjacent regional park.

I haven’t seen a salamander egg mass in the ponds in more than a decade. The mating songs of the Spring Peepers, a tiny chorus frog found in the pond directly behind our yard, is nowadays a mere whisper.

Along with Box Turtles, Bull Frogs, Possums, and Monarch Butterflies, all are prime candidates for my future works.


Find out more

You can see Michael’s video ‘Our Changing Planet’ and his large installation “What Man Has Wrought” in our Creative Showcase feature — along with more than 25 examples of other ClimateCultures members’ work.

“If you were alive in the year 1970, more than one in four birds in the U.S. and Canada has disappeared within your lifetime” — so begins Vanishing: More Than 1 In 4 Birds Has Disappeared In The Last 50 Years, an article by Gustave Axelson
(September 19, 2019) for All About Birds. The article summarises recent research led by
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which quantified for the first time the total decline in bird populations in the continental U.S. and Canada, a loss of 2.9 billion breeding adult birds. Conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, who led the study, is quoted: “These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife. And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”

Globally, the 2022 edition of State of the World’s Birds from BirdLife International “paints the most concerning picture for nature yet. Nearly half of the world’s bird species are now in decline, with only six percent having increasing populations. One in eight species (or 1,409 species in total) are now threatened with extinction.”

Michael Gresalfi

Michael Gresalfi

An artist who seeks to incorporate art with climate change data, and whose work in encaustic medium, glass paint, oils and acrylics includes 'Our Changing Planet'.

Hope Tales – Stories for Change

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.

Showing 'Hope Tales' Chapbook 1: Air

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.

Showing Oysters cleaning polluted river water
Oysters cleaning polluted river water
Hope tales: Showing Weaving plants into plaits
Weaving plants into plaits
Hope Tales: Showing a collaborative poem on earth
Collaborative poem on earth

Photos above by: Nicky Saunter, Andrew Simms and Jules Pretty © 2023

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.

Showing Hope Tales Chapbook II: Land


Find out more

The first two Hope Tales chapbooks can be found here: The Hope Tales series. Check the Margate School events listings for the Hope Tales event on 31st October.

You can explore the work of the Rapid Transition Alliance to 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.

Nicky Saunter

Nicky Saunter

An entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and campaigner, and creative artist who is driven by what we can do rather than what we cannot change.

A Drop in the Pond

Writer and online community newspaper publisher, Rod Raglin shares the story of a local Vancouver, Canada, park pond reduced to a seasonal wetland — and a neigbourhood’s dispute with administrators on how to respond amid severe climate change.


940 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


The pond at South Memorial Park is not so spectacular. It’s situated in the northwest corner of a thirteen-and-a-half-hectare suburban park in the Sunset neighbourhood of Vancouver, Canada. A few picnic tables are situated beneath the shade of some willows at one end of the pond and are popular during the summer months.

The vast majority of the park is given over to tennis courts, baseball diamonds, a soccer pitch and a running track complete with outdoor exercise equipment.

Park pond - showing the local pond in Vancouver, Canada, as it was
The pond as it was. Photograph: Rod Raglin ©2023

Intervening in the park pond

In the past, the water level of the pond would fluctuate somewhat with the seasons, but never to the extent that it threatened the resident Mallards. What did begin to impinge on their living space were the reeds (phragmites) and yellow flag irises (Iris pseudacorus). These invasive species choked most of the shoreline and extended further and further into the open waterways, limiting flight and paddling paths.

The Vancouver Park Board decided to take action and initiated a costly renovation of the pond that included backhoes removing the infestations of reeds and yellow flags. A new boardwalk was constructed along a stretch of the shoreline and the pond was transformed from a brooding marsh to a sparkling gem.

But something went wrong and the pond levels began to recede – dramatically. Residents claimed Park Board workers damaged the pond’s natural clay membrane with the heavy equipment, causing it to leak. The Park Board denied it but, being an election year, conceded to the demands of the vocal and vociferous pond advocates.

The water levels were topped up with trucked in water for the balance of the summer until the fall rains did it naturally.

The next year the same thing began to happen, and once again the same people demanded that the pond be topped up until the Park Board fixed what they’d broken.

But by this time Vancouver City Council had passed the Water Works By-law (Prohibition Against Wasting Water) and the Drinking Water Conservation By-law (General Prohibition Against Wasting Water) which prohibited the use of potable water in park water features until such time as they could be retrofitted to be recirculating.

Significant ripples

British Columbia is feeling the brunt of climate change. For a number of years now, hot dry summers have sparked forest fires in the interior of the province that raged unabated. Outflow winds blow toxic wildfire smoke onto the coast and it’s not unusual for Vancouver’s air quality during the summer to be the worst on the planet.   

In 2021, a heat dome parked over the province and sent temperatures soaring into the mid 40s Celsius for six days, resulting in 619 related deaths. The temperature in the village of Lytton in the Fraser Canyon hit 49/6° C, the highest ever recorded in Canada. The following day a wildfire burned the entire town to the ground.

Every year, the snowpack in the mountains is less, summer starts earlier and lasts longer, with the average temperature inching up. Where once watering restrictions were imposed occasionally, now they’re implemented annually without exception.

It turns out, to top up the pond for one year took 11 million litres of drinking water.

No, the Park Board said, the pond would not be topped up and would become a seasonal wetland.

Park pond - showing the local pond in Vancouver, Canada, as it is now - "a seasonal wetland".
The pond as it is today – “a seasonal wetland”. Photograph: Rod Raglin ©2023

The response immediately devolved into the type of rancorous debate characterized by adversarial rhetoric and personal attacks. Proponents for the pond cited the fact that a number of park water features had been exempted from the bylaws and were still operating. All were on the west side of the city, home to the affluent neighbourhoods. Politicians were accused of favouring one side of the city over the other, the side where they and their supporters live. It was even suggested that the decision to not top up the pond was racist, Sunset being one of the most racialized neighbourhoods in Vancouver.

The opposition was mute. If you were against the pond and for water conservation it was implied you were racist, elitist, privileged. Open-minded thinking shut down, trust was undermined, and misinformation thrived.

In the end, City Council passed a motion acknowledging the concerns of the pond proponents and requested an “update on the Park Board’s assessment of and plans for the restoration of the pond.”

A glimpse of the future

At the moment, the pond is almost dry, the ducks have abandoned it, and no one is picnicking around a smelly mud hole. On the other hand, the reservoir is ahead 11 million litres of drinking water.

Whether the pond is full or empty doesn’t put anyone’s life at risk, nor anyone’s livelihood for that matter. Livestock don’t die, crops don’t wither. Climate conflict is happening throughout the world and in many areas it’s not about a meditative moment or a family picnic

Vancouverites got a glimpse of the future. They saw how a small issue exacerbated by a far greater one can divide a neighbourhood, even a city. The advocates let emotion trump reason, and our leaders chose expedience over prudence.


Find out more

You can read more about the dispute over the South Memorial Park pond in The Revue, the Southeast Vancouver neighbourhood newspaper that Rod publishes and edits. For example: Information swirling around pond just gets murkier (8th July 2023).

Rod Raglin

Rod Raglin

A journalist, publisher of an online community newspaper, photographer and writer of novels, plays and short stories that address the human condition and serious environmental issues ...

Ecoart Case Studies – Theory into Practice

In the second of three collaborative posts reviewing Ecoart in Action, artists Claire AthertonBeckie Leach, Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter find plenty to discuss in a sample of the book’s rich collection of international ecoart case studies, complementing its earlier activities.


2,000 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + optional 18-minute video


The book Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities has contributions from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners. This is the second part of a three-part review from four members of the ClimateCultures network, conducted as a set of conversations and short personal texts.

In their first post — Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People — participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton, teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach, environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd and entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter looked at some of the book’s 25 suggested activities and shared their experiences trying some of them. They’ve since met again on Zoom to share their thoughts on Section 2 of the book, which offers a wide range of 26 case studies from around the world.

As with the ecoart activities they discussed last time, part of the value of this conversational approach has been the different affinities and interests that our four reviewers bring to the exercise and the different access points they find in the case studies. The book’s intended audience is, of course, very diverse in terms of practices, backgrounds and areas of focus, and different readers will want to apply their learning from the case studies in different ways.

Free range conversation

While one of our artists read all the case studies to explore the range of theories and approaches, others flicked through, picking one or two case studies that most resonated with them. An early part of the conversation picked up on what is naturally a more theory-based quality to case studies compared with suggestions for practical activities, and how the book navigates the pros and cons of this. What Genevieve had identified as the ‘dip-in-and-outable’ approach of the activities in Section 1 is clearly an advantage here too.

Showing 'My Lonely Tree', a photograph featured in one of the ecoart case studies ('Sick-amour').
‘My Lonely Tree’, featured in the Ecoart in Action case study ‘Sick-amour’. Photograph: Joel Tauber © 2006

Claire: “What I like about it is that it goes into a lot more detail and you’ve got some of the theory and some of the pedagogy behind it, in terms of why they’d done what they’ve done. And I liked the more academic approach [but] I wouldn’t read through all the case studies from the start, because they are long and weighty.”

Genevieve: “I was really glad that, like the first section, it wants you to read on; it’s been designed to be really accessible. It’s littered with these diagrams and graphics. For me, that kept my attention because big blocks of text, I just find that too much. I really value that there’s the same approach as with the participatory, ‘how to’, part — the same style of presenting it is in this more theoretical side. It feels more digestible to me.”

Nicky: “Some of them are quite text heavy but they are broken up very clearly… Being the ‘action’ person, sometimes I went straight to the outcome section and looked at that and thought ‘That looks interesting’ and went back and read it. And sometimes it was useful to read it in that order so I knew what they were getting at.”

Beckie: “I think I’m slightly torn between how theoretical they were, that theory side — and feel that reading all the case studies together would get very repetitive in a way, whereas dipping into one or two was really nice — but also, as case studies of things that happened with people in them, I didn’t quite feel like I got enough of the people and their stories and how they found it. Which maybe is coming from a different angle.”

That last point was important to Claire too, who as a community artist feels that knowing what the people involved got from the project would help her decide what and how to take from the case study: “At the end of the day, the reason that I do what I do is for the people that I’m doing it for.” And Genevieve took this further, reflecting on how some of the themes in the case studies address climate justice or violence in different contexts, which can be “a really personal, direct experience, and something more of that could have been amplified. That ‘humanness’ of it.”

As you will see in the video extract from their free-ranging conversation, as well as taking ideas from several of the book’s case studies and their personal impact, our four reviewers took these and the book itself as opportunities to touch on important questions: what is included in ‘ecoart’ and who decides, what remains accessible and for how long after a project has ended, what is the legacy, and how might this field of practice become more visible with funding for cross-disciplinary work? In some ways, this book is an embodiment of the value of these questions and current responses to them.

Showing a group reflection in a pond, Lancashire, 2016 - featured in the 'Faculty of Social Arts Practice': one of the ecoart case studies.
Kerry Morrison and Chrissie Tiller, Reflection in Pond: FoSAP Cohort Launching their Paper Boats, First Residential, Coldwell Activity Centre, Lancashire, 2016. As featured in the ‘Faculty of Social Arts Practice’ case study. Photo: William Titley.

Ecoart case studies: creative activism

Each reviewer also offered a short text to say more about the case studies they picked out.

Nicky

As I seemed to be drawn to case studies that focus either on broad community-wide projects or single engaging actions, I decided to choose one of each to comment on here.

Sick-Amour is the name given to Joel Tauber’s case study on a tree in a “sea of asphalt” in front of the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. Over a period of time, Joel lobbied on behalf of this tree’s health, drawing attention to its beauty and the possibility that it could be propagated. Using film, community participative sculpture, and a local programme to take care of over two hundred of its “babies”. There is a reality and poignancy to this case study, as the original tree was chopped down some time later — a sad and shocking end to such a compassionate and inclusive piece of work. But the babies survive to make new trees for other places in the future.

Artist Residencies for Environmental Change is at the other end of the spectrum — a series of activities by a variety of artists along the thirteen kilometres of Plum Tree Creek in Taiwan, polluted by rapid industrialisation, high-density population and intensive agriculture. Together they engaged over 80,000 people over more than a decade. Five different local artist teams used participatory programmes to create a huge range of activities together with educational institutions, NGOs, professionals and local residents. The main idea was to re-engage people in this fairly new town with their environment through this single river, which had been artificially straightened and was struggling ecologically. Partnerships with international artists brought different perspectives and activities, ranging from puppetry to walking maps, story-led conversations to local business engagement.

These two examples — and there are many more in the book — give a flavour of the range and scale of the work described. Whatever your own practice and working environment, there is something here you might replicate or gain inspiration from.

Beckie

The range of case studies in EcoArt in Action is exciting — there is such a variety of projects. For the purposes of this exercise, I have focussed on one (but it was very hard to choose). I was drawn to Kerry Morrison and Chrissie Tiller’s The Faculty of Social Arts Practice. This case study draws important links between socially engaged arts practice and Ecoart practice, looking at how both are collaborative and interdisciplinary. This is a boundary that my arts practice regularly walks and I found nuggets of gold in the suggested activities as an artist, and in their pedagogical approach as a teacher, particularly around the exploration of individual and collective identity and embodiment.

The case studies are short and I would have loved to see more depth — either from an artistic or pedagogical viewpoint (or both) — and heard more on the contents of the activities and experiences of participants. I can see beautiful ideas emerging about trust and risk, vulnerability and not knowing.

After reading this case study I am left wondering how I can find ways to let go of control in my practice — how can I collaborate more? Can I collaborate beyond the boundaries of species and discipline?

Genevieve

When we moved on to exploring the Case Studies section of the EcoArt in Action book, there was one image that stopped me in my tracks whilst flicking through the pages. Basia Irland’s Ice Receding/Books Reseeding is a fascinating case study of climate art. The image of a young child sitting on the bank of a river, ‘reading’ a book that — in the place where the words and images might be — sprouts lines of living seeds. The child sits with their legs crossed on the floor and their hands open, as if the stories of the living plants might be absorbed into their body from their still presence. I loved this example of climate art, which deftly balances expressing the melting and rising of sea levels with the quenching and reseeding of land.

Showing Basia Irland's 'Cleo Reading TOME II by the Banks of the Río Grande, New Mexico' (2007), one of the ecoart case studies featured in 'Ecoart in Action'.
Basia Irland’s ‘Cleo Reading TOME II by the Banks of the Río Grande, New Mexico’. Photograph: Claire Cote © 2007

This book carved from ice has, as Irland describes, been recreated around the world. In the way of water, my own imagination swells from the idea that each book melts and another book freezes from the same matter, flowing through the world’s water courses. For me, this case study is a beautiful example of an environmentally ‘light touch’ creative project, which is ephemeral in nature, whilst connecting with people and seamlessly communicating its rich complex message — I’m inspired!

It’s not enough to simply make art about the environment; as this book demonstrates, when you consider the lifespan and impact of the work beyond its installation or engagement, that’s ecoart in action.

Claire

I was drawn to Mo Dawley’s Wondering the Artist Book (an ecoinspiracy), as I am currently designing and producing a professional development and wellness support programme for Freelance Artists and this caught my attention. As it states in the overview, “the artist book [is] a consciousness-raising art form that conspires to question weary paradigms by inspiring wonder through multisensory connectivity”.

I was most interested in the different examples that are quoted throughout the case study and enjoyed looking up all the examples (although it must be noted that not all the links were active, which led to an interesting discussion about digital legacies and what happens when websites are no longer active or you leave a place of work and are removed from the website).

I totally resonate with Mo Dawley’s comment “At its essence, the artist book experience helps us to discover that our willingness to be open and engaged is ‘activism'” and I look forward to using the concept of Artist Books within my programme and await, excitedly, the outcome.

 


Find out more

Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities, edited by Amara Geffen, Ann Rosenthal, Chris Fremantle, and Aviva Rahmani (2022) is published by New Village Press (outside the USA, published here). It is compiled from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners. The book is also available as an ebook, which may be an easier format to navigate between the various themes for some users. The Ecoart website includes discussion on the book and its ideas, with recordings from various events with various contributors and other Ecoart members.

This has been a review of the book’s second section, which offers 26 different ecoart case studies. For their discussion on Section 1 — with 25 activities for artists to experiment with — see Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People.

In Ecoart in Action – Provocations to Creative Engagement they share their responses to Section 3, which offers 11 provocations.

Following up on the mentions of the Artist’s Book case studies, you can find interesting examples in an online collection from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

In their final post for this collaborative review, Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky will share their responses to Section 3, which offers 11 ecoart provocations.

Claire Atherton

Claire Atherton

An artist inspired by nature and using paint, clay, fabric and natural materials to explore how we intuitively respond to nature and the environment around us.

Beckie Leach

Beckie Leach

An artist, teacher and storyteller creating experiences for participation with the natural environment, and training as a facilitator in deep listening and the work that reconnects.

Genevieve Rudd

Genevieve Rudd

An artist exploring time and seasons using Cyanotype and Anthotype photographic techniques and leading heritage and environmental community arts projects through drawing, textiles and found materials

Nicky Saunter

Nicky Saunter

An entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and campaigner, and creative artist who is driven by what we can do rather than what we cannot change.