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.

Ecoart in Action – Provocations to Creative Engagement

In their third collaborative post reviewing Ecoart in Action, artists Claire AthertonBeckie Leach, Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter explore the provocations this book offers for ecoart practices and discourse — complementing their earlier discussions on the book’s activities and case studies.


2,100 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + optional 20-minute video


In their previous collaborative posts on this book, 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 reviewed the earlier sections, which provide ecoart activities and case studies from around the world. The book ends with this section — a series of provocations where contributors from the international Ecoart Network focus on theories underpinning ecoart practices, offering ideas for creativity in different learning environments and communities. As you will see in their video discussion, our four artist-reviewers found many opportunities in the wide-ranging provocations on offer.

The full set of eleven provocations is:

— Allodoxic Interventions as a Form of Ecoart
— Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning
— A Framework for Ecosocial Art Practice: Integrating Guattari’s Ecosophy and Action Research
— The Art of Inquiry: A Learning Manifesto
— Collaboration, Complexity, and Systems Change: Interview with Newton Harrison
— Village Triangles: Complexity with and Beyond Systems Thinking
— The Role of Life-Centered Learning and Interdependency in an Interdisciplinary Curriculum
— Curating Ecoart Practices: Interview with Amy Lipton
— Scores for Climate Justice
— Organizing the Approach to Sensitive Conditions: Applying a Boolean Analysis to Trigger Point Theory as Aesthetic Activism
— A Call to Embrace Ecological Grief

Validation and realisation

Claire and Nicky both selected Hans Dieleman’s Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning. For Claire, the piece resonated strongly: “The whole provocation to me felt like a massive validation. Yes, finally someone gets the relevance, the point of what I’m actually doing! So I just read the whole thing with a huge smile on my face.” For Nicky, this provocation had meaning because of a lack she perceives in modern education:

“I had enormous freedom as a child. I was given the ‘bones structure’ of how to do something and then sent off to play quite a lot, which children today seem to rarely get outside of Forest School. I’ve come to realise more and more that for some children the whole of school is just not a good idea … I love the fact that at some point in there, he says artists have the ’embodied and enacted knowing’, so they are key. I thought that’s interesting, that’s where I feel the connection to it. Yes, I feel that that for me is not difficult, it’s effortless — and trying to explain it to other people is so hard.”

Nicky also highlighted Newton Harrison’s Collaboration, Complexity, and Systems Change as a good example of using an interview to convey the value of collaborative approaches and as an alternative format among the more essay-like pieces: “I liked the fact that it was written as an interview; I found it easier to read than a piece of text if the text had been that long.”

And Beckie also chose this example to focus on, sharing that she was attracted to Newton and Helen Harrison’s work together as artists. “That was why I went to it because I’m really interested in how you do more collaboration around ecoart, and work with people so you can bounce off them and not do things alone. I think that’s a really important way forward for art. It’s not doing things in isolation, it’s doing things in community, and it’s working against that whole myth of the artist being this solo creative genius doing things on their own — that doesn’t work in the world in the same way anymore.”

Provocations to collaboration. Showing 'Wish jars' (2018), a collaborative performance. Photograph: Beckie Leach.
‘Wish jars’ (2018) A collaborative performance. Photograph: Beckie Leach © 2018.

Ecoart creativity for grief and love

Genevieve chose Ruth Wallen’s A Call to Embrace Ecological Grief, having also looked at  Ecoartists as Key Educators in Eco-Transdisciplinary Learning. Whereas the latter offered a boost, speaking to the value of the practice, the provocation on ecological grief “spoke to something deeper in me. … It made me think of the work of ONCA and the Remembrance of Lost Species Day and that sense of ritual practice.

“And this feels like it’s coming from a very different direction, really facing that pain, that difficulty, and the total avoidance of that that happens a lot. This feels like the real guts of it … It’s hard and it’s scary. And I think the framing of this as the last piece in the book felt really powerful. … This is our real lived experience, loss. There it is, at the end of the book, before the bibliography, the closing of the book. The quiet power of that.”

This sparked a very interesting series of reflections between all four on our approaches to death — of people, of habitats and species — and how art might have a role in dealing with these endings. Might ecoartists create rituals for loss, for example, maybe taking provocations from the book as a way into using or developing some of its earlier activities and case studies? Beckie reflected that “This is why a lot of us do it. It’s at the heart of why most of us are here. And I feel like there’s this incredibly fine line between grief and love, where they’re always intertwined. How do you get into the heart of that when it’s culturally avoided? … Drawing that out with some compassion and some humour is a very tricky but potentially beautiful thing.”

 

From provocations back to activities

Reflecting on this section as a whole, Claire said that although the text of some of the provocations might seem wordy and “you do have to sit in a quiet space with a cup of tea where no one’s going to interrupt you … once you get into that it kind of takes you somewhere, I think: it is a provocation, like a space where you enter … It feels different to the other two sections in the sense that I think I could have just sat there with a notepad and pen and made loads of mind maps…”

Provocations to creativity. Showing land art on the beach, created by a workshop group in 'Coasters' (a project by Genevieve Rudd). Photograph by Claire Atherton.
Land art on the beach – created by a workshop group in ‘Coasters’ (a project by Genevieve Rudd). Photograph: Claire Atherton © 2022

And delving into the final section of a book like this does naturally invite reflections on the book as a whole and on this shared experience of it, as Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky did in the final part of their time together. This was also an opportunity to think about how the book might be updated or adapted in ways that fellow artists might find even more valuable.

Nicky: “I think it’s a really, really good resource, and I know that over time I will go back and look up some more of the people and the ideas. I really enjoyed, last time [the case studies] going in more deeply and looking them up to see these people speaking about their work and to see examples. That’s been an absolute joy. I wondered if it would be nice with each case study, if it would be possible, to have a short interviewy bit with the person who’d written it, just to find out what drives them.”

Beckie: “I think I love this book. And really I love the process of doing this together as well. I feel like I’ve got so much out of the different bits we’ve all chosen and the different ways we’ve gone into it and interpreted it. I would like a map for this book. I think I find it a bit overwhelming, that it is so big and so full of text and I don’t know where to start. And when you’ve pulled back the layers, it’s so deep and it’s so rich and there are so many gems in there — but I don’t see it when I flick through. And I have a tendency to read books backwards, so sometimes I want pictures and I want a map, something to just grab me a little bit and pull me into a page. There’s so many amazing ideas in here and I’m excited to read more of them, and I’m just thinking about the best way to dip into it for me, as well.”

Genevieve: “A book like this usually takes me years to read. I am a slow reader. Doing it all together has really brought it alive and I really love the process. This would be perfect as a ‘book club’ book. Trying out the different workshop sessions on each other — that could be another way that other audiences could connect with it. It is a lot, but it feels like something I want to keep going back to.”

Claire: “I am a visual learner so the fact there are so few pictures. … Something to help guide you through, because it is so huge… I do think the accessibility of it for people who are dyslexic or neurodiverse or come at things from a different perspective and maybe aren’t able to sit and read loads and loads of text, that could be a barrier that I do think we need to acknowledge. So, some keys or some guides or maps.”

Nicky: “They do have the themes that they’ve pulled out, but don’t give you the ability to look through by themes. On an online book you could do that: you could use them as tags and look back. You could colour code those. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the cover is so colourful and the book is so uncolourful?”

Beckie: “It’s not a comment on the quality of the book, because there’s so much in it: it’s like an addition.”

All four saw the book as a starting point, a help when thinking through future activities, but also a great support in terms of offering contexts for their practices and evidence of the great heritage that the work of ecoartists offers internationally — as well as a stimulus for rich conversations such as these in the shared review process. In a sense perhaps, the book acts as one of its own provocations: a collaborative practice that has brought together a mix of approaches in theories and examples that offer valuable insight and stimulus.

As Nicky observes: “Art is part of our shared culture and at all levels it contributes to the ongoing conversation by reaching parts that other methods just don’t permeate. We believe because we feel, and art helps us to communicate and sense emotions. Ecoart is providing a vital bridge between us and the rest of nature. We seem unable to stop our destructive behaviour through factual knowledge alone; we need to feel it in our bones.”

Provocations to Joy. Showing a collage created by Nicky Saunter during covid lockdown.
JOY. Collage produced during lockdown. Nicky Saunter © 2021

***

Completing this phase of what promises to be an ongoing conversation between them, our four artist-reviewers came up with a provocation of their own to share. Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky hope that you will find in this a way to recognise, reflect and move on with experiences of ecological loss in your own neighbourhood and the grief this entails.

Make space to notice and connect with ecological loss. Where is this happening in your local patch? In gardens, public spaces, high streets or developed land, for example.

Create a simple ritual to honour the moment — such as a sipping on a foraged tea, creating a ‘gathered material’ mandala, walking barefoot or scattering (native, environment-appropriate) seeds. The ‘right’ ritual will emerge as you spend time in the space of loss. Remember to take good care — of yourself, of others, of the place you are in — as you embark on this discovery.

And, when your ritual encounter with this loss has settled in the moment, look also for something that offers you hope. Something nearby, on the ground or water, among plants or trees, or in the sky. Whether ‘human’ or ‘natural’, mark this sign of ecological hope amidst grief.

Provocations to hope. Showing a rainbow over the North Sea and eroding cliffs in Suffolk". Photograph by Genevieve Rudd.
“A rainbow, for hope, over the North Sea and eroding cliffs at Corton, Suffolk” (March 2023). Photograph: Genevieve Rudd © 2023

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.

In Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People, Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky review the book’s first section, which offers 25 different ecoart activities.

In Ecoart Case Studies – Theory into Practice, they share their responses to Section 2, which offers 26 case studies.

You can find out more about Remembrance Day for Lost Species (30th November) and the work that ONCA, amongst others, does to mark this day of art and activism.

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.

Creative Whispers: Nature’s Power to Wellness

Sapphic and neuroqueer artist Indigo Sapphire Moon shares her experience of nature as a source of creative whispers, which blossom into ideas like her new poetry collection, and a space for us to exist outside our human story.


1,100 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


The butterfly birthed from a pearl in the root of a sapphire tree. This tree blossomed small crystallised buds of sapphire and released fragrant bursts of amber musk and sandalwood. From there, those within close proximity of the sapphire tree grew still, patient and content. For the tree’s power lay within the butterfly’s own heart.

Nature feeds creativity

Nature doesn’t have a narrative. She is a reminder. Of our own power. When I embark upon nature’s pathways, I also have no narrative. No age, no gender, no sexuality, no race, no ethnicity, no history, no career, no education, no… National Insurance Number.

I simply am.

I can just be.

There lies our power.

Within this power, lies a bud of creativity that slowly transforms into blossoms of ideas. That’s how I feel when nature embraces me. There’s space to breathe. There’s contentment in the stillness of the water. There’s peace in witnessing the interactions between wildlife. In between these moments of tranquillity, I recognise the truth of my artistry. My creative voice speaks to me as it rides on a gust of wind and ripples of water.

The emptiness of quiet, paradoxically, gives birth to creative whispers which can grow louder if I hear an idea that piques my interest. These whispers come from my subconscious and this is opened up by nature. The encompassing presence of nature reveals sparks of ideas that wouldn’t have surfaced if I hadn’t been willing to listen.

Creative whispers in nature: showing a photograph of blossom by Indigo Moon
Blossom. Photograph: Indigo Sapphire Moon © 2023

Whatever our creative practice, nature has a limitless bounty of inspiration. From colours and shapes to textures and sounds, being in the presence of nature is undoubtedly one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had. When I return to the four walls of my bedroom, my mind feels lighter, refreshed and content.

I listen, tentatively, to those creative whispers. Then they become sparks.

Connected: a wild wellness

This in turn, impacts my mental, physical and spiritual wellness. The term ‘wellness’ means different things to each individual. Something I find promotes wellness within myself, such as meditation and nature walking, may not work for someone else.

And that’s wonderful.

It’s important we listen to our true selves and discover what promotes wellness on an individual level.

As I mentioned earlier, nature has no narrative. She opens up space for us to exist outside of our human story, to exist outside of our bodies. Our stories are a gift from the universe. A chance to exist and experience ourselves as spiritual beings without the human perspective. This allows me to tap into other perspectives of nature and connect with other spirits that share the Earth with us. Paradoxically, existing outside of my human body makes me feel more grounded than I ever have been. The path is clear and my roots are solid on the Earth. I’m no longer tethered to human thought or mind, which can sometimes feel like a damnation for me, personally. 

On a spiritual level, in those moments of calm and contentment, listening to birdsong or the gentle motion of water, I am reminded of my consciousness. The vibrational energy that lives at the heart of my spirit, and in the spirit of every living entity. We are connected.

Creative whispers in nature: showing a photograph of a Robin tilting her head, by Indigo Moon
Robin tilting her head. Photograph: Indigo Sapphire Moon © 2023

Inhale. Exhale.

I listen to the space in-between my breath.

There.

The hum of the universe.

When I reflect upon this realisation, of my being, I feel grounded, inspired, joyful and peaceful. My body responds. Every muscle is relaxed, my skin is warm in some areas, cold in others, and I breathe deeper.

Nature’s power aligns my mind, body and spirit. I feel well. Even if it only lasts for a few minutes, or a few hours. The feeling of wellness is divine. And for me, nature breathes that divinity, in and out, in silent hums.

From creative whispers to mindful self-publication

When I listened to those silent hums, I realised something.

Why wait for someone else to recognise my voice? My power?

I recognise it. That’s enough.

I had written a poetry collection and decided I was going to self-publish. I thought it would be harder than it was. But life is full of surprises. I found this accessible, easy to navigate, printing service (and I can’t remember the name of it, super helpful, I know). I uploaded my collection onto the website and they cleverly organised it into a printable book. They offered various options on sizes and binding. Once that was decided, they calculated the price based on how many copies I wanted. Again, I was surprised at how affordable it was. I paid less than thirty pounds for ten copies.

The only thing now was to find somewhere to sell them.

Luckily, I work for an amazing charity, Ideas Hub, which hosts a creative community space for artists to sell their work. They believed in me and my creative practice. And gave me a space on their bookshelf.

I know not everyone has the opportunity to find an organisation that allows artists to sell their work, especially if that work is self-published. However, don’t be discouraged. There are many digital platforms where you can self-publish your work. Research is key. Believe in your creative voice and recognise your unique spirit.

Creative whispers in nature: Showing a photograph of sunset on the River Crouch, by Indigo Moon
Sunset, River Crouch. Photograph: Indigo Sapphire Moon © 2023

You deserve to be heard.

To be seen.

Embrace your creative power.

Let the world see you glow and shimmer, like a butterfly from a sapphire tree.

The butterfly danced under the moonlit sky and left trails of shimmering sapphire dust in the air, churned into delicate shapes and patterns from the beat of her wings. She felt her own power now; unique and deep. The butterfly thanked the sapphire tree and flew higher and higher, into the heart of the moon.


Find out more

Asters in Virgo, Indigo’s new poetry collection, explores themes of the environment, nature, well-being and queer identity. It’s only available as a physical book, and if you would like to purchase a copy, please email Indigo at indigomoon229[at]gmail.com

You can find examples of creative whispers at work in more of Indigo’s poetry in her post Only Star (some of the poems there also appeared in the creative responses to our Environmental Keywords series). And in I Am Purpose, Indigo shares a short story reflecting on the presence of signals from within, evoking ideas of conversation with the universe to illuminate times of zoonotic pandemic and climate crisis.

Indigo Sapphire Moon
Indigo Sapphire Moon
A sapphic and neuroqueer artist, writer, activist, curator, and founder of Creative Being, a platform and community using creativity to amplify positive change and marginalised voices.

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.

Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People

Artists Claire Atherton, Beckie Leach, Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter have joined up to review Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities. This first of three collaborative posts samples the guide’s ecoart activities.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes + optional: up to 26 mins video clips


ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe describes the context for this innovative review:

In Autumn 2021, researcher and producer Chris Fremantle and I discussed a review of Ecoart in Action. Chris had co-authored this practical volume with other members of the Ecoart Network to showcase a wide range of ecoart activities, case studies and provocations to use with classrooms and communities. My discussions with interested members suggested a ‘multi-voiced’ approach: a collaborative process, generating dialogue from different practitioners’ insights. This review approach is well suited to the nature of the book — and ClimateCultures is all about stimulating creative conversations. 

Our four artist-reviewers — participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton; teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach; environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd; entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter — work in different contexts and practices around the UK, based variously in South East London, Wiltshire and Norfolk. They held an ‘orientation’ Zoom call to introduce themselves and discuss possible approaches, before coalescing around the idea of together taking the book’s three parts, producing a blog post for each section.

Ecoart in Action. Cover design: Kevin Stone

A collaborative review – orientation

Their initial conversation brought out the book’s value as an inspiration, a resource with stories of contributors’ different approaches to ecoart, and a rich reference book of examples, artists and theories; there are clearly many ways to approach it.

Claire: “It’s a book you can use to get inspiration from in terms of your own ecoart practice, but also to look at different people’s approaches. To me, it’s a reference book, one you would go to and say ‘I’ve got this project, I want to work with this group of people, what could I do?’”

Nicky: “I found it interesting with some of the theory. I tend to duck away from the theory, and sometimes it can be useful. It was interesting to see where some of those practices came from, even if you don’t really need that in order to ‘do it’. So it being a reference book is useful: there’s intellectual learning, and practical learning and experiential learning that could come out, and I liked that: you don’t have to take all of it but there’s quite a lot there to take.”

Genevieve: “One of things I liked is there’s the practical examples and the process, that’s really important to me: it’s not just an activity that’s plucked out of nowhere, it’s grounded in something, and as you go through there’s the sense of people’s biographies, people’s stories — that it’s rooted. As a resource, it’s ‘dip-in-and-out-able’, because it’s not linear. You can flick it open and find something. And it’s introducing me to practices and artists I wasn’t aware of. For me there was a real sense of discovery, and now there’s so many wormholes to go down and people and projects to look up.”

Beckie: “I think there’s something important about how intangible ecoart is, and it’s not something usually you can go and see in a gallery or there’s not big shows of it because it’s not something that you can show in that way. And that makes it very hard to be aware of what’s going on and to experience it. So there’s something really valuable in seeing all the international practices and how it might be interpreted differently in different cultures.”

Settling on the post-per-section approach, the four decided they’d each scan the different entries in each section, share which ones grabbed them most to work with and then come together for a Zoom to compare experiences and reflect on the book. They’d then send in texts and images, with my role being to bring these together with clips from the Zoom recordings for added depth.

Discussing what use ecoart is in the world, they homed in on the Venn diagram from the book’s introduction, and how — as Claire observed — “It gave it a space in which it exists.”

Ecoart activities: showing a Venn diagram with Ecaort as the intersection of Art, Science and Community. From the book, 'Ecoart in Action'.
Three interconnecting fields of Ecoart practice. Image developed by the editors of Ecoart in Action © 2018

Claire: “It’s difficult when you’re moving away from traditional art practice; where do I sit, who am I? Am I a scientist, am I community worker, am I an artist? Well actually I’m all three of those things, to a certain degree. So that’s how I’ve looked at this book — it can help me to explore those three different facets within myself and bring those together in terms of my practice. … Arguing for its (ecoart’s) value, this book can really help in positioning that.”

Nicky: “We have a system that so clearly splits people between being scientists and being artists. Most people tend one way or another but use both, and can be very strong in both areas, and other areas as well. So I liked that, and it feels inclusive and therefore very positive. Sometimes even the word ‘art’ can feel quite exclusive in itself, to people who feel it’s not their space.”

Our reviewer-artists came at Section 1 with different needs, reflecting some of the diverse uses the book is likely to be engaged in. While Beckie wanted activities to try with her own toddler as an example of a non-formal teaching environment, and Nicky selected ideas to use spontaneously with a couple of young people in her own garden, Genevieve was looking for something to use with a set group of people in a session she already had planned, and Claire wanted the book’s help in creating a workshop she’d been commissioned to deliver in the New Year.

The immersion in Section 1, on ecoart activities, came just before Christmas. As it happened, Beckie couldn’t join in just yet because of family circumstances, so the first of the Zoom sessions went ahead with just Claire, Genevieve and Nicky, with Beckie then able to send in her reflections for this first post.

Planning ecoart activities

Genevieve

I purchased the book when it launched in 2022 and I was excited to have lots of inspiring ecoart ideas to draw from. As a community artist, I work with groups in an iterative way – the previous activity informs the next through reflective practice – so it has been refreshing to have external input to spark ideas. I was invited by a local arts university to run a talk with a workshop element to students, as part of an annual week-long programme encouraging students to try something new, explore different creative practices, and experience new ways of thinking and doing. This was the ideal chance to draw upon this book’s wisdom!

When I was flicking through the book, I found it really useful to have a ‘key’ to each activity in Section 1. For example, I knew I was looking at something suitable for undergraduate or graduate students, for a two-hour session and with an estimated group size of 10. The Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage activity by Cameron Davis stood out for me, as it fitted this context. Whilst the activity began with a walk as a core element for inspiring the activity that followed (which would be my own ‘usual’ format in my participatory arts practice), this wasn’t possible in the format I was delivering. The brief was for a talk with a workshop element, so I instead brought along a range of objects that had been collected in journeys from participants at previous projects and through my own arts practice.

Nicky

I started reading the book with an open mind, wondering which of my various groups might be up for participating in an activity. In the back of my mind, my criteria were: less than a day in timescale; something I could do in my local neighbourhood; low cost as I would not be using it in paid work.

Part 1 of the book is easy to read, with the consistency of layout meaning it is easy to find what each activity entails, how long it might take and what sort of audience it is suitable for. I quickly picked out a few activities that appealed to me and suited the criteria:

      • Award Ribbons for Places: making and giving awards to favourite places in a particular outside area, and sharing your reasons for your award. (This is the one I chose.)
      • Story Circles: people in a group each telling a story on a theme, adding to the overall richness and different points of view. (A bit too verbal and performative for my participants.)
      • Rethinking Fashion: exploring the footprint of fashion and making sustainable alternatives. (Too much time for my participants, but I would love to do this with our local XR group perhaps.)
      • Botanical Art Banners: studying local plants and painting findings onto banners for display. (I love this and think it’s a great way to appeal to different groups who might be interested in detail and science too.)
      • Lines of the Hand: using the lines on the palms of our hands as a starting point for patterns in the wider natural world. (This looks great.)

Claire

After initially being drawn to the activities Awards Ribbons for Places and Perceiving Embeddedness Through Collage, time commitments meant I wasn’t able to deliver either activity before our scheduled chat, so I used the book as a reference tool to provide inspiration for a forthcoming workshop I have been commissioned to deliver in January. Looking through the list of activities was simple and straightforward and I have chosen Story Circles as I feel this has the most relevance to my audience. I will report back on the delivery of this activity in future blog posts.

Showing 'Lines of the Hand', one of the ecoart activities in Ecoart in Action. Photograph by Claire Atherton
An example of ‘Lines of the Hand’, one of ecoart activities in the book that Nicky had considered using and both Genevieve and Claire had previous experience with: using the lines on the palms of our hands as a starting point for patterns in the wider natural world. Photograph: Claire Atherton, from a workshop led by Genevieve Rudd.

I spent a lot of time looking through all the activities to see the audiences, number of participants, duration etc in order to find one that fit the parameters of my commission. It would be helpful to have a grid at the beginning of the book that gives an easy way to drill down, based on audience type, ability (able-bodied / sitting activities), duration etc so that you can see instantly the activities, case studies and provocations that are relevant to your specific brief.

Beckie

I found this section of the book quite intimidating – it is dense and packed full of interesting ideas, but lacking pictures. Actually the premise of a lot of the activities was quite simple and accessible once I got into the text. I was drawn to Creating Rituals, Aborescence: a Score, and Cultivating an Ecocreative Mindset. I wonder if there is a way to format the activities so they are a little easier to read through quickly and adapt for different audiences?

It was challenging to adapt the activities to a non-formal teaching environment — but I think my particular context was also challenging as I wanted to find things I could do with my toddler and all of the activities in the book were designed for older participants and many required a much longer time frame. 

Working with ecoart activities on the ground

Genevieve

To find flow with my adaptation to the Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage activity plan, I framed the exercise around stories: how we’re each guided by different stories, values and experiences, and how this feeds into community arts practice. In my introductory talk, I shared examples of the elements that inform my work (I talked about these as my ‘deep roots’), and shared a couple of case studies of community arts projects that have evolved from these ideas (these are the ‘emerging shoots’). I was inspired by Davis’s ideas in the activity introduction on “embeddedness within this dynamic living whole we call life”, and reinterpreted this with my own drawing and thought process about these relationships.

Showing ecoart activities in context and metaphorically as deep roots and emerging shoots. Image by Genevieve Rudd.
Deep roots & Emerging shoots. Image: Genevieve Rudd © 2022
Ecoart activities: showing a drawing created during the workshop, inspired by the objects used. Image: Genevieve Rudd © 2022
A drawing created during the workshop, inspired by the objects used. Image: Genevieve Rudd © 2022

What I found particularly interesting about working from Davis’s idea was voicing someone else’s ideas and considering my own connection with them. It was useful for me to experience, as a facilitator. The provocations that particularly stood out to me were: “do you feel, in any way, that your object chose you?” and “entertain the notion that your object has presence”.

The group were really responsive to the activity and, whilst collage materials were made available to the group, they all chose to work in drawing throughout. To warm-up, I also added in some extra short exercises, some simple drawing methods that celebrated the qualities of the objects. The group generated some really thoughtful and evocative ideas in response to the objects they chose, including childhood memories, noticing the details and enjoying the texture, and reflecting on how their ideas could find a place in the world. I will certainly be using this activity as a starting point in different contexts, and can also see how it could be adapted for different ages and settings.

Nicky

Within our given timeframe, I happened to have two teenagers staying with me who did not know each other, one of whom is very shy and not strong at communication. I wanted something with a very low entry point, involving minimal art skills and some physical outside activity. The length of time was given as one day, which gives time to delve into the historical and social background of a place, but I found the activity could easily be shortened if focused on a more basic “what do you love here” question. We took about two hours and used my garden, which is large and has wild and woody areas as well as more open traditional lawn spaces, many trees, bushes and sheds. I hoped there would be enough interest for them.

After explaining to the two girls what we would be doing, we walked around the garden, looking for places we particularly liked, making a few comments, touching trees and plants, getting a feel for the place. Having each chosen two places we particularly liked, we went inside to create our own ‘awards’. I also participated, so I wouldn’t be hovering over them too much. I had some basic card, ribbons and string for hanging and paints/pens for decoration or writing that would all be biodegradable and so could be left outside to disappear naturally. I made a sample label-type award to help and one girl copied this, while the other made her own shapes and hangers. They seemed to crack on immediately with an easy understanding of what they were doing, despite one of the girls often finding art activities very difficult as she is unable to think of what to do. The prescriptive nature of this was helpful here.

We then went back outside, circling round to each of our own chosen favourite places, gave our awards and said a few words about why we had chosen this place. It was interesting to see we had all chosen different places and that we all chose trees and shrubs of some kind rather than the built environment. There was an instant connection to nature and an appreciation of its beauty not noticed before.

The girls seemed to find it fun and participated in taking photos and I found it quite moving to see their direct connection with other living organisms.

Using Awards Ribbons for Places in a wooded place. Photographs: Nicky Saunter © 2022 [click on images for full size]

I only touched on the possibilities of this activity, which could include so much more about a place and would work with bigger groups and over longer periods of time. Its flexibility is impressive.

Beckie

In the end we spent some time doing the Creating Rituals activity – making snow rock trolls and feeding the birds and squirrels. This was really fun and feeding the birds and squirrels together has continued as a regular activity – and I am thinking a lot about everyday rituals. 

Ecoart activities: Showing a photo of 'snow rock trolls' by Beckie Leach
Snow rock trolls. Photograph: Beckie Leach © 2022

In the following clips from their Zoom chat, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky share additional insights into how they worked with the ecoart activities in the book:

Clip 1 (6 minutes): Example activity – Awards Ribbons for Places.

Clip 2 (9.5 minutes): Example activity – Lines of the Hand; the book’s value as something you can come at as a starting point, a detailed, theory-led instruction, or a source of interesting thinking to spark your own ideas for activities.

Clip 3 (6.5 minutes): Example activity – Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage; the book as a rich source of references you can follow up.

Clip 4 (4.5 minutes): Using the book as inspiration for planning your work; issues navigating the book for different contexts; example activity – Story Circles.


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 first section, which offers 25 different ecoart activities.

In Ecoart Case Studies – Theory into Practice, Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky share their responses to Section 2, which offers 26 ecoart case studies.

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

Assembling the Raven’s Nest is Chris Fremantle‘s review of fellow member Sarah Thomas‘s ecological memoir.

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.