Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy

Berneray Community Polycrub_2016ClimateCultures welcomes Laura Donkers, an environmental artist who has developed a form of eco-social art engagement that works with the embodied knowledge of a community to help develop climate literacy. Currently in the final year of a practice-led PhD at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at Dundee University, Laura describes her approach to and experience of working with local communities in Uist, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, before — in her next post — she moves to Aotearoa New Zealand to expand her research. 

approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes  


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


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

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

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

Embodied knowledge, eco-social art

So what is community embodied knowledge?

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

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


And socially engaged art practice?

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

Reimagining place

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

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

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

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

machairart film short from Laura Donkers on Vimeo.

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

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

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

Climate literacy: knowing and not knowing

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

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

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

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

Making space for climate conversations 

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

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

Eco-social art - Berneray Community Polycrub_2016
Berneray Community Polycrub
Photo: Laura Donkers © 2016

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

Looking beyond the west   

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

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

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

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


Find out more

Laura Donkers is an artist-researcher resident in Uist, Outer Hebrides whose practice involves developing an interpretive and participatory position within the community, contributing to eco-social actions, and creating interactive multi-media artworks that record and disseminate the embodied knowledge of that community. She has recently devised and led a series of Scottish Government Climate Challenge Fund Projects: Local Food for Local People (2015-17) and Grow Your Own Community (2017-2020). Her practice is rooted in the idea of co-creativity, working interactively with communities. The work focuses on understanding how humans affect the world. You can find out more at Laura’s ClimateCultures Directory page and her website

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

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

“Firestone far beneath our feet”

Cornerstones cover, by Little Toller BooksFilmmaker James Murray-White spent a winter break in Cumbria to edit footage for his film, Finding Blake, and he took time out for ClimateCultures to review Cornerstones. This new collection of writing explores how all landscapes — from Dartmoor to the Arctic Circle — begin below the surface of the earth. 

approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes  


Earlier this year I counted myself blessed, albeit slightly apprehensive, as I was shown into Jordans Mine on Portland in Dorset, by mine manager Mark Godden. I was there to see and film where the slab of Portland stone for the English mystic William Blake’s new ledger stone was cut from. We’ve published much material about Blake’s life and work, his burial site and the process of creating his new stone over at the multi-fabulous Finding Blake project website.

Liquid light Photograph by James Murray-White
Liquid light Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

Underground dream-worlds

The experience was my first face-to-face encounter with the multiple seams where much of the stone that London is built with (or in the current age, faced with) comes from. This subterranean world, manned only by a few — with huge trucks driving in and out constantly, their lights churning towards and then away from us in the chasms and tunnels — seemed out of this world. And yet, in many ways, it was utterly of the world — an underground engine that takes what is below to build up what is above.

Going underground Photograph by James Murray-White
Going underground
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

As I reflect upon it, and edit the footage from that day, I’m minded by two other films that deal with underground worlds. Firstly, Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, which looks at a vast underground series of tunnels that make up a giant nuclear waste dump, and how it is being prepared. The second is Werner Herzog’s paean to our ancestors, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (also 2010), which delves beyond the actuality of the images in the Chauvet cave in France, which have survived more than 30,000 years, to the wonderful suppositions this visionary filmmaker conjures up.

Cornerstones

As the weather up here on the Cumbrian Fells worsens for winter, and the slate on the roof bounces around, I’ve been hunkering down with this deep collection of writings that explore the ground beneath the writers’ feet. Many of the stories in Cornerstones were commissioned for a BBC Radio 3 series, and they all speak to the theme of bedrock. We skim along the tectonic plates with writers such as Sara Maitland, John Burnside, and Tim Dee, all gloriously bunched and slammed together by editor Mark Smalley.

Cornerstones cover, by Little Toller Books
Cornerstones
Little Toller Books © 2017
Cover design: Rodney Harris, ‘Strata of England & Wales’: www.rodneyharris.co.uk

Sara Maitland places a chunk of Lewisian Gneiss in our hands, of about 3 million years in age; sculptor Peter Randall-Page takes us on a tour of Dartmoor tors, and talks of findlings, or orphan boulders; and, in From taiga to tundra — a favourite piece — Daniel Kalder writes of “dead things and diseases and giant holes leaking gas”.

Tim Dee makes it all the more personal in his piece, My rock, about the diagnosis and treatment of his kidney stone. Something of the deep and discursive comes through as he feels deep pain, going on his subterranean journey into the emotions of that, while researching what a kidney stone is, what causes them, and the history of others suffering them, without actually ever seeing this chunk of calcite. He was, for a time, “awaiting granulation by laser, living around a rocky shadow”.

There’s a link here too with Jason Mark’s potent political writing, Fall of the wild. After what sounds like a very hairy journey by plane through the passes surrounding the Yukon River, where the pilot has to navigate into a hamlet to wait out the storm, Mark engages with the First Nations Gwich’in people’s struggle to preserve and hold on to the rock they have ancestrally lived on, the wilderness.

On the borders of change

Great Whin Sill, Hadrian’s Wall country
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2007

I’m writing this a few miles from the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, the surviving rock edifice of a collapsed civilisation. I was delighted to read in Sarah Moss’s piece, Whinstone, that “the classical bedrock of English history is as much a thing of flux and mutability as the bedrock of our border”. And her starting and concluding with reflections upon the “firestone far beneath our feet, bubbling and seeping…” is a masterly literary creation.

I once had the pleasure of sharing a sauna with editor Mark Smalley, in the Bristol Lido, and as the heat rose he talked of the passion project he was trying to make happen: a radio programme about the Beer Quarry Caves in Devon, from which Exeter Cathedral was hewn. I’m delighted we’ve both now had these momentous and personally uplifting experiences going below ground and, along with these writers who have patiently observed, recorded and responded to that which holds us, have made material from our subterranean sojourns.

Find out more

James Murray-White is a multi-media artist who has worked across theatre, journalism and reviews, and now focuses on creating powerful and moving films for a range of projects, campaigns and clients. His passions include exploring ecological connections, anthropological spaces, and creative responses to issues. James is filmmaker in residence with GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, documenting their award-winning work with artists exploring environmental issues. You can find out more at his Directory entry and sky-larking.co.uk. James is the creator of the Finding Blake film project, whose website I edit.

Cornerstones – subterranean writings (2018, edited by Mark Smalley) is published by Little Toller Books. 

You can hear the four original Cornerstones episodes of the BBC Radio 3 the Essay series on BBC Sounds. 

You can read about Michael Madsen’s film Into Eternity (2010) and Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (also 2010) at Wikipedia.

Do also check out our August 2017 post from ClimateCultures Member Oliver Raymond-Barker, Beyond Tongues: into the Animist Language of Stone. And you can also read Shaped by Stone, a very brief review on my small blog of an essay by Tom Baskeyfield, writing in the new TERRA collection from the Dark Mountain Project. Oliver and Tom are both photographers with impressive portfolios that include Anatomy of Stone and Shaped by Stone respectively.

The Anthropocene Writ Small: My Friend Jules

In this Members' Post, artist and game designer Ken Eklund shows how working with stories offers popular, engaging, and accessible routes into the past and present of our life with energy, as well as imagining possible futures. And he has a creative challenge for you - get your storytelling sparks flying and send in your response by 11th June!

For the past three years, there’s been a digital storytelling initiative at Stories of Change relating to the national transition to lower-carbon energy. This AHRC-funded project draws on history, literature, social and policy research, and the arts to encourage more imaginative thinking about current and future energy choices. When Joe Smith from Stories of Change and I met last year, we knew from our research that people ‘don’t appear to think or care about their relationship with energy, because they can’t see it’ and that set off conversations about adding a storytelling game to the initiative to explore that dimension.

I’m an artist and game designer; I develop innovative game approaches to real-world problems. In my view, the key is to find a playful way to present the issue, one that encourages people to ‘play along’. In World Without Oil (2007), my gamerunning team pretended that an oil crisis had actually begun, and people played along by creating stories of how the oil crisis was affecting their lives. In FutureCoast (2014-7), a game about climate change, we pretended to be recovering voicemails made in the future – and people played along by creating those voicemails that sounded as if they had leaked back to our time.

FutureCoast: two players recover a voicemail from the future that had materialized in New York. By recovering this ‘chronofact,’ they revealed its voicemail, which is a robocall advertising ‘Glacierland Resort,’ an arctic theme park with an artificial glacier, from the year 2048. Tweet by Kate de Longpre’, 2014.
Photograph: Ken Eklund © 2017

For Stories of Change, we decided to collect people’s personal stories about their relationship to energy, quite literally as their personal stories about “my friend Jules.”

A complicated relationship

“Like it or not, you’re in a relationship with energy. How’s that going for you:” is the beginning of the game’s storytelling prompt. Visualising energy as though it were a person in your life – your friend, Jules – is a fun exercise in imagination, but it can also be revelatory. On one level, Jules is undoubtedly a great friend: lighting up your home, whizzing you around the country, and so on. On other levels, though, Jules can be more of a problem friend: chronically hitting you up for money, occasionally abandoning you completely, and engaging in some questionable dealings in your name while out of your sight.

My Friend Jules opens up discussions about our complicated relationship with energy to the vocabularies we use to characterize our human relationships. At the game’s website you can find an elegy, a character reference, a how-we-met love story, a short play, a limerick, essays short and long, a video interview, superheroes, captioned photos, an Amazon product review, and more – all featuring the protean character Jules, standing in for some aspect of the role energy plays in our lives. The project is expanding the ways we can collaboratively envision the anthropocenic structures that shape our common future. 

My Friend Jules: people describe their relationships with energy in the form of its persona, Jules. ‘Hey Jules, can we make a deal?’ Jules stories are told through a variety of media; this image comes from the Stories of Change photobooth at Didcot, May 2017.
Photograph: Ken Eklund © 2017

Take the storytelling challenge

To weave these many threads together, and to reward people for their participation, Stories of Change has engaged artist (and ClimateCultures member) Vicky Long to create a work inspired by the ideas expressed in the first iteration of My Friend Jules. Jules stories received before midnight, Sunday 11th June will be considered for inclusion in her work, to be unveiled by mid-July. Follow My Friend Jules on Twitter (as @MyFriendJules) or Facebook for updates about Vicky’s creation and its possible live performances.  

My Friend Jules is a storytelling challenge, as you will discover if you put pen to paper (or press RECORD) to create your own Jules story. It’s designed to be the easiest possible on-ramp to a difficult road: re-imagining what exists and what will come to pass in the Anthropocene.

If you take up the challenge, it’s easy to contribute your Jules story via the email link at My Friend Jules, site below.  

Find out more:

You can find out all the details (including the entries so far, and the email link to send your story to) at My Friend Jules.  And you can explore the Stories of Change project that the game is part of.

You can explore the other projects that Ken has contributed to at futurecoast.org and worldwithoutoil.org.

There’s an interesting CNET article about the World Without Oil game.

Questioning Energy? Space for creative thinking...

Unsurprisingly, our main creative thinking space this time is made over to My Friend Jules - so get over there and post your story!

But I also found this excellent suggestion at World Without Oil (a quote from Stephanie Olsen, author of the CNET article mentioned above): “If you want to change the future, play with it first.”  What do you think? What would you play with to help create a different path into the future? Share your ideas in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."