Dancing with Darkness

'I wonder what darkness means now?' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the DarkArtist and writer Jennifer Leach recalls the journey from a sharing of darkness at a climate conference for artists and scientists, and the year-long festival she created in its honour, to her new book, Dancing in the Dark.


1,440 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes 


In 2016, Festival of the Dark was born on Winter Solstice in Reading, and ran for a full year. It had bloomed remarkably quickly from a seed planted at the TippingPoint climate conference — Doing Nothing Is Not An Option — that had been held in Warwick in June of that year. These TippingPoint conferences had for many years brought together scientists and artists, in the context of climate change; the scientists brought the facts, the artists the imagination to creatively take these facts along with their work and out into the world. The 2016 conference could not, initially, shake off a persistent sentiment of doom. Many scientists said they had little new to say, many artists felt they had tried and failed to effect change. Many delegates felt we were still hooked on looking for solutions, rather than extricating ourselves from that singular goal and extending our sight over a wider terrain.

What is it that we fear?

Yet something developed over that weekend that was unpremeditated, and I believe it was the presence of a coterie of particularly feisty women who may have had something to do with it. They began talking about the heart, rather than the head. One delegate counted the number of times the men said, ‘I think’, and the number of times the women said, ‘I feel’. One delegate humorously objected to being told, ‘Doing Nothing Is Not An Option’ and she set up a break-out group called ‘Doing Nothing IS An Option’. I was too busy lying under a yew tree doing nothing to go, but I hear a remarkable rainbow appeared from nowhere and spread across the wall of the small unprepossessing room in which they sat. By the end of the weekend we were talking of a new spiritual paradigm, a shift of focus from the head to the heart. There was no point, many of us agreed, in trying to find solutions until we had fully explored why and how we had arrived in this place of self-motivated disaster. Why are we acting as we are? What is it that we fear? What is it that we are resisting?

It is a much longer story than I can tell here, but in the course of the conference, someone suggested that there could be a day set aside for all theatres in the UK to turn off their lights and play in darkness, or by candlelight. This throwaway suggestion, one of many in a series of brainstorming sessions, brought about such extreme reactions that a small group of us attended to the energy generated and set up a breakout group to explore the darkness. Why was the darkness seen as Luddite, why was turning off the lights seen as a reactionary action, an action that contained within it all that people loathe about the ‘environmental lobby’? Why is darkness seen as non-progressive, as negative?

Showing Jennifer Leach's suggestion for Learning to Love the Dark - a discussion at Doing Nothing Is Not an Option. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
Learning to Love the Dark – a discussion at Doing Nothing Is Not an Option, June 2016
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe

I recall feeding back from our group to the plenary session, and slightly tongue in cheek saying we’d hold a festival in Reading, at the end of which we’d turn off the lights across the town. ‘If it can happen in Reading [which it didn’t quite!], it can happen anywhere.’ So was born Festival of the Dark, which opened around four months later, with full Arts Council funding.

Darkness honoured

I did not know where the Festival came from, it surprised me, and I did not know what it wanted. It was perhaps conceived as being grand; it ended up sweet, subtle, subterranean, dancing beneath the streets of Reading like the Holy Brook whose waters do likewise. It did not end with the sweeping gesture of a great Lights Off ceremony (in a corporate town at the height of the Christmas shopping season?!), yet soft candles, and faces lit by campfire stories, and even darkness, came to be its keynotes. It softened as the year progressed, and the steely imperatives of its inception transformed into a more mellow weave. Yet what it held was radical, daring, brave, and those who chose to participate showed courage. The festival ended in darkness on 21 December 2017. After a night of food, music and reminiscence, as we watched snatches of video from each of the Festival’s 21 events, we stood unable to see one another, arms around each other, and sang. A quite glorious community anthem slipped out from the darkened windows of a generous venue, now boarded up, and escaped into the night.

Darkness - the gathering for The Night Breathes Us In, part of Festival of the Dark, . Photograph by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes
The Night Breathes Us In – part of Festival of the Dark, March 2017
Photograph: Georgia Wingfield-Hayes © 2017 georgiawingfieldhayes.org

I wrote Dancing in the Dark for the Opening Ceremony and in many ways it became a signifier for me, for the Festival itself. Its unknown origin, its uncanny form, its darings and challenges, and its unswerving message of quiet assurance that ‘all shall be well’ came in from outside my self. The work, I am sure, bubbled up from our sharp ancestral past, when death, hunger and danger were ever-present and the skull was a bed-fellow for the living. It wove through the starry heavens of Galileo who unhooked us from the secure centre of a human-anchored universe, and flung us out into orbit around a foreign star. It took me deep into my own heart, to a place of fear, and asked me to jump, into the racing pulse of the unknowable, and the unknown. And it led back out into the weightless universe where, divesting of the small and false securities that keep us tied to fear, there is to be found a joyful liberation in our magnificent insignificance.

'I do not know what darkness meant then' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the Dark
‘I do not know what darkness meant then.’
Artist: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Freed from the tyranny of our dread

I worked with a dear friend on presenting the piece. She brought music to it. On four long nights we found ourselves in a back garden multifaith temple, in midwinter, breathing the words over candles and a calorgas heater, cold but entranced. The magic happened here. Strong ancestral stirrings were at work, and we felt perhaps that we and our ancestors were clumsily mapping out a new way to work with these crazy descendants who don’t, to misquote Hamlet, know a hawk from a chainsaw.

The ‘performance’ itself was imperfect. A childcare crisis arose minutes before we began, we broke a microphone in the dark, and we could not see. It mattered not. The power was in the process, in the imprecise nature of the very real exploration of imagination that began with the words, the music, and later the images, and which are now loosely harnassed in the pages of a book.

A conference cannot avert a crisis. A Festival cannot. A book cannot. We do not, in fact, know whether anything can, not even the accumulation of every great head initiative and every great heart initiative focused right now on the calamity of climate emergency. What I do know is that the courage to make tangible our rightful fear, to acknowledge it, and to launch ourselves into it, will profoundly change us, and liberate us from the tyranny of our dread. And in this, every small creative contribution adds one more small stone to place upon the communal cairns of our courage. Welcome waymarkers on unknown paths. 

Darkness - 'Is this not so?' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the Dark
‘Is this not so?’
Artist: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Find out more

Dancing in the Dark is available to order for a very limited time — and in a limited edition print run. This Kickstarter campaign — which has already ensured that the 48-page, richly painted story-poem will be printed and delivered to its backers — closes early on the morning of this coming Sunday — 18th August. On the project page, as well as examples of words and images in the book, you can hear Jennifer give a short reading from it.

Jennifer’s recent post, Earth Living — Now, Facing the Storm, explores some of the ‘questioning tales for a world’s ending’ she told at the recent Earth Living Festival in Reading, and the relaunch of her Outrider Anthems enterprise as a sanctuary of creativity. 

You can read On Night in the Daytime, my ClimateCultures review of Night Breathes Us In, which was an event from Dark Mountain Project as part of the Festival of the Dark. The Dark Mountain website features two other accounts from members of that organisation’s team who took part: Charlotte du Cann, and ClimateCultures Member Sarah Thomas.

Jennifer Leach
Jennifer Leach
A poet, writer, performer and storyteller whose wild work, forged in the fantastical reaches of deep imagination, brings to life new stories for our strange times.
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UNFIX Festival — Unfix the Situation

UNFIX situation 2019 Image by Henrik KnudsenArtistic director and performer Paul Michael Henry, who has devised successive UNFIX festivals, discusses his motivation and ambitions for these international gatherings and explorations, ahead of UNFIX 2019 next month. UNFIX: a command form, a verb, an activity.


1,120 words: estimated reading time 4.5 minutes 


UNFIX is a multi-art form festival based in Glasgow, New York and Tokyo. It starts from the proposition that the Anthropocene is happening inside your body, RIGHT NOW. The 2019 Edition is scheduled for 29th-31st March at CCA Glasgow.

I started UNFIX in 2015, looking to ‘Climate Change’ like a lightning rod for the vague and specific discomforts about this society that have plagued me all my life. People keep mis-labelling it ‘Unfixed’ or ‘The Unfix’ but it’s UNFIX: a command form. A verb and activity.

A loosening, disburdening, freeing-up. Anti-fatalistic, with the assumption that it doesn’t have to be like this. I experience climate change as a terrible affirmation: we cannot treat each other, ourselves and our surroundings this way. We can’t walk around with these egos functioning the way they do, and live.

UNFIX situation 2019 Image by Henrik Knudsen
UNFIX 2019
Image: Henrik Knudsen © 2019

Situation crisis

When the ‘Banking Crisis’ hit in 2008 it occurred to me (and others I’m sure) that it could just as well be called the Banking Opportunity. With the cracks briefly showing, it could be a moment of vulnerability for finance and late capitalism, a gap in the concrete where something new could spring up. The fact that it wasn’t speaks simply to the aggregate level of human consciousness at that time. We were not awake enough.

I’m a Glaswegian artist whose work tends to focus on the body — specifically, the body as an ecological reality traumatised by, and intimately connected to, wider currents of politics, patriarchy, capitalism and climate change. I’m also interested in the body’s ability to soften these by love, connection and embodied understanding. I’m uninterested in finger-pointing, and am probably some kind of mystic at heart.

Actually part of that is a lie. I’d love to finger point, and sometimes I do. Jump up and down and rail at the capitalists and the patriarchs and the selfish and the sleeping, righteously righteously. Weep publicly, perhaps on TV, cradling plastic smothered turtles in my too late saviour’s arms. But climate change really isn’t about me and a wiser part of me knows that. It swallows me and I need to reckon with it, I live inside it and it shames me and prompts me to act.

When I don’t live in alignment with my values (which is often), a rat gnaws my stomach. The rat is tamed when I take actions with my whole being, like starting a festival for misfit artists to say what’s burning in our gizzards and draw what attention we can to The Situation. 

Paul Michael Henry in Shrimp Dance Image by Brian Hartley
Shrimp Dance, Paul Michael Henry. Platform, Glasgow October 2017.
Image: Brian Hartley © 2017

Situation opportunity 

The first UNFIX happened because a wonderful venue (the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow) was foolish enough to give me the keys to the building for a weekend. I was living in a camper van at the time, completely skint and dreaming. We teamed up, dozens of artists and activists, nobody getting paid, and we staged performances and film screenings and debates and ate together at another great venue (the Project Cafe) who made us all food from ingredients foraged in Kelvingrove Park. It felt a bit explosive. People still tell me how it affected them, boosted their resilience. I dunno. I’d like to think so.

But I mean: it’s art. The Situation persists. I throw my tiny actions and those of the artists involved in UNFIX on the pile, to be added to the older generations who saw this coming (the Joanna Macys, the Alastair McIntoshes) and the younger just now exploding in beauty (the school-age climate strikers). Outcomes are unknowable so I align myself, not sure, opting — as Alastair is fond of saying — to “Dig where I stand.”

So what about the Climate Opportunity? I don’t think shouting at Trump is going to be enough, though it is surely a part of it. But when I project all my climate rage outwards I’m being dishonest. I think that all of us raising our levels of awareness, radically –individually, in small groups, in large groups, in continental blocks, in cross currents and collaborations, and in the owning of our own shadows — CHANGING OURSELVES from the inside out, might make a difference.

I don’t know what our chances of survival as something resembling the human species are, and I’m agnostic about whether we deserve it. I’m to blame and you’re to blame and everyone is confused and the most ignorant and ego-driven have the most power and will kill us all if we let them. OK OK. The Situation. Perhaps we should just get to work?

Minako Seki Image by Ulrich Heemann
Minako Seki
Image: Ulrich Heemann © 2019

UNFIX 2019

This year’s UNFIX Festival has some (a little) money behind it. For the first time I have a budget and producers and paperwork, and people to account to afterwards. And I can pay the artists taking part, more or less. All of which makes me nervous because it dilutes my standing as someone powerless and shouting on the sidelines (my strongest suit). It’s not much power, mind.

If I were king, I would outlaw the term Consumers. Swap in the word Organism, or System, or ConsumerDigesterExcreter. I would have mandatory shit cannons primed for every time someone says ‘Economic Growth’. All would bow down before my solutions. Righteously Righteously.

I am not king, thankfully, signing on instead each day as an average-extraordinary worker bee in the Anthropocene: of unique gifts and no special importance, grief-stricken and hopeful and sometimes sick and faltering and giving up and starting again.

Who looks out through your eyes when you think about climate change? 


Find out more

Paul Michael Henry makes performances that, most of the time, end up on a stage, but he also makes recorded music and films and collaborates on other artists’ projects. He is artistic director of UNFIX Festival and teaches dance workshops called The Dreaming Body. His themes are political, social and spiritual, dealing with love, neglect of the body, destruction of the environment and atrophy of the soul in consumerist society. 

UNFIX 2019 is scheduled for 29th-31st March at CCA Glasgow. It will feature contributions from local and international artists and organisations including Minako Seki, Alberta Whittle, Chistiana Bissett, The Workroom, Extinction Rebellion, Creative Carbon Scotland, Niya B, Ruaridh Law, Verónica Mota/Urban Arts Berlin, VID art|science, Yulia Kovanova, NIGHTPARADE, Katrine Turner, VIDIV, Adam Fish, Paul Michael Henry and The Dark Mountain Project. You can discover more at www.unfixfestival.com. Tickets are on a sliding scale and can be purchased from the CCA website.

Paul Michael Henry
Paul Michael Henry
A performance maker whose dance, music, ritual and writing deal with love, neglect of body, destruction of environment and atrophy of soul in consumerist society.
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Artists’ Climate Lab

Artists' Climate LabRoyal Court Executive Producer Lucy Davies — a participant in Creative Climate Leadership training in 2017 — explores Artists’ Climate Lab, a special week of creative activities she and others devised for artists working in London’s leading theatres.


1,230 words: estimated reading time 5 minutes 


It is September 10th and I am sitting on a bench in the 40-acre bio-dynamic grounds of Hawkwood College in Stroud, looking out over the Severn valley. Ten remarkable theatre artists are sitting around me. We are here for a week-long Climate Lab on art and creative activism, which I have been part of setting up.

Artists' Climate Lab participants at Hawkwood College, September 2018
Artists Climate Lab participants at Hawkwood College, September 2018
Photographs: by group members

Last October I was a participant on the Julie’s Bicycle / PiNA Creative Climate Leadership training in Slovenia. A week of intense enquiry, coaching, educating and bonding with activists, policy-makers, artists and cultural leaders from across the globe, its impact was deep on all of us. The dissemination and outputs have been many. Climate Lab is one of them.

I am the Executive Producer at the Royal Court Theatre in London — a theatre with a solid commitment to artistic climate programming. Recent ecologically-tilted plays include Ten Billion, 2071, Escaped Alone, X, Human Animals, The Children.

I have also spent the past four years as Chair of London Theatre Consortium, where the Executive Directors or Producers of 14 London theatres gather quarterly to drive collaborative working and sectoral change. Our collective work, particularly around carbon and energy reduction (working with Julie’s Bicycle) and on workforce development (through apprenticeships and Executive Fellowships), has been significant and game-changing.

There were three of us from LTC theatres in Slovenia on the Creative Climate Leadership week — myself, an Artistic Director (Ellen McDougall from the Gate) and a Creative Learning Practitioner and artist (Dan de la Motte Harrison from the Young Vic). In a long lunchtime walk through the trees and seas and caravans, we committed to running a week-long climate lab for theatre artists when we got home.

We asked each LTC Artistic Director to nominate an artist to send — we were seeking a broad representative pool of emerging / establishing theatre artists — and we would invite extraordinary artists making work in this field to come and feed their brains and inspire their practice.

The steering group had a series of wonderful, rigorous, effortless, ambitious meetings from January 2018, made a (successful) Arts Council application, and with the incredible support of Hawkwood College (a Centre for Future Thinking) and their Artists Residency Programme, the Climate Lab was a real thing.

A break from the workshops
A break from the workshops
Photographs: by members of the group

Climate Lab: not a conference

The spirit of this gathering — which we hope is a pilot and will be repeated in 2019 — is to feed the brains of artists with other artists’ practice. Not a conference. Not a scientific training session. A way of engaging and connecting artists across disciplines to be tooled up, fired and inspired in their climate art, activism and production processes. We want to empower independent artists to have confidence in their values when engaging with institutions, and to have an impact on those institutions and audiences. We also wanted to pay them, get them into the woods, feed them and listen.

The nominated artists were: writer and theatre-maker Deborah Pearson; playwright Isley Lynn; play-maker, director and artist Tassos Stevens; director Abigail Graham; visual artist and designer Moi Tran; director Holly Race Raughan; dancer and choreographer Ellie Sikorski; performer and choreographer Shane Shambhu; director Joshua Parr; and designer Ruth Sutcliffe.

The week was facilitated by director Anthony Simpson-Pike, and the visiting artists were: visual artist Gayle Chong Kwan; theatre maker Toby Peach; playwright and director Abhishek Majumdar; live artists Search Party, participatory theatre maker Zoe Svendsen; photographer Nii Obidai; director Simon McBurney — plus environmental practitioners Chiara Badiali and Polly Higgins. 

Sessions explored how to create fair spaces; co-creating community-led rituals; the male capitalist hero and other ecological narratives; the intersectionality of climate justice and frontline nations, stories, power and artists; making work slowly; the ambition to make ecocide an international crime; making art in a capitalist context; formulating a manifesto or code that independent artists can sign up to and share with institutions; who has the right to tell what stories; and, of course, sex, because “sex is, beyond any argument, entirely carbon neutral”…. In between, the group formed smaller buddy groups to evaluate the days; they came up with future project ideas and activist interventions together, and they walked.

Together
Together
Photographs: by members of the group

A fair and rigorous space

A fortnight on, sitting and reflecting from an urban office, it was a potent and remarkable week; a week in which the notion of ‘intersectional climate justice’ was firmly embedded into their creative practice, and placed concretely within their wider activism — be it feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist. Gathering such open, creative thinkers in such a glorious, values-led environment was never going to be a barren encounter. In their words, it was: “enlightening, motivating, empowering, mind-expanding, revelatory, intense, urgent, necessary.”

Together, they created a fair and rigorous space; they formed a powerful cohort, and since we left, the artists have stayed in a daily, dynamic conversation. We are preparing a co-authored blog and a podcast which we will share here and across many platforms… They are organising a film screening, an action across the LTC theatres, and a major dissemination event.

And, in the steering group, we are already planning next year’s Climate Lab. This synthesis of LTC’s work on operational change and artistic change — systems-change both in the buildings and in the art — is a new adventure for us. It is widely agreed that culture — in cities and in rural communities — is a critical force in the climate justice movement. As cultural institutions in London, we are galvanising our commitment to this movement.


Find out more

Creative Climate Leadership is a new programme for artists and cultural professionals to explore the cultural dimensions of climate change, and take action with impact, creativity and resilience. Artists and the wider cultural community have a unique and critical role: they deal with the art of the possible and influence new ways of being, doing and thinking. Creative Climate Leadership supports cultural professionals to apply these qualities to the climate challenge. The programme is tailored for participants to reach their full potential and maximise action on climate change within the creative and cultural sector, with help and support to test and scale ideas through sharing best practice and discussion across countries and cultures. The programme is led by:

  • Julie’s Bicycle (UK) — a global charity working at the intersection between culture and environmental sustainability
  • PiNA (Slovenia) — an organisation focused on social development, advocating respect for basic human rights and democracy, respect for the environment with a focus on sustainable development
  • On The Move (Belgium and France) — a cultural mobility information network with more than 35 members in over 20 countries across Europe and beyond.

Hawkwood College in Stroud, Gloucestershire, is a residential adult education college serving the needs of a wide community and an educational charity. Their mission is to create a better world for now and for the future. They bring together people and organisations in support of creative endeavour, a flourishing society and a sustainable environment.

Lucy Davies
Lucy Davies
A Creative Climate Leader, and Executive Producer at London's Royal Court, Chair of London Theatre Consortium and Chair of Trustees for Clod Ensemble
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