Author Archive

John Thorne: Psychology, Creative Practice and Climate Change

April 18, 2018

This blog comes to you from John Thorne. John is Sustainability Coordinator at Glasgow School of Art. Here he opens up issues which frame Saturday’s Climate Psychology Association Scotland 1st Annual Conference: From the personal to the social: Climate psychology and the sense of responsibility. Booking here.


We live in a time of great anxiety due to Climate Change, but our response is muted. Only a psychological approach can help us accept our possible futures and to take action, only creative practice can show us how.

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“Mother and Child” by Frank Bruce https://www.facebook.com/FrankBruceSculptureTrail/

A few years ago an eminent group of psychoanalysts and psychologists realised that many more people were presenting to them with clear signs of Climate Change related anxiety. The group formed the Climate Psychology Alliance to highlight the psychological issues being faced by individuals within society, and sought to involve other professional disciplines. The CPA aims to use psychology to help people understand their emotions regarding climate change, how to respond to them better, and to form a basis for action to mitigate Climate Change.

The psychological effects on individuals within society (the “psycho-social” effect) caused by Climate Change go deep into our ancient, instinctive selves, but is a distant issue that doesn’t yet impact on our daily lives. Our instinctive reactions, built on 50,000 years of cave-person development doesn’t deal with distant threats well: we are programmed to notice and run away quickly from charging elephants, but are ill-equipped to react to a herd of elephants many miles away. Or to put it into a modern context, we react fast to issues around family, work and hobbies, or a flood on our doorstep, a burglar in our house, a punch to the nose, but slowly if at all to a creeping, existential threat to the climate.

The threat to humanity is existential. We face a societal collapse through changes to our climate. Our reaction to this psychological threat is a psychological process where we disbelieve, hide, transfer that feeling of threat, grab at possible tech fixes, are angry and confused, blame others, avoid responsibility, and respond by losing ourselves in the easy hedonism and busyness of our modern capitalist society.

If we allow ourselves to feel at all, we feel guilty; for every thing we buy, for every action we make. We know it has an environmental cost, but in a complex society there is no escape: the most organic carrot is wrapped in unseen fossil fuel plastic for delivery, delivered on a diesel truck, seeded and harvested by a diesel tractor whose tyres are made of fossil fuel plastic which all directly links to this existential threat….the links go on and on and it is overwhelming, which causes us to deny that it is happening now, happening to us.

The types of denial range from negation that it is happening at all, to disavowal, the dangerous state in which we know but deny at the same time, sometimes defined as “turning a blind eye”.

Denial is powerful. We can ignore 1,138 deaths in one clothing factory and still shop where the cheap clothes are sold; we buy DVD players whose makers have gone blind making them, wear gold and silver mined in slave-conditions, and use mobile phones containing minerals from conflict ridden areas whose miners don’t get paid a fraction of their real value to us. We are all guilty just by being, breathing, taking the car to Tescos, eating, travelling, taking a holiday or heating our homes.

This isn’t just present guilt, but it is the sins of our fathers too. We live in a society that has developed as a patriarchy, aided and abetted by a male-led series of religions that puts our soul and distinct categories of humans above everything and everyone else. This is useful. Once we devalue something or someone we can subjugate them to our use, and use and dispose of them at will. There is a reason we have words such as “savage” in our lexicon, why animals have no rights, and why we feel entitled to take what we need, including the contents of the sea, and fossil fuels that should remain locked forever in the Earth.
In the past 20 years we’ve lost 75% of all insects. In 40 years we have lost 40% of all global wildlife. In 50 years I have been alive our proliferation has added 4.1 billion extra people. We lose 13% of Arctic ice a decade, and parts of the Arctic are over 20°c warmer this year than usual. We are already psychologically in mourning for our future loss.

The planet is dying, and fast. Current projections by the IPCC do not include feedback loops which will accelerate change. We know Climate Change is happening, but are underestimating both the catastrophic extremes that are imminent, and the speed at which permanent damage will be done.

Feeling anxious? Feeling helplessly guilty yet? We’re stuck in a capitalist system from which there is seemingly no escape. But it’s been no accident or natural progression to this state of greed. It is not naturally evolved, it is designed, and actively and consciously managed to keep us consuming. Some of our best creative people work where the money is – marketing this impossible, threatening nightmare.

We’re told to “save the planet” to minimise our impact, a term that generalises the threat when the real losers here are humanity. We talk of save the rhino, save the whale, but the psychological elephant in the room is the loss of us, ourselves.

We are told that the choice is ours: we have the power to change the World by recycling, we are told to “do our bit”. Such minimised responses to existential threat are damaging. Recycling is largely useless, it confirms our entitlement to keep consuming, creates another industry to profit from, externalises the ownership and cost of packaging to the consumer and then the council who collects it at society’s cost. It does not slow consumption and stops people taking further action.

If we are to face up to our existential threat we have to realise that we are all guilty. You are guilty. I am guilty. Not just the ruling elite presently grabbing all the money they can, but the consuming middle classes protecting what they can hold on to. All of us live in a modern society that is developed, funded, shaped and supported by exploitative consumerism. We all live on the backs of others, unseen, un-thought and unreported.

Today’s response to the psychological threat of climate change is to not discuss it, or lose ourselves in the hedonism of online life. The considered, thinking response is hampered by years of specialising silos within the artistic and scientific discipline: it is perhaps 200 years since the last of the great polymaths died: artistic and scientific disciplines are no longer shared by individuals, and the disciplines themselves do not interact. History does not talk to psychologists, environmentalists not to businesspeople, artists not to engineers.

The scientific explanation of what is happening is often impenetrable. We need a translator, a group of people who can emotionally connect us to these complex global changes and challenges. We need the creative.

The Creative Response

If we’re all guilty, then how to change the system? The fact that we are in a system is one hope, for systems can be changed. We must focus not on consumer-led demand responses, but on systematic change to supply. Not on plastic free supermarket aisles by 2042 and electric cars by 2050, but by fundamental re-examination of how we got here, our historical debt, our current impacts and painting possible futures.

There is hope in change and humankind’s ability to adapt. If we’re to free ourselves from a fossil fuel resource economy then everything made of oil must be redesigned – thousands of things and millions of jobs transitioned or created, and society and the role of work transformed. Disruptive and innovative change is possible, but relies on a psychological approach to trigger that change.

This psychological response can be proportional: we are each one in 7.6 billionth of the problem, but those who can should do more. We must make the best use of whatever our professional or personal power is; we don’t all have to be raving tree-huggers, though I do recommend it for psychological relief. Take action where you are, or where you can position yourself to be to have maximum impact.

We should examine our feelings: Climate Change is not an environmental issue; it is an emotional, social and cultural one and overwhelmingly a psychological one. Creative practice has a powerful role to play. It has the ability to link us emotionally to visions, issues and action, not raising our anxiety levels but lowering them to useful levels, allowing us to take action. It can reconnect us to ourselves, to each other and to nature.
What we don’t connect with we don’t value: consider refugee deaths in the Med, or drying-up lakes in Africa, we have never met or seen such people or things, so have no connection and no value to their loss. The greater the numbers of people killed, or the amount of water lost, the less we can allow ourselves to care, or risk psychological damage. Creative work that connects us to the death of a refugee mother, the fisherman who is losing his livelihood, or the suffering of the animal without water, can cause us to connect, care and take action.

Creative images can shock us, from balls of carbon around skyscrapers to turtles mixed up with plastic fishing net, from the picture of the last rhino to apocalyptic films. The benefits of such images are arguable, and cause raised anxiety and negative reactions. Don’t we know all this already? We’re just not connected to it in any usefully psychological way.

David Attenborough’s programmes, much loved by millions, are a double-edged sword: we are asked to value our natural environment, but are given a vision of the Earth as full of animals and diversity, perhaps as we remember as children, when in fact we have lost so much. We subconsciously know this, and part of us mourns for a past without hope for a future.

These are powerful feelings that shape who we are and what we feel able to do. Creative practice, carefully shaped, is able to balance information and make connection with our levels of anxiety: if we’re too upfront about the issues nothing gets attempted.

The correct use of language is vital. We should talk about the existential threat to things we love and connect to – which aren’t polar bears and white tigers, or artic ice flows, or Lake Chad, but ourselves and our children. Only a creative and psychological approach can quickly connect us emotionally to issues and provide possibilities to change the system. Knowing we are in a designed system can lower levels of anxiety to useful levels, that the system can be changed for the better.

Humans respond to stories, and art & design can tell a positive future story, good enough to drown out the siren calls of consumerism, hedonism and comfort (for some) of our current global system. We need to talk, paint, sculpt, build and design to tell the story of a clean energy economy which works for all, one with naturally fertile soil and clean air, a World where people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or colour are equally valued, where flora and fauna are seen as part of a planetary system not as mere common commodities. A place that recognises that to save our children we must save the planetary system.

This creative vision isn’t something less, it is something more. It is not a cost but a benefit for all. We need to inspire environmentalists, many of whom are worn down from the destruction of the Earth’s systems and see little benefit in trying to change or to save our culture. We seek a new model of development, and creative people need to show us this possible future.

We might be the first society on Earth to successfully transit from one harmful system to another more caring one. History tells us that such transformations are rare if they have ever truly happened before. But does the complexity and knowledge of our society make us able to buck the trend and change before we collapse?

Art can open our eyes to the realisation that we might end, and that we might not see our children grow up. Imagining Modern Fossils we might leave behind for future archaeologists to dig up helps highlight our present follies. There is a role for extinction art, making us aware of what we have lost so we can better protect what we have left and encourage the reinstatement of habitat.

Humans have a natural desire to leave a mark, to have made a difference, to give our lives purpose, and creative practice can record and celebrate the good that is happening across the planet.

Much as our modern society has manufactured consent to our consumption-rich society, so too can we use creative psychological approaches to re-establish connections within ourselves, to each other and to nature. There is a positive story to be told of a new society. This society will have to be innovative and disruptive in its system design, allowing people, even corporations, to transit to new ways of thinking, and for current systems of production to transit to new methods of supply. The creative arts can help explain where we are, what we can each do, and how to get there.

Whatever your profession or practice you can further explore these themes with the Climate Psychology Alliance. The Scottish branch has a conference in Glasgow on Saturday 21 April at the Glasgow School of Art.

Facebook Event page here

Lecture: Patricia Watts ‘Some Kind Of Nature’ 4pm 23 April, Glasgow Sculpture Studios

April 16, 2018

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ecoartscotland is very pleased to be partnering with Glasgow Sculpture Studios and the Collins and Goto Studio to present the lecture Some Kind of Nature by international curator and founder of ecoartspace Patricia Watts.

Monday 23 April, 4pm, Glasgow Sculpture Studios (Board Room, 2nd Floor)
FREE (download pdf of poster: 2018TWattsECOARTSCOTLAND-GSS)

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Susan Leibovitz Steinman, Sweet Survival, Santa Rosa, California 2008-2012

This talk will focus on the development and history of the curatorial platform ecoartspace, highlighting specific exhibitions and programs, and projects presented to the public over the last twenty years. Founded by Patricia Watts in 1997, the nonprofit platform has operated without a permanent space supporting hundreds of artists addressing environmental issues in the USA. Watts will also discuss different approaches artists have taken through the years, and where she believes artists today can focus their energies with the greatest results.

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Matthew Mazzotta, Cloud House, 2016 Farmers Park, Springfield, Missouri

Watts has curated over thirty art and ecology exhibitions, given over fifty lectures, and written numerous essays. She is considered a pioneer of the art and ecology movement. Select exhibitions include FiberSHED (2015), Shifting Baselines (2013), MAKE:CRAFT (2010), and Hybrid Fields (2006). Watts has also curated a permanent outdoor public artwork, Cloud House (2015–16), at Farmers Park in Springfield, Missouri; and a temporary public artwork, Windsock Currents (2005), on Crissy Field in the Presidio, San Francisco, for UN World Environment Day.

Currently, she is developing an ongoing series of ACTION GUIDES of replicable art projects and is conducting video interviews with pioneering ecological artists for the ecoartspace video archive.

http://patriciawatts.blogspot.com
http://www.ecoartspace.org
http://ecoartspaceactionguides.blogspot.com
https://www.youtube.com/user/ecoartspace

 

Beverly Naidus: The ZAD Becomes Compost? LONG LIVE THE ZAD!

April 13, 2018

This post comes from Beverly Naidus, a friend and colleague. Her attention is focused on the ZAD (zone à défendre) after visiting in October. Recent events have made it urgent to relay her experience and why the destruction of this place in France matters. A month ago we drew attention to the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest’s issue #10 Climate Atlas. The point of the Atlas is to focus on where new forms of relations between humans and other living things are being developed. The editors of JOAAP #10 said, “In the face of climate change, we prioritize lifes’ capacity to organize its own variation.” The French State is attempting to stamp out a beautiful example of self-organisation.


April 10, 2018, Tacoma, WA, USA

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When something you have witnessed, loved and cared for is destroyed and uprooted, whether it is a forest, a species, a community or a culture, it can wreck the spirit. The trauma of these violent actions, informed by greed and ignorance, can ripple out widely, encouraging resistance, but it requires attention. In order for the suffering to become compost from which we can plant our visions again, it needs amplification. Writing in the wee hours, on the Pacific coast of North America, I am hoping that these words will be heard, knowing that our peaceful warrior friends in the northwest of France are facing violence today.

Yesterday evening I learned that the ZAD had been invaded by 2500 French police wielding tear gas and driving bulldozers. They destroyed hand-built homes, greenhouses and community spaces and have been pushing people off the land. Gardens that have been lovingly tended and harvested for many years have been trashed. There seems to be not enough bodies assembled to create the physical resistance required to stop the perpetrators. It feels like a lost cause. I am breathing through the shock of this and hoping that a phoenix will rise out of the ashes. Here’s today’s news and here’s another blog [and this Call for Intergalactic Solidarity Actions was published recently. Ed]

In October 2017 we were able to visit the ZAD, a wonderful and complex community in France that inspires revolutionary thoughts and actions. Most folks, including activist folks, on this side of the pond have never heard of the ZAD. We’ve been too busy with the ever-escalating messes in our own backyards to pay much attention to visionary projects elsewhere. But fortunately, I have known of the activist artist, John Jordan, one of the key residents and spoke-persons for the ZAD, for many years. He made a contribution to my book, Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame (New Village Press, 2009) and has kept me informed about the ZAD via email and social media.

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For those who are unaware of this remarkable place, it’s been a European symbol of contemporary resistance against development and fossil fuels. A coalition of movements including environmental activists, local farmers and unionists, anarchists, students and creative resistors of all sorts has prevented the building of an airport, and formed the largest autonomous zone in Europe, 4000 acres inhabited by 250 or so squatters who make up about 60 collectives. The land has been occupied since 2009 as part of a 50 year struggle against the development of the airport.

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This is not going to be an essay to describe the history and theories informing the ZAD. The reader can research that information online, but instead this brief piece will attempt to frame a vision before it slips the collective memory. ZAD is the acronym for zone à défendre (translated as “the Zone to Defend”).

We arrived at the train station at Notre-Dames des Landes on a sunny afternoon in late October 2017. John and his partner, Isa, met us and drove us to the beautiful bocage (a landscape that mixes woodlands and pasture) that makes up the ZAD. John explained that designing a landscape to feature “bocage” is one of the best ways to sequester CO2. Many traditional, small farmers have been working the land this way for centuries.

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John told us that our visit was well-timed, a party was already in progress at the Ambazada, a newly built barn-like space for meetings, dances, concerts and feast. We joined this celebration of the community that gave everyone an opportunity to share updates on different coalitions and actions. People of all ages were sitting around on benches, inside and outside this structure, many in deep conversations. Laughter often erupted, local wine was being shared and a pleasant haze of French cigarette smoke greeted us. John introduced us to people, some were local residents, and a few were visitors, like us, from all over the world. We were invited to grab plates and fill them generously with delicious home-made cuisine. I was struck by the plenty. Huge blocks of cheese and pâté were laid out along with bowls of salads and fruits. A crepe station and the lovely people working there supplied the crowd with warm, tasty regional fare (on the southern edge of Brittany. We made our way to one of the big tables to learn more about this unusual community.

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Over the past three decades, my partner, Bob Spivey, and I had been eager to learn about alternative communities, places where people were living out a vision of how to resist the dominant culture and its rape of the land and community. I had first been interested in collective living when I was a teenager and tasted a bit of it by living on a kibbutz. Unfortunately, the joys of sharing abundance, child care and work, were drowned out by the poison of the racism I witnessed there. Along with government policies that over the past five decades have become increasingly fascist. I was determined to look for other models, ones that were not so contaminated by an ideology of superiority and the propaganda of “safety through aggression.”

We visited co-housing communities on the west coast of the US, the remnants of back-to-the-land communes in New England, NY and Canada, as well as an eco-village in the north of Italy, and while they all had pieces of the puzzle that attracted us, certain vital qualities were missing. Our years of working with the Institute for Social Ecology had given us a vision of what a non-colonizing, permaculture design-informed, ecologically sound, equitable, diverse, revolutionary, liberated world might look like. We saw evidence of this vision at the ZAD.

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Every morning we would wake up to the sounds of John’s collective making breakfast in the house where we were hosted. The pantry was filled with boxes of fruit and vegetables. Fresh bread and eggs seemed to magically arrive. A chalk board displayed the tasks of the day and people took up their responsibilities with apparent ease.

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In the four days we were there we walked the land meeting members of the 60 collectives that have carved out space, built amazing structures and gardens while sharing childcare, bread, cheese, produce, tools, skills and libraries. We spent time in long conversations, climbed the beautifully built lighthouse for an exquisite sunset view, shared meals, sank into the literature provided at the welcome house, met grad students and journalists who are studying the ZAD, talked about the art and cultural democracy that was emerging from daily life, learned about ongoing conflicts between the specie-ists (those who are informed by deep ecology, who don’t believe that humans are special), the global justice activists and the traditional farmers, and discovered that this is the real work of making this vision come alive.

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John shared the history of battles on the land and how old coalitions between trade unions, farmers and activists were revitalized to create solidarity against the airport. We learned how art, play and humor kept the whole process joyful, even in the face of violence. It was inspiring, but we left knowing that romantic dreams were not enough to make this community sustainable. It required gritty, uncomfortable, daily work to keep people communicating productively with each other. Solidarity was not a given. Doing ongoing anti-oppression work and non-violent conflict resolution would be the continuing task of this visionary place.

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Now in this moment of extreme attacks from the State, it is important to remember that the seeds planted by ZAD can be broadcast widely, and we can be encouraged that it has survived and thrived in very difficult conditions. New communities of this kind will be forming all over the world as the dominant culture continues to crumble. We must take heart, be resilient when there are losses and persist in making our visions emerge. Share this story with others, find ways to organize and educate in your own communities. LONG LIVE THE ZAD!

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Flyer being handed out at French Embassies and Consulates


Beverly Naidus, interdisciplinary artist, author and facilitator of a socially engaged, studio arts curriculum, has been creating interactive installations and mixed media projects for several decades. Inspired by lived experience, topics in her art focus on environmental and social issues. After tasting success in the mainstream art world, she became deeply committed to art that emerges from communities struggling against oppression of all kinds. She is currently on the faculty of the University of Washington, Tacoma.

www.beverlynaidus.net

All photos courtesy of Beverly Naidus

Helen Mayer Harrison (1927-2018)

April 3, 2018

We met Helen Mayer Harrison (along with Newton Harrison) in 2006 at a conference in Shrewsbury thanks to David Haley. We had the privilege to spend the next three years working with them to realise Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom, a project which prefigured their more recent work through the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure. It was through Greenhouse Britain that they first talked about the ‘form determinant’ which later became the ‘force majeure’.

“We suggest that the existing plans for greenhouse emissions control will be insufficient to keep temperature rise at 2° or less. In this context, the rising ocean becomes a form determinant. By “form determinant” we mean the ocean will determine much of the new form, that culture, industry and many other elements of civilization may need to take.” (Greenhouse Britain, 2007)

Throughout this time we heard Helen read from the end of their magnum opus, Lagoon Cycle, many times, in meetings and at events and performances. She read,

And the waters will rise slowly
at the boundary
at the edge
redrawing that boundary
continually
moment by moment
all over
altogether
all at once
It is a graceful drawing and redrawing
this response to the millennia of the making of fire

And in this new beginning
this continuously rebeginning
will you feed me when my lands can no longer produce
and will I house you when your lands are covered with water
so that together
we can withdraw
as the waters rise
(Lagoon Cycle, 1984)

Sometime she started slightly earlier in the text, with the list of rivers around the world, but she always read this last section and it always drew a deep, thoughtful silence.

Helen was the English Major with a Masters in Psychology who had worked in education extensively and to a senior level before becoming a full time artist and professor at the University of California San Diego. From this point she collaborated full time with Newton.

Living in New York in the early 1960s Helen had also been the first New York Co-ordinator of the Women’s Strike for Peace. As far as we remember she was also the one who had been reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a critical influence in Helen and Newton’s decision in the early 1970s ‘to do no work that did not in some way benefit the ecosystem.’

It is not useful to attempt to separate out who did what (or for that matter which one of them was the genius*). Rather it is useful to highlight that when we asked about their influences from literature, Helen mentioned Chaucer. You can see in particular works humorous comment on human frailty and weakness.

Helen had a lifelong interest in language, narration, storytelling, and the oral tradition. In San Diego the Harrisons were close friends with David and Eleanor Antin and with Jerome and Diane Rothenbeg. They were part of the ethno-poetic movement. Ethno-poetics as an aesthetic movement is concerned with the power and beauty of the spoken word. It is concerned to break out of the dominance in the Western tradition of the written word. Rothenberg pointed out,

“The suspicion came to be that certain forms of poetry, like certain forms of artmaking, permeated traditional societies ∓ that these largely religious forms not only resembled but had long since achieved what the new experimental poets & artists were then first setting out to do.” (Rothenberg, 1994)

Helen, in bringing a certain quality of literature into their practice, opened up the possibility that the “social ∓ spiritual as well aesthetic” (as Rothenberg puts it) can become intertwined. Whilst they recognised that boundary conditions were critical (just read their essay Public Culture and Sustainable Practices) they equally recognised that boundaries, “…seemed to exist only for a moment and thereafter fade back into a pattern of moments grouped within moments.” (Harrisons, 2001)

Helen introduced photography into their practice in addition to literature, but what is perhaps most remarkable about this partnership is that both photography and literature became part of a shared way of working and understanding the world.

In one of the articles which addresses their working together, they describe their process (speaking in the third person) as,

The work of the Harrisons has a great deal of writing in it. Their method is straightforward. Newton writes the initial text; Helen edits it, comments, and develops it, Newton comments, and Helen finishes it. Thus, they have evolved a very comfortable way of working where Newton has the first word and Helen has the last word. (Ingram Allen, 2008)

The two voices of the Lagoon Cycle, the Lagoon Maker and the Witness, are a very powerful evocation of the potential for two people to combine action and reflection in ways that lead to insight.

To touch and be touched by a life gives energy to the world. Helen gifted us with the energy to create, improvise and adapt to whatever life offers us, with humour, courage and with love. She achieved this through empathy, reaching out into the world and listening carefully without judging. Our first meeting created a quality of friendship and humanity that will be with us for the rest of our lives.

David Haley provides the final word,

I hear the warmth of her words
the passionate chill of her poetry
such fearless insight
such good fun
such a pleasure
such grace
(Helen, David Haley, 2018)

Anne Douglas and Chris Fremantle


* Apparently the MacArthur Foundation never gave them a Genius Award because the Foundation couldn’t decide which one was the genius.


References

Harrison, Helen Mayer and Harrison, Newton, 2001. From There to Here (San Diego: The Harrison Studio), unpaginated.

– 2007. Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom (Santa Cruz: The Harrison Studio & Associates (Britain)) pdf

– 1985. Lagoon Cycle. Ithica, NY: Cornell University

– 2007 ‘Public Culture and Sustainable Practices: Peninsula Europe from an ecodiversity perspective, posing questions to Complexity Scientists’, Structure and Dynamics: eJournal of Anthropological and Related Sciences: Vol. 2: No. 3, Article 3. http://repositories.cdlib.org/imbs/socdyn/sdeas/vol2/iss3/art3

Ingram Allen, Jane. ‘A Marriage Made On Earth: Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’, Public Art Review, issue 38, spring/summer 2008, volume 19, number 2

Rothenberg, Jerome, 1994 Ethnopoetics at the Millennium A Talk for the Modern Language Association, December 29. http://www.ubu.com/ethno/discourses/rothenberg_millennium.html accessed 26 March 2018.

 

5/9

March 21, 2018

“Five-nine” doesn’t have quite the cadence as “nine-eleven,” but when we look back on the early 21st century, I believe that May 9, 2013 — the day the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history — may in the future be understood as a far more important date than September 11, 2001. It may even be that 5/9 will be seen as the long-anticipated tipping point at which human impacts caused irrevocable harm to our planet.

Read the rest of Aaron Ellison’s post here

The ‘Climate Atlas’ and the cost of belief

March 17, 2018

“Climate change is often described as a ‘wicked problem.’ One of its wickedest aspects is that it may require us to abandon some of our most treasured ideas about political virtue: for example, ‘be the change you want to see.’ What we need is instead is to find a way out of the individualising imaginary in which we are trapped.” Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 2016, p135.

Amitav Ghosh is struggling with the role of literature and why he and other authors find it difficult to in any way speak to the climate crisis even as it unfolds around us. His contention in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) is that the novel, the primary form of literature, developed in precise alignment during the 19th Century with “the regularity of bourgeois life” (p25). He argues that it is this concern with regularity as well as a focus on the individual which makes the novel a form ill-suited to dealing with the magnitude and strangeness of the planet speaking back to us.

But this might be only one way in which the arts are implicated in the climate crisis as it is manifest around the globe. Ghosh asuggests that the visual arts (along with film and television) have found it much easier to address climate change (p83).

But what Ghosh perhaps doesn’t account for is that some people are ‘being the change’ specifically experimenting with ways out of the trap of the individualising imaginary. The political virtue of ‘being the change’ can take the form of collectivism and acknowledging the agency of all things. Climate Atlas, the current issue (#10) of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, is concerned with exactly the same challenge, not of what literature can do, but of what we can do. And it is also concerned with the dangers that in the arts we might think we stand aside from the climate crisis, drawing attention to it, but not responsible for it. It offers both small flickers of hope and also warnings.

The first thing we need to attend to is that the arts do not have a monopoly on imagining the world differently and showing ‘on the ground’ what that might look like. David Haley reminds us that the root of the word ‘art’ is in the Indo-Aryan noun/adjective rt which meaning ‘the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously.’ Thus art is not the property of people who identify themselves as professional artists, or even of people who would describe themselves as making art.

That being said when editors of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest sent out an open call in December 2015 they explained that this was,

“…a project charting concrete and abstract ecological relations that people operate within to address, bolster and alter (through creative work) their relationships to a changing world. The project will use the metaphors of geology to add to a conversation about what it is to live, create, and challenge our changing world. We aim to locate these tectonics and humors, and identify the characters of forces working to sustain and reshape our ecological world.” (from an email received 3 December 2015)

Ghosh says speaking about the world we are living in,

“For these changes are not merely strange in the sense of being unknown or alien; their uncanniness lies precisely in the fact that in these encounters we recognize something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors.” p30.

Both are seeking a different configuration, not wholly bound up in the human. The fifty eight projects hand-transcribed presumably from emails and then risographed onto A3 landscape paper that make up the body of Climate Atlas submitted in response to the call are all experiments at various stages and scales in imagining and making new relations between people, other living things, and contexts.* They are only the tip of the iceberg – for every project included, there are certainly 10, probably 100 and maybe 1000 like them. They range from small projects – activities that last a few months and are driven by an individual – to things like the ZAD and La Via Campesina, organisations and resistances which are multi-dimensional ongoing examples of being the change.

In addition to examples there are 5 essays which provide a measure of the challenges, for being the change at this point requires careful attention to several dimensions of imbrication: of the business of art; of “Escaping the apparatuses of capture such as the nuclear family, class condition, gender, identity, etc”; of the intervention by the state using militarised police against activism; of seeking ‘the other’ as a way to become alert to petro-subjectivity; and finally to understand that our ‘being the change’ is not appropriate to impose on other cultures and ways of living on this planet.

It is vital to recognise that the arts are the culture which needs to change. The arts are the problem as much as corporate capitalism is the problem. Art changes culture. But if art doesn’t change then culture doesn’t change either.

Ghosh is clearly deeply concerned that the primary literary form, the novel, may actually be part of the problem as a form, not merely in its instantiation in any particular novel. But the Climate Atlas opens up some other dimensions, each of which is an issue worthy of detailed attention. Each is worth exploring. One is the sponsorship of the arts by business, specifically in this case the sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale by Transfield, a corporation holding contracts for the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and refugees. But the trajectory of the critique following on from the action which forced Transfield to withdraw is into the formation of neo-liberal capitalism and the ways in which artists in particular behave has homo economicus,

“The point is not just that all artists must now also perform their artisthood but that the economization of culture and the culturization of economy involves distinctive forms of value creation.”

The Sydney Biennale Working Group is one of a number of activist groups including also the Gulf Labor Coalition and Liberate Tate deeply questioning the economics of the cultural industries. By any measure these political action has been successful – not only did Transfield cease sponsoring the Biennale, but it also had to rebrand. The Tate no longer accepts sponsorship from BP. Ways in which the arts have become bound up with migration and migrant labour are brought into the visible realm. The social license to operate provided by the cultural sector to business has been challenged. The bigger question of whether the culture of growth – bigger museums and bigger exhibitions – is being effectively brought into question remains unanswered as yet. Can we imagine a degrowth agenda for the cultural industries?

Another is focused by the conflicting assumptions between western liberal cultures and indigenous ways of life including seal hunting. This brings us up against so many assumptions, of ethical supremacy over savagery, of the ‘White-Saviour Industrial Complex‘, assumptions about sustainability and the need for predators within an ecosystem. Many indigenous peoples’ languages have no word for ‘art’. The things that have more recently come to be called ‘art’ are for indigenous peoples ways of understanding the world and communicating that understanding to each other. Those ways of knowing and being in the world are in complex relationships with other living things, complex relationships which urban metropolitan colonial settler culture doesn’t understand. But we still make judgements. We accept the privatisation of detention centres but we condemn killing seals. Our hypocrisy is boundless. Our effort to live differently minimal.

Just as this essay calls for setting aside assumptions and asks questions about our understanding, so the whole of Climate Atlas asks us to invest in doing something differently, and to be attentive to our imbrications. The introduction to the Issue says,

“…this issue recognizes thought and action that exceeds its own logics by insisting upon the central need for space of variation and for the other. So, while it is possible and useful to concisely order thought, in this curatorial space we have chosen to instead focus on how pieces sit rather than how they are organised. In the face of climate change, we prioritize lifes’ capacity to organize its own variation. To what end is one meaningful question.”

Art is powerful – we shape the world through the stories we tell ourselves and the arts comprise the best stories. We may try and take the canon to pieces, redraw its boundaries, question its white male privilege, its heteronormativity, but art still comprises the best stories. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, eminent post-conceptual ecological artists and great storytellers say,

“Our work begins when we perceive an anomaly in the environment that is the result of opposing beliefs or contradictory metaphors. Moments when reality no longer appears seamless and the cost of belief has become outrageous offer the opportunity to create new spaces – first in the mind and thereafter in everyday life.” Quoted on www.theharrisonstudio.net accessed 10 November 2008

Climate Atlas draws attention to examples of people creating new spaces in the mind and in everyday life. It addresses the cost of belief and brings together examples of ways of facing the multifaceted crisis of climate change, the sixth extinction and rapid sea level rise. It draws attention to several of the large cracks in our reality.

* And remember David Haley also reminds us that ‘ecology is he study of organisms in relation to one another and to their surroundings, derived from the Greek word, oikos, meaning house, or dwelling.’


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