16th March 2021: This Green Tease event explored the topic of ’embedded artists’ who work closely with or within environmental organisations to help further, diversify, challenge or reorient their work. Film-maker Janine Finlay and artist Emma Hislop discussed their experiences working with Zero Waste Scotland and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, followed by focused group discussions.
The event started with a quick icebreaker. Attendees were asked to think of films – environmental or otherwise – that had affected them particularly powerfully or altered their perception of an issue. The suggestions were saved to be reused for an activity later on in the session.
Gemma Lawrence of Creative Carbon Scotland then provided an introduction to the concept of ’embedded artists’ and discussed the role she plays in setting up and supporting projects that involve embedded artists. This was followed by a conversation with Janine Finlay, who was embedded artist with Zero Waste Scotland’s ‘Demystifying Decoupling’ project. and Emma Hislop, who was the first artist-in-residence with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. The conversation is available as a video with a summary of key topics below.
Gemma stressed that embedded artist projects tend to be process oriented, focusing on collaboration over an extended timescale with outcomes not being predetermined. The aim is for artists to meaningfully contribute to the running of an environmental organisation, offering the skills that come from their experience and training to find creative ways of tackling seemingly intractable issues.
Emma discussed the importance of complexity and strangeness as a means of opening up space for alternative forms of understanding and perception that would not be encountered elsewhere. Her practice is research focused and involves developing stories that combine elements of familiarity and strangeness, drawing on sci fi, alchemy, and pop culture. One example involves drawing parallels between gut disease and environmental crisis, creating unexpected juxtapositions.
As artist-in-residence with Ellen Macarthur Foundation, she created the website Open Tongue that documented her experiences, and the piece Plaeriet for Aether, which involved a script bound to include fungal spores that will eventually consume the object. She discussed the importance of legacy in her work and discussed how she was able to help shape the format of the residency for future artists.
Janine talked about her interest in stories and visual media. Her work has involved creating science and nature documentaries for the BBC and for the World Wildlife Fund as well as character-focused documentaries. She explained the importance of films for demonstrating realities to people who have never witnessed them in person: for example, showing decision-makers places that their decisions influence but that they never visit in person.
As filmmaker with Zero Waste Scotland she had to grapple with explaining the concept of ‘decoupling‘ (achieving economic growth without increased environmental damage) in an accessible way as well as working during COVID-19, which has complicated the process of building relationships. The upcoming film will combine input from researchers and from members of the public.
The ensuing conversation focused on the process of collaboration and the need to develop good relationships, which can involve navigating contrasting value systems or terminology. The artists stressed the importance of taking time to develop good personal relationships and valuing contrasting ways of thinking.
An embedded artist can usefully ‘disrupt’ an organisation to help enable new directions, so their role should not necessarily be to simply follow a brief but could be to productively question the aims of the organisation. Gemma discussed the importance of having an ‘anchoring phase’ that lays the groundwork in advance to build support and minimise misconceptions of what to expect.
This was followed by time in smaller group discussions. Participants first returned to the film suggestions from the start of the session and analysed them with the aid of a guide prepared by Janine to gain a better understanding of what devices they thought made these films effective. They then turned to their own experiences as artists or environmental practitioners to consider where they might be able to employ similar methods in their work or what issues that they work with might benefit most from being presented creatively.
Finally, the discussion turned to practicalities, drawing on the Embedded Artist Project Toolkit developed by the Cultural Adaptations project to think about key questions for setting up collaborative embedded artist projects, such as:
- What change are you trying to bring about?
- What issue are you responding to?
- How can you develop bold new approaches?
- How can you leave space for the project to develop?
- How can you ensure that the project is genuinely co-designed?
- Who are your audiences and stakeholders?
- How can you make the best use of the skills held by different collaborators?
- How will you know if you have been successful?
Some of the answers to these questions suggested by participants are given below.
Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.
In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.
We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.
Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:
Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.
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