Artists and Climate Change

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Habits and Habitations

By Patricia Hanlon

Twelve years ago, my husband, Robert, and I began swimming the creeks and channels of the Great Marsh, the largest continuous stretch of salt marsh in New England. Its 25,000 acres of cordgrass marshes, barrier beaches, and mudflats extend from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Seabrook, New Hampshire. We have lived near its southeastern corner since 1978, and over the years explored these waterways with our three children: first in an eighteen-foot sailboat, then a fourteen-foot motorboat, and, later, ocean kayaks. But it wasn’t until the children were grown and had become visitors in our lives that we started regularly swimming the estuary’s creeks and channels. Over the years, our boats had become smaller and smaller, until finally our own bodies were our most frequently used watercraft.

We made a pact with each other to swim every time we possibly could. After a summer idyll of blue skies and marsh lawns as lush as Kansas cornfields, we swam later and later into the fall, matching the dropped temperatures with thicker and thicker layers of neoprene. We took it for granted that we’d eventually hit a wall that would stop the swimming until the ocean warmed up again the following year. But as we swam in rain, darkness, and slushy water just above freezing, we discovered that walls are relative. “Walls have doors,” Robert said one evening after a December swim, peeling off his “6/5” wetsuit (six millimeters of neoprene at the core, five at the extremities). Even the coldest and stormiest conditions were navigable with the right gear and the mutual desire to be there

Swimming to the top of the tide, Walker Creek, Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Humans are story-telling creatures. Early on I began jotting down notes about where and how long we swam, along with tidal and weather conditions. It was pretty basic stuff at first, largely concerned with “suiting up” for cold-weather swimming. But over time, the journal entries evolved into a series of essays exploring what happens when you immerse yourself in the same ecosystem over and over, through the daily changing of the tides and the yearly rotation of the seasons.

You get to know the non-human inhabitants of a tidal estuary, along with their routines. Great blue herons, white egrets, and banded kingfishers hunted for minnows in the same channels where we gathered mussels for our own dinner. Turkey vultures circled above us in Eben Creek (named for a 19th century boatbuilder, Ebenezer Burnham), looking for carrion. Once, floating downstream on a perfect July day, I was surrounded – for a minute or so that seemed much longer – by a school of silvery minnows. Perhaps they thought I’d be good camouflage.

At low tide, the Essex River Basin empties like a bathtub, revealing its muddy foundations.

You also look more closely at the salt-marsh environment itself. Because marsh cordgrasses (Spartina alterniflora and Spartina patens) have adapted to handle immersion in salt water, they dominate the coastal marshes, converting enormous amounts of solar energy into grass. Though few creatures directly eat the grass, as it decomposes it becomes a vast, nutrient-rich environment for bacteria, algae, and fungi. These organisms, in turn, are food for snails, shrimp, oysters, clams, and hermit crabs – and so on up the food chain to muskrats and foxes and humans.

Even aside from their roles as feeders and protectors of species, salt marshes are also shock-absorbing barriers to storm surge. Break open a hunk of marsh wall and you’ll see dark, peaty stuff bound together with the pale-yellow gnarls and filaments of cordgrass roots, a structure that answers the question of how marsh walls can be so relatively lightweight and yet hold their shape so well, how spongy and soft can also be strong. You can see exactly how it traps and binds together plant remains, silts, and clays, forming spaces and interstices – habitats – for life-forms ranging up and down the size spectrum.

At high tide, the watery boundaries of three Massachusetts towns– Ipswich, Essex, and Gloucester – converge in the Essex River Basin.

It’s interesting to me that the word “habit” is derived from the Latin habitare: to live, dwell, stay, remain. By the time we’d swum full circle into the following summer, our practice had become what Wendell Berry has called a “journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

Over time, the series of essays was slowly becoming a book. I would eventually title it Swimming to the Top of the Tide. (My publisher, Bellevue Literary Press, would add the subtitle: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet.) More and more I understood – not just with my mind but with my body – that the daily tides and routines of a salt marsh are embedded within much longer tides, much more consequential narrative arcs. The turkey vulture is shadowed by the 747. The Jet Skis that disturb the peace of perfect summer beach days are just noisier versions of our own daily commutes. When you swim a saltwater creek as the tide nears high, you have a visceral sense of what could happen if the tide just kept on rising.

Increasingly I saw myself as part of a much larger wave of anthropogenic alterations to the Earth. I was, in fact, born in 1954, during the post-World War II “Great Acceleration,” when fossil-fuel consumption increased exponentially and wartime technologies were reengineered to produce consumer products. Increasingly, the Earth’s carbon reserves were not just being burned as fuel but spun into a stunning array of new materials, structures, and containers. These innovations both extended the natural reach of the human body and narrowed the gap between human desire and its fulfillment.

The book, and those that may follow it, is my small contribution to what will surely be an ongoing conversation and reckoning.

Adapted from Swimming to the Top of the Tide: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet. Copyright © 2021 by Patricia Hanlon. Published by Bellevue Literary Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

(Top image: Aerial view of the Great Marsh in Massachusetts. Photo by Doc Searls.)

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Patricia Hanlon lives with her husband, Robert, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, at the edge of New England’s Great Marsh. As a visual artist, she has painted this beautiful ecosystem. In Swimming to the Top of the Tide: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet (Bellevue Literary Press, 2021), she has switched to narrative mode, focusing on the story of the marsh – its past, present and possible futures. She is now working on another book, Watershed.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Joyce Yamada: Contemplating the Human Species

By Etty Yaniv

Painter Joyce Yamada grew up on the West Coast. She spent her childhood vacations in the beautiful national parks of the US and Canada where pristine forests and the Pacific coast were imprinted in her visual memory. Although as a teenager she realized that art was what she wanted to do, struggling to survive on minimum wage led her to medical school, which she completed. She subsequently became a diagnostic radiologist. 

This science background has fed her mind and artwork ever since. Yamada says she is a painter because she conceptualizes in images rather than in words: “When puzzled, my mind juxtaposes or fuses unexpected images, often leading to new work.” An early series, Body, Earth, came to her in art school. While she was looking at the hills across the bay from San Francisco, she saw the low rounded hills as the reclining body of a woman. The juxtaposed imagery meant to her that we are intimately and indivisibly part of earth and nature, that what we do to the earth we do to ourselves. She has subsequently seen this idea expressed in Indigenous cultures, and it became central in her work.

Shado-nine forest, detail

Let’s start with the impact of science on your artwork. What drew you there and how is science reflected in your process and imagery?

Science is a way of understanding how the physical world actually works. Its methods of review and verification appeal to me strongly. I also love the exploration of the natural world that science spearheads; I am inspired by imagery from space and from the deep oceans. My interest in ecology and the environment began in earnest in the early 1990s after pivotal trips to the temperate rainforests of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Flying over Oregon on the approach to Seattle, and then driving from there to the rainforests revealed how utterly rapaciously we are destroying our forests. From that experience came the first body of work, Truncated Landscapes, that felt deeply personal. The process that birthed that series is typical of how I work. I was struck by the geometric patterns of logging – huge rectangles of forest had been cut out of still intact forest growing on steep hillsides. The first painting in the series was Shado-nine forest, which closely mirrored the actual landscape. This evolved into cubical cut-outs of forests that were deracinated, literally cut off from their roots, floating in a human-induced wasteland and dripping blood while at it. This was from my Cassandra period of quiet environmental protest.

Rainforest Green Stream, 36″ x 24”, acrylic on canvas, 2003 

Images of trees are recurrent throughout your work. Let’s take a look at two images, one from 2003, Rainforest – Green Stream, and the more recent one from 2018, Green Burial. Can you tell me about the genesis of each? What were your ideas and how do the two images differ?

Green Stream came directly from a visit to the Hoh National Forest in Washington. A beautiful, complex stream meandered through old growth forest, the entire scene a beautiful green, the air clean and enlivening. This painting was a straightforward celebration of a specific place, though the details were entirely invented. After being inspired to read about temperate rainforest ecology, I also understood it as a demonstration of how old growth forests filter water through intact fallen tree branches, which also provide excellent nurseries for baby fish. Green Burial had a longer conceptual genesis that includes numerous recent drawings and paintings; it was inspired by a photograph of a huge tree in Ireland that toppled over, revealing a human skeleton embedded in its enormous roots. This felt mythological to me – an image of the human animal entwined in the roots and the very substance of the World Tree, a contemplation of the human in relation to nature. Recent related paintings include Yorick Root, Communicant, and Wood-wide Web.

Green Burial, 9″ x 12”, oil on Yupo, 2018
Communicant, 51″ × 68”acrylic on canvas, 2019

Your paintings can be read as landscapes. How do you see them in the context of art history?

I made a decision during art school to stop conceptualizing my work in terms of art history because doing so was messing up my art-making process. This enabled me to stand outside of current trends without caring too much. I can’t therefore speak very knowledgeably about art history. I rarely paint actual locations. I often paint trees because they are the non-human, non-animal life form to which I relate most strongly. Trees and forests tend to be my shorthand for Nature. For many years, I also played with tree and human anatomy – trunks and limbs – to make our interconnections literal. I also use landscapes as evidence of human misuse, abuse, and ignorance of how to survive sustainably. Every place on Earth is a current or near-future ruin though if we act quickly enough, much can still recover. I have been contemplating the place of humans within nature, and therefore within the landscape.

Tell me about your series Hominidae.

Over the past 15 years, I have invented two different symbolic humans. The first was Waterhuman, a human made entirely of water, prone to evaporation and shimmering as it walks through the world; examples include Heaven’s Net and W.H with Furfish. My current version is Yorick, a living skeleton who will journey through natural scenes on Earth as well as through imaginary scenes in the wider cosmos. A symbolic human is a storytelling stratagem – a way of contemplating the human species in the wider world. Hominidae is the scientific nomenclature for the family that contains us humans – Homo sapiens. Using the term emphasizes our intimate connection with other creatures. Science reveals that we are a very young species evolved from related animals, not de novo Masters of the Universe. The family Hominidae includes the Great Apes and the various ancient hominids, of which only our species now survives. The other members of the family include orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.

Yorick Root, oil on linen2018
Waterhuman in Truncated Landscape, 44″ × 68”, oil on canvas, 2006

We have been through a rough time period globally. How has your work been affected by the pandemic?

Early on I did several pandemic paintings – APRIL 2020 and Corona – by way of coping. Since then I have been painting favorite animals for solace. The pandemic’s associated social unrest, our weird violent weather, and melting polar icecaps indicate that human civilization and climate will be changing ever more cataclysmically on a global scale. I am inspired to forge ahead with new work while I still can.

What are you working on now?

I am curating an environmental group show for January 2022, as well as preparing a solo show in November 2022, both at the Amos Eno Gallery in New York City. I have been wanting to paint Yorick wandering about like a character in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, mostly on Earth (which is truly wondrous and odd if you look closely at its creatures), but possibly also in outrageous outer space scenarios. It should be fun.

Real Good Power of Nature, 32″ × 20”, acrylic on canvas, 2019. Photo courtesy of Grant Johnson.

(All photo courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated.)

This interview is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Art Spiel on December 21, 2020 as part of an ongoing interview series with contemporary artists.

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Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing, and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She has exhibited her immersive installations in museums and galleries, nationally and internationally. Yaniv founded the platform Art Spiel to highlight the work of contemporary artists through art reviews, studio visits, and interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. Yaniv holds a BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, a BFA from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA from SUNY Purchase.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Loren Eiferman: Drawing in Wood

By Etty Yaniv

Loren Eiferman sees her work as the “ultimate recycling.” She collects sticks and branches that have fallen to the ground and typically forms her sculptures by joining together hundreds of small pieces of wood into a cohesive whole through a unique technique she has developed for over 25 years.

What brought you to sculpture?

I seem to be wired for sculpture. Even as a young child, I was always making things out of the simplest materials. Discovering art at a young age, I studied sculpture throughout my high school and college years. In high school, I even took evening and weekend clay and sculpture classes at Brooklyn College and at The Brooklyn Museum Art School. After class each week, I would wander through the museum, captivated by the African and Egyptian collections. It was a true education. After graduating from college, I traveled throughout Mexico and Central America, drawing and painting in my travel notebook. Upon my return to New York City, I moved into a tiny 300 square foot apartment in Little Italy. I turned one of my three small rooms into my art studio, focusing on large 4’ x 6’ paintings on paper. One very hot and humid August day, my three walls were covered with completed paintings that weren’t able to dry due to all that humidity. Unable to paint that day and looking for a creative outlet, I picked up a piece of balsa wood that was on my drafting table and a straight edged razor blade and started whittling away. Literally eight hours passed as if it were a mere moment, without any interruptions (these were the days before the internet and Instagram). Realizing that I’m more at home as a sculptor rather than as a painter was an epiphany.

Tell me about your material and how do you work with it?

I start out each day with a walk, collecting tree limbs and branches. I then bring them up to my studio and let these sticks sit for a period of time to make sure the wood is dry and cured and won’t check or crack. I have what I like to call a “sea of sticks” in my studio. This is the raw material that I work with. I usually start out with a drawing of what I want my sculpture to look like. I then search for shapes within my stick pile that correspond to the shapes in my drawing. Obviously, I will never find exactly the right shapes and forms in nature that perfectly correlate to my drawing, so I start creating the form from scratch. I cut small shapes of wood and then join these small shapes together using dowels and wood glue. My work is not steam bent. Instead, it is made from many (frequently hundreds) of small shaped pieces of wood. I then fill all the open joints with a wood putty, wait for it to dry and sand it. This puttying process usually needs to be repeated at least three times until the final sanded work looks as if it was born in nature and the line is continuous. It’s a very time-consuming process and each sculpture takes me a minimum of a month to build, frequently more. I often think of my sculptures as drawings but in wood.

Mandala/Quasicrystal, 33” x 33” x 10”, 266 pieces of wood with oil paint, 2014.

Most of your sculptures are abstracted and resonate with natural, geometric, decorative, or even calligraphic forms. Your figurative clay work from 2010-2011 seems to depart from that. What is the origin of this series and how do you see it in context of your overall work?

My husband is a filmmaker who made a documentary in 2009 called Crude: The Real Price of Oil about a decades-long environmental class action lawsuit brought by five Indigenous tribes from the Ecuadorian Amazon against Chevron. The suit alleged that massive pollution led to the creation of a cancer death zone the size of Rhode Island due to the oil drilling practices of and by Texaco from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Chevron merged with Texaco in 2000, so Chevron inherited the lawsuit. Because my husband had behind-the-scenes access to the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case, Chevron subpoenaed all of the outtakes from his film. My husband believed that as a journalist he was constitutionally protected under the First Amendment from handing all that footage over, so he fought the subpoena. This legal case became a big First Amendment battle, which got very ugly and caused us a lot of unfair financial stress and concern for our wellbeing. 2010 therefore was a harrowing year for us.

During this stressful time I had trouble creating my wood sculptures. They require many hours of very intensive labor and all I had was an hour here or there to work in my studio. I had a hard time focusing as I began ruminating on how corporate power has eroded our basic liberties and the wellbeing of the country, from Citizen’s United to climate change denial. So I picked up some clay that was in my studio and started sculpting these heads. The first work I created during this period was a multi-part sculpture called They Robbed Us Blind. This work shows portraits of 12 imaginary corporate CEOs with their noses up in the air, sitting on top of a slab of gold bullion with the name of their fictional corporations etched into a brass plaque that is reminiscent of actual companies. This was a way to get my anger channeled into something more creative.

But after making many of these works, it occurred to me that I don’t want my work to come from a place of anger. That is not who I am. The last piece I created in clay during this period was a work called Dreams of Our Ancestors. I sculpted the portraits of seven amazing women from history that either started or had an impact upon a world religion. These women are all gathered and lying on top of a pillow. They were phenomenal beings from Kateri Tekakwitha (the first Native American saint canonized by the Roman Catholic Church) to Sun Bu’er (one of the seven Taoist masters). Strangely, after I completed this work, I truly felt the strength from these women guiding me back into working with my natural wood sculptures. 

Dreams of Our Ancestors, 17″ x 21″ x 6″, clay with iron metal coating and rust patina, and pillow2011.

Tell me about Nature Will Heal, specifically Detritus (2016) and Barbie Convertible. What is the genesis of the work and how do you see the relationship between the pieces?

I truly believe that Mother Nature has the ability to heal this planet. One day, I was cleaning out my basement and found these large plastic bags filled with plastic toys from my daughters’ childhood. I thought, this is insane: plastic within more plastic. I thought, what are we doing on this planet creating all these pollution-laden toys for our children? So I started the series Nature Will Heal for which I built plant-like forms where the “seeds and seedpods” are made from discarded junk. These seeds could be a plastic Barbie convertible car or a Polly Pocket hunk of plastic or even a seedpod that is made entirely from obsolete electronic parts. But, in all these works, the plant is growing around this garbage, consuming and transforming what was once junk and turning it into a new form.

The Barbie Convertible was a particularly tough one to create. It was physically difficult to build because the form is complex – and it was also emotionally difficult. My youngest daughter really loved that red Barbie plastic convertible car but it had been sitting broken, literally gathering dust in our basement for five years. Despite having outgrown it, I still had to plead with her to lend it to me for my work. She finally agreed, and now it’s encased in wood and transformed into a new life. Detritus was literally the detritus that had fallen to the bottom of those plastic bags. This sculpture is filled with bits of plastic from party favors given out at countless children’s birthday parties, as if these discarded plastic bits were invaluable objects imbued with some purpose or meaning. I then wrapped the outside layer of the “flower” in colorful plastic shopping bags. This detritus is now all encased into a strange wood flower, planted and growing from the earth.

Nature Will Heal/ Detritus, 27” x 14” x 11”, 89 pieces of wood with plastic toys, burlap, earth, matte medium, straw, and plastic garbage bags, 2016.

What is the idea behind the Voynich Manuscript?

For the past several years, I have been inspired by a mysterious manuscript from the 15th century called the Voynich Manuscript. Currently housed at the Yale’s Beinicke Library, the manuscript was written in an unknown language, by an unknown author, for an unknown purpose. Over the centuries it has eluded all attempts at deciphering its purpose and text. When I found a copy of it on the internet, I felt an uncanny connection to it. The drawings within its pages feel reminiscent of many of my drawings from older journals. Although the subject matter feels related to our world, it also has an otherworldly and timeless quality to it, as if peering into the mysteries of the universe. It’s this timeless aspect to the work, as well as the universality of it, that remains intriguing to me.

The manuscript is divided into five sections, and for years now I have been in the process of transposing the illustrations found in the first “herbal” section into three-dimensional sculptures. These are plants that don’t actually exist in nature. The plant-like forms that are found within the pages of the manuscript are filled with oddly shaped rhizomes and roots, and parts of plants that are very strange with disproportionately shaped leaves or flowers. With this series I am bringing the unknown into the known, while also shedding light on the mysteries that have been with us since the late Middle Ages.

7r, 42” x 25” x 10”, 166 pieces of wood, linseed oil, earth, graphite, and matte medium, 2017. Photographed at The Dorsky Museum, “New Folk” exhibit, 2020.

What are you working on now?

Just yesterday I finished a new Voynich piece that feels different than the ones that came before it. I still have new forms to discover inspired by this manuscript. Each sculpture that I create must have something new in it for me to discover in order to sustain my interest. I tend to work within a set of parameters that I’ve set for myself – and those parameters determine how long I work on each series. I could work on a specific series for a couple of months or years. My Voynich Manuscript series has been going on five years now, and counting, and I’m still inspired working with it.

50r, 46” x 20” x 12”78 pieces of wood, pastel, linseed oil, earth and matte medium, 2021.

(Top image: The artist in her studio.)

This interview is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Art Spiel on April 26, 2021 as part of an ongoing interview series with contemporary artists.

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Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing, and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She has exhibited her immersive installations in museums and galleries, nationally and internationally. Yaniv founded the platform Art Spiel to highlight the work of contemporary artists through art reviews, studio visits, and interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. Yaniv holds a BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, a BFA from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA from SUNY Purchase.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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The Art of Transforming Polluted Water into Clean Water, Energy, and Sound

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Mexican visual artist Gilberto Esparza works with technology, including electronics, robotics, and biotechnology, to develop innovative solutions to the detrimental impact that humans have had on the natural world, particularly on water. His overall goal is to rethink and redo the current relationship between human society and the environment by establishing collaborations between the two. 

Esparza’s work is currently part of Common Frequencies (May 1 – Oct.15, 2021), a group exhibition of four cross-disciplinary Mexican artists and one collective at BioBAT Art Space in Brooklyn, New York. Curated by Elisa Gutiérez, the exhibition explores the intersection of art and science through sound, urban ecology, language, and the construction of symbolic imageries. In addition to Esparza, it features the work of Tania Candiani, Lorena Mal, Marcela Armas and the Interspecifics Collective.

Nomadic Plants in its habitat (2008 – 2014)
NOMADIC PLANTS 

In 2008, Esparza began the process of developing Nomadic Plants (Plantas Nómadas), his first project addressing urban and industrial water pollution. A collaboration between technology (a robotic system), plants, and bacteria, it took six years of research and experimentation to create the final product. The robot extracts polluted river water, stores it in a group of microbial fuel cells (think biological batteries) where the bacteria in the water itself break down the toxic substances to create clean water that, in turn, feeds the living plants. At the same time, the bacteria generate energy to recharge the batteries. Esparza’s research indicated that the more polluted the water, the more energy it produced. Over the course of the project development, as he does with all of his projects, he worked with a team of engineers and biologists to create the robotic system. 

Esparza has taken Nomadic Plants to a series of polluted rivers in Mexico and, in each locale, talked with the local residents about the critical water pollution problem that exists in 70% of Mexico’s rivers. While he was setting up the robot, he observed that it was always the children who came first to see what he was doing, then their parents, and finally the school teachers. Although he educates residents and city leaders about the need to address the fresh water crisis, Esparza admits that any small efforts that are attempted to clean up the contaminated rivers fail because of the high levels of corruption in Mexico. The irony of Nomadic Plants is that the robotic system as a distinct “species” only lives as long as there are polluted rivers. Once the rivers are cleaned, it will become extinct

In 2020, Esparza completed a 360º rendering of Nomadic Plants situated in its habitat on the banks of a polluted Mexican river, showing the robotic system as well as the local manmade and natural environments.

Autophotosynthetic Plants, 2013 – 2014
AUTOPHOTOSYNTHETIC PLANTS

Autophotosynthetic Plants (Plantas Autofotosintéticas), like Nomadic Plants, produces energy from water bacteria but with another outcomeThe instrument that Esparza developed consists of twelve separate vertical vials, which hold twelve different samples of polluted water. Each of the vials is connected to a central nucleus. When the polluted water is placed in the vials, gravity forces it to descend into microbial fuel cells to be cleaned. The bacteria in the water becomes trapped and produces energy. Ultimately, the energy enters the nucleus and creates a light that allows photosynthesis to occur. Using bacteria from polluted water in this manner provides a way to imitate the sun’s role in enabling the process of photosynthesis to happen in a place where sunlight is not readily available. 

Esparza has taken Autophotosynthetic Plants to a number of countries around the world, including France, China, Greece, Slovenia and Korea, among others, where he has also conducted research on their relationships with their water sources and how they address their own water problems. He arrives at each country before installing Autophotosynthetic Plants and asks those who are responsible for water treatment to collect twelve samples from twelve different sites. They then analyze the water from each site. His goal is to create conversations about the sites where the water was extracted and raise awareness of the pollution issues. 

BioSoNot (2008-2014)
BIOSONOT

At the same time he wasworking on Nomadic Plants and Autophotosynthetic Plants,Esparza and his collaborative team of sound engineers, musicians, biologists, and researchers were developing an instrument called BioSoNot (2008-2014), which translates the pollution levels of rivers into sound. BioSoNot is included in the exhibition Common Frequencies at BioBAT Art Space. As curator Elisa Gutiérez describes it, 

The instrument is made up of microbial fuel cell modules that generate energy from the metabolism of microorganisms present in contaminated water. These cells work as biosensors measuring the bioelectric activity of bacteria, while other types of sensors simultaneously provide data such as PH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, oxidation-reduction potential, and temperature. The data is converted into analog signals that are interpreted by a synthesizer, which translates these values into sound. 

The purpose of his work with BioSoNotis to generate a database that is available on the Internet containing information on pollution levels from different parts of the world.

For the exhibition, Esparza used salt water for the first time and water from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which is regarded as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. What he ultimately wants to do with BioSoNot is to create a playlist or record of the sounds he has recorded from contaminated river water and invite artists to interpret the sounds. The playlist would allow listeners to hear the different sounds made according to the level of water pollution existing in a particular river, or to give voice to the polluted waters.

Sound recording from the Molola River in Tepic, Nayarit (Mexico)

The overarching message behind Esparza’s remarkable projects is the importance of leaving nature alone and “making friends with bacteria.” From his extensive research on bacteria, he is convinced that on a large scale, if we simply stop polluting, the rivers would clean themselves. To us, his work may seem quite complicated, but Esparza insists that what he does is simple; it is the biological processes of nature that are beautiful, complex, and regenerative. 

(Top image: Gilberto Esparza at work on Nomadic Plants.) 

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work, called “In the Beginning There Was Only Water” is a re-creation of the natural world without humanity’s harmful impact upon it.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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The 2nd Copernican Revolution

By Joan Sullivan

Way back in 2014, when I first started writing for Artists & Climate Change, I wrote a one-paragraph post with a link to Rap News’ The Second Heliocentric Revolution, a brilliant fast-paced spoof about the energy transition, produced by Australia’s provocative and irreverent “98.9% genuine satire” The Juice Media.

I’m sharing this video again in the hope that some artists and scribes may find inspiration in the powerful symbolism of the Renaissance’s heliocentric revolution in the context of the 21st century’s solar revolution. As Maria Popova wrote so succinctly in 2016, “Human culture is and always has been inexorably connected to the ultimate source of light and warmth – the Sun.”

Heliocentrism – the theory that the Sun is the center of our universe (as opposed to geocentrism, which placed the Earth at its center) – was first proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century. It was perhaps more famously popularized by Galileo Galilei in the 17th century, which led him to be condemned by the Roman Inquisition, threatened with a burning at the stake, and, after recanting his statement, sentenced to house arrest for the remaining eight years of his life. Nearly four centuries later, Pope John Paul II formally apologized for the Catholic Church’s “error” in repudiating scientific inquiry that challenged church dogma.

It would be tempting to draw comparisons between accusations of heresy 400 years ago and accusations of fake news today for those who listen to the science. Instead, let’s focus our collective energy on a more pressing question: What is the role of arts and culture as we transition ourselves and our society away from an unconscious addiction to fossil fuels towards a conscious “age of stewardship” powered by renewable energy? I have been musing about this question over the past few months via a series of posts (herehere, and here) inspired, in part, by Barry Lord’s book Art & Energy: How Culture Changes

For this month’s post, let’s rephrase the question: How can artists explore Copernicus’ heliocentrism as a framework within which to create new stories, new symbols, and new metaphors that embrace a more phenomenological understanding of the centrality of the Sun in a radically transformed society?

It’s important to keep reminding ourselves that the vast majority of energy used on Earth today – by all plants, all animals, and almost all microorganisms – ultimately comes from sunlight. Even fossil fuels, composed of organic matter created by the Sun (photosynthesis) millions of years ago, are considered fossilized sunlight. Even the wind – yes, the wind! – is created by the Sun via heat differentials between how quickly the Sun heats up land masses compared to the vast oceans. 

Olafur Eliasson, the prolific Danish-Icelandic artist, has long been drawn to the most ephemeral of materials: light, air, wind, water, and weather. Similar to 19th-century painter JMW Turner. More recently, Eliasson has added energy to his ephemeral toolbox.

In 2012, Studio Olafur Eliasson created Little Sun, a follow-up to Eliasson’s popular installation The Weather Project in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. To date, Little Sun has distributed almost one million high-efficiency portable solar lamps in off-grid communities in several Sub-Saharan African countries. Sales in the Global North subsidize low-cost sales and distribution networks in Africa. 

In 2019, Eliasson was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for renewable energy and climate action by the United Nations Development Programme.

Eliasson is interested in exploring how artists can help shift the conversation about the energy transition away from impersonal technical jargon (megawatts, photovoltaic panels, distributed energy) towards a more personal awareness of and relationship to the Sun as an infinite source of non-fuel energy.

According to a recent blog on its website, Little Sun believes:

… that a shift in imagination is crucial to creating this better way of life, to finally elicit a tipping point in people’s hearts and minds towards renewables. Solar power has, for too long, been held in the domain of technical reports and political debates. To activate everyone to drive the global shift to renewable energy, we believe now is the time to make solar felt emotionally, making it compelling to connect with, and clear how to bring about.

With our most recent campaign, Reach for the Sun, we turn technical into personal, abstract into tactile, inaccessible into intimate. To tell the story of solar power, we wanted to simplify what a solar powered world means – breaking down often complex messages into clear steps. We also wanted to present the viewer with vivid, memorable images that capture the imagination. And what better way to do this than to turn the conversation into art?

Gif downloaded from Little Sun website. Artwork by Diana Ejaita for Little Sun.

Energy Humanities scholar Imre Szeman commented that “The point of the [Little Sun] lamps is not just to light a small place with free energy from the sun, but to get users to think about where all the other energy in their lives come from, and to consider, too, the vast inequalities in energy use around the world.”

If you’re not familiar Dr. Szeman and his Energy Humanities colleagues, you should be. They coined the term solarity, which Szeman defines as “a state, condition or quality developed in relation to the sun, or to energy derived from the sun.” For those artists not familiar with this new concept of solarity, I strongly recommend reading Szeman’s 2020 article On Solarity: Six Principles for Energy and Society After Oil, which can be downloaded as a pdf. In section 4 of this article, Szeman offers a precious quote from the French philosopher Georges Bataille’s essay The Accursed Share (La part maudite):

The origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun, which dispenses energy – wealth – without any return. The sun gives without ever receiving.

The sun gives without ever receiving

What a profound thought! As a visual artist, I can’t stop thinking about it – visually as well as metaphysically. It is my hope that Bataille’s quote might become the source of inspiration for a tsunami of artists and poets committed to fundamentally redefining our relationship to the Sun. This will require, as Szeman explains, a Copernican transformation – a change of perspective and a reversal of thinking – born of a politics of revolution rather than reform. 

Aux armes, artistes!

(Top image by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her grief about climate breakdown. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Facing Down Climate Grief

By Jennifer Atkinson

The age of climate crisis is upon us, and grief and anxiety are on the rise. This pilot episode of my podcast Facing It introduces the emotional burden of climate change, and why despair leaves so many people unable to respond to this existential threat. Overcoming that paralysis is the first step in moving to action, and yet official climate strategies rarely address this emotional toll. Meanwhile, frontline communities – particularly people of color, indigenous communities, and other historically-marginalized groups – are experiencing the heaviest mental health impacts of climate disruption and displacement.

Facing It is a podcast about climate grief and eco anxiety. It explores the psychological toll of climate change, and why our emotional responses are key to addressing this existential threat. In each episode of Facing It, I explore a different way we can harness despair to activate meaningful solutions.

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Dr. Jennifer Atkinson is an Associate Professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell. Her seminars on Eco-Grief & Climate Anxiety have been featured in the New York TimesWashington Post Magazine, the Los Angeles TimesNBC News, the Seattle Times, Grist, the Washington Post, KUOW and many other outlets. Jennifer is currently working on a book titled An Existential Toolkit for the Climate Crisis (co-edited with Sarah Jaquette Ray) that offers strategies to help young people navigate the emotional toll of climate breakdown.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Dancing with Horses in America: A Country Divided

By JoAnna Mendl Shaw

I am a choreographer. Long before the COVID pandemic shut down the dance world and nudged dancers to make dances for living rooms and outdoor spaces, I was making site-specific performance works for urban and rural landscapes. Once committed to working beyond traditional theatrical spaces, I found that choreographing for a stage in a darkened theatre seemed too safe and easy. The audience sits all facing the same direction, while carefully designed lighting illuminates portions of the stage, visually shaping the space and directing people’s attention. The performers know that the steps they have memorized and rehearsed will be the same each night.

But what if all those theatrical elements were undefined and my job as a choreographer was to use the natural environment to create theatrical frames and direct the viewers’ eyes? What if my dance was at the mercy of cloud cover and weather? What if the performance content was determined in the moment?

My choreography lives outside theatre spaces. I make dances on hillsides, in dirt arenas, on beaches, and in empty swimming pools. Since 1999, my cast of performers has often included equines. When dancing with a horse, the dancer adapts to the animal. If the horse is ridden by a skilled equestrian, memorized sequences of steps will vary with each performance. If dancing with a riderless horse (at liberty), the choreography is co-created in the moment, with the dancer shaping her movement decisions to the temperament and behavior of the horse. In those liberty dances, the human performer is merging gentle horsemanship with improvisation strategies that involve constant spatial tracking and energetic sponging. The human is beholden to the equine in a partnership that aspires to consummate ally-ship.

Grazing Gracefully, commissioned by Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Long Island, June 2015

I embarked on this interspecies choreographic journey in 1998 at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts where I was commissioned to create a performance event that might capture the eyes and interest of hundreds of ambient spectators. Envisioning grand spectacle, I asked if I might collaborate with some of the college equestrians. During our three months of creation, we experimented with dancers moving in tandem with ridden horses, one hand on the animals’ shoulder, matching front legs. The dancers were all skilled improvisers, and they were intuitively “sponging” off their equine partner’s energy. The result was unlike the behavior of any human being the horses had ever encountered. They were intrigued and chose to join up with the dancers. Almost immediately, the riders noticed that their horses were matching the dancers energetically and following them spatially. When dancers and riders were both actively attending to the energetic state of the horse, beautifully synchronized human-equine trios emerged.

The Mount Holyoke project revealed to me something magical about how a dancer might communicate with equines. I wanted to continue this research and found willing collaborators. I formed a small company and we worked with willing equestrians and their horses. With persistence and luck, my company – The Equus Projects – went on to create several other large dancing projects with horses. Word got out in the horse world, and we were contacted by internationally recognized Natural Horsemanship trainers who began to train us to work with riderless horses. We learned about “drive” and “draw,” how to ask for a trot or canter, direct the animal to circle around us then pause and face us. We could ask the horse to perform beautiful lateral movements in tandem with our footfalls. We also learned that the non-verbal rewards we offered the animals when they did what we requested was to stop asking for more. “The release teaches.”

The Pullman Project, Chicago, 2017

Over the years I have continued to be utterly seduced by the grace and power of these large patient animals who have served humans for thousands of years. I love that we humans must seriously up the ante on our ability to notice the details of a partners’ movement and energetic state. We learned that a dominant extroverted horse needs to be constantly challenged and an introverted submissive animal requires patient repetition. Not all horses are the same. Indeed, not all humans are the same. The lessons embedded in working with horses are clear. Stay humble. Be honest. Find your grounding. Make no assumptions. The horses forever changed how I made dances. They also deeply influenced how I communicated with humans and how I thought of myself in relationship to the natural world.

Below is a slightly edited excerpt from my book, Physical Listening: A Dancer’s Interspecies Journeypublished earlier this year. It demonstrates how horses can provide common ground for people of widely divergent political views. It also touches on how profoundly our presumptions and assumptions limit and hinder our capacity for unbiased and honest communication.

* * *

March of 2007. Five Equus dancers fly to Orlando, Florida to teach a Dancing with Horses clinic for equestrians. We will be co-teaching with equine trainer and equestrian Karen Rohlf at her small private horse farm in Reddick, Florida, two hours north of Orlando.

Luke Wiley, photo by Arthur Fink

Reddick is a stone’s throw from Ocala, Florida, which, along with Lexington, Kentucky is referred to as the horse capital of America. We are five New York City dancers, deep in rural Florida. Luke Wiley is wearing one of his signature outfits: orange flared wraparound pants slit to the hip. He looks fabulous. Our first visit is to the Parelli ranch in Reddick. Luke’s attire turns heads.

Luke is a gorgeous, tremendously sensitive dancer and a deep thinker. He was my student at Juilliard and joined The Equus Projects shortly after graduating. He was integral to many of our studio sessions that explored the integration of Natural Horsemanship and dance-making. 

In 2007, Luke’s appearance merely turned heads and perhaps caused a slight chuckle. What is unfamiliar catches the eye. Just that. No more than a passing curiosity. Today, I suspect his attire might elicit a far more extreme and less accepting response. Some of the folks who are now deeply invested in their partisan stances are the very people who attended that clinic with Karen. They loved our work and were ready to embrace the human differences we represented. We met each other with joy, interacting and connecting through the horses. The animals were our common ground. Eighteen equestrians trailered their horses to Karen’s ranch in Reddick. Forty-five other horse folks audited that clinic.

Our clinic covered a wide range of subjects from anatomy to improvisation techniques. We taught Brain Gym®, an educational, movement-based program which uses simple movement exercises to integrate the whole brain – both the sensing and thinking portions of our brain. That sensing and thinking integration calls upon the muscles that cross the midline of the body as for example the oblique abdominals that lie diagonally. Most of our complex movement is achieved with the muscles that are set on diagonal pathways. These are the muscles that activate rotation, as opposed to simple flexion and extension. We taught an entire class with large exercise balls designed specifically for the kind of abdominal strengthening called contralateral integration. The anatomical sessions were followed by Leading and Following improvisation duets that used all that right-left integration to facilitate discoveries about giving and taking leadership and moment-to-moment decision-making.

Luke during the Dancing with Horses clinic in Reddick, Florida

In our mounted sessions, we taught techniques for riding a horse with a dancer moving in tandem with the horse. Gradually, the riders began to allow their horses to follow the dancers’ lead and enjoy this new kind of human-equine trio. As the riders noticed how the dancers were constantly shaping the space between themselves and the horse, they started carving fluid pathways with and around the dancers. They learned how to stay connected to their dancer both at proximity and at a distance. We set up a fabulous sound system and eighteen horses and riders improvised with each other and the dancers, gradually becoming immersed in a joyful state of play accompanied by the music of Allison Krause.

When teaching in the horse world, The Equus Projects is often reaching into unfamiliar learning spaces. For many people, improvising is not easy or comfortable. In our Reddick workshop, we taught equestrians how to trust their own ability to make movement decisions. In their leading and following duets, we encouraged them to take pleasure in just moving together, alternating between leading and making shared decisions. We enticed them into bringing that same sense of improvisational invention into riding their horses – and doing all of this without self-editing.

Luke (right) dancing with the horses in Reddick, Florida

In all the equestrian clinics we teach, we guide our participants towards discovering new places in their bodies that hold movement potential, discovering full-bodied physical listening and trusting their capacity for creativityIn that Reddick clinic, we witnessed emboldened leadership overtake hesitation, playfulness out-distance indecision, and laughter drown out self-doubt.

In 2020, our country has come so far down the road of fear and distrust of what is unfamiliar – would we still inspire laughter and learning with that group of people?

The work of The Equus Projects is consummately about active listening and ally-ship. Theactive listening is to each other and to other creatures that are not at all like humans. Horses are prey animals, creatures of flight. Humans are predators. We barge into an environment and establish ourselves as dominant.

In our work with horses, we are trying to fit into the animal’s ecosystem. What are the rules of engagement – the herd dynamics – that shape their behavior? How can we learn to adapt and join their environment?

* * *

Horses can easily outwit us. They will always be testing our leadership. They do not suffer pretense. They ask for our grounded, authentic honesty. This is the subtext for our 2021 project, a documentary film titled IMPRINTED. The film opens with footage of the dancers training with two pregnant mares. The filmmaker, Stefan Morel, is himself an equestrian who understands the complexity of communicating with an equine partner. To dance with a horse calls for a delicate moment-to-moment balance of listening, adapting, and leading. The dancer must speak the language of a quadruped, a herd animal that instinctively seeks out a dependable leader. Without dominating, the dancer must merge improvisation with horse-centric leadership. Their objective is to keep the horse interested and willing to follow while also allowing the horse freedom to express their own movement ideas. In a dialogue that calls for heightened physical listening, the dancer is actively transforming equine behavior and shared play into a choreographic language. 

JoAnna Mendl Shaw and Lorenzo

IMPRINTED will be shot over seven months. Shooting began in April and will conclude in November 2021. To date, the footage has followed the dancers’ grounds skills training with the pregnant mares. They have been dancing with these mares for several years and are adept at co-creating a shared language but the on-going challenges of balancing directing with responding is ever-changing. Morel’s footage captures both moments of grace and awkward mishap. IMPRINTED will also capture the birth of both foals – not a simple task as mares prefer to give birth alone in the middle of the night. Lorenzo’s birth was 10 days late and occurred in the early hours of May 5th.

A foal will stand and nurse within thirty minutes of birth. It is extraordinary to witness this newborn so fully capable, learning to survive so soon after entering the world. What a humbling reminder that nature has created its own masterful strategies for survival. Witnessing Lorenzo’s birth, filmmaker Morel offers us a visceral experience of the sheer wonder and beauty of nature. 

Lorenzo and Roxy

In my work with equines, I have begun to explore how I can create performance works in which the human participants are often simply framing the spectacularly perfect natural world. We are gratefully in dialogue with natural elements, be it wind, high grass, or the behavior of an equine. I think of my work as the choreographic version of Andrew Goldsworthy’s work, my artistic imprint a grateful homage to nature. My goal inside this work is to model how our physical listening skills can guide humans to exist in more congruous relationship to each other and the natural world. 

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JoAnna Mendl Shaw has been choreographing performance works for stage, rural and urban landscapes since the 1980s. Artistic Director of The Equus Projects, Shaw tours throughout the States and Europe creating site-specific performance works that often bring dancers and horses into shared landscapes. Shaw has taught on faculty at NYU, The Juilliard School, Ailey BFA Program, Marymount, Princeton, Mount Holyoke and Montclair State. Shaw is the recipient of NEA Choreographic Fellowships and multiple National Endowment for the Arts grants for Interdisciplinary Performance.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Yaba Badoe

By Mary Woodbury

This book is told in beautiful, lyrical prose that swept me away … This book has great diverse representation and shows three girls standing up for what they believe in. This novel doesn’t lament what we have lost as much as teach us to stand up and fight for what remains.

Midnight Book Girl

Yaba Badoe is an award-winning Ghanaian-British documentary filmmaker and writer. A graduate of King’s College Cambridge, she has taught in Spain, Jamaica and Ghana. Her short stories for adults have been published in Critical Quarterly and in African Love Stories: An Anthology, edited by Ama Ata Aidoo. In 2014, Yaba was nominated for the Distinguished Woman of African Cinema award. Her first novel, True Murder, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2009. Her debut young adult novel, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, published by Zephyr, was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award 2018 and has been nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal. Yaba is based in London.

I loved asking author Yaba Badoe questions about her novel Wolf Light (Zephyr, April 2019), a young adult fantasy which takes place in a few places in the world where this World Eco-fiction series had not yet traveled. One thing she said in our chat reflected the reasons I began this spotlight series: 

The climate crisis is global. To reflect on the scope of the challenge we’re facing, I wanted to create narrators from parts of the world I’ve visited that have fired my imagination. I chose a mountainous area of Gobi-Altai near the Gobi desert of Mongolia, the tropical forest region of Ghana in West Africa, and the stormy moors of Cornwall in England.

Born in wolf light – the magical dusk – in Mongolia, Ghana and Cornwall, Zula, Adoma and Linet are custodians of the sacred sites of their homelands. When copper miners plunder Zula’s desert home in Gobi Altai, and Adoma’s forest and river are polluted by gold prospectors, it is only a matter of time before the lake Linet guards with her life is also in jeopardy. How far will Zula, Adoma and Linet go to defend the well-being of their homes? And when all else fails, will they have the courage to summon the ancient power of their order, to make the landscape speak in a way that everyone will hear?

Rich in elemental magic, myth, and the mysterious magical dusk, Wolf Light is Yaba Badoe’s defiant call to protect our environment, to conserve our heritage, and to hear the ancient power that connects us.

CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR

When did you first start writing, and what and who were your early inspirations?

I’ve always loved listening to stories and reading them. So much so that I started writing my own stories before I was 10. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was an early inspiration. Mame Soma used to tell me Ananse stories: Akan folktales of Anase, the spider-man, a cunning trickster who manages to wheedle his way out of trouble before hurtling towards his next adventure. I don’t think I’d have survived leaving Ghana to go to prep school in the depths of the Devon countryside without stories. Immersing myself in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Greek myths, and tales from Robin Hood and the Merry Men saved my life.

How did Wolf Light come about? What sorts of things were you thinking about back then?

The climate crisis has been on my mind for some time, but when I started making a documentary film in 2016 for Womin – a South Africa-based NGO dedicated to social justice for African women impacted by mining and oil exploration – I saw first-hand how rural women in Kwa Zulu Natal struggled to find water. Open cast coal mining uses huge amounts of water, and when there’s an on-going drought at the same time, caring for family and livestock is almost impossible. I’m greatly indebted to women whose stories I researched while filming in South Africa and Uganda.  But what finally compelled me to tell the stories in Wolf Light was seeing photographs of galamsey – illegal gold mining – in Ghana. My cousin, an environmentalist and research scientist, Dr. (Mrs) Rose Emma Mamaa Ensua-Mensah showed me devastating images of ecocide: the poisoning and silting of rivers and the felling of trees for galamsey. If you think of the earth, as I do, as a living planet, seeing my cousin’s photographs was like witnessing someone you love have their eyes gouged out. Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful. So dreadful that I felt I had to write a novel about what we’re doing to the only home we have.

The story is a positive one for girls rising to power while tackling environmental crises. It’s wonderful to see this happening in reality as well as with literary heroes. Can you explain how you decided to create the characters Zula, Adoma, and Linet, who were all born in the wolf light?

The climate crisis is global. To reflect on the scope of the challenge we’re facing, I wanted to create narrators from parts of the world I’ve visited that have fired my imagination. I chose a mountainous area of Gobi-Altai near the Gobi desert of Mongolia, the tropical forest region of Ghana in West Africa, and the stormy moors of Cornwall in England. Zula’s father and grandmother are both shamans, Adoma’s grandfather is a priest of African traditional religion, and Linnet’s grandmother is a guardian of the Linet Lake on Bodmin moor. I hoped that by linking the girls to religious traditions that seek to care and partner with the environment as opposed to dominate it, I could explore alternative ways of sharing the planet with our fellow animals.

It’s wonderful to see these girls take to heart their sacred oaths to uphold their heritage, which includes their natural landscapes. In a world where authors are increasingly considering the natural world in their stories, can you talk more about these themes in your own fiction?

I’d like to think that as a writer the world my characters inhabit – whether it’s on land, in a city, or underwater in a lake or the sea – is an important part of the story I’m telling. Is there light or shade in a scene? Is it wet or dry outside? Is there a whiff of cooking in the air or the scent of neem tree blossom? Is the sun out? Will it be a full moon tonight? Does the character I’m writing about live in a desert or a forest? The natural world is a vital element in a writer’s toolkit. It can help you create a context for your character’s actions as well as generate tremendous drama. Is a storm brewing? Is the wind up? What effect is this having on trees and your character? For me, the challenge in writing is how best to capture the magic of the world we live in.

Have you read other recent novels that explore our natural world, and which ones engaged you? Is this something you foresee continuing to tackle in your own fiction?

In the past couple of years, I’ve read two novels which have had a huge impact on me. Funnily enough they have the same title: The Wolf Road.

The first, a literary thriller by Beth Lewis, tells a compelling, visceral story that roams the vast landscape of post-apocalyptic British Colombia but remains close and claustrophobic in its drama. I literally wolfed the novel down, so taken was I by the narrator’s voice. I shall never forget Elka and her story.

Richard Lambert’s The Wolf Road is a gut-punch of a story about Lucas and his struggle to readjust to life in the Lake District with his estranged Nan after he loses his parents in a car accident. It’s an astonishing exploration of love and grief and wildness rooted in the Cumbrian landscape, which heals Lucas as it reveals itself to him.

You’re also a journalist and filmmaker. I recently watched The Witches of Gambaga and felt that I learned quite a bit but was also horrified by what the women face. Your documentaries educate people on different facets of life in Africa. Do you have other such documentaries planned?

I don’t have any more documentaries planned at the moment as I’m concentrating on writing. But who knows how the future will unfold?

I am looking forward to all future work by you, and thank you so much for talking with me today about your amazing Wolf Light and the inspirations behind it.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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An Interview with Editors Angie Dell and Joey Eschrich

By Amy Brady

In this month’s newsletter I have for you an interview with Angie Dell and Joey Eschrich, the editors of a new –and free – collection of climate fiction stories. Based out of Arizona State University, the editors have just released the third in their series, Everything Change

I spoke with Angie and Joey about what inspired their climate-fiction project, how this third collection differs from previous ones, and what they hope readers take away from the stories they publish.

Let’s start with some background. What are the Everything Change anthologies?
 
These free, digital anthologies collect the winning stories from our global Everything Change climate fiction contests, which we’ve been hosting every two years since 2016. They feature short fiction, in a wide range of styles and tones, from authors hailing from around the world. For example, this third anthology features fiction by authors based in Australia, Nigeria, the Philippines, and the United States. This book also includes stunning illustrations by João Queiroz, who is based in Brazil. We drew the title of the series from a quote by Margaret Atwood, who was our first special guest lecturer for the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative at Arizona State University, back in 2014.
 
You just released your third anthology in the series. How does it differ from the earlier ones?
 
This time around, we centered our call for submissions on planetary boundaries, a framework created by researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Australian National University. The boundaries, which include the climate crisis but also issues like pollution, land use, water resources, and biodiversity, together define a “safe operating space” for humanity on Earth. We asked our writers to imagine futures where human communities and societies actually respect and live within these boundaries, with special attention to how adapting to the climate crisis and living in more sustainable ways would reshape politics, culture, relationships, and identities – all of the messiness of human lives. We also invited authors to think about efforts to restore damage already done to the planet and its ecosystems, and to deliberate on issues of justice and equity.

Illustration by João Queiroz for the story “Field Notes,” by Natasha Seymour, in Everything Change, Volume III.

Did anything surprise you about the ones that you chose to include?

We were looking for stories that responded to the planetary boundaries theme and in some way presented a working future within the scope of drastic change, knowing that would be a challenge. And, as expected, many of the stories we received did not address the prompt directly, and instead emphasized the immense grief surrounding climate change without necessarily envisioning the solutions and systems needed to carry forward. What surprised us in this was how many of these stories offered a deeply compelling glimpse of a new normal, and how personal, individual experience still provided a clear vision for a wildly different and yet recognizable future. Instead of societal and natural landscapes, these stories were grappling with emotional landscapes in a way that was resonant and illuminating. In that way, they fit with our intentions for the theme while working outside of it, and felt necessary to include in the collection. 

What other themes emerged from this collection?

There were a number of themes that became clear in what was submitted and selected for inclusion. Bodies of water, and in particular the ocean, were common as a site of both mystery and anxiety. Similarly, oceanic creatures and humans navigating the water appeared often, representing the emergence of previously unseen impacts of climate change. In previous years, we read many stories that examine the responsibility and anxieties of childbirth, and while birth and motherhood continued as themes this year, it was again from the perspective of dealing with the repercussions – what life cycles become when renewal is no longer a part of the equation.

What do you hope readers take away from these stories?

We believe that fiction about the climate crisis can be a space for thinking beyond our immediate anxieties and daily challenges and exploring a variety of possible futures. Our decisions – especially those at the level of communities, societies, and our global civilization – will determine the kind of climate futures that we end up living in together. Climate fiction stories provide a panoply of snapshots of how it might feel to live in different futures shaped by our responses to the crisis, or our inaction, and they give us a chance to think through how our culture, styles of governance, and even ways of living daily life could be remade. And we hope that those literary experiences are a basis for conversation about climate action today and tomorrow, and an invitation for people to share their own stories and perspectives.

Climate fiction is also unique because it’s a style of storytelling that responds overtly to an unfolding global crisis, and one that is both multifarious and monolithic. The climate crisis looks different depending on where you are and who you are, what kinds of access to power and privilege you might have. But it’s also one big thing that we’re all living through together. We hope that reading these stories broadens people’s perspectives on the crisis and the effects it has on the lives of people whose experiences are quite different from their own. We’re going to need to connect our diverse experiences of climate stress and transformation if we hope to move fast enough, and with enough global cooperation and coordination, to prevent the worst consequences of climate change. We also need to grapple with how the climate crisis intensifies existing inequalities, entrenching power imbalances, with poor and marginalized people most vulnerable to climate chaos. So we hope that these stories are a small part of that project, to build global solidarity around the climate crisis, and to extend understanding and recognition across borders and staggering disparities of wealth, class, and status.

What role do you see climate fiction playing in our broader discussion of climate change?

We don’t imagine that climate fiction has the ability to change everyone’s minds, or to reach and influence audiences who choose to ignore the realities of climate change. But what it can do is stimulate the imagination into thinking through and coping with change in order to envision possibilities and solutions. This is why fiction is a useful tool for social and environmental justice – it can help us practice and imagine realities outside our own, whether through the experience of an individual wholly unlike ourselves, or the experience of a future that is radically different from the present.

Will there be additional contests in the future?

Since 2016, we’ve been hosting an Everything Change contest every other year, and publishing an anthology in the years in between. In 2021, we’ll be focusing on spreading the word about Everything Change, Volume III, working to get it out in front of as many readers as we can. We’re not sure yet, but we hope to host another contest in 2022. If we can pull it together, it will be fascinating to see how people are thinking differently about the climate crisis, and human responses to it, in the wake of the COP26 global climate summit, which will take place in November 2021 in Scotland.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Claire Vaye Watkins and Her Deep Dive Into Cli-Fi

By Peterson Toscano

Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the cli-fi novel Gold Fame Citrus, is my guest in the Art House this month. Claire talks about her book and the importance of storytelling in this time of climate change. With her writing and imagination, she allows herself to go to places many climate advocates avoid. In doing so, she raises important questions about our work and this critical time in history. My hope is that listening to this wise, insightful, and witty interview will help you hone your own skills as a storyteller.

In addition to the novel Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of the short story collection Battleborn. She is winner of the Story Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other prizes. A National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, Watkins is a professor at the University of California Irvine and lives in Twentynine Palms, California.

Next month: Cherokee lawyer and playwright Mary Kathlyn Nagle.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

This article is part of The Art House series.

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As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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