Artists and Climate Change

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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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Woven and Waxed Water Stories

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Hawai’i-based fiber artist Mary Babcock uses discarded fishing nets and lines as well as household wax paper to create tapestries and installations about sea level rise, “our proclivity towards destruction or entanglement,” and our perceptions of and relationship to water. The process of self-laminating wax paper for installations and of cleaning, sorting, and unravelling abandoned, tangled fishing nets and lines and then weaving them into something completely new, is the manifestation of her refusal to see anything as unworkable or unrepairable, including the climate crisis. 

Babcock found her chosen materials 16 years ago while she was living on the coast of Oregon. There, she met a member of the Columbia River Fisherman’s Protective Union, which conducts a recycling program for used fishing gear. He had recently removed large quantities of fishing nets from the Columbia River because they were clogging up the estuary. When Babcock saw the nets, she was attracted to their intrinsic beauty, their cost (free!), and the fact that they were about to be burned anyway. Taking a considerable stockpile of nets and lines, she began to experiment in making what she now refers to as her large-scale, “messy, non-traditional” tapestries. 

Unraveled fishing nets and lines.

After she moved to Hawai’i in 2006 to assume a professorship in Fiber Arts and Extended Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Babcock had access to a plentiful source of new materials washing up on the beaches from the Pacific Ocean. She immersed herself in the local culture, which is centered around water, and by 2006, began an ongoing series of tapestries that she calls “Hydrophilia,” meaning “water-loving.” While the earlier works in the series refer to qualities of water such as turbulence, intensity, and fluidity, more recent pieces focus on water’s vulnerabilities and are titled after latitude lines. The latitude indicators identify the location of the environmentally vulnerable areas she is highlighting, and suggest that issues occurring anywhere along these global geographic connectors impact us all. 

1° 55’ 30” N (Self Portrait as Atoll), 68” x 96” x 3”. Salvaged fishing nets and lines collected across the Pacific Ocean, deep sea leader line and terrestrial, celestial, and aquatic maps, 2015. On loan to the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus. Photo by Chris Rohrer.
1° 55’ 30” N (Self Portrait as Atoll), detail. 68” x 96” x 3”. Salvaged fishing nets and lines collected across the Pacific Ocean, deep sea leader line and terrestrial, celestial, and aquatic maps, 2015. On loan to the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus. Photo by Chris Rohrer.

All of Babcock’s tapestries have back stories that provide narrative context to the pieces. 1° 55’ 30” (Self Portrait as Atoll) references the Republic of Maldives, an archipelago of 1,190 coral islands in the Indian Ocean, most of which stand at only 1 meter or 3.3 feet above sea level. With the flattest topography on Earth, the Republic of Maldives faces an uncertain future. Scientists predict it stands to lose 77% of its land area to sea level rise by 2100. Babcock used an image of herself immersed in the ocean and memories of her newborn’s swimming lessons as inspiration for the design of the tapestry. The rich turquoise color of the netting, which happens to be the same color as the water in Hawai’i, and the lush weaving are in direct contrast to the darkness of the subject matter.   

10° 20′ 32” N, Babcock’s most recent tapestry(see image at the top of the article) was inspired by a December 17, 2020 BBC News article about an abandoned “ghost boat” filled with $80 million’s worth of cocaine that washed ashore on Ailuk Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The weaving pattern of the tapestry is based on a map developed by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, which indicates the likely drift currents flowing from South America, where the boat originated, to the Marshall Islands. Scientists developing the map needed to take into consideration changing sea currents resulting from global warming. When Babcock designed the tapestry, she was thinking about how the increasing power of the ocean had determined the fate of the boat and its missing passenger(s?). She was also thinking about the vast economic disparity evident between the enormous worth of the cargo and the very modest income of Marshall Island residents – only one example of the global economic reality.

Oh Columbia, 24’ x 24’ x 12’. Installation with hand-laminated and stitched household wax paper, sea salt. Installed at the Oxygen Art Center, Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, 2019. Photo by Randi Fjeldseth.
Oh Columbia, detail, 24’ x 24’ x 12’. Installation with hand-laminated and stitched household wax paper, sea salt. Installed at the Oxygen Art Center, Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, 2019. Photo by Randi Fjeldseth.

In 2019, Babcock was invited to attend an artist residency at the Oxygen Art Center in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada. During her residency, she created an installation based on the catastrophic history of Vanport, Oregon. Located on the Columbia River outside Portland, Vanport was hastily built on a flood plain in 1942 as a temporary wartime public housing project for Portland’s shipyard workers. When the war ended, many of the thousands who stayed on in the slip-shod houses were African Americans, prevented by discriminatory housing practices from living in Portland itself. Predictably, a major flood in 1948 destroyed all of the structures in Vanport and displaced 18,500 residents who had received no warning that the dikes on the river had been breached upstream. Babcock created Oh Columbia as a cautionary tale about the impact of reckless, corporate greed, drawing parallels to current practices of placing corporate profit over the wellbeing of the planet and its residents.

Oh Columbia is made out of household wax paper that has been stitched, pierced, layered, and hand-laminated with an iron. The suspended portion of the installation is comprised of a map of Vanport, Oregon; the floor section references glacial melts and an outline of Greenland. As a whole, Oh Columbia is a ghostly reflection of what is no longer there – a town washed away as a result of negligent corporate policies, and whole portions of glaciers melting as a result of the man-made climate crisis. 

Lotic Sea, 14’ x 14’ x 14’. Hand-laminated and stitched household wax paper, sea salt, 2019. Installed at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa Art Gallery, Honolulu, HI. Photo by Kelly Ciurej.
Lotic Sea, 14’ x 14’ x 14’, detail. Hand-laminated and stitched household wax paper, sea salt, 2019. Installed at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa Art Gallery, Honolulu, HI. Photo by Kelly Ciurej.

The term “lotic water” is defined as “rapidly moving fresh water.” Babcock’s installation, Lotic Sea, both references the melting glaciers that are adding volumes of fresh water to the oceans and questions the nature of borders during a time when sea level rise is literally claiming the coastal lands of island nations. Lotic Sea also refers to the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that were designed to confer full sovereignty to island nations over the waters for 200 miles off their coastlines. The EEZ’s were created to potentially protect the islands from industrial exploitation of natural resources in the ocean but have become vulnerable as island governments succumb to attractive financial offers by corporate entities.  

On the surface of the layered, wax paper installation, hand-stitched lines represent the EEZ borders of several Pacific Island nations, while the islands themselves, outlined with simple holes pricked into the surface of the paper and off to the right of the EEZ lines, appear to have slipped or flowed outside of the geopolitical boundaries. The luminous light in the gallery activated the installation so that it seemed as if the ocean itself had entered the space.  

Hand-laminating wax paper with an iron, or changing the wax in the paper to liquid and fusing additional pieces to it, is a slow, meticulous process. So is untangling and unraveling fishing nets and lines and reweaving them into complex tapestries. Babcock considers all of these processes themselves to be significant components of her work, enabling her to slow down and become a witness to what is happening around her. At heart, she is a storyteller. Her woven stories and laminated wax paper installations demonstrate how we can repair the remnants of our world and live in a way that is more meaningful and environmentally just.

(Top image: 10° 20′ 32” N, 44” x 96” x 3”, detail. Salvaged fishing nets and lines collected from across the Pacific Ocean with deep-sea leader line, 2021 (in process).)

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 calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.

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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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Artists and Energy Transitions: Addendum

This post is part of an ongoing series of occasional musings about the larger context in which we currently find ourselves: an energy transition, of which there have been several throughout human history. I have chosen Barry Lord’s important book, Art & Energy: How Culture Changes as our guide, because it sheds much-needed light on the reciprocal relationship between art, artists, and energy transitions through the ages. I also draw inspiration from the emerging field of Energy Humanities, led by Imre Szeman and his colleagues at the University of Alberta and the University of Waterloo in Canada.

An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.

Nina Simone

In last month’s post about artists and energy transitions, I included the above quote by the late Nina Simone – the great American singer, songwriter, musician, and civil rights activist.

This month, artist-activist John Legend cited the same quote during his Duke University commencement address (as he did previously in his 2015 Oscar speech for Best Original Song). Simone’s powerful words are as important and relevant today as they were nearly 60 years ago, at the height of the American civil rights movement. Artists have demonstrated throughout history that, in fact, they do have an important role to play in “reflecting the times.” Just think back to medieval court jesters and minstrels, whose poetry and music were cleverly disguised as barbs to force their privileged overlords to look themselves in the mirror. More recently, the late Ursula Le Guin observed, “Resistance and change often begin in art.”

As a visual artist, I have chosen the energy transition as my muse to “reflect the times.” I could have chosen from among many other interconnected social and environmental issues that define this particularly anxious period of the human experiment. But for reasons that still remain unclear to me, I found my artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects, surrounded by dust, noise, and heavy machinery. Go figure. 

The point I am trying to make is this: each artist must choose a weapon – pen! piano! paintbrush! – and use it to their fullest creative potential to challenge the status quo and question authority. This is exactly what Picasso did with his famous anti-war painting, Guernica.

Screenshot taken from the website of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

There is a fascinating story about Picasso’s Guernica in, of all places, a 1968 copy of the Congressional Record of the United States Congress. It reads as follows:

There is a beautiful story about Picasso. It was during the Nazi occupation in France. The great painter was summoned to Gestapo headquarters. He found a Nazi officer studying one of Picasso’s most famous paintings. The canvas depicted the brutal destruction of the town of Guernica by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War. The Gestapo man looked with menace at Picasso and pointed to the painting.

“Did you do this?” he asked. Picasso looked at the Nazi and said, “No, you did.”

That was a fine moment. A moment when the artist and the citizen were one.

Picasso reflected his time; 21st-century artists must do the same. For me, the most urgent story of our time is the climate crisis. But if we have learned anything over the past 15 months, it’s that the climate crisis is intricately linked with so many other critically important issues including global pandemics and systemic racism. There is no right or wrong choice – artists should “reflect the times” with whatever subject that ignites the biggest fire in their souls. The only prerequisite is to choose a weapon and step up to the plate.

My advice to those who have not yet found their artistic voice within the climate crisis is to consider the energy transition as a possible source of creative inspiration. My previous post about artists and energy transitions, inspired by Barry Lord’s book Art & Energy: How Culture Changes, provides some historical context.

As Lord explains, “new energy sources are very much like new art… the new values and meanings that come with each energy transition… form a cutting edge, changing our perception of ourselves, of others and of what matters most in the world around us at that time… It is the artists who help us see it.”

The current transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy – a transition to which we are all witnesses and in which we are all participants – is not just about solar panels and wind turbines. It is about stewardship. And stewardship means that this transition is really about people, about culture, about collaboration. It is also about imagining – and ultimately creating – a healthier and just future for all living beings sharing this planet. I can’t think of a better treasure trove to inspire a global movement of artistic and creative spirits. 

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

(Top image by Joan Sullivan.)

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and newly minted member of @WomenPhotograph, 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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Three Questions for Rulan Tangen, Part III

By Biborka Beres

DANCE AND SCIENCE

This is the third part of a three-part interview with Rulan Tangen, founder of Dancing Earth. You can read Part I and II here and here.

Many dancers and choreographers emphasize that dance does what science cannot do when it comes to the climate crisis: it fosters a deeply intimate, emotional connection to the issue. How do you see the role of dance in fighting climate change?

Dance can definitely translate scientific facts into a visceral way of knowing. It can even uncover facts that science hasn’t identified yet. This has been reiterated by Elders and culture-carriers, and by farmers who won the Food Sovereignty Prize a while back. They asked artists to help be a part of shifting hearts, because that’s when there’s cultural change. I’ve seen it happen. The arts help a cause be something that makes us feel good in our bodies. And we lean towards what feels good. For a long time, we’ve leaned towards different types of comfort. I definitely want warm water in my house. It’s nice to have a bed. Then, at a certain point there’s the question: how much comfort do we need? Can we experience joy and beauty and relationships instead of a thousand jewels – even though there’s beauty there, and joy, and an appreciation of that aesthetic? Can there be an appreciation of aesthetics when seeing dance that’s zero waste? It’s not something that we own and we have to store, and then dust off. The experience is temporal. 

Constant growth and constant decay, and the ability to harbor that.

Regenerate, yes…

Between Underground and Skyworld at Arizona State University – Gammage, Arizona. Photo by Pam Taylor Photography.

This might be a very stereotypical thought, but if we are unable to find beauty in our existing surroundings, then how are we to hoard things and get pleasure from them? I think there’s a lot of dissatisfaction in consumerism and the whole practice of accumulating goods.

Dancing Earth is often invited into theatres but we can’t afford to rent a theatre or even a studio – so we dance outside. And at times people go: “Oh, where’s your permit?” A permit is required even in a public park. You’d be surprised how “public” doesn’t mean that you can do what you want. When we place our dances in a theatre or beyond a theatre, we activate the space. We have animated some spaces with our dances – for example, outdoors –where people now say they can’t walk by that area without seeing the life force of the dancers there. They’re literally remembering an active space of ritual and transformation.

We use recycled industrial materials, or remake old fabrics into costumes. There have been times when we were given spaces but we weren’t allowed to use the lights. The owners didn’t want to pay for electricity. We started calling that passive solar. We’ve been blessed twice in the Bay area: one time with a bike-powered sound system, and another time with a biodiesel tour bus. Those were great. We’re always carpooling and using bicycles or public transport for commuting. A lot about how we make a dance production is in sync with our vision of not needing a lot, including how and what we eat. We often prioritize local farms. Honestly, there was a summer when we had no money, and that’s when we ate the best food because of the generosity of farmers. That’s when we understood true wealth. We always remember the importance of reciprocity with the people who have supported us when nobody else would. And we feel good. Our bodies feel stronger; we’re more energetic. One of our dancers, who is a farmer, asked us to make sure we always had reusable water bottles and our own reusable spoons and bowls and our carry bags. This all started to shift how we travel. 

Ballet had been the love of my life. That training was about discipline, about the ritual of returning and deepening my commitment to the craft so that form got more and more precise. I remember a summer when I had left New York. I was involved in more of a social justice thing, living in a van, outdoors. After that, coming back into the studio and seeing a bunch of people propped up on one leg, balanced, seeing what I would have called beautiful and transcendent before, I felt a great disconnect. I spent the rest of my life trying to bring these two worlds together. At this point in my life, I’m remembering my deep appreciation for ballet – anything someone spends so much time on, whether it’s work or graffiti art or ballet, anything someone dedicates so many hours to is worth appreciating. The question is how one can bring that into the world of change, justice, and eco-consciousness. 

Groundworks, a day-long, multidisciplinary, mobile performance art installation that amplifies the oft-forgotten Native presence under one’s feet anywhere in the Americas, culminated in a public performance on Alcatraz for the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony in the fall of 2018.

The role of dance in fighting climate change… We spent years with this inspiration and there were many moments of awakening in the process. We noticed we can amplify our message when we partner with another organization or entity. We’ve been blessed to dance at the Bioneers Conference, which was attended by thousands of people. We’ve also created work that centered Californian Native voices and stories, and was presented on Alcatraz Island, just after the Sunrise Ceremony.

The point is to use platforms to center unheard voices. Three generations of my family lived in the Bay area. That’s my way of giving back to this community and being a respectful and reciprocal guest in the Bay. I’ve been really proud to dance for a fundraiser in New Mexico, for the new energy economy that’s doing hard, legislative work. The fundraiser allowed solar panels to be installed in one of the pueblos. We danced, money was raised, and spirits were refreshed and rejuvenated. Then that money became solar panels. Our Navajo collaborator and advisor, Denae, had brought solar panels to one of our performances and they had the capacity to power the performance. The system could not be plugged in because of the rules, yet he brought the panels to show that the performance could have been powered by the solar panels. 

We’re looking at other partnerships as well – with global environmental organizations. We’re incredibly excited about Dancing Earth uplifting its ecological roots, and looking at pathways for those roots to become more publicly acknowledged – understanding that ecologically focused work is about how we work with humans so we can be part of the larger ecosystem. We want to claim the words “intercultural” and “ecological” as the most welcoming and inclusive ways to describe our work. 

Groundworks, 2018.

I really appreciate your words and hearing your vision. 

One of the great things about global Indigenous cultural exchange has been to work on a remote Apache reservation, and then to host a Māori from New Zealand. This has been such a relation-building awakening. We got invited back to New Zealand, where people have been siloed and separated and are suffering on their own. We got to understand these relationships from the other side of the world. In this, we feel less isolated. There’s of course a cost to this, which is our carbon footprint. That’s one of the reasons why I’m doing my best to embrace new media and apply all of these principles of creativity to online performance-making. With the dancers, we are becoming filmmakers and finding ways to bring those worlds together through technology. We have used our period of isolation to devise ways to bring these global relations together. I see this as a challenge: How close can we get in a virtual space? How can we find ways where dance can be deliciously tangible instead of being just another Zoom invite? 

Actually, I wanted to ask you about how you dance during the pandemic. Again, a huge question but I think one of the great things about this is the opportunity for greater accessibility and the opening up of relationships. I try to remind myself of this when I feel negative about our situation.

The fact that we have a computer and wi-fi is yet another expression of privilege that we have to acknowledge. But now friends in wheelchairs will have an easier time accessing our work. Or people who aren’t feeling too well can lie in bed, and if they want to take my class, they can watch it on their computer.

We were blessed to have been invited to a dance festival outside of New York. They did a promo film with all the dance companies. Our part happened to be a glimpse of prophetic words from an Elder from the Grand Canyon. The dancers were seen from overhead, from an Eagle’s view. It was short but it was very memorable, and this clip has been seen by 749,000 viewers from 29 countries. We believe that this image alone has changed those people.

From April to November 2020, we were in the process of creating two different performances, with two different casts, and two different technologies. One was using Skype and different backgrounds. It brought the viewer into a relationship with six different ecosystems where dancers were dancing in their homeland. In some cases, there was an urban ghetto where our home was and what we want to do was project ourselves on a sacred mountain. With technology, we were able to create our movement and transpose it to where we were in our imagination – let’s say a snowy mountain next to a beautiful tropical jungle. It brought us to a different sense of place, which is central to our work. 

The other one was more virtual reality-based. It involved building a story about surviving the apocalypse, which is the theme we had been working on right before COVID. It revolved around what our dream for the future is – what we want the future to be – and how we want to embody that in the here and now. “Portals” is the word we were using a lot for how we can maximize the virtual reality part, which was almost like a video game. I loved that. We were working with humble instruments, like little broken phones, and the brilliance of the collaborators.

This reminds me that most of the things I’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic are very dreamlike and about imagination. People really started questioning what they want and need – bodily in our dreams. It seems like there’s this space of desire, and energetically it feels good

This is a time when everyone around the world is in a pause or alteration of habits. What I’m offering in my dance classes is often about shifting out of habits. We might be hunched over because of sitting a lot, and we want to shift out of that habit. Or my habit as someone who’s got a lot of dance training is to move my limbs in a certain way. But we can move like a tree branch instead, more gnarled. We can always find what I call the liminal space, the space in-between established patterns, the unknown that might need to be recognized at this time. It is also about recognizing which patterns are worth keeping and which need changing just a little bit. 

Most of us are going through shifts, as large numbers of people are suffering. Whenever we’re in a shift, there’s an opportunity for change and we can decide what we are actually creating. Sometimes these decisions are made for us but we, as a global community, can work together towards a more balanced way of being. When the moment comes for us to move from the restrictions of ritual isolation – which many cultures have been doing in formalized ways – we should have a vision for what we want. It’s about being conscious of the choices we make when we leave that ritual isolation, whether that is seven years or seven days from now. This is a time to measure the impact of our choices and make movements that not only benefit ourselves, but benefit others; the entire human realm and even beyond the human realm. 

This makes me think of wintering and hibernation. Like the animals’ habit of getting more reclusive, spending time in one enclosed space, recharging, so that when spring comes or when nature shifts into a new season, they can go out again and live.

(Top image: Rulan Tangen. Photo by Paulo T. Photography.)

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Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, USA, studying dance, drama and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for the Artists & Climate Change blog, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.

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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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Three Questions for Rulan Tangen, Part II

By Biborka Beres

CLIMATE VISION

This is the second part of a three-part interview with Rulan Tangen, founder of Dancing Earth. You can read Part I here.

Do you have a climate vision? Is there an overall message you would like to convey with your dances?

I started with a creative, intercultural vision. Now I listen for what wants and needs to be spoken at this time. Right now, we’re understanding this through the lens of the climate crisis. People of color across the globe, most particularly Indigenous Peoples, have already seen the destruction of their way of life and suffered cultural devastation. 1492 is a pretty good starting date for that. Since then, we’ve been doing our best to adapt and be resilient. That includes people of the Pacific archipelago, the archipelago known colonially as the Pacific Islands – my mother’s people and ancestors. 

People who are surrounded by water are incredibly vulnerable. On my father’s side, the lineage goes to Norway and Ireland. One could say that in Europe, oppression – in the form of witch trials that silenced women and crushed their intuition – started  even before 1492. What is now the climate crisis comes from these attacks on all these different ways of knowing and being in relation to the natural world. 

Photo by AMT Productions

So, when you ask about my vision, it’s a huge question. What is the overall message? It is pluralistic, adaptive, resilient, and I can see three principles that have come through since we began working.

These principles will continue to move us, even though Dancing Earth is transforming right now due to COVID and the recent calls for social justice that ask who gets to use the term “Indigenous.” We’re transforming to meet these questions in the most responsible way, while honoring the gifts that we all have to give, including my own. Certain things might fall away, but what I believe will continue is the origins of me laying in a hospital bed, hoping there would be three principles.

One of these principles is that all of life is connected. We’re all part of this life force, this ecosystem. We can see it in the first 10 years of our dances, when we were dancing more often in the form of plants or the four elements than in the form of  human beings. This was to deepen our understanding of the life force that is in all. We often get caught in our human stories and our personal stories, which are important, but I was drawn to how we can embody the wind as a force of change, for example, and how that manifests in a human way. I thought I understood that all forms of art and life are connected when I was 20 – and then a year later, 10 years later, 15 years later, that understanding gets deeper and deeper. What you do and why, who’s involved, how you’re involving them…. Understanding that is a life’s journey.

The second principle for making our work is that beauty should be created out of whatever we have. I went into dancing looking for what I had experienced in my career being a full-time, paid dancer, in a grid studio, touring the world. I wanted these opportunities for everyone. With Dancing Earth, it was more like: okay, we don’t have a dance studio, we’re dancing in the parking lot. Or: we don’t have money for costumes, so I’m going to cut up little t-shirts and we’re going to look at forms and designs that come from the dancers, from pre-colonial, pre-Colombian ancestors, and cut up these little t-shirts and paint them in those forms, reclaiming those designs. 

The idea that what we have is enough is huge. It means thinking, “Oh, if only we could have real costumes”, and then starting to understand this lack as being eco-conscious. It was through the water theme, which was initially given to me by Oddish Navi grandmothers, that I found out about the toxicity of the fashion world. I’d been wearing secondhand clothes all my life. I love beauty. I love lines. I love colors. Yet, I aspired for something better. Then I realized that there was nothing better than not producing waste and not being greedy.

The interesting thing about dance is that it’s the one thing you can always do; I was dancing in the hospital bed with just my fingers. Because it’s with your body, it is the most basic, but also the most collaborative art form. It can involve music and poetry, costuming and architecture in the form of set design and lighting. Our dances can include food offerings and interactivity: people make little balls out of clay filled with wildflower seeds that get thrown. These seeds grow into wildflowers that attract butterflies and bees, which bring pollen the next season to create food.

The third very important principle, which is related to the first two, is that diversity is how we can thrive. Diversity and inclusion. They’re big buzzwords right now, and that’s good. Many creatives working at the grassroots level, who were under-recognized before, have now received some recognition. But for years, we didn’t even have food or funds to pay dancers. We met farmers who gave us food and showed us how plants grow together, and these became choreographies we honored the farmers with. The ways that marginalized artist groups create and adapt might become models. I’m interested in what brings us together, what the rhythm is. Whether it’s the rhythm of the moon or the heartbeat. And I am just as interested in what makes us different. The version that I as a choreographer often enjoy of what’s called unison movement is very different from what it is in my trained dance background, which, at its peak, is people of the same height, with the same body type moving at the same moment in the same gesture. That’s incredible and wonderful to see on a big scale. But I’m also interested in seeing the way grass moves with the wind, where it’s a little different with each blade of grass. Sometimes that might look a little messy to someone who is looking for something very precise. 

In fact, we’ll be shifting how we describe Dancing Earth to call it intercultural. This is to include native, global Indigenous, and mixed cultures that aren’t recognized as Indigenous by any federal institution. It is to acknowledge self-definition of peoples with relationships and creation stories connected to land and waters, whether they’re called Indigenous or not, and people who are disconnected from those stories. 

Photo by Paulo T. Photography

You mentioned life force and that everything is life. Is climate change, in that sense, this life force turning on itself? Since there is so much destruction…

Some of it is overproduction. That’s greed-based. How we counter greed is by understanding that what we have is enough. How do we counter overproduction? That’s at the expense of diversity. We want a certain kind of thing. We get rid of all of these trees because we want that thing only. How can we do that if we respect each form of life? There’s scarcity and suffering from some because others have too much. That is a basic imbalance. 

I think there’s power in telling the truths of what has happened to our communities. I remember hearing about fracking, but then a Canadian dancer came in to say, this is what’s happened in our community because of it. Wealth comes, but suddenly people are sick and we don’t have water from the tap anymore. To hear that  moves us from the intellectual sphere, from knowing that this seems wrong, to the heart and the spirit and the body, towards a visceral response. 

Interestingly, that’s not the part Elders want me to share through dance. They’re like, yeah, if the young people need to tell that. But we know that part. We’re living it, we’re suffering from it. What is needed is hope and remembering the beauty, the balance, the way of diversity and respect, the way of kindness and welcoming. We have so much energy for what we are against. But when it’s time to articulate what we are for, it’s harder. That’s where dance can be very, very powerful. 

Photo by Paulo T. Photography

There are so many different strategies of artistic creation, whether or not we use words. And if we do, what languages are they in? I actually love dance because of what it says in our minds. We work in imagery and feeling and sensation. Abstractions and approximations. The minute you use words, it all becomes very precise. In a way, dance is the transmission of energy in everything that’s missing. When you receive through certain kinds of witnessing of dance, it’s like an energy wave goes through you. You search for words. It’s beautiful. 

Then, there’s the power of visual imagery. It sticks with me. I dream about it. It’s imprinting. And when you need something specific, when a very specific theme has been given to you, then you have to use words to translate it. And if you’re with a primarily English speaking audience, you might choose English. Or, with our Southwest group, there were multiple languages. Those languages were integrated into the soundscape, and our bodies became interpreters. We were literally a large embodied sign language moving those images into specific forms for a more focused message.

That resonates a lot with me, with how I found dance. I’ve been moving a lot from words and theory to embodiment, and it’s an ongoing process for sure. I don’t think it’s about losing either words or body, but about their coexistence and incorporating them into each other.

I seem to always think in binary: “I’m in the head too much”, “I’m only in the body, I don’t do this intellectually”… We can pull all those together. This integration, this weaving together is actually a really potent area for new ways of understanding the world.

Even then I feel like I’m only understanding the theory I learned in the beginning of my studies through embodiment. 

There are times when the overall message you want to convey comes from the vision, intellectual concept, or stories that have been shared. Then, there’s this other entity that is hard to describe because it’s beyond words. It is a way of knowing and understanding that actually comes in through the physical process. Sometimes we don’t know what to do with that. We ask ourselves, “How is this even relevant?” What I keep saying is to trust our intuition and to trust our bodies, and we’ll find ways to bring it forth. It often finds its way into a ritual. And a week later in a dream, or a month later, or 10 years later, we find out what that thing was.

Many people around the world have origin stories that trace back to the stars. In recent years, science has caught up to this way of knowing that has been transmitted through beautiful stories – stories that were easy to remember because they were so compelling. All of life on earth comes from the heart of dying stars. We’re literally made from the carbon of stars. That’s another manifestation of how we are all related – through stardust. So, the stories, right? The stories were actually true; they were not mythology. They’re a way of knowing. Now we can say: here’s the science behind them. The stories do not just have to do with the past, but with allowing our bodies and imaginations to be conduits for intuition. Because they may be a way of conveying knowledge that we can’t get from any other source.

In the third part of this interview, we discuss the relationship between dance and science. 

(Top image: Rulan Tangen, Photo by Joe McNally.)

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Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, USA, studying dance, drama and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for the Artists & Climate Change blog, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.

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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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Three Questions for Rulan Tangen, Part I

By Biborka Beres

RITUAL

Rulan Tangen is the founding artistic director of Dancing Earth, a company that creates contemporary dance and related arts through Indigenous and intra-cultural relationships centered in ecological and cultural diversity. Dancing Earth collaborates with artists, farmers, cultural advisors, and activists. They create eco-dance productions under the guidance of Elders who suggest appropriate themes – such as diversity or sacred land and water – that support the health and wellness of all people and the planet.

This is Part I or a three-part interview.

The word ritual came up a lot when I was discovering your work. Are rituals important to you? How do they relate to the mission of protecting the climate and the Earth?

I want to thank you for the opportunity to bring another texture to the story of myself and Dancing Earth. The origin story does have a lot to do with ritual. Any roots and seeds lead to a particular moment in time.

You can say that the origins of dancing go back to when I was born, or before that. At a fairly young age, I went through a stage 4 battle with cancer. It was quite likely due to living in poor environmental conditions, which are part of the legacy for marginalized people of color. I wasn’t aware of all of that; I was just trying to live. In a sense, Dancing Earth was a vision of a ritual of everyday gratitude for my life.

Who I wanted to have as the first circle of beneficiaries were people who had incredible talent and vision and ways of knowing, but who did not have opportunity or access to the performing arts. These were people I had met in my career dancing and teaching in many places, including in rural reservations. They were Native Americans and global Indigenous people, including mixed people with these heritages. The performing arts can be a conduit for visibility, but I hadn’t stepped forward to do that fully because of so many protections around what can be shared. 

A few years before the cancer journey, a woman from the Lakota Nation who had adopted me – my adopted grandmother – gave me permission to move forward with certain things. We had conversations about what would be relevant to share, so it’s almost like the cancer journey became an incubation period. Then, some of the young kids who had been students were ready to make this their full-time vocation. 

As far as ritual goes, what I was bringing in was the idea of taking responsibility as contemporary, modern-day people, to create rituals relevant to this moment. There have always been ceremonial songs and dances, visual imagery and oratory that would come together to form rituals of transformation – these are the origins of theatre in all cultures. Some of the participants in the group were part of cultures that had retained this direct connection, and others were revitalizing it. But when we come together as an inter-tribal or intercultural group, there are many ceremonies which are not appropriate to share; they are made for a particular group that share a language and a geography or season.

Walking at the Edge of Water, 2012-13. Photo by Paulo T. Photography.

For example, one of the first dancers in the company is also an accomplished violinist. We had to think about evolving a form that didn’t necessarily have a European influence, since that had been so heavily prioritized. I myself was blessed to have a career in ballet and modern dance, but I wanted to consider whether it was these forms that needed to be on stage. Should they be in a circle? With a violin, we were looking at references to ancient string instruments and found that they represent the wind. The violinist first portrayed a whirlwind, which was circular, and it brought out his Capoeira proficiency; his mother comes from a line of Brazilian Indigenous people from the Amazons. Capoeira is part of his cultural and creative heritage. The sound of the violin was considered a representation of this whirlwind, which is a conduit for change. Like this, we went deeper into why and how we were bringing certain things into the creative process.

In every dance I ever made, where artists come together, is what I call sacred space. That space of creation and visioning brings in something that doesn’t exist yet, even if it’s a known art form or a story being retold. It also brings in a plurality of perspectives where everybody is valued and respected. 

I want to be conscious of the fact that there are ceremonies which still exist and have existed for thousands of years – and often what they need is protection. On the other hand, things come up that need a statement. We brought our water dances to various protests. Very different thinkers and performance artists have applied the word ritual to things like brushing your teeth every day. It carries a sense of openness towards the idea of a ritual, but we certainly invest in our rituals with the intention of transformation, including of the people who witness or participate. 

Photo by Paulo T. Photography.

The word ritual is quite open-ended, and could be considered an invitation.

Yes, invitation and openness are very centered in my work. I wanted Dancing Earth to be respectful, cautious, and protective – waiting for permissions or taking gentle steps. I was a successful dancer working in New York and around the world. I was happy being a conduit for other’s visions. If anything, I was too intimidated to create choreography or to be a director. Then, when I went through that life-changing battle, I couldn’t dance. I could barely move. I was no longer able to be a conduit, but I definitely had dreams. When I share those with others, they become choreography and direction. Yet, I am still being a conduit for something greater than myself – there’s definitely something coming through me. It is shaped by me because it’s choosing my body to flow through. When we come in the circle, we always have a sense of what is in the middle and wants to be birthed through our process.

Is this a different source than someone else? Maybe a collective thing, or something non-human?

That’s a great question. We’ve been creating for 17 years, so there are many variations to this.

For me, it was coming through an intangible way of relating to the tangible. It’s about understanding life on Earth. It’s not about some other realm, but about the spirit and force that is in all of life. Variations – particular images or glimpses of that – would come through me and I’d bring them into the circle for other people to respond. 

When we started, we didn’t have a shared movement language. No school told us, here’s how to move. I had received 10,000 hours of training with a particular group to get to that perfect, refined choreographic language. There was a bit of an urgency – I had been given life for who knows how long. 

Seeds Regeneration, 2019. Photo by Paulo T. Photography.

After a few years, there were a surprising and continued number of instances when Native Elders, specifically grandmothers from the Anishinaabe nation,  or a man who had a group from inter-tribal Southwestern nations, would come to us and say, “What you’re doing is important because it’s a way to transmit messages. Here’s a message we have. It is really important. Could you take that and make dances?” In one case, it was about water; in another, about seeds and plants, and how we make food. Each one of those dances has lasted and continues to impact our work. These aren’t projects that are ever done. It feels very different when someone gifts me with a story. They are not always stories that I need to tell, but themes that are given for which I hold respect. Often, they are given because they need to reach far and wide. In other cases I am asked to present them there, in the community, with the youth and Elders, with a particular language group. Afterwards, I can let them go to other places and each of those places and peoples can receive those themes and respond in their own ways. At Dancing Earth, we have a responsibility when we’ve been trusted to carry these stories. 

Seeds Regeneration, 2019. Photo by Paulo T. Photography.

What you’re saying reminds me of movement, not only movement itself as a dance in some form, but also how the form moves, shifts, and changes.

You have just scratched upon a theme that came out of our work, which I call MOMB, like womb: the movement of movement building. Our first workshops when we recognized this notion were in the Bay area. Sometimes you do things for years and then you realize there’s a pattern and you give the pattern a name. We got the movement of movement building from the different practices and processes that we as artists, humans, and humanists come up with: ways to bring our message forward and adapt that message so it is relevant to every place, time, and people. It shifts like water. Our choreographic motifs come from very specific stories or socio-political intentions. There’s a relationship between what we present on stage in full ritual, and the qualities of light and timing and music. Then we take some of that same material and it morphs and changes for an action against pipelines on the steps of the Capitol, for example. They’re all different tactics towards an energy shift.

Thank you, Rulan.

In the second part of this interview, we discuss Rulan’s climate vision.

(Top image: Rulan Tangen, founder of Dancing Earth.)

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Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, USA, studying dance, drama and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for the Artists & Climate Change blog, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.

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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: Diana McCaulay

By Mary Woodbury 

This month we travel to a fictional island in Jamaica – Bajacu – to talk with author Diana McCaulay, whose novel Daylight Come was published in September 2020.

It is 2084. Climate change has made life on the Caribbean island of Bajacu a grueling trial. The sun is so hot that people must sleep in the day and live and work at night. In a world of desperate scarcity, people who reach 40 are expendable. Those who still survive in the cities and towns are ruled over by the brutal, fascistic Domins, and the order has gone out for another evacuation to less sea-threatened parts of the capital.

Sorrel can take no more, and she persuades her mother, Bibi, to flee the city and head for higher ground in the interior. She has heard there are groups known as Tribals, bitter enemies of the Domins, who have found ways of surviving in the hills, but she also knows they will have to evade the packs of ferals, animals with a taste for human flesh. Not least, she knows that the sun will kill them if they can’t find shelter.

Diana McCaulay takes the reader on a tense, threat-filled odyssey as mother and daughter attempt their escape. On the way, Sorrel learns much about the nature of self-sacrifice, maternal love, and the dreadful moral choices that must be made in the cause of self-protection.

CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR

Thanks so much for talking with me! How did you get started in writing?

I’m a Jamaican writer, resident on the island, and I’ve written all my life, but mostly in secret. Reading is what got me writing. I loved books and stories as a child, and I wanted to move people I would never meet with my words, as I had been moved. I’ve always had stories in my head. My father encouraged my writing as a teenager, gave me books, and talked to me seriously about them but when I declared I wanted to be a writer, he told me women could not write literature because the only suitable subject was war – and women did not go to war. I believed him, so until I was past 50, I didn’t send out my work, often didn’t even finish it. Then I had a health scare and realized that if I were to hear I was terminally ill, the only big thing I would regret about my life was not publishing a novel. 

I completed my first, Dog-Heart, sent it out and it was rejected 12 times. Peepal Tree Press, still one of my publishers, said yes, and Dog-Heart came out in 2010. I’ve written five novels in all. My second was Hurcan, also published by Peepal Tree Press; Gone to Drift, published by Papillote Press and Harper Collins US; White Liver Gal, which I self-published as an experiment – not, I would say, a successful experiment. Everyone needs an editor! My most recent novel is Daylight Come, published by Peepal Tree Press in September 2020. I also have a day job as an environmental activist. I’m the founder and director of the Jamaica Environment Trust, which is 30 years old this year. I’ve been an opinion columnist for our main daily newspaper, The Gleaner, and have also written and published many short stories and articles.

What’s going on in Daylight Come?

Daylight Come is set in 2084 on the fictional Caribbean island of Bajacu, where it has become too hot to go outside in the day due to the climate crisis. Everyone works at night and sleeps in the day, but my protagonist, a 14-year-old girl named Sorrel, can’t sleep. She convinces her mother, Bibi, to leave the known difficulties of the capital city of Bana to travel to the mountains, where Sorrel believes that temperatures must be cooler, and it’s rumored that tribes of people live together in old and more satisfying ways. Daylight Come is a fast-paced, threat-filled adventure story, as well as a story about the changing relationship between a mother and a daughter as they face many dangers together and must consider what each of them is willing to sacrifice. As for the audience, I’m convinced that the climate crisis needs stories, because talking about the science has not had sufficient impact. And although I’ve read quite a bit of climate fiction set in large countries, I wanted to write about how this could play out on a small tropical island. So Daylight Come is for Caribbean residents, visitors, and the Caribbean diaspora, adults, and young adults, as well as everyone interested in and concerned about what the climate emergency might do to our societies. It’s not a polemic, though; hopefully it’s a powerful narrative of interest to anyone who likes a good story.

Can you describe the ecological themes in your novel and how you were inspired to write about them?

Three years ago now, when I first started thinking about Daylight Come, I was in the UK and read a story about construction workers in the Middle East falling from scaffolding due to the heat. When I came home, I started noticing how many people worked outside – farmers, security guards, policemen, traffic wardens, people selling in markets and on the streets, construction and road workers – and I thought, huh, suppose all of this wasn’t possible for most of the year? What would life be like in a place like Jamaica? My premise is that human civilization evolved in a stable and nurturing climate, and without that, everything we take for granted is under threat. I’m also interested in the human impulse to acquire materials things – Daylight Come explores that a little bit – and how easily we get used to comfort and plenty and seek more and more and more.

What has been the reaction to your book, and have you been able to do many book fairs or talks during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’ve done quite a few online events – talks, panel discussions, a launch, book clubs, readings, interviews and so on. Daylight Come was released last September and due to the pandemic, travel and in-person events were impossible. It’s never been easy for someone like me, writing outside a major literary market, to promote my books, but the current situation is really daunting. The most common thing I hear from readers is that they couldn’t put the book down. They like how fast paced it is. A few people have asked me if it was depressing to write and my answer is no, it wasn’t. As Rebecca Solnit says, the future is not yet written, and the outcomes I describe in Daylight Come are not inevitable. We humans can, if we decide to, build different and better societies. I also get asked if the things I describe in my book could really happen, and all of them have already happened – not everywhere, but somewhere. It is very hard to market a book in the pandemic. There are so many online events now that it’s hard to get attention. Distribution is also a challenge: you might market, and then apart from e-books, your book is just not available.

Are you working on anything else right now?

Yes, I’m working on a nonfiction memoir called That Woman, which is about the intersection of my environmental journey and my ancestry. I’m the descendant of a Portuguese Sephardic Jew who came to Jamaica in the late 1700s and had nine children on the island with an enslaved (and therefore raped) West African women. But I have light skin so I’ve been racialized as white. My male ancestor was born a slave but went on to enslave others. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever tried to write.

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Diana.

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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Fading Reefs: Using Process To Tell A Story

By Elizabeth Ellenwood

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of coral reefs. In 1992, my family sailed from Florida to the Bahamas. I still remember my five-year-old self mesmerized by the crystal-clear water and the world of creatures living beneath its surface. My “class time” consisted of snorkeling and observing the reefs: fish of all sizes darting in and out of vibrant coral structures, conch shells glistening and nurse sharks gently resting on the sandy sea floor, jellyfish camouflaging with the water, and, on the lucky days, spiny lobsters emerging from their caves. I was witnessing a thriving ecosystem. This formative childhood experience cultivated in me a lifelong love of the ocean. Less than 30 years later, the coral reef ecosystems are collapsing or have fully collapsed as a result of climate change. Now, as a practicing artist, I feel an urgency to help protect and bring attention to the vital reef systems that sparked my interest in the ocean.

Elizabeth Ellenwood snorkeling in the Bahamas, 1992.

Climate change means ocean change. The ocean’s temperature is warming, it is becoming more acidic, sea level is rising, and storm patterns and precipitation are changing. All of these factors individually create stress for corals. Combined, they have demolished the reef systems that have flourished for centuries. The coral reefs of my childhood memories are bleaching, and entire ocean ecosystems are vanishing due to the loss of their habitats.

Fading Reefs 1, Anthotype made with beets.

The term “coral bleaching” has bounced around news headlines for years, but it took documentaries like Chasing Coral and Mission Blue to inspire me to dig deeper into the science. Corals get their colors from pigment-rich algae that live within their tissues. The coral-algae partnership is symbiotic, each supporting one another. When stressed from the ocean changes, the algae are expelled from the coral, revealing the white coral skeleton underneath. This bleaching triggers a domino effect: all living organisms that relied on the reef habitat either vacate or die, from the smallest plankton to the largest predator. The reef system is rapidly turning into a wasteland; no corals, no fish. This devastation is taking place on a massive scale and at a rapid rate, with nearly half of the world’s coral reefs bleached or severely damaged.

Fading Reefs 2, Anthotype made with blackberries.

This devastation has swept through coral reefs in the Bahamas – the very ones that brought me so much childhood joy. I feel a loss for the diverse ecosystems that depended on the corals. Caught in a vortex of pollution, rising temperatures, acidification, and overfishing, thinking about humanity’s destruction of our waterways can be paralyzing. But to improve our relationship with the ocean and bring about positive change, we must fully understand the effects of our actions.

My research on coral reef bleaching led to the creation of my series, Fading Reefs. I am inspired by the biology of corals, driven by sadness for the loss of the reefs from my childhood, and compelled to shed light on this destructive cycle. It is important to me to create based on science and in a sustainable way, using environmentally friendly processes and as few materials as possible. One of the oldest photographic processes, the anthotype, uses the light sensitivity of plants and sunlight to create an image. Because these prints fade over time, it is difficult to research historical images, though documents and research track its emergence from 1816 to 1844.

Fading Reefs 3, Anthotype made with red cabbage.

I see the process of coral bleaching and the anthotype process as linked together. Making anthotypes requires time and patience. This process begins with crushing or juicing a plant to create the light-sensitive emulsion. A piece of paper is then soaked in the liquid and dried, absorbing the pigment of the plant. An image on transparency film is placed on top of the color-stained paper and then placed in direct sunlight. The image develops and appears on the page as the sunlight bleaches the pigment in the exposed areas of the plant emulsion. This is a very slow process; depending on the plant used and the strength of the sun, the printing can take days, weeks, or even months. Once developed, anthotype images will fade over time, especially if they are exposed to UV light. There is no way to make them permanent, which I see as a beautiful quality to embrace. 

In the 1800s, anthotypes were stored in what they called “night albums” and only viewed by candlelight to help preserve the images. Some artists build boxes or use black fabric over their framed piece to protect the prints while they are on display. When Fading Reefsis exhibited, I embrace the impermanence of the process and leave my prints uncovered to speak to the vulnerability of the corals. The anthotype process is a perfect way to tell the reefs’ stories, the bleaching pigment in the prints refers to the devastating loss of pigment-rich algae that not only give corals their colors, but most importantly keep them alive. The prints in Fading Reefs are delicate, time sensitive, and beautiful – just like our ocean’s coral reefs.

Elizabeth Ellenwood with anthotype in process, photograph by Tim Martin.

Just as the algae is crucial to the corals’ survival, the corals are vital to the oceans, and the oceans are integral to human life. It is possible many of us will go our entire lives without actually seeing a living coral reef, but we must work urgently to save these necessary ecosystems. Corals not only support an underwater ecosystem, they also provide for life above the water’s surface. Reef structures provide crucial protection from storms for coastal areas and offer an abundance of food that we consume. Studying individual corals and organisms living within the reefs even helps advance medical technology and treatments. No corals means an unhealthy and unbalanced ocean, which affects the entirety of the world. 

Fading Reefs 5, Anthotype made with red cabbage.

We all have skills and abilities that can help our coral reefs and waterways. Small actions have the potential to contribute to global impacts. Paying attention to what we consume, where we shop, and what organizations we support can support a thriving ecosystem. While half the world’s coral reefs have been negatively impacted, the remaining fifty percent desperately need our help. We need to get creative in our conversations and solutions, ultimately bringing awareness to and helping to protect these very special underwater worlds.

While Fading Reefs started with my memories and my call to action, it is ultimately about our shared world, our oceans, and our shared responsibility. It is my hope that my anthotype prints will not only act as a reminder of the rare and precious life that exists in our oceans, but also provide insight and perspective on coral reefs, inspiring viewers to become involved in ocean conservation and compelling individuals to acknowledge that the fate of the oceans and of humanity are woven tightly together.

(Top Image: Fading Reefs 4, Anthotype made with red cabbage.)

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Elizabeth Ellenwood uses photography to visually explore and bring attention to critical environmental issues. She is a recipient of a U.S. Fulbright Student Research Grant and an American Scandinavian Grant. Her recent solo exhibition at The Alexey von Schlippe Gallery was supported by a Connecticut Sea Grant Art Support Award. Elizabeth’s work was recently exhibited at The Newport Art Museum, Panopticon Gallery and The Vermont Center of Photography. Elizabeth received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from The New Hampshire Institute of Art and a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art from the University of Connecticut.

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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.

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An Interview with Poet Tamiko Beyer

By Amy Brady

This month I have for you an interview with Tamiko Beyer, a writer whose latest poetry collection, Last Days, is out now on Alice James Books. Tamiko writes passionately about the climate crisis and how it’s driven by systemic forces like capitalism and racism. She’s also a social justice communications writer and strategist.

I spoke with Tamiko about what inspired her most recent collection, how she thinks about climate change beyond her writing, and the role she sees poetry playing in our larger discourse on climate change.

The poems in your recent collection, Last Days, are rife with images of plants, animals, and humans living and moving together. Is it fair to say that you’re encouraging readers to think about interconnectedness between life forms? Or perhaps that the boundaries between humans and other living things might be more porous than many folks believe?
 
Yes, that’s exactly right. I wrote Last Days as a poetic practice of radical imagination for our current political and environmental crises. I believe that one of the root causes of these crises is how disconnected so many of us feel to each other and the world around us. This vast disconnection makes it possible to internalize and enforce white supremacist structures. And, the exploitation of people and the natural world required by capitalist systems is made far easier when CEOs, workers, and consumers (that is, all of us) can disconnect from the harm we are causing to other people, other beings, and the Earth by our participation in this system.
 
I wanted to explore what it might look, feel, and sound like to live into the truth that we are all completely interdependent. How do I understand the ways in which I am more connected to than separate from the warbler singing in the laurel tree next to the tidal river? In what ways are we both dependent on the tree and the river, and the algae and the bacteria? What does it mean to move through the world as if we are all connected not just in the present moment, but also across time and space – connected to our ancestors and the generations that will come after us?
 
Your poems also speak to environmental crises. What else do you hope readers take away from this collection?
 
I hope that these poems encourage readers to follow their own threads of interdependence, and see how that might shift their relationships to the people and beings around them.
 
But of course, the climate crisis cannot be solved only by individual changes. I hope that some of these poems also encourage readers to think about the larger systems that are fueling the crisis, like racialized capitalism.
 
The central poem of the collection follows a small group of revolutionaries who are taking down the Corporate empire. As they do, the main character comes to understand her own power and trust her intuition. I think 2020 made clear to so many more people that we are, indeed, in the last days of the Corporate empire. We need radical, transformative changes if we – all beings – are going to survive the climate and related crises.
 
So I wrote this book for all the activists, organizers, healers, cultural workers, teachers, and artists who are doing the daily work of creating radically new worlds within this broken one. My wish is that these readers can lean into the hope that Last Days is rooted in, and that the poems offer ways for them to ground in their power.

Do you think about environmental issues, climate change, and related problems beyond what you write about in your poetry?

It’s impossible for me to live in this world, in this moment, in this body, and not think about and be affected by the climate crisis and its root causes – racism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. As a writer of prose and poetry, and as a social justice communications strategist, I feel called to write about the structures and systems we are living under, as well as the ways that we can navigate through them, ultimately tear them down, and create new ones. 

For most of the years during which I worked on Last Days, I worked at Corporate Accountability, which wages campaigns challenging the life-threatening abuses of corporations, and I still write for them as a freelancer. So I’m often writing about Big Polluters, their role in fueling the climate crisis, and the solutions that are being led by communities on the frontlines of the crisis – Black, Indigenous, people of color; communities in the Global South; women; people with disabilities; and youth.

I also write about these issues in my newsletter, Starlight and Strategy.

What role do you think poetry plays in our larger conversations and thinking about climate and environmental issues?

Poetry invites us to think and feel expansively and nonlinearly, to listen closely, and be willing to be completely surprised. I can think of it as practice for how to implement solutions to the climate crisis. We need to listen to the people on the front lines who are already putting these solutions to work. We need to be expansive, radical, and unfettered by what we’re told is politically possible.

My favorite kind of poetry helps me understand language as more than just utility, but as magic. I’m currently co-editing a book with fellow poets Destiny Hemphill and Lisbeth White on poetry as spellcasting, by and for BIPOC. We are thinking about how poems are ritualized acts of liberation. One section of the book is devoted to the way poetry as spellcasting can help re-establish a reciprocal relationship with the Earth and help us move in right relationship towards healing deep wounds inflicted on ourselves and the Earth.

Some of your poems speak to the damage – ecological and cultural – wrought by colonialism. 

The collection as a whole grapples with the many manifestations of white supremacy, of which colonialism is one. Colonialism can only succeed when both the people who are doing the colonizing and those who are colonized feel deeply disconnected from the source and power of the land and the people.

I spent my first ten years in Japan where I absorbed both the fundamental Buddhist teaching of interdependence, as well as the form of animism that is central to the Shinto religion. I grew up understanding that things have a spirit – are beings – whether they are animate or inanimate, and that all beings are connected. These are ancient teachings, central also to Indigenous cultures, and colonization and imperialism have attempted at every turn to destroy such ways of understanding the world. No wonder we are in the crises we are in. In this collection I seek paths back into interconnection.

Your collection opens with quotes from three incredible writers and activists, including Audre Lorde. Her quote is: “I have always known I learn my most lasting lessons about difference by closely attending the ways in which the differences inside me lie down together.” How do these powerful words relate to the poetry in your collection?

Yes, the work of all three powerful women – Audre Lorde, Grace Lee Boggs, and adrienne maree brown – were influential in the development of this collection.

When I was pulling the book together, I was reading Audre Lorde’s collection of essays, “A Burst of Light.” I spent a lot of time with the titular essay: diary entries as she lived her life with cancer. That line, that idea, appears in several places in the essay, and it stayed with me. I guess it’s another approach toward understanding how we are interconnected – we all have differences inside ourselves, and knowing how to navigate these differences in generative ways teaches us to better navigate differences with others to whom we depend on and are connected to. As a queer multiracial femme and a third culture kid, I’ve spent a lot of time navigating the differences inside me, and I was interested in what it might look like to think about how they “lie down together.” Many of the poems that address race and nationality in this collection is my attempt to do that.

Your approach to launching this book is a bit unusual. Please tell us about it!

In this political moment, I feel called to reimagine what I do and how I do it. So as I thought about launching this book, I was interested in how it could be a catalyst for new ways of thinking about the intersection of arts and organizing, poetry, and movement work. I developed an idea for a launch grounded in collaboration and solidarity instead of competition, one that operates within a gift economy instead of a capitalist approach.

The central component of this project is to give away Last Days and performance artist and poet Gabrielle Civil‘s forthcoming chapbook, ( ghost gestures ), to at least 250 organizers, campaigners, activists, cultural workers, and healers, prioritizing people working on racial, climate, and economic justice. At the time I write this, we’ve already got 175 people signed up to receive the books. I’m also organizing virtual “catalyst events” in the fall to inspire and activate people; creating tools for teachers to share the books with a new generation of organizers, activists, writers, artists, and cultural workers; and promoting other BIPOC writers with new books through my website, newsletter, and social media. And I created a successful fundraising campaign to power it all, asking people in my network and strangers to support this new way of launching a book.

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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Annie Patterson and Peter Blood Rise Up Singing

By Peterson Toscano

In the Art House this month, we feature song leaders Annie Patterson and Peter Blood. They are liberal Quakers in New England who have been leading singing for over 30 years. They talk about the songs that motivate and inspire climate advocates. Some are protest songs and others are beautiful ballads. They discuss the role of music in social movements as they offer up their own tiny desk concert. 

Annie and Peter are the creators of the Rise Up Singing and Rise Again Song Books. These songbooks take on social justice issues like racism, poverty, inequality, and sexism. See them in action on the Rise Up and Sing YouTube channel.

Annie and Peter appeared on Citizens Climate Radio episode 57: The Tide is Rising along with former U.S. representative Bob Inglis, a Republican fostering conversations with fellow Conservatives.

Next month, we meet Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the cli-fi novel, Gold Fame Citrus.

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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