Artists and Climate Change

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Artists and Energy Transitions

By Joan Sullivan

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. For previous posts in this series, please check here and here.


A common thread throughout Barry Lord’s book, Art & Energy: How Culture Changes, is that energy transitions overlap. This may seem obvious and redundant. But readers of this blog will appreciate that the social and cultural tensions inherent to these decades-long (sometimes centuries-long) energy transitions – when the new trumps the old – inevitably result in profound changes across all sectors of society: transportation, architecture, agriculture, industry, politics, warfare, and culture. These shifting tectonic plates, if you will, have inspired artists throughout the ages – in the past as in the present – to respond with bold new methods of expression.

What’s different today, of course, is that 21st century artists are not just responding to the current transition from non-renewable fuels to renewable sources of energy. They are primarily responding to the much broader context in which the current energy transition is but one part: the global climate emergency that has triggered the sixth mass extinction. The stakes have never been higher. We need artists of all stripes and colors on board, ASAP. 

A tsunami of artists from all disciplines and from all corners of the globe have already risen up; many have found a home here on the Artists and Climate Change platform. But for those artists and writers who have not yet “found their voice” within the global climate movement, I’d like to suggest that they take a closer look at energy transitions as a source of artistic inspiration – as did JMW Turner in the middle of the 19th century. Turner witnessed the dying days of the “age of sail”, as tall sailing ships were replaced by smaller, polluting coal-powered steam ships that were not dependent upon the whims of the trade winds. 

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839. Oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm Turner Bequest, 1856. NG524. Downloaded from the National Gallery.

An excellent place for artists and writers to begin reading about energy transitions is Barry Lord’s book. It artfully weaves together the history of the reciprocal relationship between art, artists, and energy transitions over the millennia. This book provides valuable insights to help contemporary artists understand the current energy transition within a historical and cultural context. 

Lord shines a light on artists who played pivotal roles in previous energy transitions by influencing (how I loathe that word!) social and cultural values that contributed, either directly or indirectly, to broadening the consensus for cutting-edge “alternative” energy sources. And, as each previous energy transition has already demonstrated, it is only a matter of time before these so-called “alternative” energy sources dethrone the formerly dominant energy source(s). 

The same can be said for today’s renewable sources of energy – wind, water and sun. While no one (yet) can predict how long fossil fuels and renewable energy will co-exist within the global energy mix, one thing is for sure: renewable energy will eventually dethrone fossil fuels to become the world’s dominant energy source. It’s only a matter of time. But time for the climate is running out… 

Moreover, the critically important questions of who controls the future production and distribution of all this clean energy, and its geopolitical consequences, are beyond the scope of this post. For those interested in a deeper dive into the energy humanities, I suggest the recent January 2021 special issue on “solarity” in the South Atlantic Quarterly.

My goal in this post is simply to encourage artists to recognize the historical precedent of previous generations of artists who, intentionally or otherwise, helped contribute to successful energy transitions by influencing the perception of and the cultural values associated with the “alternative” energy source. The current energy transition is no exception. Once again, artists can help us get there more quickly. 

Nina Simone said it best: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” 

And how the times have changed! I only recently discovered that coal was initially considered an “alternative” energy source, i.e., alternative to renewables. Wood, wind, water, animal power, and human slavery were the dominant energy sources (all renewable) from the earliest human settlements right up into the middle of the 19th century. So it is quite remarkable how quickly this new “alternative” coal became the world’s dominant energy source: by the late-19th century, coal was crowned “king,” fueling the Industrial Revolution. Coal’s heyday lasted approximately 200 years, until it was usurped by oil and gas in the post-WW2 era. Although coal’s contribution to the global energy mix has been declining ever since, it still generates nearly 40% of global electricity. 

Having photographed the renewable energy transition for more than a decade, I’m eager to convince other artists and writers that energy transitions are truly fascinating and a rich source of inspiration! Not just from a technological perspective, but from many inter-connected social, cultural, historical, and political perspectives. Let’s be clear: today’s energy transition is definitely not just about solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and battery storage. As promising as these solutions are, technological infrastructure alone does not an energy transition make. What’s missing is the social or human component.

I’ve started calling this missing component of the current energy transition the “human transition.” By this I mean an awakening, a renaissance, an unquenchable thirst to break free from the chains of our lifelong addiction to fossil fuels. To fully embrace, in Lord’s words, the tantalizing possibility of a shift away from a “culture of consumption” (proscribed by the age of oil) towards a “culture of stewardship” (inherent to the age of renewables). 

This is where global artists come in: to wake us up from our stupor, like the protest music of the 60s and 70s.

Without music and poetry, without the deceptively simple lyrics and melody of the next “Imagine” which will be forever seared into our collective consciousness, I fear that the current energy transition will not evolve quickly enough. Technology alone can not do it for us.

This profound shift in social norms and cultural values requires nothing less than revolutionary transformation – at both the individual and collective levels – of the way our violent extraction-based society is organized. More urgently, it requires looking at ourselves in the mirror to confront the ghosts of acquiescence: why and how we have allowed ourselves to remain numb for so long to the unspeakable violence, injustices, and inequalities to both the human and non-human worlds throughout the entire fossil fuel era. Without critical self-reflection, a truly Copernican transformation seems unlikely. 

Technological infrastructure alone does not an energy transition make.

As we have learned from previous energy transitions, artists can and must use their creative energy to question the past and envision the future. I’ve purposely left out many of the more complicated and thorny geopolitical issues that are so well addressed by energy humanities researchers Imre Szeman and Darin Barney, co-editors of the previously mentioned special issue on solarity.

With their blessing, I’d like to end here by quoting directly from their introductory chapterin that journal. It is impossible for me to paraphrase: their words are so powerful, going straight for the jugular. Please take note.

The solarity we envision is committed to the core impulse guiding left politics, which is the struggle for equality and social justice against the rapacious force of extractive capitalism. The realities of environmental racism and the implication of energy extraction in ongoing colonial histories mean that any concept of solidarity worth the name must begin from the experiences of those whose bodies and relations have been made expendable through the brutality of extraction, and who stand to suffer most greatly from the accelerating climate and environmental effects of fossil fuels (citing Kathryn Yusoff, 2019). 

This means that solarity begins in solidarity with Black and Indigenous people in the Americas and elsewhere, with racialized and impoverished communities in the so-called Global South, with women, with care-workers, with those who have been disabled by their environments, and with the non-human others previously relegated to the exploitable domains of mere objecthood (citing Jamie Cross 2019; Sarah Jaquette Ray 2017; Sheena Wilson 2018; and Kyle Whyte 2017).

The first imperative of solidarity in relation to these will be to stand aside and accept their leadership in the struggle against the global fossil fuel regime, and in the development of radically alternative practices, relations, and infrastructures of solarity. This might include putting our (in our case: white, male, affluent) bodies and our accustomed ways of living on the line, as others have done for so long with theirs. As Nandita Badami argues in her provocative essay in this issue, we may need to turn from Eurocentric ideas about the sun and “enlightment” to a solarity of endarkenment.

The second imperative is to think and work together to develop political and economic forms that facilitate, nurture, and manage egalitarian societies, as an energetic base for even more widespread social transformation. A solarity animated by solidarity will require humility, patience, and courage, especially on the part of those for whom petrocapitalism has delivered mostly comfort, convenience and impunity. This, and not just our fuel source, has to change.”

Very powerful words, indeed. Thank you Imre and Darin.

(Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and 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 eJoan Sullivanquipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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Imagining Icebergs

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Multi-media artist and educator Itty Neuhaus has spent a great deal of time observing and interpreting environmental changes in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, and in Iceland and Greenland. Since 2000, when she took her first trip to Iceland, her drawings, photographs, sculptures, and videos have addressed the degradation of glaciers and the nature of icebergs. 

Neuhaus’ initial interest in the region was piqued by John McPhee’ description in The Control of Nature (1989) of an Icelandic physicist’s effort to divert the flow of a volcano by directing voluminous jets of water at it. She was fascinated by the notion of attempting to re-sculpt the Earth, as the scientist had done, and decided that she wanted to see Iceland for herself. On the flight there, Neuhaus observed a line of icebergs calving off a glacier and felt a sense of intense loss. In her attempt to process these feelings, she discovered a working method and subject area that would dominate her practice over the following years. 

Western Brook Pond Fjords II, scratched postcard from Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada, 4” x 6,” 2012.

During that first visit to Iceland, Neuhaus began a postcard series in which she removed areas of pretty tourist scenes by scratching away at the surface of the postcards with a stylus and superimposing ice melts and other environmental losses onto the idyllic imagery. She also observed the deep crevasses that existed in the glaciers and heard stories about individuals who had fallen to their deaths within them. As a result of the experience, she began to imagine that the Earth itself has a conscious volition and is luring us into its center – a notion that later led her to create a body of work on human bodies and crevasses.

With funding from the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she has taught since 2000, Neuhaus continued to travel to locations where she could observe icebergs and glaciers. In 2011, she spent four months on a research and lecture fellowship as a Fulbright Scholar in Newfoundland and Labrador that included three months as an artist in residence at the Gros Morne National Park through Parks Canada. Her experiences helped her to understand how artists have an opportunity to educate the public on the climate crisis by translating big issues like habitat loss and environmental degradation into provocative imagery. 

Scratchberg II, photograph taken off Twillingate, Newfoundland in the Labrador Sea. Printed on vellum, 28” x 38,” 2015.

During that time, Neuhaus continued to create what she refers to as “scratch works,” taking photographs of icebergs and scratching into the surfaces to show melting ice and other environmental impacts of climate change. For one particular piece, she sat on a rock waiting for an iceberg to flip over as the waves increased and changed. While she was waiting, she considered her hours-long observation to be a metaphor for how we are all simply waiting for the Earth to change in radical ways without implementing effective interventions. The underside of icebergs and their actual movements filmed over a period of four hours from a bluff in Twillingate, Newfoundland is reflected in a 2008 video entitled Dance of the Three-Pronged Wonder. In order to emphasize the mystery of what lies beneath the surface of the water, Neuhaus digitally altered these portions of the iceberg so that they appear to grow as the icebergs dance to a waltz by P.I. Tchaikovsky.

In 2015-2016, as a Fulbright Scholar on an Arctic Initiative, Neuhaus was the only artist among a cohort of physical and social scientists, economists, and others who were studying the degradation of icebergs in Greenland. Using a hydro-robot designed for the task, they were measuring the size, salinity, and other aspects of the icebergs while she was drawing and videotaping them. The work she began there culminated in a 2018 solo exhibition titled Sublimation: An Iceberg’s Story, which was held at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Brooklyn, New York. The show included a scratched composite photograph taken in Greenland, printed to a size of 27’ x 4,’ backlit, and hanging loosely over two gallery walls. It also included a video written and filmed by Neuhaus called Icylla, An Iceberg’s Story. Told in the voice of Icylla, the last existing iceberg in a world without ice, the piece incorporates a watery soundtrack, a gritty narration, animation, and stunning imagery of Greenland and Iceland.

Neuhaus completed Arctic Magnetism, a “scratch work” based on a photograph of the Russell Glacier in Greenland, in 2019 (see detail at the top). A large-scale photograph printed on film in two pieces as mirror images, it was created, as much of her work is, by removing portions of the photograph with scratch nibs and steel wool. Almost nine feet in length, the Russell Glacier looms over us as if sucking us in and pushing us away at the same time. With its dramatic imagery and frenetic motion, Arctic Magnetism exudes a sense of foreboding and serves as a metaphor for our own impending demise.

During the extraordinary 2020-2021 pandemic year, Neuhaus decided to pause from her usual subject matter and address the way in which the virus has imbued us all with a fear of touch. Instructed not to shake hands, hug, or conduct any normal actions that necessitate physical contact with other human being outside of our “pods,” we washed our hands constantly to prevent infection. Her series of monoprints and paintings, each 18” x 24,” consists of hands rendered in black and white in the process of washing. Shown together, the Wall of Hands emphasizes the redemptive and regenerative nature of water, which both cleans and heals. 

Wall of Hands, sixteen monoprints and direct brush paintings on rice paper, 18” x 24,” 2020.

Neuhaus’ inventive works cleverly imitate the melting and disappearance of icebergs and glaciers. As she goes through the process of scratching at the surface of her photographs, she can viscerally feel how the ice is melting away and how the landscape she witnessed at one particular moment in time is changing before her eyes. It is imperative in viewing these frozen moments in time not only to serve as witnesses to this change but to do everything in our power to prevent further environmental loss.  

(Top image: Arctic Magnetism, photograph of Russell Glacier, Greenland. Printed on backlit film. Drawing by removal with scratch nibs, steel wool with water-based crayons, 106” x 44,” 2019.)

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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Envisioning a Green New Deal on Stage

By Thomas Peterson

Last Earth Day, I wrote about the evolving iconography and visual culture of the day, lamenting its gradual cooption by corporate greenwashing – protest art replaced by bee-themed Google Doodles. I ended the essay with a call to action, encouraging a return to the radical artistic visions that accompanied the first Earth Day in 1970: 

This Earth Day, and for all the Earth Days to come, we must find a way to strike that balance again. The stakes are too high for cute utopianism. Earth Day may have devolved into a corporatized greenwashing opiate, animated flora and fauna masking collaboration in ecocide, but it can become revolutionary again if we pair an unblinkered exposition of the extremity of the crisis with a reaffirmation of our love for life on earth. We must make images that tell the devastating truth about what is happening to our planet and the life that inhabits it, images so powerful they cannot be sanitized into endless cute bee oblivion. These images must radicalize us, radicalize us with love.

In the past year, I have attempted to answer this call in my own work. In just a few months, communities around the world will begin to perform the short plays commissioned for Climate Change Theatre Action 2021: Envisioning A Global Green New Deal, a project I co-organize with Chantal BilodeauJulia Levine, and Ian Garrett, and to which I contributed a play for the first time this year. We commissioned fifty playwrights from around the world to reckon seriously with the intensifying climate crisis and then respond to it with visions of a world worth fighting for, visions of beautiful, sustainable futures for the people and communities we all know and love. 

Still from the Climate Change Theatre Action 2021 trailer, directed and animated by Kalia Firester.

This fall’s Climate Change Theatre Action, beginning on September 19th and concluding on December 18th to coincide with the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow, will be the fourth iteration of the global distributed festival. Founded in 2015, Climate Change Theatre Action is a biennial series of readings and performances of short plays about the climate crisis, and a project of The Arctic Cycle in partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the ArtsClimate Change Theatre Action 2015encompassed 80 performances, reaching several thousand people around the world. In the fall of 2019, over 220 presenting collaborators in 28 countries produced events, engaging over 3,000 artists and reaching an audience of roughly 26,000 people. In the United States, collaborators presented over 150 events, reaching all 50 states for the first time. As we prepare for this fourth edition, we anticipate even greater global participation – these plays will soon grace stages, Zoom screens, classrooms, parks, perhaps even mountains, deserts, lakes, and seas.

Coming into this year, 150 short plays had already been written for Climate Change Theatre Action, 50 for each edition. If a through-line can be identified in this formally diverse and multi-faceted collection, the common theme is courage in the face of crisis. The 2017 plays search for kernels of optimism, provoked by the question “Where Is the Hope?”, while the 2019 plays portray climate heroes who are “Lighting the Way” to a just and sustainable future. As we considered guiding themes for CCTA 2021, straining for hope in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that the necessity for positive visions had never been less urgent, nor had the need for rapid, dramatic action to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and redress environmental injustice. So we asked playwrights to envision the societies and communities they hope to see on the other side of the unprecedented societal transformation that we must achieve if we are to mitigate the worst effects of a warming climate.

Facing the intersecting, compounding crises of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, racist violence, and skyrocketing economic inequality, people around the world are turning to a common framework for solutions: a Green New Deal. Just as policymakers worldwide are considering massive investments in clean energy, care jobs, and a regenerative economy, we asked the CCTA 2021 playwrights to consider what an equitable, sustainable, decarbonized, and just society might look like, in their communities or beyond. What would it look like if Green New Deals were adopted around the world, and these plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while addressing interwoven social inequalities became realities?

Climate Change Theatre Action 2021 trailer, directed and animated by Kalia Firester, voiceover by GiGi Buddie.

Fifty-one playwrights took on the challenge, hailing from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Korea, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Uganda, the UK, and the US, and representing seven Indigenous Nations. 

The call for 2021 producing collaborators is now live, and the 50+ plays are available for perusal. Individuals and organizations are invited to host an event in their communities this fall – anything from an intimate reading to a fully staged show, and from a podcast to a site specific performance. I invite each and every one of you to explore the plays in the collection and to take action by envisioning a Green New Deal on stage.

I sincerely hope that as artists and activists around the world gather to enact these visions on stage this fall, the performances will radicalize us with love and catalyze the societal transformations we so desperately need.

(Top Image: “Climate Change Theatre Action 2021: Envisioning A Global Green New Deal” by Alex Lee)

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Thomas Peterson is an organizer, writer, and director whose work focuses on the climate crisis. He is an Artistic Associate with The Arctic Cycle, with whom he co-organizes Climate Change Theatre Action, and a field organizer with Green Corps. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and was a Williams-Lodge Scholar in Paris. He has written about theatre and locality, climate propaganda, the aesthetic of the sublime in climate theatre, and about the cultural history of the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn. He is currently developing The Woods Avenge Themselves, an original adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.

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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 Job of Complicating: An interview with Javaad Alipoor, Part II

By Biborka Beres

This is the second part of a two-part interview with UK-based theatre-maker and political performance artist, Javaad Alipoor. You can read Part I here.

I too have a critical philosophy background and only recently made practicing art my official thing, so the idea of approaching theory as an artist and art as a theorist to transgress the boundaries of each is appealing to me. To circle back to hyper-objectivity – Timothy Morton’s concept of the crisis of the Anthropocene, where we as humans are to deal with definite but huge objects, such as the consequences of climate change – are you creating a space of refuge or shelter, a sense of solidarity in the face of these great challenges?

In some ways I’m doing the opposite of that, though opposites can often be quite similar… The internet is a hyper-object in the sense that it’s an unimaginably large, but definite thing that is very difficult to take responsibility over or manage. In the show Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, we get you to go on and into the internet. Rather than giving a space of refuge away from that, we’re making a space in which you feel that you are complicit and understand your level of complicity. Then, at the end, we delete the Instagram account used for the show. Part of this exercise is understanding how you are already actively and creatively shaping something. It is complex, in that it is complicated to take agency.

What drives you to engage with these subject matters? Is it anger? 

Funnily enough, it’s often not anger about the subject itself, but rather anger about the stupid way it’s talked about.

The show Believers plays this dramaturgical game: ostensibly I, as a British mixed race and Muslim, am going to talk about Muslims being radical. I start off going, “What’s the problem with young Muslim men?” But we end up asking, “What’s the problem with young men?” Halfway through the show, you realize that actually one of the main characters is this white racist, a sort of incel school shooter. It’s about masculinity and technology, about wealth and consumerism. There, I was really angry about the racist, Islamophobic discussion, and that motivated me to create the piece. But to be honest, my real motivations have to do with the fact that I have been lucky to find theatre and a little section of the global theatre community who is interested in my work.

You mentioned complicity. Do you see an optimal way to face the climate crisis in some sort of collective complicity?

I’m not a climate policy specialist, but I am convinced that one of the tragedies at the moment is that the greatest challenges that human beings are facing are challenges that need a collective global solution. For instance, COVID-19 – and let’s be clear, COVID-19 is related to climate change – anthropogenic climate change, the global refugee crisis… These issues are not entirely reducible to each other, but they are linked. They require collective global action but there isn’t a collective global subject capable of delivering that action. The tragedy lies in that the grand political projects of the 20th century were all built on the idea of one collective subject that would somehow come together, and shape the world for the better. If you’re a Marxist, that’s the international working class, the global peasantry in Africa and Asia. If you’re a feminist, it’s probably women. Everyone had a subject that was going to redeem things.

And of course, that never happened. 

So you are calling for an understanding of the material diversity in this global society project, and then holding people accountable more as individuals.

Somehow there has to be action together. The problem is: we live in a world which is more and more nationalistic, more and more intensely market-driven, both of which optimize individuals and atomize countries.

What’s the third part of your trilogy?

It is going to look at the relationship between violence and theatre and the internet. There’s an Iranian pop star from the 70s named Fereydoun Farrokhzad, whose story I’m interested in. He was a huge star, then he escaped and went to Germany where he got mobbed by people. Then he became a man with no money who lived in a small flat over a shopping mall. He was murdered incredibly brutally in 1990: he was stabbed more than 70 times, his tongue was cut out, and his genitals cut off… The German police never solved the case. 

Now, one thing that’s really interesting about the internet is the way it promises an equality of access to other human beings. I’m talking to you, you’re talking to me, but of course there are great divides in the world. If I think about my own family background, there is this fundamental divide between refugees and people who aren’t refugees. Certain things can happen in the refugee world and they don’t even matter. You know, a lot of the refugees who get to Europe are better off as refugees, because if you’ve got no money and you’re not European… The irony about people not wanting refugees is that the ones who get here are incredibly ambitious, incredibly educated, and incredibly driven. I’m interested in looking at the humanist promise of the internet, which says that everyone can be equal before the screen. In India, for example, more people have access to smartphones than to running water. 

We also got a podcast starting in about two months and we’re working on an installation project called Pop Icons. We’re going to Australia and England and maybe a couple of other countries to work with minority communities. If you’re an immigrant from the Global South, you probably have a box of tapes that your dad or your mom or their auntie brought from back home. With this project, we’re asking people to play those tapes from that great period of migration, the 70s, when everyone came. The 70s is also the great period of pop music: genres like Ethiopian jazz, garage rock, Turkish psychedelia, Iranian farming, and Afrobeat emerged then. Basically we are going to collect loads of these tapes and find a way to share them. 

Thank you, Javaad. I am excited to see and hear these upcoming pieces.

(Top image: Production of Rich Kids: The History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. Photo by Peter Dibdin.)

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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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The Job of Complicating: An interview with Javaad Alipoor, Part I

By Biborka Beres

The Javaad Alipoor Company is a UK-based theatre company led by artistic director Javaad Alipoor, who has been envisioning and creating extraordinary virtual theatre performances since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. His work has not only adapted to the challenge of transitioning theatrical performance from physical spaces to the virtual environment, but it has made extraordinary use of new tools and means, creating, for example, Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. The show is a deep, historical exploration of a car crash involving the children of the Iranian elite as well as the present-day climate crisis, using Instagram Live.

I asked Javaad how his unique, politically-loaded storytelling informs his vision for the future, and how it helps him to engage with wide-scale, systemic issues such as consumerism and the climate crisis.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the idea for the performance came to you? This performance connects some seemingly disparate dots – how did you manage to do this in one virtual piece? 

This is the second part of a series of plays that I have been developing about contemporary technology and its relationship to contemporary politics. The first part was a play called The Believers Are But Brothers, which opened at Edinburgh a couple years ago and went to a few places in Australia, the U.S., and Europe. One of the things that interest me about the contemporary world is this seeming contradiction, where so-called technological progress gets quicker and quicker (although if you’ve seen Rich Kids, it probably doesn’t surprise you that I don’t necessarily think of it as progress), but at the same time, it seems to unleash a very ancient part of human beings. On the one hand, social media helps people connect; it gives shape to, for example, the #MeToo movement, and it helps Egyptian Democrats overthrow a dictator. On the other hand, it helps the far right all across the world: Bolsonaro, Orban, Germany, Brexit… The first part of the trilogy was about three young men who get involved with violent extremism through the internet, using an app called WhatsApp and its secret messaging feature. Two of them were young Muslims in the UK, then there was a white boy who supported Donald Trump. It looked at the radicalization of people who feel like losers.

Production of Rich Kids: The History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. Photo by Peter Dibdin. 
On the left: Javaad Alipoor.

I’m of mixed background myself; my mom’s English and my father’s from Iran. I speak Persian and I follow the news from the country. The rich kids of Tehran have actually become a real issue. It’s not just Iran, but a lot of developing countries: Zimbabwe, China. The people running these countries want to seem anti-imperialist, so in Iran, if you’re powerful, no matter how much money you’ve got, you don’t show off. Your whole justification is: you only care about Iran and Islam and standing up to the Americans. The problem is these guys have kids who don’t have those responsibilities, but have Instagram. That’s what I wanted to make a show about. I consider myself to be a bit of an anthropologist, so what I find interesting about the internet is the way it gives you an insight into super niche people’s lives. I can, within a few clicks, go on the websites that ISIS used to recruit people. Or I can see the Instagram accounts of people who are the children of dictators in the Middle East. 

Where that intersects with climate change is that I am not only an anthropologist, but a political artist, too. And a political artist has a very specific job to do.

How did you decide to explore climate change in this context, moving from political critique to locating it within a greater context, and talking about consumerism, for example? 

I would say that this is the job of a political artist. Then there is the job of a political intellectual or a political activist. I’m lucky I get to do all of these things. I write occasionally for The Guardian or The Independent about cultural politics or Middle Eastern politics. I’m a very political person and I’m immersed in lots of different campaigning groups. I was part of a movement in the UK, which started after Brexit. I don’t know if you’ve been to the UK much, but there has been a lot of very intense racism, not only against Polish people but against Blacks and Asians as well. Yes, a lot of these people are guest workers, but many of them have been here for three or more generations. The movement I was part of was about showing solidarity with them. There, I knew what the answer was. If I know what I think should happen, I write an article about it, or I might come and knock on your door and ask you to sign a petition, or say, “I think you should vote this way at this election.” However, there are deeper questions that are fundamentally about our relationship to history. Now, I don’t know what the answer to those are. This is where the tools of a theatermaker or filmmaker come in, since we have ways of developing an argument that can keep contradictions in our art. People ask me, especially regarding the show about radicalism, “What do you think we should do?” And I’d say, “Well, what I think is the thing you just watched.”

Yes, that speaks to complexity, but there’s also a high level of specificity in it. 

That’s what I mean when I say that a political artist has a specific job. It’s the job of complicating. I mean, I reckon our politics aren’t a million miles away from each other. So when I make a show like that, I’m not teaching you anything. We share a lot already. My hope as a political artist is to be able to complicate issues and to make people feel complicit and implicated in something greater than them. And also to give people provocations and things to think about. 

I found that a lot of artists believe performance is not about proving anything that’s already been proven scientifically, but about creating an intimate relationship between people and facts. What is the relationship between your work and scientific facts about the climate? 

I used to be a community worker until I was about 27. My academic background is in philosophy and religious studies; I wrote my Master’s thesis about psychoanalysis and Sufism – mystical Islam. I don’t necessarily trust the idea of scientific facts. That doesn’t mean climate change is just an opinion to me; I just think science is not what most people think it is. It’s certainly not the only domain of truth. 

I consider this question more in terms of commitment. I am more committed to critical theory and to philosophy than, say, scientific facts. In this show, I’m trying to explore how the fundamental political and moral challenge of climate change is to understand it as what a lot of philosophers of science say it is: the great challenge of the Anthropocene.

There’s a great post-Deleuzian philosopher called Timothy Morton, who wrote the book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the WorldHe makes the point that the great political and moral challenge we face around climate change is reckoning with non-infinite, definite but huge objects. This laptop I’m talking to you on now is going to take 25,000 years to break down. So I should take responsibility for something for 25,000 years – see, this idea is huge, but definite. And it is challenging the tradition of political and moral thinking about how we should act. Because if we think about human beings, as I say in the show, we are used to thinking in two kinds of timescales: we either think about me, my children, my parents, or we think about the infinite, God, Mohammad, or Moses.

That’s really difficult. What does that even mean? So, my relationship is to that kind of critical philosophy and critical thought rather than to scientific facts. I’m very pessimistic about the state of the world, as I think a lot of us are. I’m pessimistic about the possibility of truth coming from any of the specific and very mutilated categories of, let’s call it late capitalism. One has to be kind of radical about it. We might look at theatre and think most of it doesn’t really have anything to say about the world, but in the same way, most philosophy that happens in universities doesn’t have anything to say about the world either. These are mutilated, alienated, little forms of stuff. A friend of mine once told me to always approach these issues from the other direction. If you’re doing critical thought, engage with it like an artist, and if you’re doing art, engage with it like a critical theorist. I try to do that in my work. 

Thank you, Javaad.

In the second part of this interview, we discuss Javaad’s motivations to make work in theatre, tactics to engage with the climate crisis during COVID, as well as his plans for upcoming productions. 

(Top image: Production of The Believers Are But Brothers. Photo by The Other Richard.)

______________________________

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.

———-

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 Choreographer and Dancer Cassie Meador, Part II

By Biborka Beres

THE SACREDNESS OF WHAT WE SHARE

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Cassie Meador of Dance Exchange. You can read the first part here.

You make me think about the difference in the speed of individuals’ thoughts, including panic about the climate, and the speed of being and acting together. They seem to be two completely different timescales.

This work at the intersection of art and science is about supporting and creating spaces where people can reflect and ask questions, where they can search for answers while being held by the strength of community. We’re not just consuming facts and information, but moving the ideas and deepening the questions as we connect to the range of emotions we experience when we’re facing the realities of the climate crisis.

My kind of shorthand for this has become moving to notice and noticing to move. We’re moving to notice more intimately our relations with all that we share on this planet, and we’re noticing how this moves us towards the individual and collective actions we can take. For me, this is a thru line, and I come back to it when I feel off track, or a sense of unclarity about how I should be contributing.

I was actually wondering if you had any phrases, thoughts, or other sources of energy for when you face a challenge regarding your work. How do you deal with skepticism either from inside or from outside?

I have a son; he’s a year and a half. And because of the pandemic as well, there’s been a stretch of time that has been less about making work. I haven’t made a dance in a while, I mean in a performance project sort of way. I’m just embarking on a new work, and I was thinking, I didn’t feel like leading that alone. All of it is hyper-collaborative and co-created with the individuals and communities we’re working with, but I needed the strength of a larger collaborative team on it. It’s not a direct response to your question, but it has to do with that.

Moving Field Guides workshop, photographed by Jori Ketten. Cassie Meador started developing Moving Field Guides on the How to Lose a Mountain 500-mile walk, and uses dance to support connection, appreciation, and ultimately stewardship and advocacy for the environment. Initially developed in partnership with the US Forest Service in 2011, Dance Exchange has since led more than 200 Moving Field Guides nationwide.

Would you mind talking a bit more about this new project?

We’re just at the beginnings of Future Fields, a performance project that’s going to cultivate the communal exploration of climate change and agriculture. We’re exploring how food is or could be grown and experienced in a changing world. I’m really excited to be co-leading this project with two other dance-makers: Christina Cantanese and Dr. Jame McCray. In our work together, we’re interested and invested in the ways that dance-making can yield new ways for personal and local experiences to be woven together – the larger stories of how climate change is impacting our lives and shared planet. We all live in different parts of the country, and we want to see the project unfold across these different locations: one urban with Jame, one suburban with myself, and one rural with Christina. We’re looking for ways the outcomes can grow from the relationships that are built and from the individuals and communities we gather at each site. 

Is the diversity of locations due to the virtual landscape of the pandemic? 

It was in place before the pandemic. We’ve always been interested in how creative outcomes would be held and evolved in those sites. Of course, there is this shared lens and research together, and things that are particular to the sites. We’re early in the development, but all of this early investigation is happening online. Without the pandemic, we probably would have leaned more into gathering in those sites and spending more time and shared space together. This shared time is now being pushed in this online direction.

This reminds me of the story you shared of being on tour and feeling disconnected from nature. During the pandemic, how have you been able to find togetherness with the natural environment and togetherness with other people?

This is definitely something many of us are working on right now. I’m trying to figure out how these moments, when we meet behind screens in Zoom boxes, can be about finding a deeper connection to our bodies and ourselves –and that might be about turning away from our screens and heading back outdoors. I work a lot with K-12 educators and they are spending so much of their time with students behind screens. We try to offer them approaches to kinesthetic learning that keep us and our bodies moving.

In terms of the Future Fields projects, so many of us have to adapt to gatherings and conversations taking place online. This spring and summer, we’re going to be working with the American Society for Microbiology to design and host a creative conversation tentatively titled Research Re-imagined. We’re going to make and share art in this online format to propel a conversation about the relevance of soil microbiomes and the ecosystem services they provide in our changing climate. In a way, we don’t have to go to each location where the scientists, farmers, and artists are doing their work. We’ll bring those people together to connect and engage with each other online. They will be invited to explore creative tools and approaches for expanding the way science communication can engage individuals and communities through the arts. There will also be opportunities for small groups to generate ideas to collaborate across disciplines, and to further activate the research by sharing artistic responses to it, not only through dance-making, but through writing and media arts, too. Although we’ll be hosting the event online, people attending will still be invited to move and create alongside one another.

Over years of participatory dance-making, Dance Exchange has pioneered and developed tools for connecting subject matters with movement. I think embodying scientific information allows for a deeper understanding and richer engagement with the content, particularly with a subject like soil microbiome research, which can be challenging to visualize given its microscopic scale and underground location.

I wish we had similar activities in school. It sounds like such a great way to explore, and it is so inviting as well.

This is why I’m not only committed to the creation of performance work, but to working with educators and looking at how dance can support the ways that we’re learning within education systems.

A moment from a Moving Field Guides workshop. Photo by Jori Ketten.

Do you have a climate vision or a dream for the climate?

I might answer this in more than one way. One thing that’s coming to mind at the beginning of this Future Fields project is how we’re listening deeply to our past, present, and potential futures to create this vision. Jame, one of my collaborators on the project, offered this question: How do we become good ancestors, ones who gift future generations vibrant and growing lands and knowledge? One vision I hold is that we’re engaged in answering these questions together. A vision can be something that is tomorrow or it can be something that is far off. It is always in process. I hold a vision where each of us is able to discover and bring our different capacities and strengths, commitment, and love to this challenge.

I see this emerging and happening, and it’s one of the things that strengthens and motivates me. We’re growing our capacities to approach movements and actions about our climate holistically and systemically. I see us deepening the connections and  reciprocity of care needed, while recognizing the sacredness of what we share on our planet.

I’m reflecting on that vision, and I think it’s a lot about how we are in process with one another too. I appreciate your answers. You have given me lots of food for thought. Thank you.

(Top image: Photo of a Moving Field Guides workshop for K-12 educators, by Vinnie and Beth Mwano.)

______________________________

Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, 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 Artists & Climate Change, 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.

———-

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 Choreographer and Dancer Cassie Meador, Part I

By Biborka Beres

VALUE IN QUESTIONING

Cassie Meador is the executive artistic director of Dance Exchange, founded by Liz Lerman. She wears multiple hats, including climate activist, educator, choreographer, and dancer. A true visionary, she expands the concept of dance by taking it outside the studio to foster action on climate change and a range of social issues. Her main projects include Bricks and Bones, a performance series co-created with Paloma McGregor in 2015 in response to the erasure of Black lives and communities in Dallas, TX; and Off-site/Insight: Stories from the Great Smoky Mountains, a collaboration with the National Park Service, leaders from the Cherokee community, and regional artists in 2017 to build capacities to contend with the complexities that shape our relationship to park land. 

In 2011, she was selected as an artist representative of Initiatives of Change to attend the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) organized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa. I asked her about her journey to join Dance Exchange, how she bridges climate education and activism with dance-making, and what pieces she has coming up.

How did you come to be the artistic director of Dance Exchange? 

Today I am in Maryland. This is where I live and also where Dance Exchange is located, which is on the lands of the Nacotchtank (Anacostan) and Piscataway People. I met Dance Exchange in 2001 at the Bates Dance Festival when I was a senior at Ohio State University. They were working on a project called Hallelujah, which took place in around 15 different communities in the United States. They would ask those communities what they were in praise of, and the question would be answered in all kinds of different ways. 

I came to Dance Exchange the next year. When I was at Ohio State, I started to question why at the university and in the dance program, I was surrounded by primarily young people instead of an intergenerational community of movers and makers, and why dance was only happening in the studio and on stage. There are all these things happening in the world right now, so what is it that we’re making dances about? In Dance Exchange, I found an organization asking these questions at its core – who gets to dance, where is the dance happening, what is it about, and why does it matter? To find a creative home that holds these questions central has been a gift. I’ve been with Dance Exchange for almost 20 years, becoming artistic director in 2012 following our founder’s tenure.

And that was Liz Lerman, right?

Yes. I overlapped with the founder, Liz Lerman, for about 10 years. Those years, working as a performer and dance-maker with Dance Exchange, I spent most of my time on tour and on the road. It was right after Liz received a MacArthur Fellowship, so I spent about the equivalent of six years on tour out of those ten years. The pace of travel and the time spent in airports, on planes, in hotel rooms and in theaters left me feeling disconnected from the natural world. There is this one trip in particular that I remember: we were waiting for our flight and I was standing in front of the magazine racks at the airport. I realized in that moment that I was using magazine covers to orient to the season, and even to know what time of the year it was. I asked myself, “Is this really how I want to be shaping and creating a life?” I also had a heightened awareness of the environmental impacts of moving and producing work at that speed.

It makes me think of how artificial our rhythm is in urban environments. What it means to be an artist today is so disconnected from the rhythms of nature. Is this why you decided to shift to making work about the environment? 

I actually thought I was going to leave dancing altogether. I grew up in a family of scientists, so I was curious about  pursuing a path in environmental science. But Dance Exchange is a place where you’re really encouraged to question and engage with discomfort. As our founder always says: turn discomfort into inquiry. Because I was in a place that didn’t say, “oh, well, you’re questioning this, so you have to leave,” but saw value in that questioning, saw that dance-making could be a partner, I started really thinking about the ways my experience as an artist could hold value in connecting people more deeply to the natural world. My work could have a role in communicating about our world and what’s happening to our planet. This kept me in it. 

Performance of How To Lose a Mountain. Photo by Zachary Z. Handler.

Some opportunities started to emerge because of this questioning. At that time, I was teaching a couple of courses at Wesleyan University that were cross-listed between the College of the Environment and the Dance Department. I was taking all these creative tools that had primarily lived in indoor spaces – whether that was a dance studio or school cafeteria or a hospital; I mean, with Dance Exchange, we worked within all kinds of contexts – and for the first time, using them outdoors. Those courses at Wesleyan became a real catalyst to investigate where I could take my dance-making. One of the places that this took me was to work on a project called How to Lose a Mountain. As I started to look at my own consumption, I was shocked at my lack of awareness of the places and communities that my resource use was connected to and impacting. At the time I was living in Washington, D.C., and I found that my house’s electrical power was directly linked to mountaintop removal only 500 miles from our nation’s capital. Learning more about the devastating impacts, both on the environment and on the health of communities in that region, I had the impulse to go and see this. I had the impulse to use my own body to cover that distance.

I received support and encouragement from Dance Exchange for my journey, and to understand how the dance-making process could involve more communities along the way. It led to a 500-mile walk from my home in Washington, D.C. to one of the sources of its electrical power, a mountaintop removal site in West Virginia. It really broadened my concepts and assumptions around dance. You mentioned putting your body to use, for me that is to actually investigate with it.

That’s so exciting. You mentioned that for a moment, you thought about becoming an environmental scientist. What do you think the role of dance is in relation to science? Would you say there is a complementary relationship between the two?

You can’t get to climate action without finding ways to connect and move through a range of emotions. As we have greater access to both the science and stories of the climate crisis, the emotions evoked and experienced are intensifying. I think art, and dance in particular, helps us to move along the spectrum of emotions we may be experiencing or need to experience to make way for change.

I also think that dance-making offers a way to experience and hold contrasting emotions and ideas at the same time, to be more honest about what we’re facing. We need this range of emotions to process the trauma inflicted by the climate crisis. If it were just about a rational response to scientific facts, we’d be much further along than we are – but it’s also about power. Facts alone don’t shift power. They have to work in relationship with the emotions that live in our bodies and with what moves us to change. I don’t think science has in any way failed us. We need the facts and the science, but we need them to be in relationship to opportunities that give us space to process those emotions, to be vulnerable. 

Reading about the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal made me want to use the power of my own body to walk, to see and hear about those the impacts. Hearing the stories, embodying the stories, and moving with these stories stays with you and reshapes your life in a different way than consuming information does. For me, making dances has never been about a single trajectory to the stage; it is more a plunge into the unknown, a way to ask questions, to go new places, a way to return home and to reshape our lives and actions.

Remembering Water’s Way in performance. Photo by Liz Jelsomine.

So, for you, this inquiry about mountaintop removal was born out of a deeply personal investigation. At the same time, you mention the importance of communities in the work. Do you see your work as going deep into your own individuality, or is it more about connecting to people? 

It’s definitely both. With How to Lose a Mountain, the impulse to create was very personal. In another instance, with the Schuylkill Center, the commission and the impulse to create came from a partner. We were working on a project as part of their LandLab residency program. They commission artists to create work that addresses environmental change through the art-making process, but also supports the deepening of community relationships to the center. One of the things we were looking at was how to connect the personal experiences people have in that place and weave them into the larger story of climate change.

We led many walks at the center and on one of the first walks, I noticed these large bundles of sticks that were being used to slow the water’s movement across the land and to collect debris that would otherwise end up in the river. We learned that these bundles are called fascines. I was struck by the fact that each stick does very little on its own – it is the collection of them that holds the strength and the ability to slow and divert the powerful force of water. This became a metaphor for us; each stick is needed but is not as significant alone. It is the aggregate of them that holds the power. Strength can be found in the ways that we come together.

Dancers carrying the fascines in Remembering Water’s Way. Photo by Liz Jelsomine

As part of that project, we ended up working with a designer and the communities connected to the Schuylkill Center to create large weavings. Sticks and native plants were rolled, bundled, and carried as the audience followed us in and through the woods. Then, these fascines were placed in areas heavily impacted by increased storm occurrences due to the warming climate to help slow the water cutting through the eroded land. The fascines continue to be useful to consider as we reflect on the times we’re living in right now.

This is such a powerful metaphor. I wish I had seen the work. 

Collective action can move in directions that offer resilience and strength, for each of us individually and also for our communities.

Thank you, Cassie.

* * *

This is the first part of a two-part interview with Cassie Meador. In the second part, we talk about the sacredness of what we share.

(Top image: Performance of How To Lose a Mountain. Photo by Zachary Z. Handler.)

______________________________

Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, 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 Artists & Climate Change, 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.

———-

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

Powered by WPeMatico

Wild Authors: Glendy Vanderah

By Mary Woodbury

Glendy Vanderah, who has worked as a field biologist, endangered bird specialist, editor, and writer brings her vast love of nature into her popular novels. Her first novel, Where the Forest Meets the Stars, has over 120,000 positive ratings on Goodreads. Her second novel, The Light Through the Leaves, already has hundreds of reviews. Once you settle into the first page of one of her stories, you’re drawn into both the human story and the nature around it. And it’s no wonder, as these two things are intertwined, not separate entities. 

Good fiction helps us remember that we are part of the ecosystems around us, not just locally but universally. The wide open spaces around us – the forests, rivers, mountains, lakes, seas, even space itself in all its wonder – are strong characters in her books. The dysfunction of humanity is often redeemed by the power of nature. So, I was delighted to catch up with Glendy and chat with her about her two novels. 

Where the Forest Meets the Stars (Lake Union Publishing, 2019)

After the loss of her mother and her own battle with breast cancer, Joanna Teale returns to her graduate research on nesting birds in rural Illinois, determined to prove that her recent hardships have not broken her. She throws herself into her work from dusk to dawn, until her solitary routine is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious child who shows up at her cabin barefoot and covered in bruises.

The girl calls herself Ursa, and she claims to have been sent from the stars to witness five miracles. With concerns about the child’s home situation, Jo reluctantly agrees to let her stay – just until she learns more about Ursa’s past.

Jo enlists the help of her reclusive neighbor, Gabriel Nash, to solve the mystery of the charming child. But the more time they spend together, the more questions they have. How does a young girl not only read but understand Shakespeare? Why do good things keep happening in her presence? And why aren’t Jo and Gabe checking the missing children’s website anymore?

Though the three have formed an incredible bond, they know difficult choices must be made. As the summer nears an end and Ursa gets closer to her fifth miracle, her dangerous past closes in. When it finally catches up to them, all of their painful secrets will be forced into the open, and their fates will be left to the stars.

The Light Through the Leaves (Lake Union Publishing, 2021)

The story takes place in both Washington state and Florida.

One unbearable mistake at the edge of the forest.

In a moment of crisis, Ellis Abbey leaves her daughter, Viola, unattended – for just a few minutes. When she returns, Viola is gone. A breaking point in an already fractured marriage, Viola’s abduction causes Ellis to disappear as well – into grief, guilt, and addiction. Convinced she can only do more harm to her family, Ellis leaves her husband and young sons, burying her desperate ache for her children deeper with every step into the mountain wildernesses she treks alone.

In a remote area of Washington, a young girl named Raven keeps secrets inside, too. She must never speak to outsiders about how her mother makes miracles spring from the earth, or about her father, whose mysterious presence sometimes frightens her. Raven spends her days learning how to use her rare gifts – and more importantly, how to hide them. With each lesson comes a warning of what dangers lie in the world beyond her isolated haven. But despite her mother’s cautions, Raven finds herself longing for something more.

As Ellis and Raven each confront their powerful longings, their journeys converge in unexpected and hopeful ways, pulled together by the forces of nature, love, and family.

In both these tales, readers rave about how nature plays a central, healing part in the story.

CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR

You grew up in the Chicago area and have a science background. And you have worked as an endangered bird specialist. What was that like, and do you have any interesting experiences to share?

As an animal and nature lover trapped in an urban childhood, I realized a dream when I left Chicago to study ecology at the University of Illinois. After I graduated, I worked with a team of biologists who assessed the environmental impacts of proposed state highway and bridge construction projects. My coworker and I specifically looked for habitat used by birds on the endangered and threatened lists. Our study areas varied from sweeping cornfields to dense bottomland forests to urban landscapes. While on the job, we met friendly farmers who invited us to look at their gardens and hostile landowners who threatened to shoot us. Many, even the ones who were initially antagonistic, often told us their favorite anecdotes about local birds. We mostly conducted bird censuses, but we also did things like searching for shrike nests or evaluating how bald eagles used artificial perches constructed for a bridge mitigation project. There was a lot of camaraderie between the biologists, and sometimes one team would help another. I went netting with the bat biologists and waded in rivers with malacologists to help mark and release mussels. Many fun days! When I started work on my Master’s in Biology, I eventually left that job to focus on my own research.

Sounds fascinating! Now you live in Florida and have become a successful author. How does your background experience give impulse to your fiction?

My scientific background, of course, informs my writing, but I feel I write my best when I’m in the realm of emotions I understand through my own deepest experiences. These personal experiences have become common topics in my writing: childhood trauma, resilience in children, addiction, depression, mental illness in family members, compassion for all life and its supporting ecosystems, and healing through nature connection and loving relationships.

Your debut novel, Where the Forest Meets the Stars, is a beautiful story about love. Can you tell the readers what is going on in the story and how you were motivated to write it?

The story is about three strangers who dramatically change each other’s lives when they meet by chance in an isolated rural area. Jo is a biologist who’s trying to recover from her mother’s death and her own illness and surgeries. Gabe, her reclusive neighbor, can’t overcome a family history that caused him to stop trusting his relationships. One night a girl who calls herself Ursa Major shows up on Jo’s doorstep. Her body is bruised, and she insists she’s come from the stars to witness five miracles. When Jo seeks Gabe’s help to identify the girl, the two of them are entangled in the wonders and dangers of the unusual child’s fantasies.

The story was motivated by a variety of influences. I’d always wanted to write a book set at a house I rented in southern Illinois when I was a biologist. The isolated situation at the end of a road, the creek and woods, even the old graveyard are all true to that actual location. I wanted that setting to give the story a fairytale atmosphere. The main story idea came to me after I saw director Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth. I felt affinity with the idea of a child using fantasy to escape the violence and evils of war. As a child growing up in an unstable home, I used the nature of my wild-grown backyard to escape the traumatic events that were happening in my family – it was almost like a fantasy world for me. I chose the cosmos as Ursa’s fantasy world because the night sky has enthralled me since I was a child.

I loved Pan’s Labyrinth too, and almost anything that director has done in the Spanish cinema. In your upcoming novel, The Light Through the Leaves, a mistake leads to loss. Same question as above: your inspiration for writing this story and what is happening.

I’m fascinated by small twists of fate that change lives in big ways. An impulsive decision, a chance meeting, an unavoidable accident: how do the fateful seconds in our lives alter the rest of our days, and even future generations?

At the beginning of The Light Through the Leaves, in a chaotic moment, Ellis Abbey forgets she hasn’t put her infant daughter in the car. The child is stolen before she returns. The rest of the story explores the repercussions of her mistake. But the reader gradually discovers that many events, going back in time for generations in multiple families, led up to her making that mistake.

Ellis’s mistake was inspired by a true story. All parents have lapses in vigilance, and sometimes those awful moments cause lives to hang in the balance: a baby left in or out of the car, a child fallen into a swimming pool, a toddler swallowing something dangerous when mom or dad wasn’t looking. Usually fatigue and stress play into these situations, as it does in this book. Parenting is a very tough job, and there will always be guilt that comes with it. I wanted to explore some of those topics. But there are many other themes. A big topic in this book is what we teach our children when they’re too young to form their own opinions and how that affects many lives.

In both your novels, the natural world is a strong part of the story. Why is it important to you to write stories that focus on human experience but also include nature?

Nature can be much more to us than a pretty photograph on our screen savers. It has the power to help us feel connected to the universe. And I can testify that it has the potential to mend emotional wounds. I include nature in my stories because it’s an integral part of my evolution into the person I am today. On a grander scale, that’s true of all of us. Our species came from that world and we’re still in it, though denying that reality is causing increasing problems for the health of our planet. Like humanity, nature has both its brutal and beautiful sides, and I find this paradox to be a source of inspiration and metaphor in my writing. Also, if putting nature in my books inspires people to love and protect our Earth, all the better!

I rarely see books with as many positive reviews as yours! Do you have any tips for new writers becoming that successful?

Creating characters and stories people care about is crucial. How to do that? Write from your own deep, strong, and maybe dark emotions. The story doesn’t have to be about your life, but it should pull that emotion out of your soul as you write. Write stories you love and want to write, stories that erupt out of you. If you’re writing for any other reason, the story and characters will feel flat to readers.

Anything else you are working on now that you can share?

I recently completed a book that may become my third published novel. I can’t reveal much yet, but I’ll say it could be called a dark romance – a bit of a departure for me. But the story has many of my favorite subjects and themes: nature and biology, hope and healing, and some magic sprinkled in.

Sounds awesome! If there’s anything outside of the above that you would like to talk about, please do!

I’d like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my writing with my readers. Hearing from people who have bonded with my words and characters has been one of the most treasured events of my life.

Thanks so much for your time as well and all the work you’re doing to inspire people to care more about our planet and appreciate the nature we have around us.

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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Video and Sound Installations Incorporating Renewable Energy

By Chris Meigh-Andrews

In the period between January and April 1994, while I was Artist in Residence in Digital Imaging in the School of Visual Arts, Music and Publishing at Oxford Brookes University, I developed Perpetual Motion, a gallery-based installation presenting a computer animation of a flying kite powered via a wind turbine. After its initial exhibition in Oxford, this work was subsequently exhibited at the Saw Contemporary Arts Centre in Ottawa (1994), and at the Castlefield Gallery, Manchester (1996). This early work initiated a series of installations, presented within a “white cube” gallery setting and outside in the landscape, in which renewable energy systems were integral to the themes and functioning of the work and to the ethos and concerns of my approach to working with moving image and sound technologies. Since then I have continued to work with renewable energy within gallery spaces and at outside locations as a way of establishing relationships with the natural environment and highlighting the flow and transformation of energy from one form to another.

Perpetual Motion (1994), Saw Gallery, Ottawa, Canada

For example, Mothlight (1998), exhibited at the Museum of Natural History in Pisa, Glass Box Gallery in Salford and at the Rich Women of Zurich, London, featured halogen lamps, solar panels and video monitors in dynamic counter-balance. Mothlight sought ways to highlight the interdependence of the elements which were at the core of the work – a repeating cycle of computer-generated fluttering moths and suspended solar-powered video screens illuminated by halogen lamps that were interconnected to form an interrelated cycle of meaning. Light was an important theme in this work; illuminating, powering, and conceptually connecting the images and objects within the work. My interest in the relationship between technology and nature was a major concern. In Mothlight the use of “renewable resources” was intended to be subversive; solar panels were not simply used to generate electricity but to act as passive conductors which were transducing light from the domestic main’s power point. In my thinking at the time, I felt that by inverting the “conventional” application of renewable energy, I was serving the poetic rather than the technological.

In 2002, my solar-powered digital video installation For William Henry Fox Talbot (The Pencil of Nature) was commissioned for “Digital Interventions” at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Electricity produced from a solar panel was harnessed to power a digital video camera focused on the large latticed window first photographed by Will Henry Fox Talbot in 1835. The image from the digital camera was composed to exactly reproduce Fox Talbot’s pioneering “photogenic drawing,” the world’s earliest surviving photograph. This digital facsimile was relayed via an ISDN phone line from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire to the museum in London, the resultant “live” digital image presenting a full-size image of the historic window in “real time.”

In 1994, with research funding from National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), I developed Interwoven Motion, an outdoor self-powered (solar and wind) video installation for the “Foundation for Art & Creative Technology” (FACT) with support from Grizedale Arts and the UK Forestry Commission. At the edge of a wooded area, a large tree was temporarily equipped with four video cameras arranged around the trunk at the height of approximately eight meters. The images produced by the cameras were relayed via a switcher to a weatherproof LCD video display at the base of the tree. The speed and direction of the image flow was determined by the velocity and direction of the wind. The system was powered by a wind turbine extended beyond the height of the forest canopy and four solar panels mounted within the tree itself.

Resurrection (2004), Saint James Cavalier, Valletta, Malta

In 2005-2006, I produced Resurrection, a solar-powered video installation for “Digital Discourse,” in Valletta. A dead tree, complete with roots (approximately 20-feet high), was cut in half, the root end mounted in the center of the floor at one end of the gallery. The upturned tree and roots were lit by halogen lamps with forty-five individual miniature solar panels arranged irregularly on the roots. Video images of fluttering leaves were projected onto paper “leaves” arranged on the dead branches. Resurrection presented a record of a previously living existence recreated via technology. The energy used to bring the tree back to life was transformed within the gallery space from electricity to light and back again, the shimmering leaves experienced as both light reflectors and light receptors, the solar panels as both surrogate leaves and transforming technology.

SunBeam (2011), University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK

In 2011, I developed SunBeam, an outdoor event featuring high-definition video images of the sun from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory projected at night onto a large solar array. My aspirations for this work were related to ideas and concerns linking it to my previous renewable energy installation projects. As Dr. Charlie Gere, professor of media theory and history at the University of Lancaster has observed, SunBeam brought me closer to my conceptual goal of producing a technological artwork which attempted to integrate the source of its energy with the images it presents, celebrating the harmonious relationship between light, energy and the fluid nature of matter in general:

In SunBeam, Meigh-Andrews now perhaps realises what the earlier works hinted at, an artwork which both represents the prodigious energy of the sun and performs its effects by using that energy to make the representation possible…That the energy harvested during the day can then be used to make an artwork possible beautifully encapsulates (Georges) Bataille’s notion of art as a form of general economy exemplified in the sun itself. The system that harnesses the sun’s extraordinary power for straightforward and restricted uses, such as supplying energy to the university and to the national grid, is ‘detourned’ to produce a work of art, or in other words something useless according to the restricted economy of reciprocity and exchange. This is, perhaps, the very definition of art itself.

— Charles Gere, “Solar: Chris Meigh-Andrews’ Sunbeam

Aeolian Processes II (2014), Long Reef, Sydney, Australia

I have continued working with renewable energy in an ongoing series of sculptural works entitled Impossible Objects (2015-2021). Although these pieces have much in common with earlier works in that they often incorporate or feature renewable energy components in order to make connections to themes of flow and flux, they are also more directly centered on notions of “process.” They are “Impossible Objects” not because they cannot exist (as they clearly do), but because they make use of, or refer to, a process that contains a contradiction or presents an “impossible” idea. They are representations of a state or situation that cannot be achieved, except through the processes and agency of art. In this respect, I have been influenced in part by the “Mono-ha” works of the Korean artist Lee Ufan, in which there is an encounter between different materials – “a relationship of tension” in which the work is the site of the encounter. In common with my approach to the large-scale installations, all of these “Impossible Objects” are hybrid installation/sculptures made using domestic technology – temporary assemblages made using readily available materials and equipment.

(Top image: SunBeam (2011), installing the screen on solar panel.)

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Chris Meigh-Andrews is an artist, writer, and curator who has been making and exhibiting screen-based video and sculptural moving image installations since the mid-1970s. He studied fine art at Goldsmiths and completed his PhD at the Royal College of Art in 2001. He is Emeritus Professor of Electronic and Digital Art, University of Central Lancashire and was Visiting Professor at the Centre for Moving Image Research, University of the West of England, 2013-2016. He has held a number of artist’s residencies in the UK and abroad and his site-specific and commissioned installations often incorporate renewable energy systems.

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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 Sam Pelts

By Amy Brady

This month I have for you an interview with Sam Pelts, a founding organizer of EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss. The project’s goal is to encourage individual artists as well as museums and galleries across the country and around to the world to schedule art installations, book readings, and public programming that speak to themes of extraction. 

As explained in the project’s impressive catalogue, extractive industries have led to some of the biggest problems our planet faces, including climate change; the deterioration of land, water, and air; the devastation and displacement of vulnerable communities; and much else. The project’s participating artists and institutions make those links clear in their art.

I spoke with Sam about why he and his colleagues launched EXTRACTION, the artists involved, and his thoughts on the roles that art and writing can play in our global fight against climate change.

Tell me more about EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss. What is it, and what are its goals?

EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss is a multimedia, multi-venue, cross-border art movement which seeks to provoke change by exposing and interrogating the negative social and environmental consequences of industrialized natural resource extraction. Essentially, we are a global coalition of artists and creators committed to shining a light on all forms of extractive industry – from mining and drilling to the reckless plundering and exploitation of fresh water, fertile soil, timber, marine life, and innumerable other resources across the globe. The Extraction Project will culminate in a constellation of over fifty overlapping exhibitions, performances, installations, site-specific work, land art, street art, publications, poetry readings, and cross-media events throughout 2021 and beyond.

In effect, the project is about harnessing the power of artistic expression to raise a ruckus about one of the most pressing environmental concerns of our time – the suicidal overconsumption of our planet’s resources. We’re thinking of “extractivism” as being at the root of almost every other environmental problem, including climate change. Given that the history of the extractive industry is one of untold suffering and damage inflicted on fenceline communities – disproportionately communities of color and Indigenous people – the need to include and lift up those voices is also critical to the story we’re trying to tell. The fight for the future of our planet cannot be won if it is left for scientists and policymakers alone, nor should the frontline soldiering be left to those vulnerable, disadvantaged, or disenfranchised communities who have no other choice than to resist as a matter of survival. Artists have a unique set of tools with which to engage these issues.

EXTRACTION Catalog and Exhibition Guide, published by the CODEX Foundation, 2020. Cover image: Léonie Pondevie, Carrière de clisson, 2019, digital photograph. Available at all participating Extraction Art venues.

What is your role in the project? And how did you get involved?

The Extraction Project was started in 2017 by two old friends from Montana: Edwin Dobb, a writer and environmental journalist for National Geographic and Harper’s Weekly; and Peter Koch, a letterpress printer, book artist, and founder of the CODEX Foundation, an arts nonprofit dedicated to elevating the art of fine bookmaking. I was brought on a year later to help figure out the logistics of getting the project off the ground – things like designing and maintaining our website and organizing our crowdfunding campaign.

My role in the project shifted pretty dramatically in 2019 when Ed tragically passed away, just a few weeks after Peter had been temporarily put out of commission by cancer treatments. Suddenly I looked around and realized that if this project was really going to get off the ground, then it was more-or-less up to me to make it happen. Taking on that central role was challenging at first, but I subsequently learned that organizing and coordinating this project – which allowed me to communicate directly with hundreds of artists and learn about and promote their art – was work I greatly enjoyed doing! I also felt that the best way for me to honor Ed’s life would be to help make his vision of a global art movement in defense of the planet – our only home – a reality.

Now that the wheels are in motion, the project has become much more decentralized and the artists and exhibition spaces who are involved are free to participate and collaborate as they see fit.

Who else do you hope gets involved with this project?

Anyone who wants to participate in the Extraction Project can be a part of it. You certainly don’t have to be a famous artist to get involved! I subscribe to the belief that not everyone has to be a climate scientist for us to collectively address climate change. Maybe you’re a painter or a storyteller. Everyone has their own skills and talents, and we can all respond to environmental issues by simply doing what each one of us is already good at.

We believe artists have a crucial role to play in sounding the alarm, bearing witness, and inspiring action. For those suffering from climate grief or eco-anxiety, making art may also serve a therapeutic role. Your way of being a part of the Extraction Project could be as simple as making art that helps you come to terms with the sense of loss you’re feeling about the changes our planet is undergoing. Anyone from the amateur to the virtuoso can post their artwork on Instagram with the hashtag #ExtractionArt.

Maybe it sounds a bit overly ambitious, but I would personally like to see literally every artistic person who cares about the environment get involved in this project. The whole point of Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss is to bring our voices together as one, signal boosting each other while at the same time building out a massive network and infrastructure of resources and potential like-minded collaborators.

Why is art and writing about climate change important? Can it show us something that other mediums can’t?

We recognize the unique power of artistic expression to evoke a more visceral and emotional response than, for instance, a peer-reviewed study or a set of statistics or graphs from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Most people understand the Greenhouse Effect on an intellectual level, and thus are able to recognize the logical connection between oil extraction – and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions from carbon burning – and the impact those processes have on global temperatures. But a lot of folks have not tried to come to terms with these largely invisible scientific phenomena on an emotional level. And when it hits you, it’s really intense, and can be quite motivating for many people. Young people get it, which is why they are out in the streets, striking. For some people it’s seeing polar bears stranded on icebergs, but for me, seeing aerial photographs of the Athabasca Tar Sands mines in Alberta, Canada can bring me nearly to tears.

Consider this idea of “the abyss” that’s in our project’s name – obviously a metaphor for the point of no return when it comes to acting on climate change. Science might be able to tell us the diameter of the abyss, how far away it is, and how fast we are heading toward it, but if you want to really look into the abyss and confront it with your whole being, you need art.

What are some of the themes that have emerged in the art and writing associated with the Extraction project? Did any of them surprise you?

The idea of “bearing witness” to these environmental injustices is certainly a common thread that weaves its way through many artists’ work. I was surprised to see the extent to which so many of these extraction sites are virtually invisible (except to those who know where to look), despite being close enough to cause major harm to fenceline communities. Shining a spotlight on these sites and facilities and putting them on display for everyone to see is a great way to short circuit the kind of “greenwashing” that the PR departments for extractive companies have become experts at in recent years. I mentioned the Tar Sands earlier. Just to continue with that example, I believe that if everyone on the planet was confronted with images of what tar sands mining does to the land and ecosystem of the boreal forests of Northern Canada, they would be shut down almost immediately. If everyone could see with their own eyes the massive tailings ponds, filled with enough toxic waste material to create a river of sludge 2,000 miles long, fossil fuels would be banned tomorrow.

Another theme that struck me was how much hope artists still have for the future. For every aerial photograph of an open pit mine, there is a vision for a better path forward. It’s worth remembering that while we may be dancing at the edge of the abyss, we have not yet fallen into it, and there is still a massive opportunity to change course, particularly over the next decade, which is crucial. To quote Rachel Carson: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

What’s next for Extraction and for you personally? Anything you’d like my readers to watch for?

I’d personally like to keep the project going as long as possible. If we get enough support, maybe it will become a biennial thing. In the near term, our website has information about all the upcoming exhibitions across the country and overseas. Shows and events will be happening all throughout this year, and chances are there will be at least one Extraction exhibition within driving distance for most of your readers. Folks can learn more at www.extractionart.org. The CODEX Foundation, which supports the Extraction Project as our fiscal sponsor, is also planning a wrap-up symposium called CODEX Yellowstone, and that will take place in September of 2022 in Bozeman, Montana. If your readers have questions they can also email me at sam@codexfoundation.org.

(Top image: Garth Lenz, Tar Mine and Roads, Northern Alberta, Canada, 2010, photograph)

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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