Garbage didn’t work. Natural fibers were rejected. Booming school has apparently been a failure. In the meantime, an ever-increasing parade of oil-soaked birds and the collapse of local industries.
What else can we do but laugh?
If there is a silver lining or sheen or gloss or whatever to the gulf spill, it’s that the insanely large catastrophe has spawned some of the best ecological humor in recent years.
Don’t EVEN try to take that the wrong way.
Pro comedy players like UCB Theater, The Daily Show and the Colbert Report have been defending ecosystems and decrying BP with their sharp and witty tools of trade. Most memorably, The Onion suggests a Massive Flow of Bullshit from BP Headquarters will drown us all.
It’s times like these that laughter literally heals. Which is not to say: it scrubs oily birds. Rather: it keeps ecological massacres such as these from driving you insane.
Paul Kingsnorth, poet, environmentalist, journalist and author of Real England, attempts to kick off a ground-breaking new literary movement this month, The Dark Mountain Projectwith social-web frontiersman Dougald Hine. Its premise is a radical one; if I represent it right, it’s that we are on the brink of catastrophe and it’s art’s reponsibility to face that, and to reflect it in its output. We have been telling the wrong stories. It is time to start telling the right ones:
We don’t believe that anyone – not politicians, not economists, not environmentalists, not writers – is really facing up to the scale of this. As a society, we are all still hooked on a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. Somehow, technology or political agreements or ethical shopping or mass protest are meant to save our civilisation from self-destruction. Well, we don’t buy it.
Kingsnorth and Hine have written a remarkable manifesto that’s well worth reading; it’s erudite, lyrical and, most of all, apolcalyptic in an almost William Blake-ish kind of way, seeing civilisation treading on a “thin crust of lava” as the environmental catastrophe looms. Its eight principles of “Uncivilisation” include the following:
3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths. 4. We will reassert the role of story-telling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.
There is a growing debate here at the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre about the role of apocalyptic art in changing minds. We are fond of quoting Raymond Williams here, “that to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”. If you want people to change, you have to offer them a way to a future that inspires them, rather than terrifies them. Pessimism convinces nobody.
But what if that act of making hope possible only bluntens the urgency of the situation, dissipates the urge to action?
At a conference on Friday I met a woman called Paivi Seppala who had been involved in an arts project in North Kent called Hei People. I hadn’t heard the story she told, but it was a great one. Hei People was originaly created by Finnish artist Reijo Kela. The idea is simple; a crowd of scarecrows suddenly appear in a field somewhere, dressed in off-cast clothes, all seeming to stare in one direction. Their heads are made of clods of earth from which sprout grass. There is no pre-publicity, or explanation for their existence; they simply appear – a throng of figures, all seemingly staring in the same direction, clothes flapping in the breeze.
Having previously installed the Hei People in two locations, Seppala moved them to a third location in the summer of 2007 on the Isle of Sheppey. It’s a deprived area; a bleak piece of bog sticking out into the Thames Estuary. Locals call themselves “Swampies”. It houses three prisons. London Mayor Boris Johnson recently proposed turning it into an airport.
In other locations, the Hei People had suffered small-scale vandalism, but when they reached Sheppey, catastrophe struck. The Friday night after they were errectd, the entire installation of 400 figures was destroyed. Not a single figure remained upright. Seppala was distraught. The installation was supposed to be there for weeks. It had been wrecked within a couple of days. She felt she had no option but to reinstall it, though funds were limited, and replacing 400 figures would be a labour-intensive task.
And then, on the following Sunday morning, just as she was about to make the journey back there to Sheppey to start the work she got a phone call from the farmer who had donated the land for the installation: “Well done for getting them back up so quickly,” he said.
Seppala was baffled. What? She travelled up there and indeed all 400 figures were standing again – a little broken and muddied, maybe, but standing nonetheless. Over the next few days the story emerged in dribs and drabs. The people of Sheppey are tired of their reputation as ne’er do wells. When they heard that the Hei People had been trashed, they were distraught. This act of vandalism would only confirm outsiders’ assumptions that the people of Sheppey were no good.
People started to put one or two back upright. Seeing them, others joined in in the task of rebuilding the Hei People. Within a day, all the figures, which had originally taken days to install, were back up again in an odd act of spontaneous, anonymous barn-raising. It’s an extraordinary example of the potentially potent relationship between art and community.
Like any other activity which drains the public purse, art must be expected to justify its existence. This is a case of how difficult that can be for the arts. On the one hand this is an exemplary project, a relatively cheap piece of work which drew in a community, took on a meaning for it and left it with something to be extremely proud of. On the other hand none of what happened to the Hei People on Sheppey was either predictable or even remotely planned for. It happened simply because it was a good piece of work that Seppala and others had faith in.
I’ve posted an interview with the poet Jen Hadfield up on the main site. I’ll admit I hadn’t even heard of her until she won the T S Eliot Award a few weeks ago, but Nigh-No-Place turns out to be really great for its vivid, unruly, close-up-view poems about life in the back-0f beyond.
Two things I found intersting: Hadfield is, self-admittedly, a poor reader. Despite a love of language, she finds getting through novels hard. Which is one of the reasons why she graviates towards poetry.
Also, by her own admission again, she doesn’t have a single political bone in her body.
I’m almost alarmingly apolitical, which is something I have anxiety about in the same way as I do about the reading thing. I think that I’m not political is possibly partially about the generation I come from but also to do with me as a person.
But it’s inevitable that anyone with Hadfield’s subject matter becomes political, in the sense that – as Siân Ede was saying – nature is no longer just out there as the ineffable, unstoppable force. “It is tainted. It is sad. It is ending.” It’s something broken, and if you write about it now you are inevitably writing about catastrophe. Hadfield sees herself as writing from within the ecopoetic tradition, but with that modern knowledge:
It’s not just about people going out into the landscape and looking at it. “Oh how lovely and interesting and possibly sublime!” There’s an anxiety in there as well about how it’s changing and about how we make ourselves at home out there, how we impact on it.