The final poem in Dialogue between the body and the soul cycle by Melanie Challenger and John Kinsella is published today on the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre website. Alongside it there’s a web page of responses by other artists, writers and critics to the question of whether flying is …
Melanie Challenger and John Kinsella’s poem series Dialogue between the body and the soul concludes with a discussion about whether artists should give up air travel for art. Contributations from Mark Lynas, Ruth Catlow, Plane Stupid, Amy Balkin, Chris Bodle, Nicholas Lezard and others.
When Emma Thompson joined the protest against the third runway at Heathrow earlier this year, MP Geoff Hoon was scathing. “She’s been in some very good films,” he said. “Love Actually is very good, but I worry about people who I assume travel by air quite a lot and don’t see the logic of their position.”
I remember being extremely disturbed by what he said. Shocked even. Here was a former Defence Minister and Chief Whip, one of the tough guys, publicly coming out in favour of an excruciatingly meandering rom com. One of Richard Curtis’s worst, in fact.
Less surprising was Hoon’s attack on an actress for joining the ranks of the climate protestors. When artists lend their weight to a cause they open themselves to charges of hypocrisy. Who is she, an actress who flies across to Hollywood on a regular basis, to tell us not to fly?
The poets John Kinsella and Melanie Challenger are currently writing a work for the RSA Arts & Ecology website called Dialogue between the body and the soul, which grew out of both the poets’ decision not to fly to poetry readings. Now, even if every published poet in the world gave up flying, it would hardly make a major statistical dent in the world’s carbon footprint, but for each of them it is a major decision. Poetry is an endangered species of an artform, and practitioners have to take their audience wherever they find it. For Challenger, who is a new poet starting out, this is the kind of public commitment that could hobble her career for good.
Interestingly, there have been rumbings of unease elsewhere in the art community about the amount of too-ing and fro-ing required by the modern international art scene. Two years ago Gustav Metzger initiated Reduce Art Flights; a manifesto contribution to Sculpture Projects Münster that called for artists to go cold turkey on their addiction to international travel.
With full cognisance that it is ‘a drop in the ocean’, the RAF ‘manifesto’ nevertheless invites voluntary abandonment – a fundamental, personal, bodily rejection of technological instrumentalization and a vehement refusal to participate in the mobility increasingly endemic to the globalized art system.
The point is there is no one-size-fits-all pledge. That’s the unfairness of Hoon’s jibe. We may accept that air travel has been the UK’s fastest growing emissions sector in this decade, and carbon emitted by planes in the atmosphere is three times more damaging than carbon emitted by cars on the ground. We may perfectly reasonably oppose plans for further airport expansion. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want Emma Thompson to fly to the US to make Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. (OK. Bad example.)
As Dialogue between the body and the soul winds to a conclusion, I’m going to use it as an excuse to ask writers and artists their thoughts on what they do — and don’t — feel comfortable to commit to .
The extraordinary poetic collaboration Dialogue between the body and the soul by John Kinsella and Melanie Challenger is reaching a kind of crescendo. It’s a work exploring our reluctance to face the consequences of our lifestyles – in particular the consequences of air travel.
The poets are using what turns out to be a very ancient poetic form to explore that modern theme; that of a dialogue between the body and the soul – two elements that are close-cousins but often in direct opposition to each other. So in this work the voice of “Body” can be that element which leads us to consume our planet,while “Soul” is our own spiritual response.
If I haven’t wrecked the depth of these poems through that cack-handed explanation, this is a verse titled “Body” which starts as an apparently well-meaning litany of endangered species – before it twists the knife.
Noisy Scrub Bird; Yangtze River Dolphin; Seychelles
Sheath-tailed Bat; Madagascar Pochard; Northern Hairy-
nosed Wombat; Javan Rhino, Iberian Lynx; Dwarf Blue Sheep;
Hispid Hare; Abington Island Giant Tortoise; Californian Condor;
stretch soul stretch — eco-tourist sales pitch — fly in fly out witness; short-necked tortoises in ephemeral swamps around Perth.
Illustration: Surrogate (for the Northern Hairynosed Wombat) 2005 by Patricia Piccinini. Piccinini, whose work often concerns bioethics She created this creature as an imagined surrogate for the threatened Northern Hairynosed Wombat as part of her series Nature’s Little Helpers. Piccinini writes:
The sculptures present a series of creatures that I have designed to ‘assist’ a series of the endangered Australian animals. In the photographs, we follow more closely one of these creatures, ‘The Bodyguard (for the Golden Helmeted Honeyeater)’. It is very seductive to think that we could find a simple technological solution to complex ecological problems such as extinction. It is far more exciting to talk about genetic engineering than to designate a large area of habitat/real estate as national park so that dozens or even hundreds of native species might be given a better chance of survival.
Not only are both of them being kind enough to share a great deal of knowledge about the historical background to this ancient “soul and body” tradition of poetry which goes back to the 10th century, I’m also learning about both of their aims for the piece. As a footnote to the work in progress, they’ve shared some of the emails they exchanged last year which discussed the idea of giving up flying. John, who is 100% committed not to flying except in emergencies, had said he wanted to press on with these poems as he’s planning on going fully off grid at the end of the summer.
Melanie’s off-grid too, living on a boat in East Anglia. In a kind of environmental keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, I ventured that I was editing Melanie’s latest contribution off-grid too. An attempt to impress, obviously. I do have a small shack in Devon; I harvest my own rainwater, heat it with a woodburner and have a photo-voltaic panel which powers a notebook and phone. And over the bank holiday weekend I was working from there.
I think I’ve given John Kinsella the impression I’m “one of them”. Now I feel like a fraud. I’m not sure though that I could ever be bold enough to go the whole hog. I spent a month down there last year. For a couple of weeks I was off-grid with three kids who, I’m proud to say, thoroughly enjoyed the situation. My excuse for not cutting the ties is I’m not convinced that it’s the answer in this crowded island though. I love being off grid, and I’m full of admiration for anyone who achieves it – plus I think it’s a great way to learn about how profligate we are in our day-to-day on-grid lives, but I think we also need more collective solutions.
I’m really pleased to say that the RSA Arts & Ecology site is hosting a new artwork. It’s a collaborative piece of poetry created by Melanie Challenger and John Kinsella called Dialogue between the body and the soul.
The idea came from a reading that both poets were invited to in New York in 2007. Though they had worked together — John had edited Melanie’s debut collection — they’d never actually met, so the event would have given them both that chance. Kinsella lives in Australia; Challenger lives in the UK. But both were becoming increasingly uneasy about the idea of artists travelling internationally just to give readings of their own work.
In the end, neither travelled to New York. Instead, they’ve decided to create this collaborative work which comes from their decisions to eschew air travel for such events.
The first poem arrived in my email box yesterday; it’s posted on the site today, initiating the exchange. Take a look. I’m loving the idea of seeing a piece of work like this evolve in my email inbox.
You can link to the poems here tinurl.com/dialoguepoems.
Poets Melanie Challenger and John Kinsella are creating a new online poetry work for the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre based on their decision to abandon long-haul flying for ethical reasons. Go to RSA Arts & Ecology