Three Months

Review of the Cultura21 event “Can Artists Change China?”

This post comes to you from Cultura21


On June 16th, Cultura21 – together with partners – invited panelists with broad experience and knowledge concerning the art sector and the human rights situation in China for a discussion around the arrest of Ai Weiwei. The event was attended by more than a hundred people of all ages.

See also: Press articles on the event

One week after the event, on Wednesday June 22nd, we were very glad to hear about Ai Weiwei’s release, almost three months after the arrest at the Beijing Capital Airport.

But many questions remain unanswered – also by exceptionally quiet Ai Weiwei. The Chinese authorities’ statement that Ai Weiwei’s release is related to “his good attitude in confessing his crimes” (tax evasion) signals the ongoing threat of potential criminal prosecution.  Also, it must be kept in mind, that many human rights defenders and activists who were arrested or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their freedoms of expression, association, and assembly (rights that are guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution and international human rights law) still remain imprisoned. Read more (FIDH press release)

The topics dicussed on June 16th at Leuphana University Lüneburg remain of greatest actuality. In the following, please find a review of the debate “Can Artists Change China?”, synthesized by the FIDH in collaboration with Cultura21:


International Attention

The panelists debated the role of Ai Weiwei and the international media. “He may be famous in the West but within China his popularity/name-recognition is limited, which is also due to censorship”, said documenta12 director Roger Buergel. The panelists agreed that the Western media portrayal of Ai Weiwei is overly simple as it does not address the complexities of the art world in China or the human rights situation. However, it was pointed out that the media’s attention on Ai Weiwei does not alleviate the need to draw attention to the bigger picture of the current crackdown on many human rights activists.

Crossing the red lines

Ai Weiwei’s disappearance demonstrated that no one is safe from the strong arm of the government if he or she criticizes the government publicly and on issues considered ‘very sensitive’ by the authorities, such as the issue of shoddy construction in Sichuan which was deemed responsible for the deaths of thousands of students in the 2008 earthquake. The frustration and discontent of a majority of the Chinese population in the face of economic inequality and social injustice is boiling over in many ways, and in Ai Weiwei such anger finds an outlet that has tremendous reach in the international community (thus making him an increasing threat to the regime).

Spurious claims of economic growth as a human rights achievement

The Chinese government often argues that it has lifted millions out of poverty and that the Chinese people are freer now than ever before. Such propagandistic arguments mask the reality that the increasing wealth of the state strengthen the government’s ability to control domestic unrest and activism. It has been reported that for the first time spendings on public security have exceeded those of national defense/military. Even in the current context of aggregate economic growth, there are thousands of public demonstrations per year recorded.

Role of artists in social transformation

Artists take great risks to engage themselves in social activism, but they are a minority among the various groups that advocate for human rights and rule of law. Not all artists take political positions and many do not. Many artists are elitist and urban-based and their main objective is fame and profits. Some who wish to make political statements through their art also face other real-life restraints, such as finances. Foreign funding to domestic institutions, including NGOs, is heavily scrutinized, manipulated and restricted by the authorities.

Role of the international community

There is a need to better understand the complexities in China in order for external actions and advocacy be effective. There is worry that external demands may be seen as ‘colonial’ and would certainly be spinned this way by the Chinese government to generate nationalistic support among the population. On the other hand, silence is not an option. In fact, strong public outcry, including rumors that Ai has been tortured, may have forced the government to let his wife see him and prove that his physical condition was fine.

This post is also available in: German

Cultura21 is a transversal, translocal network, constituted of an international level grounded in several Cultura21 organizations around the world.

Cultura21′s international network, launched in April 2007, offers the online and offline platform for exchanges and mutual learning among its members.

The activities of Cultura21 at the international level are coordinated by a team representing the different Cultura21 organizations worldwide, and currently constituted of:

– Sacha Kagan (based in Lüneburg, Germany) and Rana Öztürk (based in Berlin, Germany)

– Oleg Koefoed and Kajsa Paludan (both based in Copenhagen, Denmark)

– Hans Dieleman (based in Mexico-City, Mexico)

– Francesca Cozzolino and David Knaute (both based in Paris, France)

Cultura21 is not only an informal network. Its strength and vitality relies upon the activities of several organizations around the world which are sharing the vision and mission of Cultura21

Go to Cultura21

Toby Smith Exhibition | theprintspace blog

During the harsh winter of 2010 Toby Smith spent three months in the Scottish Highlands beginning an ongoing project to document the renewable energy industry.

Above ground Smith captured dramatic panoramas, vast arctic-like scenery and alluring night images lit by the moon and stars. Below ground he explored hidden underground tunnels, engineering marvels and colossal turbine halls.

Now, for the first time, Smith exhibits a selection of his images from the initial phase of ‘The Renewables Project’ which celebrates the union of striking landscapes and sustainable energy structures.

Exhibition Opening Thursday Night! | theprintspace blog.

coming back at life

It’s been three months since I had major surgery to remove half of the lymph nodes in my abdomen (about twenty) to clear out the final vestiges of my cancer — a thing that no longer lurks within me, but has forever changed me physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Some for the better, some for the worse.

I’m back in my life now, and I’ve been thinking a lot about ecoTheater and how it might come back, how it might fit itself into the new life I’m trying to forge for myself. Many times over the last several months I’ve thought about writing a post about this or that, and aside from a couple that I couldn’t let lie (such as the passing of Rosemary Ingham), I just couldn’t figure out what to write. Then the stories, the news, the ideas kept piling up, and I couldn’t figure out how to get myself back into the room of green theater — the door to which I like to think I helped pry open a bit. And then, the other day I read this:

White Way Gets ‘Green’ Theater

Henry Miller’s Theater, the first newly built Broadway house in more than 20 years — and the first so-called green theater on the Great White Way — has completed major construction and is set to open in September with Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of the musical “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Now, this was not exactly news to me. I’d heard about this project last year, and probably wrote about it on ecoTheater at the time. But it answered the question of ecoTheater for me. This green theater movement has moved beyond me — it’s moved into a realm of theater business that I think is fundamentally flawed, for I do not believe there can be such a thing as a “green” theater on Broadway. Not the Broadway that exists now. No way. You can use all the recycled materials and nifty LED lobby lighting you want, but it won’t change the underlying mode of production (I mean, seriously, Bye Bye Birdie?? As a friend noted on Facebook, reviving a fifty year old musical does not count as recycling). That is what needs to be fixed. Not just because it’s environmentally unsustainable, but rather because it is also financially unsound, utterly lacking in community interaction, culturally numb, and creatively depraved.

Whoa, Mike — them’s fightin’ words, you say? Well, maybe so. And believe me, I recognize that we live in an imperfect world, and the steps that Roundabout has taken are good ones. It’s better than doing nothing, that’s for sure. But I don’t think I can continue to expand my greenList by adding Roundabout’s name, or other similar organizations that meet one very narrow definition of eco-responsible theater. You simply cannot put Mo’olelo and Roundabout in the same basket. It doesn’t work, because one company is operating on a much smaller but infinitely broader scale, while the other is a borderline case of greenwashing.

The scope of ecoTheater was always meant to be wide and inclusive. But now, I must focus my energy more directly on what I think matters — what I think works. I believe my time will be better spent on my own efforts here in the little old Midwest, and leaving the up to the minute reportage of the major happenings in the “movement” to others. As I let ecoTheater continue to rust, I will instead be working on these projects…


Wisconsin Story Project

As some of you may recall, I started on the path to putting my creativity where my mouth is with the Cancer Stories Project — a connection between my life with cancer and my passion for creating a better model of theater production. Eventually CSP morphed into something much bigger that my co-founders and I have dubbed Wisconsin Story Project. It is a company that aims to follow the path of “solving for pattern,” a Wendell Berry idea that I first wrote about here on ecoTheater many moons ago when describing Mo’olelo in California. WSP hopes to solve for pattern because it is about more than just creating green theater, it’s about creating theater in a way that addresses all of the pressing issues and concerns of our community. It’s about connecting on a local level. And I’d like to think it is a company that will someday be worthy of someone’s greenList somewhere.

Madison Arts Production Cooperative

Recently, a very sad but telling thing happened here in Madison, Wisconsin: the forty year old LORT theater, Madison Repertory Theatre, closed it’s doors for good, laying off it’s entire staff and leaving truckloads of equipment and theatrical inventory in a handful of locations throughout town. When the company I work for, Children’s Theater of Madison, got wind of the impending auction and the apparent failure of the hired auctioneer to understand the value of the Rep’s stock, we set to work on a proposal to raise funds to keep the equipment and inventory in Madison in a way that would continue to make it available to arts organizations in the area.

One day my boss, Producing Artistic Director Roseann Sheridan, called me and said, “Remember when we were talking about what might happen to the Rep’s shop and you said you thought a co-op facility would be great? Can you write that idea up in a proposal and have it for me tomorrow morning?”

I took a deep breath, and started writing. I called my idea the Madison Arts Production Cooperative. The proposal sounded good to both the sellers (Madison Rep) and the people who could make it happen financially. Thanks to a generous (anonymous) donation, we were able to purchase the entire production inventory of the decades-old company, keeping it together, and giving us the opportunity to make it all available to the Madison arts community in a way that it has never been before.

The (Book) Project

Writing a book is not easy. Selling a book is even more difficult. I know this from experience. But that has not yet deterred me from my plans to write (or co-write) the next book about green theater. I have spoken to several people about this project, and soon I hope to have a more complete understanding of how this project may take shape. It is certainly a topic that will bring me back to ecoTheater to share news.


I’ll also continue to write on the subject of green theater for print publications whenever I can. I recently published articles on the subject in Theatre Bay Area and DramaBiz. And I will probably poke my head back in the ecoTheater door from time to time to rant or point out something I find particularly interesting to the topic.

Later this month, I will be attending the University of Oregon’s Ecodrama Festival and Symposium (at least the first weekend), and will write about the event for Dramatics. Ecodrama is hosted by Theresa May, a hero of green theater that I have had the privelige of interviewing for ecoTheater before, and co-author of Greening Up Our Houses.

And staying up to date on the green theater movement won’t be hard, as I’m sure most of you know by now. Since ecoTheater first showed up on the world wide web nearly three years ago, a lot has happened — and I was fortunate to have a hand in some of it. The best resources for staying up to date, and learning more about greening the theater are:

The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts

The Green Theater Initiative

The Ashden Directory

And check out the ecoLinks over on the right hand side of this page too.


Oh, and one last thing…

Thanks to all of you who have supported me and ecoTheater over the last few years — especially in my most difficult times. Your kind words were always sincere, heartfelt, and more appreciated than you can ever know or understand.

Thank you to Ian Garrett, Gideon Banner, Robert Butler, Kellie Gutman, Seema Sueko, Scott Walters, Michael Casselli (who helped provide ecoTheater with its most popular day ever!) and so many more of you for continually encouraging the debate and information I tried to provide on ecoTheater. With folks like you out there, hope remains.

Go to EcoTheater