Rules for Living – artists and climate change, by Andy Field at #sota12

21 Feb 2012 admin

This is the text from Andy Field’s talk last Tuesday afternoon at State of the Arts, in the ‘Artists and the Future Environment’ panel.

1. My friend Kieran

Whilst we are all here in Salford, my friend Kieran is on a train from Glasgow to Lisbon.

Or more accurately Kieran is on one of several trains and a bus that will eventually take him to Lisbon where, this weekend, he is taking part in a small festival that I have been organising in collaboration with a venue called Culturgest.

I don’t know where exactly he is right now, but for the purposes of this story let’s imagine that as we speak he is somewhere in Northern France, looking out of a window at vast flat fields and tree lined roman roads. He might be eating a sandwich.

Kieran’s full name is Kieran Hurley. He is a writer and performer from Glasgow. Back in July 2009 Kieran made another very different journey across Europe. Again he set off from Glasgow, this time hitch-hiking to the earthquake-hit town of L’Aquila in Italy to take part in the protests organised during the G8 summit of world leaders held in the town. Prior to his trip Kieran was not a regular protester or an experienced hitch-hiker, but despite this he did make it to L’Aquila and in the months afterwards he made a show about the experience.

That show, called Hitch, is the reason that Kieran is now on a train to Lisbon. But we’ll get back to Kieran later.

2. Artists and the Future Environment 

I’ve been invited to offer you 6-8 minutes worth of my thoughts on artists and the future environment, and in order to do so I was primed with a series of questions to consider:

  • How could artists raise awareness of climate change?
  • What could artists do to contribute to persuading people that this issue matters?
  • Who are the most important people to target?
  • How could it be done and what would success look like?

That’s quite a major set of questions and when I first started to think about this I will admit I was struggling to find any answers to them.

The problem was, I realised, that I don’t think those are actually the right questions to be asking of artists. Undoubtedly they are the right questions for a lot of people. You could ask those questions of lobbyists, environmental charities and advocacy groups. You could ask them of journalists, of bloggers; of teachers and politicians.

But these don’t feel like the right questions to be asking of artists. They assume a strategic and educational objective that I don’t recognise as being what artists do. Or at least, what I believe they do well.

In other words, I think we are asking artists the wrong question. In our urgency to resolve an increasingly alarming crisis, we are trying to make use of artists in a way that isn’t particularly effective, like using a map to crack a walnut.

So let’s take a step back, and as a simpler question.

What could artists be doing about climate change?

Stop making bad art about climate change

The first thing I think artists could do is to stop making bad art about climate change.

By which I mean art that thinks its primary purpose is to raise awareness of climate change Without acknowledging that we now have at our disposal the greatest communication tool ever created. And the ability to reach millions of people in seconds. Without any of the resources needed to maintain a gallery or a theatre or a concert hall.

By which I mean art that seeks to persuade its audience of the importance of climate change Without really interrogating who that audience are. And if they are largely metropolitan. And largely educated and middle class. And largely from the UK. Where studies have shown that the large majority of the population already give quite a lot of a shit about climate change.

By which I mean art and artists that are blind to their own privilege. And the years they have spent reaping the rewards of industrialisation. Driving cars. And flying on planes. And the complex political dimension to the sacrifice they are now righteously demanding from people that have never had such privileges.

By which I mean art that does not consider its own place within a system of production and consumption that brought us to this moment of crisis.

By which I mean an art that lacks the imagination to believe that it can do more than change people’s minds.

Imagine a Life. Live it.

This is a piece of art. An event score by Ken Friedman created in 2003. A piece that I was first introduced to by the theatremaker Chris Goode.

I’m using it here because I think somewhere in the space between its two brief instructions it begins to describe what I hope art at its best can do. Art may begin with something imagined, a story or an idea or some new and unlikely piece of information, but it really becomes itself when that material starts to bleed out into the world beyond it. When something imagined becomes something lived.

For this reason I don’t think art is at its most effective when it is a place that we go to learn about the dangers of climate change. Instead, I want art to be the place where we go to imagine and enact new ways of living in response to that danger.

But being able to genuinely explore that kind of change relies absolutely upon artists and art institutions committing to radically changing themselves.  It requires them to be completely open to new ways of making art, new spaces for making art in and new ways of engaging with audiences. The arts have an opportunity and a responsibility to be the first place where we imagine a new life and the first place where we start to try and live it.

Rules for living

Here, then, are six potential rules for living, for either artists or organisations. Small challenges that might helps us to reshape our understanding of art and its relationship to the world. They are not supposed to be definitive and I’d welcome other suggestions if you have them. They are as much a challenge to myself as they are to anybody else, though if there is anyone willing to give them a go then all power to them.

  1. Make a piece of art without any electricity. And that includes its creation, its presentation and its dissemination.
  2. Make a piece of art without any money changing hands at any point, either your money or anyone else’s
  3. Make a piece of art without creating any new material. Material both in the literal physical sense and in the creative sense.
  4. Make a piece of art that can spread like an infection, travelling from one person to the other entirely out of your control
  5. Make a piece of art that cannot travel. A piece that can only be here and can only be now
  6. Make a piece of art that fundamentally changes the way you live. A piece that becomes so integral to you that to remove it would be like removing a part of yourself

My friend Kieran (again)

I want to end with Kieran on the train again. Probably slightly further now. Maybe having a cup of tea.

And I want Kieran to be a reminder that however outlandish and perhaps gimmicky those challenges might seem, they are not that far from what many artists are already doing.

Kieran began his journey by hitch-hiking to L’Aquila in 2009 and that journey still isn’t over. His show is not just what happens on stage, in the 50 brief and intimate minutes that he spends talking to us about his trip. His show is also the transformation that has affected on his artistic practice and the way in which he chooses to live his life. It is the challenge that it has posed in getting the show to Lisbon and the questions that challenge has raised for those of us who were trying to get it there. The show is the conversations that Kieran will have on the way explaining why he is on a train to Lisbon, and the show is me telling you this now.

All of this is the show. And as such that show becomes more than a story. It becomes an invitation. To imagine a life. And live it.

Creative Commons image by Hannah Nicklin of Kieran Hurley performing ‘Hitch’ at the Edgelands conference at Forest Fringe 2011.

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