Where do we go from here? Climate change, arts & Culture Shift

24 Nov 2014 admin

We’re very excited about Culture Shift – the new report by Emergence on how artists are responding to sustainability. (It’s also available in Welsh). Culture Shift includes a great idea for a “Gablik Test” for the arts, learning from the Bechdel Test.

Here is an extract from the report.


“If the scientists are right, we’re living through the biggest thing that’s happened since human civilisation emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know a bout it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” 

So wrote the environmentalist Bill McKibben in an article for Open Democracy in 2005, a sentiment echoed in the same year by the writer Robert MacFarlane in The Guardian who asked

“Where is the creative response to what Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser, has famously described as “the most severe problem faced by the world”?”

Over the intervening years, that creative response has developed and more recently we’ve seen a growing interest in the role of the arts in environmental and social issues. Charting these responses and, more specifically, exploring the experiences, challenges and reception of arts projects that set out to ‘know about’ (in Bill McKibben’s use of the phrase) the major environmental problems we are both causing and facing, ensures that this work is visible, understood and is responding as effectively as possible to Bill McKibben’s call.

Tilting at Windmills - Jess Allen
Tilting at Windmills – Jess Allen

At worst, the combining of arts and sustainability has been interpreted as an instrumental tick – box exercise or a social engineering project; at best it is seen as part of a growing need for the arts to help us find our way in the current cultural shift we a re moving through.

This report, Culture Shift – How Artists are responding to Sustainability in Wales, was commissioned by the Arts Council of Wales (ACW) to explore this ‘creative response’ in Wales: to identify key projects, initiatives, networks and organisations that are part of what is becoming an emerging ‘sector’ within the arts; to draw out themes, threads and commonalities; and to establish a represent ative picture of how principles of sustainability are being used to underpin creative projects, and, conversely, how creative principles are being used to enhance sustainability projects.

There is a raft of arts and sustainability initiatives, including Transition Towns, Dark Mountain, Tipping Point, Julie’s Bicycle, Platform, Creative Carbon Scotland, Case for Optimism, and a growing ‘community of practice’ here in the UK. The existence of these initiatives and networks has led to the UK being recognized as a leader in creative responses to climate change, social justice and sustainability, with many of the above receiving invitations to contribute to and organise gatherings worldwide. Simultaneously, a more loosely connected but highly responsive wave of artists has developed, engaging with systemic issues like regeneration, community, social justice and the environment.

This report consciously builds on the UK – wide work of others in this area: In 2010 Sustainable Ability (Neal & Jennings, 2010) sought to “map transformative responses to resource scarcity and climate change from individuals and organisations working in the arts”. M ore recently, Sustaining Creativity (Julie’s Bicycle, 2014) surveyed arts organisations in ” an ambitious new programme to turbo charge the cultural response to the environment”.

It is a commonly held perception, especially for those living outside its borders, that Wales is a mecca for green initiatives. The Cent re for Alternative Technology, John Seymour – pioneer of the ‘back to the land movement – and Tipi Valley, one of the UK’s original eco-communities, all established themselves here in the 1970’s and 80’s and since then ‘low – impact’ communities such as Lamm as have followed in their wake. The introduction in 2011 of a charge for carrier bags has cemented this perception. However, in the context of creative responses to sustainability, the two reports mentioned above appear to contradict this notion of an environmentally aware, eco-conscious nation.

Sustainable Ability identified 190 UK initiatives but mapped no activity in Wales. The results of Sustaining Creativity were also disappointing with only thirteen Welsh arts organisations choosing to contribute to a UK wide survey about sustainable attitudes and practice. Such results seem to show that Wales is either invisible or performing below the UK average in terms of current engagement.

The aim of this commission i s to look at this picture in more detail and find out what is happening. It aims to give voice to something that is very much ‘in the air’: namely that m any artists are fundamentally questioning or changing their creative practice. Some are in the early stages of this journey, while others have been evolving a renewed approach for years. Some work in isolation, while others take on a leadership role and de velop collaborative processes.

In order to track the extent and variety of projects, and to look at who is doing what, where and why, we included both the ‘official’ (known to ACW and in r eceipt of regular funding) and ‘unofficial’ (peripheral or invisible) arts sectors in Wales. Our hunch was that while there are a few key leaders of change within the identified cultural establishment in Wales, there is much leadership coming from the margins. This includes artists and individuals breaking away, operating with little or no profile, working alone or leading projects whose impact and ambition outweigh their public recognition. These would not have been relevant to the remit of the Sustaining Creativity study and would have been missed by Sustainable Ability , needing more local knowledge to track them down.

For our survey we were inspired by the Brundtland definition of sustainable development –

“[Sustainable development is] development that meets the needs of the p resent without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

We also asked respondents to attend to their own ‘intuitive’ understanding of sustainability. Wales is one of only three democracies in the world with the delivery of sustainability built into its Constitution (see box) and what i s fundamental to both these definitions and to the work identified in this report is that sustainability has a wide reach and is about systemic change, not just single issues. Communicating something this far – reaching and complex is not easy. Wallace Heim, writing about Stephen Emmet and Katie Mitchell’s lecture piece Ten Billion, said

“This is a far more confused territory, requiring human imagination and many avenues o f intelligence, deliberation, conflict and consent”

The work identified in this report is the response by artists to a perceived need, to a sense that circumstance has created an ‘ art shaped space ’ around some of the biggest challenges we currently face – and that it is our responsibility to inhabit that space in ways that are useful, to encourage agency and enable cultural shift and change.

Necessarily, much of this work starts close to the people, the communities who need it. It is emergent, often edgy, often difficult to categorise. As our report reveals, this sense of civic responsibility and response is felt by a wide range of creative practitioners. Dancers and furniture designers, playwrights and community activists are all speaking the same language. This is not simply work ‘about’ sustainability, it is work that models sustainability in form as well as content, forcing new artistic practices and methods of public engagement that do the jobs that art needs to do now. The art in this report does not exist just for itself; it exists in relationship – to the world, to community, to change, to wholeness and to our need for a positive future. Together with the artists who have contributed to this report, in Suzi Gablik’s words, we hope that it plays its part in

“encouraging the emergence of a more participatory, socially interactive framework for art”.

Focus Areas