Wednesday, 30 June 2010

beyond paintings

The story so far: On Monday night Tate Britain held a summer party to celebrate 20 years of sponsorship from BP. A letter to the Guardian, signed by 171 artists (including Caryl Churchill) expresses anger that the Tate and other national cultural institutions continue to sidestep the issue of oil sponsorship. On the Today programme former Arts Council chairman Sir Christopher Frayling and Greenpeace's Charlie Kronick come close to violent agreement on the issue. In the Daily Telegraph today however the composer James MacMillan describes the views of the 171 artists as 'luddite, eco-fascist utopianism'.

pic: Guardian graphic shows oil spill bigger than both Wales and Belgium more ...

only connect

Who would have guessed it? The paper that published the winner of One World Media's journalism award for increasing 'global understanding through effective use of the media' was the Mail on Sunday. One World Media is a UK-based charity that highlights development issues, and promotes democracy and fair government worldwide. The winner was Dan McDougall (left).

Jonathan Freedland, Guardian columnist and one of the judges, writes today about McDougall's three 'blistering reports' for the Mail on Sunday, which all focus on the world's extractive industries:

One showed the consequences of our ravenous appetite for lithium, the mineral used to power our iPods and BlackBerrys: those living around Chile's largest lithium mine are parched, as their water is either poisoned or diverted.

McDougall produced similarly eye-popping pieces on the Madagascan mines where the nickel for our coins comes from, and on the badlands of eastern Zimbabwe, where virtual slaves dig for diamonds, jewels that will eventually find their way here.

Freedland notes:

All these reports made the connection between apparently remote suffering and our own lives.

photo: frontlineclub more ...

three at once

The Independent reports on three new plays that take the destructive force of nature as their theme. more ...

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

flowers on stage: the poppy

In the first of the summer series of blogs about flowers on stage, Frances Babbage writes about poppies.

The flowers were scarlet poppies and they burst through the wall. In 1997, the Lecoq-trained theatre company Bouge-de-là presented Under Glass.

Its young woman protagonist lives a closed existence in a cramped bedsit, selecting each day the same clothes, in the same order; her ritualized sequence of actions structures each day predictably, protecting any her from all outside influence. Yet on one wall of her attic room is a poster of an Alpine field, studded with flowers.

An unvoiced and largely repressed fantasy of Switzerland and what this appears to represent is stirred into life when a young Swiss man, a neighbour, meets and fleetingly befriends her before leaving again, to return to his native country or travel elsewhere.

The audience recognises, as he does not, the consequences of his actions for this vulnerable woman: better perhaps that he had never come at all.

In the performance's final moments, she is left alone, again, in the small, drab room - even more alone, because abandoned. She leans against the wall, unspeaking: the damage done seems irreparable.

Then utterly without warning, flowers push their way through the wall. The dirty, fading wallpaper becomes an Alpine meadow, and pressed against it she appear to us to lie amongst poppies: maybe sleeping; maybe dying. She will never leave her little room; she will not travel to the places she dreams about. But in this moment she is transported there, and at the same time the pure fresh air and open fields burst in here. Living flowers, poppies, pushing in through peeling paper, connect two worlds: poetically, the image layers fresh against stale; movement against stasis; death against life.

This woman will not trust someone else another time. She will retreat still further. Perhaps she will die. But as she breathes in the scent of flowers, we can believe that something has changed for her in a way worth the anguish that comes with it.

Dr Frances Babbage is convenor of the MA in Theatre & Performance at Sheffield University. Her first book was Augusto Boal (Routledge, 2004).

photo: Al Cane
more ...

Monday, 28 June 2010

good question

On Thursday week there's a panel discussion at the ICA, chaired by former culture secretary, Chris Smith, titled The Climate for Theatre. It asks a question that has preoccupied this blog for last three years*:

Why, unlike AIDS, the conflict between Israel and Palestine or even the global financial crisis, has climate change not inspired a potentially attitude-shifting piece of theatre?

This blog will be reporting on what the answer is.

*See, for instance: they'll do the asking themselves; off topic; confusion in the middle classes; make it intimate, and you've lost it; the habituated imagination; sorry, don't want to discuss it; climate-change works for the stage, first climate change opera, finally, a good play about climate change, instinct for the times, and why theatres don't touch climate change. more ...

flowers on stage

This week we begin a summer series on the blog about flowers on stage. At the Ashden Directory we have considered various ways in which mammals have been presented and interpreted on stage (from whales to wolves). In these posts we want to consider the dramatic impact of flowers.

We have invited contributions from a playwright, a performer, a designer and two academics, who have each chosen one play and one flower. The flowers are the poppy, the lotus, the daffodil, the lungwort, the kudzu plant and a fictional plant in Susan Glaspell's play The Verge called 'Breath of Life'. The first of these posts - about the poppies in Under Glass - appears tomorrow. more ...

trash love

In this ten-minute interview, rich in provocations, Slavoj Zizek argues that we need to be more alienated from nature and embrace trash. more ...

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

pivotal role

Julie's Bicycle launched its theatre programme today for reducing carbon emissions. JB's chief executive Alison Tickell said the theatre sector had been 'short on vision, long on doubt'. What needed to be done, she said, was 'to find a few priorities' and 'to commit on a major scale'.  It was this thinking that lay behind the publication today of a new pamphlet Moving arts: managing the carbon impacts of our touring that gives the data on the most effective steps to take.

Nick Starr, executive director of the National Theatre, announced the names of the Theatre Group that he would chair. The list was impressive:

Nicholas Allott, managing director, Cameron Mackintosh; Gus Christie, executive chairman, Glyndebourne; Paule Constable, lighting designer; Vicky Featherstone, artistic director, National Theatre of Scotland; Vikki Heywood, executive director, Royal Shakespeare Company; Kate Horton, executive director, Royal Court Theatre; Judith Knight, director, Artsadmin; John McGrath, artistic director, National Theatre Wales; Andre Ptaszynski, managing director, Really Useful Group; Rosemary Squire, joint chief executive, Ambassador Theatre Group; Ben Todd, executive director, Arcola; Steve Tompkins director, Haworth Tompkins; and Erica Whyman, chief executive, Northern Stage

As the keynote speaker at the National this morning, Jonathan Porritt, applauded the practical well-researched approach that Julie's Bicycle had taken. He went on to widen the discussion, warning the audience against presenting climate change in apocalyptic terms. He thought the last government's CO2 campaign that had used a bedtime story to convey the message was 'shockingly awful'.

There were a number of good bits of news. He gave three examples. The new report that 98% of scientists concur with the science on climate change showed 'Jeremy Clarkson is wrong'. He also couldn't recall a time when 'the innovation pipeline looked so good'. And the business case for an environmental strategy was something that 'we had hardly started to understand'. His example was the huge advances made by Wal-Mart since its chief executive 'got the green bug'.

But these upsides, Porritt said, left one thing missing, which was particularly relevant to today's audience. Science was not enough. The Enlightenment idea that the truth would set us free has proved illusory. What's needed is creative talent. 'How can we fire up the sense of empathetic connectedness between people?' he asked, 'It makes the creative industries absolutely pivotal.'

See Ashden Directory news on Julie's Bicycle launch more ...

Monday, 21 June 2010

green tours

Tomorrow Jonathon Porritt, co-founder, Forum for the Future, and Nick Starr, executive director, National Theatre, launch the Julie's Bicycle report on Theatre Touring. more ...

Friday, 18 June 2010

on the fringe of the fringe

Earlier today, this blog was flicking through the Edinburgh Fringe Festival programme wondering if there were any plays that touch on climate change, the environment, or green issues. A little more searching since then, and this is the modest list so far:

The Zimbabwe farming play is Allegations. The Devon fishing play is Bound. There are two plays about Hurricane Katerina: The Rope in Your Hands and The Katrina Project: Hell and High Water. There are two plays about wolves: Howling and Wolf. And Cirque de Legume is back playing with vegetables.

Also, there's Hard Rain, the exhibition of photography by Mark Edwards (pic). And Ian Garrett is scheduled to come over for an event/talk session on theatre sustainability.

Let us know of any others. There's Faustus, of course ... more ...

like minds

People with higher degrees who care about food and wine, support gay rights, and want few children but good Internet connections have been gravitating to urban centers on the two coasts, while churchgoing families that drive everywhere, socialize with relatives, and send their kids to state universities have been heading to the growing exurbs of the southern and mountain states.

Mark Lilla on how American voters are moving into 'communities of like-mindedness' more ...

get with the programme

Flicking through the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, it's noticeable how many plays there are on economic migration and trafficking, and how few on climate change and the environment.

There's a play about farming in Zimbabwe, one about fisherman off the Devon coast, and ... well, that's as close as it gets at the moment. more ...

Thursday, 17 June 2010

round and round the world

Moving sets, transporting casts and lighting hotel rooms for British touring theatre companies creates as many greenhouse gas emissions every year as flying around the world 2,680 times. more ...

normalising the tragic

On Tuesday's blog, we noted a new exhibition of photography in New York which argues that there's an environmental aesthetic developing. In this guest post, Wallace Heim asks if these photos "are creating a ‘new environmental aesthetic’ or normalising the tragic?"

The photographs alarm and fascinate. The vast scales of mining, the rubble, the lurid insanity of pollution evoke different emotions to those of photographs of war or sudden disasters. The distance between these images and expectations of what is normal, healthy or right is arresting. There is an uncanny stillness. And in the landscapes where there is no human or animal in the photograph with which to imaginatively connect, looking at it can turn towards self-reflection; that ravaged landscape is a human endeavour, and it feels tragic.

As long as they shock, these photographs generate troubling questions about beauty in art, about the aesthetic appreciation of the environment, about the necessities driving human industry. There is a lot to witness and to photograph. This field of photography could evolve into a genre with predictable similarities in composition, subject matter and technique. That could normalise the ‘content’ of them, strip them of that special quality, in some, which provokes an unresolved disturbance. They may lose their motivating outrage, and render the landscapes themselves, in our aesthetic imagination, mundane.

It may be that these photographs are not only changing our senses of beauty and aesthetics, but changing our sense of the tragic, too.

A co-editor of the Ashden Directory, Wallace Heim also co-edited Nature Performed: Environment, Culture and Performance and discusses theatre and climate change here. more ...

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

new venue, new plays, old materials

The Jellyfish Theatre is a new venue in South London, a temporary structure, made entirely from recycled and reclaimed materials.

Two UK playwrights, Kay Adshead and Simon Wu, have written two environmentally-themed plays, specially for performance in the theatre. (Ht: chiaussieuk) more ...

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

after canute and kafka, it's moby dick

The author of Melville - His World and Work says:

It’s irresistible to make the analogy between the relentless hunt for whale oil in Melville’s day and for petroleum in ours.

(HT: Revkin) more ...

a lesson for history

The way the history of imperialism is taught  has, of course, big implications for the way we approach ideas about climate change, biodiversity, finite resources, and species extinction. So it's unhelpful to teach imperialism simply in terms of British imperialism as this leads to a narrow squabbles between left and right over its positive and negative impacts.

In today's Guardian letters, Matthew Brown, Director, Centre for the Study of Colonial and Postcolonial Societies, University of Bristol, argues against the history curriculum's 'overwhelming emphasis' on Hitler and suggests:

There were many other global empires whose historical development could be more usefully compared with the British, such as the French, Spanish or Portuguese.

This call for a wider approach is echoed by Andy Webb, from Buckinghamshire, who recommends Neil MacGregor's History of the World in 100 Objects because it addresses 'two key issues at the heart of the current controversy':

Firstly, he moves swiftly from the particular to the context and the broad sweeps of history and culture. Secondly, his perspective is global, self-consciously avoiding a Eurocentric let alone a nationalistic history ... more ...

new look

The purpose of The Tragedy of Beauty - its curators say - is to demonstrate that global environmental struggles are creating an aesthetic.

The nine photographers represented at the exhibition are: Edward Burtynsky (Canada); Mitch Epstein (USA); Anthony Hamboussi (USA); Chris Jordan (USA); Christopher LaMarca (USA); Sze Tsung Leong (USA); David Maisel (USA); Susannah Sayler/The Canary Project (USA); Jo Syz (UK). more ...

life on the bin

In a blog for the LRB, Robert Hanks notes that grey squirrels round Hackney used to be timid, but now are evolving:

into larger, more aggressive animals, spurred on by a diet rich in our discarded protein. I watch one squatting on a bin, food clutched in its little hands, glaring back at me, and it hardly feels like nature at all. more ...

bird count

Daily information from the Fish & Wildlife Collection Report on the impact on birds of the BP oilspill appears at (h-t: dd) more ...

Monday, 14 June 2010

after canute, it's kafka

Who else could imagine a world where drill-baby-drillers go all environmental on us? (h-t: a+l) more ...

Friday, 11 June 2010

on the beach

As Americans turn angrily on Barack Obama over his handling of the oilspill (see grow up and pointing the finger) both the New Yorker and The Economist invoke the figure of King Canute. The New Yorker's Bob Madoff has a cartoon of a king on his throne at the beach with oil lapping round his feet.

The Economist has a leader that reminds readers (at last) that the 11th century Danish King was proving to his courtiers that he was not omnipotent. more ...

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

grow up

In the Independent, Rupert Cornwell describes how, for the American public, Obama's response to the oilspill is implicitly 'violating the assumption that the man in the Oval Office is omnipotent'. Hard to imagine a stupider assumption.

See the Economist's review of The Icarus Syndrome. more ...

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

imagining things differently

In this second guest post about the recent Dark Mountain festival, English lecturer and blogger Abbie Garrington welcomes the move from 'manifesto to differently-imagined manifestation'.

As Benjamin Morris's post yesterday made clear, the Dark Mountain manifesto has caused some controversy since its launch nine months ago. The most widely-read response has been George Monbiot's, with the comments facility beneath his Guardian article attracting many more queries about just what Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth propose and why. Solitaire Townsend's more recent address to the issues brimmed with frustration. It is testament to the broad church approach of the Dark Mountain project, and the hospitality of its hosts, that many of these doubters and critics were compelled to make the trip to picturesque Llangollen (pic) to find out more at the Uncivilisation festival that was the result of this nine-month ideological gestation period.

The decision to stage a festival which extrapolated upon and defended the ideas behind the manifesto was a bold one - it is far from easy to make the transition from manifesto to manifestation, to see the necessarily artful language of an attention-grabbing piece find some kind of expression in a gathering. Dougald and Paul's welcome to the festival acknowledged the accusations of their critics, admitting that their own position had been refined and re-worked in the time since writing. While others saw this as a weakness, the authors suggested it was a strength, demonstrating the flexibility of a manifesto that responded to the ecology of the ideas that gathered around it, rather than standing rigid in the manner of a political tract. With its emphasis on the role of art in the revolution of human thought (and with its origins in many hours of pub discussion) the Dark Mountain manifesto owes more to the -ists and -isms of the early twentieth century than to the political pamphlet tradition. The invitation to Llangollen was intriguing as a result - to what cause, exactly, were we rallying?

One of the most interesting aspects of Uncivilisation's rather ragged gathering of thinkers, writers, artists, musicians, philosophers, activists and foragers (see the programme here) was the terminology which accrued over the course of the weekend. With a controversial manifesto hovering over our activities, this was perhaps inevitable. The terms which recurred throughout were: conversation, stories, community, sustainability. These were the positives. The negatives were more nebulous, largely being described as "the economic machine" or the "capitalist economy." What conversations and stories might do to address the problems of such a machine, particularly given the rather worn-out and empty language of environmentalism in evidence at this very festival, was unclear.

The somewhat sarcastically posed question which has dogged the Dark Mountain project is that outlined by the title of John Felstiner's recent book: Can Poetry Save the Earth? The question is designed to evoke David and Goliath images - haiku vs. the Bank of England, limerick vs. oil slick - but it is one which the Dark Mountain project has put back on the agenda. The terms of the manifesto may be contestable, the language of the festival may be tired and old, but the project leaves open the possibility of Seamus Heaney's concept of the 'redress of poetry' - the imagining of a world which is at once separate from and contiguous with our own, and which imagines things differently. The common root between 'manifesto' and 'manifestation' indicates that the former will bring into being, make manifest or evident, through the power of declamatory language. This is not a world away from the sorcery that Heaney ascribes to poetry (there too in Don Paterson's description of poetry as the 'dark art'). Whatever the flaws of the project, hats off to the Dark Mountaineers for their first bold step from manifesto to differently-imagined manifestation.

Abbie Garrington blogs at springcoppice, leads environmental expeditions with BSES (of the Royal Geographical Society) and, having taught English literature at Edinburgh University for several years, is about to take up a lectureship at Newcastle. more ...

pointing the finger

In a piece about the oilspill that could hardly be more un-green, the Independent columnist Bruce Anderson nevertheless makes the point that 'British Petroleum' (as President Obama likes to call it) has 24,000 American employees and 10,000 British employees. In the Sunday Times, Andrew Sullivan goes one further in apportioning blame:

If you want to assign real, structural blame, it belongs in the end to the American people, who simply refuse to wean themselves off carbon and want to continue having the cheapest petrol in the West.

The Onion reports Massive Flow Of Bullshit Continues To Gush From BP Headquarters more ...

Monday, 7 June 2010

a politics worth fighting for

In the first of two guest blogs about the recent Dark Mountain Festival, Benjamin Morris, who ran the Culture of Climate Change research group at Cambridge, applauds a vision of politics 'in which no aspect of civic life is separated from the others'.

Arriving in a field at night and missing tent pegs was not how I’d planned to start the weekend. Being met, however, by friends and strangers bearing wine in one hand and spare kit in the other, should have indicated a certain measure of promise. A promise that was swiftly fulfilled: a full weekend of talks, music, discussions, film, and demonstrations spent in beautiful Llangollen, Wales, Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain Festival proved an inspiring gathering whose effects and implications will be rippling out for months to come.

Undoubtedly the Festival’s main attraction was the staged debate between George Monbiot and Dougald Hine, a session which had been billed as the latter ‘grilling’ the former about his earlier criticism of the project in the Guardian. It didn’t quite turn out that way. Monbiot took the stage, and then took it again, launching into Dark Mountain’s work in front of a packed main hall. Part of the problem was structural: Hine had to play two roles at once, that of debater and of event chair, which both ate away at his own response time and which, crucially, required him to remain courteous even as Monbiot steamrolled any counter-point he tried to make. A chair would have been able to curtail Monbiot’s aggression and allow for a more nuanced give-and-take.

The content of the debate, however, was stirring, and it will be fascinating to revisit the footage as the movement develops. Monbiot’s primary critique was leveled at Dark Mountain’s willingness to specify everything that is broken with our society without offering in the same stroke a replacement vision. 'We know what you are against,' he said, 'but what are you for?' While the answer can and should not be condensed to a sound-bite, one of the strengths of the movement is its vision of a politics in which no aspect of civic life is separated from the others. A politics in which art, economics, ecology, philosophy, and pragmatics are fundamentally intertwined – a version of the 'social democracy' Tony Judt outlines in Ill Fares the Land – is a politics well worth fighting for, even if the first step towards it, disassembling the current order, is necessarily vague. Monbiot’s criticism will therefore only strengthen the project, prompting a reassessment not only of its goals but, critically, of its tools: with what means will we redesign society into this novel synthesis? Will these methods resemble those that have been leveled before (education campaigns, science-to-policy interfacing, direct action) or will they be as unrecognisable to present-day eyes as an iPhone would have been to a Minoan?

No one speaker can be highlighted for praise above the others, though with Alastair McIntosh and Mario Petrucci’s breathtaking poetry, it is tempting. A real highlight was the relaxed atmosphere, which Paul Kingsnorth specifically claimed in his welcome. 'You’re not audience members here,' he said, 'you’re participants.' So it went with spontaneous events (the Dark Mountain Fringe) cropping up almost hourly, from a midnight walk on Saturday to a nearby waterfall where Dark Mountaineers made a bonfire and shared wine and song, to an open-mic session of poetry, theatre, and more music on Sunday evening. Or consider Jay Griffiths’ talk, when the mics suddenly cut out and would not be revived: Griffiths invited everyone up to the stage where a circle formed around her, and her lecture became more of a shared story, and then, a conversation—which could not have been warmer or more inviting.

Uncivilisation was, in the end, fairly well civilised, both in venue and format, but these glimpses of small, local outings and uprisings may well be a roadmap for its future work. Midway through the festival I asked a friend to sum up his experience thus far in five words: 'Lively,' he began. Then paused. 'Intriguing. A little earnest.' Another pause—two words left. 'Lack of toilets.' In other words, with a combination of excellent music, fine company, glimpses of spontaneity, a dash of controversy, and overtaxed facilities, Dark Mountain can officially take its place alongside any other self-respecting summer festival in the UK. The present ambiguity surrounding its political mission is thus less a bar to entry than an invitation to join the debate. Anyone doubting this approach only needed to look at the Caulbearers’ raucous set on Saturday night. Even Monbiot was dancing.

Benjamin Morris ( is a writer, researcher, and editor, and co-founder of The Cultures of Climate Change research group at the University of Cambridge, where he recently completed a PhD.

Tomorrow Abbie Garrington writes about the move from a manifesto to a festival.
more ...

Thursday, 3 June 2010

oil in the mind

Theatre critic and poet Alison Croggon writes:

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is small beer besides the three-decade environmental catastrophe in Nigeria, where equivalent oil-spills occur every year.

Croggon asks:

Shall we continue fiddling as Rome burns? Or are we doing something else?

She continues:

I'm not stupid or vain enough to think art can save the world. But those who denigrate art are even more stupid than those who proclaim its vanities: it is imagination that has created our entire human reality.

The problem is that art's power exists only in its truthfulness, and truthfulness is not the
lingua franca of power more ...

it's a mile an hour in the states

The results are in:

The southernmost daffodil (and first) arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, January 25, and the northernmost daffodil arrived in Ft. Kent, Maine April 15. The distance was 1884 miles in 80 days, 23.5 miles per day or about 1 mile an hour.

Backstory: Stephen Fry says daffs move at a third of a mile an hour in the UK. An Atlanta school measures the progress. Our co-editor gets a daffodil post-card to fill in.

Thanks to: Paideia School more ...