Wednesday 31 December 2008

the birth of 'scientist'

2009 also sees the 40th anniversary of C. P. Snow's 'Two Cultures' lecture, which argued there was a deep split within the British educational system between the arts and the sciences.

(One sign of this, perhaps, has been the painfully slow response from those in the arts community to the implications of the IPCC reports. As science historian Nancy Oreskes says: 'there's a huge disconnect between what professional scientists have studied and learned in the last 30 years, and what is out there in the popular culture'.)

The split goes back a long way. On Monday's Start The Week, Richard Holmes, author of The Age of Wonder (blogged here), described - 39 mins in - the precise moment that the word 'scientist' was coined:

'There is a moment, it's 1833, you can pin it down, it's the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the breakaway from the Royal Society. They all meet in Cambridge. All the young scientists are there, so is the aged Coleridge, and they have this discussion: "What do we call ourselves?' And somebody suggests "scientists". That word did not exist until 1833.' more ...

Tuesday 30 December 2008

one did, one didn't

As 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope and the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, the New Scientist asked a bunch of thinkers to decide who was more important.

One showed us that we inhabit a tiny speck orbiting a tiny speck, all but lost among billions of specks in a galaxy (says philosopher Daniel Dennett). The other struck at the root of what it means to be human (says physicist Paul Davies).

This blog adds: one became the subject of a great play, the other didn't. more ...

Monday 29 December 2008

two wonderful things

Michael Frayn says Harold Pinter did two 'really wonderful things politically'. One was to go to Turkey and protest against the arrest of writers there. The other was his Nobel acceptance speech. more ...

Sunday 28 December 2008

how playwrights tackle politics

The many tributes to Harold Pinter have been followed by a couple of dissenting views that have concentrated on the playwright's political views.

Johann Hari has written witheringly about Pinter's support for Milosevic and Minette Marin has proposed 'an odd natural law of literature: creative writers are often silly political commentators'. Her list of examples, other than Pinter, includes Tolstoy, Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, V.S. Naipaul and Martin Amis. Her example of someone sane who stayed out of politics is Chekhov.

But Chekhov's journey in 1890 to the prison colony in Sakhalin, which he wrote about in The Island: Journey to Sakhalin, was deeply political. Chekhov travelled 4,000 miles by boat and coach to report on the conditions. He wrote:

'We have sent millions of men to rot in prison, have destroyed them - casually without thinking, barbarously ... have depraved them, have multiplied criminals, and the blame for all this we have thrown upon the gaolers and red-nosed superintendents. Now all educated Europe knows that it is not the superintendents that are to blame, but all of us ...'

(quoted in V. S. Pritchett's Chekhov - A Spirit Set Free)

Chekhov makes a direct connection between lives that are lived in places that are thousands of miles apart. He backs this up with meticulous and exhausting research. It's an example of the role of empathy in politics, a subject that is central to any fuller grasp of the implications of climate change. more ...

Saturday 27 December 2008

passive resistance

As public buildings - including theatres and museums - get lousy ratings for their CO2 emissions, it's timely to learn that in 'passive houses' outside Frankfurt the families use only 5% of the energy their parents' homes used and the new homes cost only 5% -7% more to build. more ...

Wednesday 24 December 2008

shoes of another

In a comment that follows his own post on Climate Change Denial, Roman Krznaric writes

"In her book Other People’s Shoes, the British Shakespearean actress Harriet Walter has written that actors ‘are the custodians of another person’s thoughts, and must locate them and reproduce them as faithfully as possible. This has nothing to do with interpretation or imitation. Accents and mannerisms are not the point. The exercise is to quieten our own ego and let another person speak.’ This approach to acting mirrors the imaginative act of empathising where we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of another, and allow their thoughts and experiences to become part of us and guide us. To my mind, the more drama work around climate change, the better."

Krznaric's essay, ‘Empathy and Climate Change: Proposals for a Revolution of Human Relationships’, can be downloaded here. more ...

Monday 22 December 2008

lyrical precision

It was reading Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams that convinced Robert Macfarlane that 'lyricism was a function of precision - and that exact and exacting attention to the natural world was a kind of moral gaze.'

Macfarlane writes about what he has learnt from other nature writers in the Jan/Feb edition of Resurgence (not yet online). Macfarlane has also written about Lopez here. more ...

Sunday 21 December 2008

top appointment

'There is already widespread harm ... occurring from climate change. This is not just a problem for our children and our grandchildren.'

John Holdren, Harvard physicist and newly-appointed chief scientific adviser to the Obama administration. In his weekly radio address, Barack Obama shows how much he intends to differ from his predecessor,

'It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It's about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it's inconvenient – especially when it's inconvenient.' more ...

Saturday 20 December 2008

in two words

Newsweek has a feature on art and culture in the Bush era. The list of works the magazine thinks best catches the era runs: 'Battlestar Galactica', ‘American Idol’, Jeff Koons’s ‘Hanging Heart’, Jonathan Franzen's ‘The Corrections’, ‘Black Hawk Down’, ‘Borat’, Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’, Caryl Churchill's ‘Far Away’ and Rick Warren's 'The Purpose-Driven Life'.

One movie blogger writes,

'I don't know what "one work" I'd pick to represent the Bush years, but I do know which phrase I would select. It isn't "axis of evil," or "weapons of mass destruction" or "mission accomplished" or even "with us or against us." It's another Bush quote, a response to the implicit question of what Americans should do after 9/11. He responded: "Go shopping."' more ...

Friday 19 December 2008

the only question

Complicite's Simon McBurney gives a spot-on interview to American Theatre:

'Naturalism is not suited to the theatre because theatre is about communication with the audience. In the end the only question in the theatre is: How does the play become alive? In fact, theatre only exists in the mind of the audience - it does not exist on stage, or in a play. It only exists because the audience brings it alive.'

Hat-tip: Theatreforte more ...

Thursday 18 December 2008

endgames for artists

American installation artist James Turrell gets it:

'If people are going to transform their lives for the sake of reduced emissions, they must be moved and inspired to do so.'

(Hat-tip: Lily Oster.)

So too does David Cross:

'In addition to producing aesthetic and contemplative experiences, contemporary art and design should test concepts, assumptions and boundaries in everyday life, and imagine new ways — material and intellectual — of going about the world.'

(Hat-tip: WS.) more ...

Wednesday 17 December 2008

whales in driveways

'What we know of whales', writes Elin Kelsey, author of Watching Giants, 'we extrapolate from the tiny glimpses researchers get at the water surface, and even then, only by looking in the same old places.'

Studying whales has been compared to researching humans solely by watching them in their driveways.

The Ashden Directory has just posted three new articles about whales and the performing arts. We survey the writers and directors who have imagined the impossible - putting whales onstage. The philosopher and composer David Rothenberg attempts a new level of interspecies communication by playing jazz with whales. In the ancient Inuit fable of 'The Narwhal', storyteller Helen East finds a thoroughly modern story about whales and greed.

For the performing arts, there's a special challenge in interpreting the lives of animals and their habitats: so much that is essential cannot be contained on the stage. As concern over biodiversity and species extinction becomes acute, these issues call for new levels of imaginative engagement between audiences and performers.

In the New Scientist the philosopher A C Grayling writes about the complex social, emotional and cognitive lives of great apes with their 'self-awareness and capacities for affection and grief'.

He adds, 'It makes one think, and once one starts reflecting on ethical boundaries, it's hard not to conclude that they are best drawn as far out as possible.' more ...

Tuesday 16 December 2008

green ink

Ted Turner asked his arch-rival Rupert Murdoch to lunch after Murdoch announced his decision to reduce News Corp’s carbon footprint. As Mr Turner says, 'Who would have thought that after all these years an environmental gesture would give us the excuse to get together and bury the hatchet, but that’s exactly what we did?' more ...

Monday 15 December 2008

getting ready

GoS emails that Wallace Shawn's lines from The Fever about an amazing moment (‘before the day starts') reminds him of Philip Larkin’s Aubade.

'Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.' more ...

Friday 12 December 2008

david lan gets it

The Young Vic's artistic director David Lan identifies two key issues in relation to theatre and climate change. One is the global interconnectedness of 21st century lives. The other is the 'impossibility' of controlling context when everyone arrives with their own ideas.

On interconnectedness: 'The premise one starts from is: "We want to learn". I suppose a lot of the impulse comes from a sense of wanting to live in the real world, and part of the process of being alive is constantly discovering that you don’t really understand what’s going on and you want to know a little bit more than you did last week and the realities of the way we live are so complicated, but as the last three months have made abundantly clear, we are also living in each other’s pockets. A complex financial situation in downtown Miami can cause a collapse of the banks in Reykjavik. Now, what does that mean about the way we create work in the theatre?'

On context: ' ... part of the job of producing is to try and control the way in which the audience receive what you are creating, by the context in which that is presented. If you are working in an area, like this Brazil project , which has a relationship to a set of ideas and arguments and actions about climate change, it is very, very, very hard, it is impossible, to control that context, because everybody comes at it with a set of their own ideas.'

Hat tip RSA. more ...

an amazing moment

Grains of Sand linked last week (2 Dec) to Chris Goodall’s observation that ‘the London opera houses have had more taxpayer money than the British marine power industry over the past few years.’ GoS adds, ‘It should not, of course, have to be either/or, and neither I nor, I am sure, Chris Goodall would want to suggest such a thing.’

One person who does describe these kinds of choices in terms of either/or, and who himself earns his living in the arts, is the playwright Wallace Shawn. In his thoroughly discomforting play The Fever (1991), he writes,

'And there’s an amazing moment: each day, before the day starts, before the market opens, before the bidding begins, there’s a moment of confusion. The money is silent, it hasn’t yet spoken. Its decisions are withheld, poised, perched, ready. Everyone knows that the world will not do everything today; if food is produced for the hungry children, then certain operas will not be performed; if certain performances are in fact given, then the food won’t be produced, and the children will die.'

The Royal Court's season of Wallace Shawn plays opens next Spring. more ...

Thursday 11 December 2008

the wire-cutter's art

Over at the RSA arts and ecology blog, William Shaw makes a good point about art and activism. John Vidal's Guardian report refers to the protester who breached the security at Kingsnorth power station (and crashed a giant 500MW turbine) as the 'green Banksy'. OK, the headline and text put the phrase in quote marks, but Shaw writes:

'Does that make anyone with a pair of wire cutters an artist? This would, of course, open the door to the Michael Stone defence becoming widespread. Michael Stone is, as you will recall, the convicted paramilitary murderer who was arrested trying to burst into Stormont armed with a gun and pipe bombs to murder Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, but justified his act by claiming it was "performance art"'.

see also on this blog: art, ads and agit-prop, keep it distinct, the message is not to have one, artists and activists and just asking.
more ...

the negotiator and the polemicist

There's a fascinating online exchange (in purely dramatic terms) between George Monbiot and Yvo de Boer, the UN's chief climate change negotiator. Here we meet two climate-change characters - the polemicist and the negotiator. The difference is nicely captured in the final moment in this 10-minute interview.

MONBIOT. You must be pretty relieved to see the end of President Bush.

DE BOER. No, not really. I was impressed by the change that he went through on global warming. I saw him launch a major economies process. I saw him initiate a new financial facility under the World Bank. He was trying to engage on this topic within what he perceived to be the economic realities and political realities of his country. And I respect that.

MONBIOT. So the UN's chief climate change negotiator is the only man on earth who doesn't think that President Bush was a disaster for climate change!

DE BOER. I don't think I'm the only person on earth. I think that he represents a number of political and economic realities that we need to respect if we are going to move forward in a way that holds water. more ...

Wednesday 10 December 2008

exit strategy

The Guardian's hostile review of Amazonia includes this fairly remarkable sentence: 'But it is the sheer po-faced earnestness of the turgid script that scuppers any joy, as if those making it thought that watching it would make us better people, when actually the preachiness makes you long to rush out and lop down a tree.' more ...

Tuesday 9 December 2008

mind the gap

One of the toughest challenges for climate-change campaigners is the gap that exists (in storytelling terms) between cause and effect. That gap is closing. It looks like lawyers may make the connections before dramatists do. more ...

Monday 8 December 2008

not very joined-up

It didn't pass anyone's notice, at today's Tipping Point
science event in London, that today's news had the Environment Secretary Ed Miliband advocating 'popular mobilisation' to tackle carbon emissions and 57 climate-change activists were arrested at Stansted. more ...

Sunday 7 December 2008


More people die each month on American roads than were killed in the September 11 attacks. But where, asks the TLS, is the war on cars?

(Instead: $15 billion aid package to pull Detroit's big three automakers from brink of collapse.) more ...

Friday 5 December 2008

coming of age

Andrew Revkin says his environmental reporting for the New York Times has evolved.

'Climate change is not the story of our time. Climate change is a subset of the story of our time, which is that we are coming of age on a finite planet and only just now recognizing that it is finite.' more ...

Thursday 4 December 2008


Protest Naomi Klein style.

'The only kind of protest she likes is the Yippie kind, theatrical enough to be entertaining and self-mocking enough to dilute the earnestness to a level that she can tolerate.' more ...

Wednesday 3 December 2008

renewable sponsors

Grains of Sand suggests those in the performing arts concerned about climate change should twin up with enlightened investors: 'Les PĂȘcheurs de Perles, brought to you by tidal power; Riders from the Sea, powered by offshore wind turbines.' more ...

Tuesday 2 December 2008

playwrights respond to other plays

Another one to add to reasons why theatres don't touch climate change is that people have held back from staging something that isn't quite good enough. (For a long time, the Full Monty's Simon Beaufoy was writing a climate-change play for the Tricycle, but it never appeared.) But maybe a few not-so-great plays about climate change would get the thing going.

The American playwright Christopher Shinn writes in the introduction to his Plays: 1 that he began his second play after seeing Shopping and Fucking ('I thought it was one of those plays that valorises the thing it claims to critique'.) Shinn says his university tutor Tony Kushner had 'put the idea into my head that playwrights can respond to plays they hate by writing new ones - I think he even told me he wrote Angels in America in response to some stupid Aids play.'

Angels in America appears in our timeline (1993) as the first play in which an angel descends to earth through a hole in the ozone layer. more ...