Thursday 30 June 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the act of breathing

In the first in our series on New metaphors for sustainability, the artist Ansuman Biswas, whose work moves between music, dance, theatre, visual art and writing, chooses the act of breathing.

I can’t imagine something that sustains forever and the notion of an endpoint isn’t there in the idea of sustainability. We’re talking about something that’s eternal, and I don’t know anything that is eternal. I can’t imagine eternity.

The word itself, sustenir from the Latin, is to hold something up. It's as if there's some magical wish to hold up against gravity. The image I keep coming back to is the image of breath with its inherent balance, and the craziness of trying to breathe in forever. What if I could breathe in forever? What would happen if I just took in more and more and more oxygen, and just kept breathing? As if I wanted to keep growing, more and more - I would burst like a balloon. I would just die.

It's necessary also to let go, to recognise the limits of my ribcage, the limits of my diaphragm and my body to hold any more breath. To recognise at the level of my body where that limit is and to let go. And in letting go, in breathing out, I speak and I sing to the world, and make a contribution that is unique to this body.

That’s the important part of sustainability. What is sustained is the song, is the music. It’s not made just by me and can’t be made if I only grasp at it. It has to be let go of and given. It's that music, that note, which for me sustains.
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Wednesday 29 June 2011

Metaphors to continue to live by

Last year, Ashden Directory co-editor, Wallace Heim, presented a series of blogs about a neglected topic in environment and performance: Flowers on Stage. Today, Wallace introduces her new series: New metaphors for sustainability.

Metaphors influence our lives in many subtle and often overlooked ways: from the idea of life as a journey to the rhetorical wars on drugs and terror, metaphors help shape the world in which we
live. Some conjure up, very effectively, a particular set of circumstances: the "iron curtain", the "green belt", and the "glass ceiling".

But some of the most pressing ideas and circumstances today are short of illuminating or imaginative metaphors. 'Sustainability’ is one, narrowed by the language defining it and lacking the surprising metaphors that would express its significance, encompass its contradictions, and evoke its potential.

To encourage a shift in this situation, I’ve asked people to suggest a metaphor for ‘sustainability’. Over the next weeks, I’ll be presenting the metaphors that performance and visual artists, writers, architects, cultural commentators, environmentalists, activists and scientists have suggested. Each person’s metaphor will appear here on Ashdenizen as a blog, and all of them will be compiled on the Ashden Directory.

The project is not about finding the metaphor, but about revitalising the discourse. I wanted people to approach sustainability from the perspective that had meaning for them, whether sceptical or supportive. The first metaphor appears tomorrow.
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Tuesday 28 June 2011

Physical theatre that works on many levels

Bradon Smith visits the Greenwich and Docklands Festival to see Wired Aerial Theatre's latest production, one of this year's TippingPoint commissions

As the World Tipped is a spectacular piece, written and directed by Nigel Jamieson, lying somewhere on the joins between theatre, cinema and circus arts. It opens in a bureaucratic setting with a roll-call of extinct species. An official takes a sheet of paper, reads the name of the lost species, stamps it and transfers it to another pile. Around him others bring the pieces of paper, at first singly and then in boxes, until they tower around him. As the boxes obscure his desk, news comes through of the COP15 summit, and the scene moves to Copenhagen.

And with that, the narrative of the piece is pretty much done. Because as we listen to excerpts from speeches from COP15 by Brown, Obama, and representatives of the Alliance of Small Island States; and as the negotiators struggle to reach an agreement; and as the characters on stage become increasingly exasperated as successive drafts are rejected; as this happens, the stage begins to tip towards the audience.

First boxes and papers begin to slide, then desks, then performers, who struggle to scramble up the inclining stage. As the stage becomes steeper, climbing becomes more difficult – some of the actors have reached the top and are hanging precariously on to the edge, but others are having difficulty. And the audience reacts with a combination of pleasure at the spectacle, cheering the performers in the manner of a pantomime, but with also a suggestion of anxiety, a sort of vicarious vertigo.

Hoisted by a crane, the stage becomes a vertical stage-screen; and as images are projected on to it, the performers – now wired to harnesses – tumble down the face of it and, in the vignettes that follow, interact with the images in a way that is convincing and compelling. As the text of draft negotiations scrolls down the screen, for example, the performers run, leaping the paragraph breaks; or as we watch scenes of floods, the actors are bounced around by the roiling water.

The movement of the performers across the screen is achieved by attaching them via pullies to operators who scamper up and down two ladders running along the sides of the screen-stage. The hanging performers are deftly manipulated, so that they appear immersed in the scene projected behind them. In one nice moment we see a girl scampering up the inclines of a graph projected on the screen behind her (CO2? GDP?) and sliding down the declines, with her operator administering a jolt as she 'hits' the bottom of each downward trend.

One result of this mechanism is that the performers themselves have only limited control over their own movements, aiding the illusion. But it is also an important part of the piece's visual metaphor – the characters appear at the mercy of the environment staged or screened behind them: at first, the failure of the Copenhagen negotiations, and then the unstable climate we have created.

As the World Tipped is a spectacle, but it also reveals evidence of a depth to its thinking. In one scene, a character is consumed by fire in a rather clichéd post-apocalyptic landscape. As she hangs limply, this scene is in turn swallowed by a TV screen, leaving the performer suspended in the frame. The moment suggests, perhaps, an awareness of the inadequacy of this very form of dramatic representation.

Technically the performance is dramatic – but the piece achieves a range of tone, with moments of levity and real poignancy. It also hints at issues beyond that of climate change. If I have a criticism, it is of a few projected images of sad, subcontinental faces staring in to the camera – a couple of moments felt like they were performed against the backdrop of an Oxfam poster campaign. In line with this was the ending, in which the performers 'tear' away the “The End” screen to reveal a screen asking us to “Demand Change Now”, which felt more heavy-handed than the preceding piece.

Otherwise, this is a great piece of physical theatre: dramatic, entertaining and with a conceit that works on many levels and from many angles. Especially the vertical.

Bradon Smith is a research associate in the Geography department at the Open University and AHRC Climate Change Research Fellow at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport
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Thursday 23 June 2011

This year's Edinburgh Fringe takes green ideas into new areas

Every year we comb through the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, speculating on whether productions may have a connection with environmental themes or climate change. This year seems different to previous years.

There are half a dozen theatre shows that clearly have environmentalist themes: mountain-top removal mining; allotments; restrictions in response to climate change (a comedy about socks); and protests against nuclear energy (an adaptation of Lysistrata).

There are shows about human relations with animals, about bullfighting, vegetarianism, our fear of the wolf, and the return of a show taking place in the Edinburgh Zoo. There's also a return of The Man Who Planted Trees. Each year has a share of Frankensteins and Fausts, and shows about Darwin, Francis of Assisi and Galileo.

But there are more shows this year than previously that connect indirectly with environmental themes. Many shows are set in a post-catastrophe world (in previous years, the environmental catastrophe was usually still on its way), or set in the woods, or in dystopian cities.

Other shows relate an environmental situation to another aspect of life: the flooding of overwhelming human emotions is related to the flooding of rivers; a search for a longed-for grandfather is related to a search for a forest. And looking even more widely, we've included productions about capitalism, poverty and urbanisation. This dispersal of environmental ideas into new dramatic territories seems to be a notable change in what this year's Fringe offers.

The number of shows on at the Edinburgh Fringe that we list in the Ashden Directory is still a very small part of the Fringe overall, whose most popular themes remain World War II, the Holocaust, sex, relationships, and personal identity. more ...

Thursday 16 June 2011

new on our newspage

The Greening Design Forum, hosted by the Society for British Theatre Designers, will discuss sustainability in the theatre industry, at the Old Vic Tunnels, London, 22 June.

The morning after the solstice, 22 June, in Glasgow, a DIY chorus will sing to the sunrise.

A conference on the conflicts over goals and values arising in conservation and in the maintenance of biodiversity has sponsored four artists' residencies to explore conflicts and their contexts. The organisers are the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability, and the artists are Dalziel and Scullion, using film and sculpture; Helen Denerley, who re-uses scrap metal to create sculptures inspired by the animal world; Huw Warren, pianist and composer; and Esther Woolfson, writer.

New productions:
A Funeral for Lost Species by Feral Theatre, a TippingPoint commission, comes to the Green Man Festival in Wales, in August.

My Last Car, by 509 Theatre, again a TippingPoint commission, will be at the Warwick Arts Centre in October.

University College Falmouth is offering funded PhD's, some of which have an environment and arts connection. Interviews early July. more ...

Wednesday 8 June 2011

spring moved at 1.3 miles an hour

For a couple of years, this blog has been reporting on a remarkable school project, at the Paideia School in Atlanta, Georgia, which follows the arrivals of daffodils along the east coast of America.  One of our editors, Kellie Gutman, participates in the project. The results for 2011 are now in.

"The southernmost daffodil arrived in Jacksonville, Florida March 4th, and the northernmost daffodil arrived in Ft. Kent, Maine, April 27, 2011.  The distance was 1812 miles in 56 days, 32.4 miles per day, or about 1 1/3 mile an hour."

This is the 21st year of their daffodil project, and the previous five years posted speeds of 12, 16, 20, 23.4, and 23.5 miles per day.  It seems that a late-starting spring, such as was experienced in Boston this year, makes spring race up the coast to catch up. When a blooming daffodil was finally spotted in Boston, on April 5, spring quickly followed with a sudden, intense flowery display, unrivaled for the last many years.

See also: spring's progress, school postcard, it's a mile an hour, as the snow melts, spring arrives at three times the speed
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Friday 3 June 2011

climate playwright tackles free schools

As any regular reader of this blog knows, the playwright Steve Waters has written the best play about climate change. After The Contingency Plan, he went on to write Little Platoonsa play about free schools.

The radio version of Little Platoons is broadcast with the original cast tomorrow afternoon at 2.30pm.
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Wednesday 1 June 2011

new on our newspage

Artsadmin’s Two Degrees 2011 Festival, Art & Activism, Climate & Cuts, runs from 12 – 18 June in London, with artist-led interventions and events on the themes of government cuts, global protest and activism, and the growth of alternative solutions to the climate crisis. There’s the chance to eat American Signal Crayfish caught from the River Thames, a trail of bicycling events between Artsadmin’s Toynbee Studios and Arcola Theatre, and other events, films, excursions, including A Good Climate for Business, Future Editions, Potion, Haircut Before the Party, Paths Through Utopias.

Our Current Climate, 18 June, closes Two Degrees with a day of talks, workshops, performances, interventions and walks with artists from the festival and Encounters, UK Uncut and the Yes Men.
The event will be asking how exactly are the climate and the funding cuts linked, and how can we use art and activism to change our current climate?

Manchester International Festival has two different events touching on the environment, Björk’s Biophilia show, and the launch of a three-year project to construct a vertical farm in a disused tower block.

We list those summer music festivals that have environmental themes, or are working towards a low-carbon event.

New productions coming up in June include Harmonic Fields (Lakes Alive), As the World Tipped (Nigel Jamieson and Wired Aerial Theatre, a TippingPoint/Without Walls commission) and SEVEN ANGELS (The Opera Group, ROH2 and Tramway).

Other events: University of the Trees holds an Open Day on 5 June, and a public talk by Shelley Sacks on 11 June at the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, Devon.
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