This guest blog by writer and artist Wallace Heim was originally given as an introductory talk at an online meetup discussing how arts and culture can adjust and continue our planning for COP26 in light of COVID-19 and the postponement of the conference. She reflects on the role of the arts in crises, the impact of social distancing, and what we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic. First published on Creative Carbon Scotland’s website
I’d like to offer some thoughts about the arts and climate instability – and this confluence of COP26 and COVID-19.
Back in 2015, alongside COP21 in Paris, Creative Carbon Scotland devised a new kind of ArtsCOP festival – happening in the places where people make art. It was dispersed over time and locations. The festival worked from home. The animating force was to encourage artists and practitioners to initiate, develop, extend their projects to engage with climate change as it was then understood.
ArtsCOP Scotland showed how an organisation can grasp the fundamentals of a problem – which was how to be part of COP21 without travelling – and, within its resources, create the potential for new work. This new kind of festival, in many ways, simply dissolved the problem.
Many of the performance works that were made then brought out views of an imagined, troubled, future world – distant enough to hold and turn in your hand and contemplate.
Now, a human pandemic conjoins with and expresses the climate crisis, and the present urgency holds at once a terrifying uncertainty and the potential for a more ecologically just world.
COVID-19 is forcing humans to look deep within the chasms of our social and economic and environmental habits and assumptions, the insanities and injustices and invisible conveniences that make up everyday life. It is there, in the red hot recesses and fault-lines where the patterns of connections with climate instability can be made.
The arts may be not only about delving into the fractures. But – and more positively – they may show the deep-rooted possibilities of how to live, and how to live well and equitably with the other-than-human.
I need to say that artists do what they do, and that is not activism or public information in another guise. I’m not suggesting a directive – but am supporting the exchanges of capabilities and knowledge and privileges that can happen, and are being suggested here, whether COP comes to Glasgow or not.
I want to mention two things that are immediately in mind about making and experiencing art right now.
First, how will artists and others find ways of researching their work and ways of making relations with their human audience under physical distancing. Too, how do we negotiate the emotional and psychological effects when we do return to being near each other again.
This human distancing affects, as well, how people can relate with their environments, with the more-than or other-than-human. How will those relations be made and be changed – maybe with more sensitivity and need?
How will those changes come through into the experiences of art.
Second, these smooth-screened technological supports that we rely on now and are adapting to – won’t fit every kind of artistic experience. Ideas for different kinds of relations between works of art and the public will need to be explored – that live pulse needs to continue somehow.
But here we are.
I’m finding that COVID is both depleting my attention, at the same time as leading me to think on some of the big societal concepts and ideas and whether they – like tectonic plates – are shifting, and how might they shift to more ecologically wise formulations. This shifting is a raw material for performance, theatre and art.
For example, in relation to COP26, I’m thinking about sovereignty – a very big concept… The states that have gathered for all the COPs have had to negotiate how climate instability blurs, if not erases the assumptions of state sovereignty. Closer in, the virus has upturned many ideas about the extensions, limits and responsibilities of the state.
How can an ecological contract be found and agreed that defends and builds back the historical achievements of the austerity-depleted social contract?
More intimately, what is a ‘border’, when the arbitrary border between states may be expressed in the soft human tissues of my lungs?
And last, keeping to this intimate, sensual and material level – what does it mean to care – to care for the other-than-human – the living beings, the elements, the forces. Who does it? What does it look like? Feel like? Over what timescales? What parts of the world get cared for or abandoned? What is the relation between care and justice? How can artistic practices show tenderness and care? Should they?
COP is a punctuation. It is a global moment of exceedingly slow advance. Things can move much faster and deeper on the ground, at home, setting a context for and even counter-forces to – the gathered institutional powers. The arts sector is integral to this.
I look forward to how the people and groups here – artists and activists – will perceive a problem over the next months – maybe a conceptual problem about how one pursues meaning, or maybe a logistical one like over distancing – and then find a way of working that dissolves the problem.
And I look forward to breathing again – taking my breath again – with a room full of strangers.
Wallace Heim has written on ecology and the arts – on performed arts and social and environmental practices – for many years – and mostly from philosophical perspectives. Most recently, she has gone back to working as an artist – writing for and producing performed works and making sculptures – these have been about the Solway Firth, the release of nuclear waste, about caring for contaminated land, about how to make decisions over the next hundred and more years.
You can read a blog about the event hosted by Creative Carbon Scotland, SCCS, COP26 Coalition, and ecoartscotland on the ecoartscotland website.
If you are interested in getting further involved with planning for COP26, why not join the #arts4cop26 Facebook group.