The future of the arts in the climate change era

Anne-Laure Mathieu
Anne-Laure Mathieu

We need to be concerned with fighting climate change by finding ways to adapt so we can build a future for generations to come. Anne-Laure Mathieu, innovation strategist at CINARS, explains how the performing arts can raise awareness of global warming in 2019

Art can play a key role in addressing the crucial issue of climate change. Last November, during the CINARS Biennale 2018 international symposium, under the theme SENS & MUTATIONS*, we invited the futurist Sanjay Khanna to share his understanding of the topic.

The video is now available to the public here, and I would like to take this opportunity to share my modest amount of research on the subject, as well as what I learned from my wonderful encounter with Sanjay Khanna.

Art is an exceptional tool for awakening consciousness. Thanks to the work of scientists, we are all aware of the existence of climate change. Our interface with this frightening reality generally takes the form of graphs and numbers, which are processed by our analytical minds.

However, when faced with the unthinkable, if we wish to reach a true understanding and achieve a personal transformation, it is essential to explore the emotional and intuitive dimensions of the topic. What better way to achieve this than through the arts? The artistic experience, by its very nature, deals with emotion and intuition. It also requires a certain letting-go from the audience, a complicity, as well as a suspension of disbelief, so that they may be open to an invitation, a proposal.

In the context of climate change, the contextual narrative is also very important. In a scientific article published in 2018 on art in the context of global warming, the co-signatories stated: “In order to envision a future… we must develop hopeful narratives. Art can be a means to envision, to express and to shape the type of society which we wish to create collectively.”

The movement of artists, who make the choice of raising their audience’s awareness of climate change, is growing and is particularly vibrant thanks to innovative and inclusive approaches. The site, Artists & Climate Change, led by five female artists from four different disciplines and hailing from three different countries, embodies a diversity of perspectives and understandings of the topic.

Art could help raise awareness by creating connections and by building common knowledge. This goes beyond helping us to achieve a deep understanding of global warming and towards helping us to imagine new narratives – art can also play a key role in bringing people together.

Natural disasters such as flooding and hurricanes – which are occurring with increased frequency – as well as the need to share resources, will considerably increase our dependence on one another and foster our need for connection.

For the last few decades our societies have been mired in individualism, so there are many obstacles to overcome before as a whole we can envision collective pathways. Cultural venues can truly embrace the mission of becoming spaces for bringing citizens together.

Cultural venues can be places where we can have collective meaningful experiences, where we can get to know each other better, and where we can create deep connections. The opportunity for creating inclusive arts spaces, which lend themselves to new encounters and dialogue, has even greater meaning.

For more than 20 years, the work of the Québec multidisciplinary company, Quand l’art passe à l’action (ATSA) (in English, When Art Takes Action), has been a wonderful example of this kind of initiative by creating spaces for dialogue in cities around the world.

The live arts are where the present moment resides. The psychological impacts of climate change are enormous and will, in the decades to come, become some of the most important issues in public health.

One of the ways to address the anxiety and fear brought about by climate change will be to live in the present moment. In this way, we can maintain, as much as possible, control over our ship, as we navigate these stormy seas of inner turmoil. There is currently much discussion about the advantages of mindfulness. The performative arts, through their unique and ephemeral nature, can also become an exceptional space in which we can contact the present moment.

In 2015, the British musician Rolf Hind pushed the research into mindfulness even further by composing the first mindfulness opera for Mahogany Opera. The possibilities for this type of work are endless; the medium of dance in particular has infinite ways and means to explore this topic in order to wake us up to the present moment and to allay our fears.

Cultural programmer and creative strategist, Andy Horwitz, says: “The moment in which you find yourself in a venue with other people while a show is taking place, is a moment that requires deep commitment. When we become aware of the performance as such, even for a brief moment, we are asked to develop our capacities for attention and intention and therefore to cultivate the ability to enter into a deep state of consciousness.”

It is not just about discussion: the performing arts must also do their part for sustainable development; art can have a positive role with regards to climate change, but the preacher must practise what he preaches. For instance, the performing arts can be a considerable source of pollution. Let’s take for example costumes and sets that sometimes are only used for a 10-night run – and the tours that can’t be rationalised in terms of their carbon footprint.

There is a general tendency to grow without questioning growth and with this a catalogue of ways that artistic productions contribute to climate change. Lowering the human impact on the environment is the responsibility of everyone everywhere, including the performing arts. In 2012, the British Arts Council was the first national organisation to put measures in place to encourage the cultural sector to go green.

The results, five years later, were already very promising. Cultural organisations’ consumption of energy had decreased by 23% over this period, while the CO2 emissions had decreased by 35%.

Certain festivals around the world have even chosen to base their entire strategy in a way that is sympathetic to climate change. An interesting example of this is in France with We Love Green, a temporary event with very little environmental impact, or the Sziget Festival in Budapest.

Above are just some avenues for reflection on art as a means of addressing climate change. However, they are but a tiny fragment of the entire scope of the topic. | CINARS conferences here.