DDF News — 16 May 2023
Sustainable Connections - Digital Essays: Carbon Footprint, Queer Compost by Fearghus Ó Conchúir
The first in a series of three essays on the topic of sustainability curated by Feimatta Conteh as part of Dublin Dance Festival’s 2023 Edition
Last year, Caitríona Fallon co-founder of the Green Arts Initiative of Ireland offered to calculate the carbon footprint of my travel in 2019.(1) We chose 2019 as a pre-pandemic benchmark though it was a particularly high one since I was, at the time, Artistic Director of National Dance Company Wales which toured to Hong Kong and Japan as well as to countries in Europe that year.
I was also a member of the Arts Council with monthly meetings in Dublin that, pre-pandemic, we attended exclusively in person, flying back and forth from Cardiff because, being a “busy” AD, I couldn’t afford the time required for slower travel. So it was no particular surprise that the calculation of the footprint of my travel and accommodation for the year came to a total of 12.5 tonnes of CO2. The average annual carbon footprint of someone living in Ireland is 12.4 tonnes (in 2021 according to the Environmental Protection Agency) but that figure includes emissions from all consumption, not just travel and besides it’s hugely more than the 0.1 tonnes annual average of someone living in poorer parts of the world, already more vulnerable to the effects of drastic climate change.(2)
So I write these words mindful that I am in no way a model for best practice in environmentally sustainable ways of managing a career in dance.(3) I use this long phrase “managing a career in dance” deliberately, since the challenge here is not dancing per se so much as the business of making and sharing dance with others.
I was educated for export, a product of pre-Celtic-Tiger Ireland where opportunities existed abroad. I got a scholarship to study at an international college in Canada established to promote peace and international understanding in the wake of WW2. Because of the expense of transatlantic travel in 1986, I did one journey there in September (ferry to London, flight to Seattle and then Vancouver) and a return at end of the school year. In my time there, I developed a global perspective and global network of friends that I kept in contact with when we scattered across the world to attend university.
Training at London Contemporary Dance School – because in the nineties, no professional training existed for dancers in Ireland – meant that I joined another international network of mobile artists. And also I’m gay and grew up in an Ireland where homosexuality was criminalised. So I’ve learned to travel elsewhere to make my life viable and sustainable, both professionally and personally.
Over my lifetime so far, the speed and frequency of travel has increased, apparently driven by the need to establish oneself as a successful independent dance artist (the ideal Neo-liberal worked in Bojana Kunst’s assessment) or artistic director. (4) I write “apparently” because we know others have chosen differently, modelled other possibilities, and at some cost to themselves. But I didn’t recognise that choice.
What I felt when I did the carbon footprint analysis with Caitríona was less the weight of my impact on the planet and more the exhaustion of seeing my schedule of 127 journeys in a year – that’s the equivalent of long journeys every three days. Not all of the travel was by plane, but its frequency struck me as literally unsettling, destabilising and personally unsustainable. We hear arguments that action to mitigate against climate catastrophe and environmental degradation can only be effective at systemic levels and that too much emphasis is placed on the responsibility of individuals and their recycling habits. I don’t find that distinction between system and individual helpful given that we are products of systems as well as agents in perpetuating or changing those systems. However, it has helped me to think about personal sustainability as a way to make the often abstract (because I am fortunate to live in the global north in the relatively temperate climates of Ireland and the UK) notions of climate emergency tangible and to recognise the link between designing a viable life for myself to the systemic change that will support even more human and non-human life to flourish.
And so for the past year, in collaboration with Isabella Oberländer, I have been exploring the idea of Queer Sanctuary, dancing a space and a process for flourishing that is motivated by pleasure and personal sustainability.(5) We have traveled to work together in person, but only in ways and rhythms that have felt resourceful, that generate energy for us rather than use us up. We have involved others in the process when we could resource them and avoid depletion. And as a result, there has been less travel. We’ve augmented our in-person relation with rehearsals on Zoom, a legacy from Covid. We’ve taken extended time in residency together, with the support of organisations like Dance Ireland and Dance Limerick, finding queer connections with our natural environments following Tim Morton’s notion of Queer Ecology and Jack Halbertsam’s elaboration of queer wildness.(6)
It may seem strange to refer to this kind of work in the context of carbon footprints and sustainable living, but the reality is that this practice of choreographing spaces in which our queerness is not only viable but can be celebrated, has helped me to maintain my commitment to reducing the carbon impact of my travel by half from that 2019 level. It helps me to give my energy towards positive world-building rather than stick with the narratives of denial, of cessation, of restriction that often surround discussions of environmental sustainability and climate emergency.
This process has taught me to slow down and pay attention. It’s not about stopping but about a more discriminating rhythm of pause and movement, knowing when to gather energy, knowing when it’s worth expending it and my carbon budget on. And discerning good rhythms is one of the skills a dancer could well cultivate and share.
Sustainability, making lives viable for a greater diversity of human and non-human life, requires attention at multiple levels: it requires attention to the material conditions that support viability, and also to the emotional or affective, and relational circumstances we find ourselves in and help to create. On the level of individual humans there is a limit to sustainability.
We must work hard to ensure that those minoritised, racialised and historically exploited or disregarded as resource can thrive, while also preparing for a future in which we no longer exist in this form — maybe a future in which our species is further hybridised, augmented, extended and certainly a future in which we are no longer alive. It may seem contradictory to argue for more sustainable living while also preparing for what happens beyond our lives, but in a way the beyond and after is part of a longer vision of sustainability that exceeds us as individuals.
In their 2019 performance “Viewing Hours”, mayfield brookes, a movement-based performance artist and urban gardener, buried themselves in compost and invited small groups to come and breathe with them as they lay in repose.(7) Emma Bigé sees the work as part of “ a growing family of com-post-human dances — dances that equip our senses to remember that, as humans, we are earthlings. Com-post-human dances remember that at the root of the genus homo, before it became sapiens (the scholar), or even erectus (the upright), there is humus (the ground, the earth). earthly, terrestrial, chthonian, this is what human means: a kinship of destiny with all the things that weigh near the earth, a becoming-compost that binds us.”(8)
So as I have entered the second half of my life, I think of the resources – psychic, emotional, cultural, material, environmental – that have been invested in me so far and that I hope can be of use to others around me and that come after me: how can I sustain those resources in me now, cultivate the nourishing of others and contribute to processes and ways of being that resource others long beyond my lifetime? How can I be joyfully generative queer compost?
This series, Sustainable Connections - Digital Essays, is supported by Capacity Building Arts Funding, from The Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon and is part of Dublin Dance Festival's Moving Futures Project, commissioned by The ESB Brighter Future Arts Fund in partnership with Business to Arts.
3. Rita Marcalo’s socially and ecologically-based practice of collaboration with communities and their innovations in Slow Touring shows what a more direct commitment to sustainable dance practice could be. See https://www.instantdissidence.org/. Caitríona Fallon has convened a group of dance touring companies in Ireland to explore greener practice for them. Sweden- and Ireland-based choreographer Maris Nilsson Waller is working on slow touring models that perform along the land and sea route and with the local often rural communities between Sweden and Ireland rather than skipping by plane from metropolis to metropolis. https://florafaunaproject.com/
4. Bojana Kunst, Artist at Work: The Proximity of Art and Capitalism (Alresford, Hants: Zero Books, 2015), p.139.
6. Tim Morton, “Guest Column: Queer Ecology”, PMLA, Vol. 125, No. 2 (March 2010: Cambridge University Press), pp. 273-282. Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire (Durham, N C: Duke University Press, 2020)
8. https://global-uploads.webflow.com/610d71138c5a8b409e7c3f0a/643e5a956dac3f8435824267_Cahiers-de-danse_transitions-V5.pdf p.9. The typography is deliberate as Bigé follows mayfield brookes’ resistance to conventions of where capitals should go.