DDF News — 20 Jun 2023
Sustainable Connections - Digital Essays: A Ceilidh of Moths by Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan
The third in a series of three essays on the topic of sustainability curated by Feimatta Conteh as part of Dublin Dance Festival’s 2023 Edition.
On Tuesday 23 May, Dublin Dance Festival invited creative practitioners in Ireland and from abroad to Sustainable Connections – a Collaborative Exploration. The aim was to discuss our understanding of the ecology of the world around and within us. This event was curated by Feimatta Conteh, Environmental Sustainability Manager of Factory International. Panellists included: Emma Blake Morsi (Multi-disciplinary arts producer), Liz Roche (choreographer), Máire Scully (Corporate Brand & Strategic Marketing Manager, ESB), Robbie Synge (choreographer) and Taneli Törma (choreographer). Each speaker gave a presentation, after which everyone was divided into tables where speakers and attendees discussed issues arising from the talks.
I was invited to observe the proceedings, listen to the talks as well as the discussions that arose around the room, and summarise the event.
‘We are of it, we are it, it is us.’ – Liz Roche
‘Ecology is looking at how things fit together’, stated Feimatta Conteh as she opened the event. With a room full of creatives interested in art and ecological sustainability, one major topic was storytelling and nature. Liz Roche spoke of developing a piece, sparked by an idea in 2005 called the All Weather Project, that came from a desire to create a dance piece in a garden. Liz spoke of the sensory experience of work-shopping the piece outdoors and under the rain. Since then she has woven nature into dance across other projects, most recently with Kindred, the commissioned piece on display at the ESB headquarters on Fitzwilliam Street. She described wanting to create something accessible that could last, trying to take the edge off of our relationship with nature, to not see it as separate to us, and relate it back into the body.
Robbie Synge spoke of his own artistic piece that investigated similar themes during his recent Endangered Landscapes Artist Residency at Cairngorms National Park. In one project he transposed images of children taking part in a ceilidh in a forest against footage from the same area where animals were photographed by motion trap cameras. He also described a project involving moths, which included an overnight moth survey trip, describing the ‘ceilidh of moths’ drawn to a beacon of light. The projects described spoke of a yearning to move out of the rehearsal room and office, and into the wild, to connect with the natural world in new ways, and to document our unique human interactions with it. In some instances it was about investigating the sensory nature of these projects, and in others about platforming issues about the importance of the natural world around us.
‘How might we share this place together?’ – Robbie Synge
This is a question also posed through Tiny Plays for a Brighter Future, an ESB-commissioned project with Fishamble: The New Play Company, and also through a number of other climate-related arts projects funded by the ESB Brighter Future Fund with Business to Arts. Máire Scully explained how ESB’s artistic partnerships were fuelled by a desire to work with the arts in a way that aligned with their climate work on sustainability. In Tiny Plays for a Brighter Future, Fishamble invited the public to submit 600-word playscripts that brought to life people’s dreams, predictions, and anxieties about the climate crisis.
Climate anxiety was a major topic of conversation in the open discussion part of the event, with attendees expressing a frustration and helplessness about how to make people care about nature and the climate crisis. They also spoke of refocusing on dance and discussing the role of the body and its response to these anxieties, and how art has a vital place in that space. Another major topic was reducing waste and creating sustainable performances. At the core of the talks and discussions was the understanding that nature is often a backdrop to our lives, but only now are we seriously discussing how it is integral to life. Art is a way of activating those important conversations, and understanding our own place in nature.
‘Pace is an ableist construct.’ – Feimatta Conteh
Due to a multitude of constraints and pressures, more often than not we tend to focus on the art itself and not enough on best practice in terms of making the art. Feimatta shared her experience of tracking her carbon footprint during a project in Sweden. She realised how the level of travel expected from creative practitioners was unsustainable in terms of carbon counting, but also in terms of physical, mental, and spiritual capacity. Working within the existing arts structures, hustle culture has been the norm. We are in fact very late in asking ourselves, who does this way of working actually benefit, and who does it exclude? Emma Blake Morsi touched upon the importance of rest, and nature’s role as a tool for rest. Liz spoke of investigating the movement of ‘slow embodiment’ in dance, which calls for slower ways of working, existing, and consuming, also with less waste. Taneli Törma also questioned existing ways of working, particularly in his collaborative piece ALIEN, where dancers interrogate the dismantling of institutional education, and the restrictions of conformity. All the speakers perceived slowness, rest, and pushing back on ways of working that drain both our energy and resources as not a daunting task, but rather a space for excitement and innovation.
However, when it came to the roundtable discussions with the audience, the reality of changemaking was less exciting. Anxiety was consistently a huge issue in relation to pressures of work, funding, financial precarity, parenting and childcare, guilt and exhaustion around travel, and fear and illness due to Covid-19. One participant said they found it difficult to imagine a different way of working when they have not been able to witness what that can even look like.
‘Who owns the green?’ – Emma Blake Morsi
One major focus of the presentations was intersectionality and access, with Emma, Taneli, and Robbie working deliberately within their creative practices in this space. Robbie spoke of two projects created with collaborator Julie Cleves, where they navigate how Julie, as a wheelchair user, could be in direct contact with the forest and the literal earth beneath her. Liz spoke of how in one project solo women performers discussed their hopes and fears in relation to their future and nature. Emma’s main focus in the talk was using technology to create inclusive accessible spaces through hybridity, but also addressed a range of other challenges such as creating sustainable circular systems that repurpose waste, intersectional interactions with nature, and decolonising the green space (Robbie also touched upon the patriarchal colonial legacy of the land beneath us here in Ireland). All of Emma’s work was based on principles of meaningful connections, in terms of deep cultural understanding, engagement with technology, ethics and responsibility, and bridging connections beyond physicality. Taneli’s various iterations of Alien also spoke to these meaningful connections, by investigating the lived experience of alienation through the communities he works with for each piece. Their experiences led the way as they expressed belonging and unbelonging through movement and physicality. All three speakers brought to light the importance of authenticity in art and communication, the value of depth over breadth in terms of artistic output, and the work needing to be done to make nature and movement accessible for all.
Now, in terms of the discussions after, this was another story altogether. And for this point, I must bring myself into this essay briefly. As an autistic, disabled, queer, brown, migrant, female creative practitioner, I happen to exist at the intersection between a number of communities. Much of what was being said in the presentations spoke deeply to me, and I felt grateful to have those conversations shared, especially by speakers from minoritised backgrounds. However, when it came to the audience members, they represented a mostly white Irish, and seemingly able-bodied demographic, as is prevalent in the Irish Arts sector. I noticed that disability, race, and ethnicity did not come up again unless initiated by people of colour, who were mainly two of the speakers. I was hoping to hear other disabled artists perhaps bring up the fact that disability needs are often not eco-friendly, and how to navigate that? Or how to make sure intersectionality is at the core of everything when the Irish arts sector has a homogenous group at its helm? Or how can neurodivergent practitioners who do want to travel, travel sustainably when 10 hour-long journeys may cause acute distress? But these are not questions that came up. It is important to not only hear what is being said, but also to notice the things unsaid, from voices not present.
The questions that did arise were linked to the challenge of touring work sustainably, technological experimentation and virtual reality, and the concept of ideas being recyclable in order to keep artmaking sustainable.
‘...dance as openness, to counter alienation.’ – Taneli Törma
All five speakers brought their own unique perspectives, experiences, and voices to this event. Throughout every presentation there persisted one singular, and perhaps surprising thread: joy. Every speaker focused on the vital importance of play and joy, and in a way, hope. This arose through the actual artistic pieces mentioned, and the impact they could have on audiences. But importantly, it was also highlighted as a way to create art, finding ways to move professionally AND joyfully through the world, and with nature. Robbie used the phrase ‘following the joy’ twice when describing his projects and his approach to inclusion. Whether it was the use of hybridity to create playful accessible spaces, the delight in seeing moths flit around a light, the empowering freedom of movement, finding ways of working that are enjoyable, or simply feeling the rain on your skin, joy appeared to be the engine driving these practitioners forward.
Is this at odds with the general public’s feelings about the our climate future? According to the playwrights in Tiny Plays for a Brighter Future, maybe. ESB were dismayed to find many submissions conveyed a feeling of helplessness, cynicism, and fear of a bleak future. Liz spoke of being pregnant at the beginning of dance production about nature, which added considerably to her climate concerns about the future. While all of the presentations in the event focused on hope, play, and joy, the discussions in the room afterwards tended to be about anxiety. But perhaps that is the liminal space we occupy as creatives engaging with the world: the space between fear and joy, not being in denial of the former, while actively stepping forward with the latter.
'Mary Robinson told us in her speeches: First, look at your own life and what changes can be made; next, get angry at people who have to drive that systematic change; third, imagine the world you want to inhabit, the world your child will inhabit.' – Máire Scully
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.