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DDF News — 22 May 2023

Sustainable Connections - Digital Essays: Ecology of Entanglements by Karishma Rafferty

Sustainable Connections - Digital Essays: Ecology of Entanglements by Karishma Rafferty

The second in a series of three essays on the topic of sustainability curated by Feimatta Conteh as part of Dublin Dance Festival’s 2023 Edition

Through my work as a curator, I've always found myself at the edges… working as a translator of sorts between people, disciplines, and ideas. I enjoy the messiness, the complexity… the unknowing.

My personal background is that I’m an art curator of Irish-Indian heritage, born and based in London. Much of my work has been focused on working with artists (across disciplines) who are deeply engaged in questions related to our relationship with nature and what that means in an age of climate and ecological crisis. 

To me, art that deals with the complexities of this crisis is not simply about repeating scientific facts in a different medium. There are Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, the media, and all different ways that share with society the seriousness of the current global situation. As different from other contexts, the creative process is messy, it isn’t linear, and it generally isn’t in pursuit of a single truth. It therefore can often be a perfect context to collaboratively think and feel our way through the knotty and intersectional challenges of our time. How can and does art contribute to changing behavior of audiences?

To me, it’s not just about shifting mindsets or behaviors through an emotional or visceral experience, though that can happen too. Creative practice can offer spaces and opportunities to engage deeply with our collective histories, present, and also futures. It allows for multiple stories, more inclusive and more diverse perspectives, plus importantly for different types of expertise and ideas to collide.   

Evening Talks 01 Photo Jeff Eden RBG Kew 2

Kew Gardens Evening Talks. Photo © Jeff Eden/ RBG Kew

For the last year or so I’ve been working for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew(1) in south-west London which is a global science organisation whose mission is protecting plants and fungi for the wellbeing of all life on earth. One of the best opportunities in the work I do is to bring into focus people or ideas that don’t often sit alongside each other in public dialogue.

Last year, for instance, I programmed a whole Summer of panel discussion events as part of Food Forever, a large festival programme around food (in)security at Kew Gardens. Each panel included mixes of scientists, writers, artists, chefs, and growers. One of the biggest takeaways for me was feedback from experts, who have immense knowledge and insight, noting that they don’t usually get asked to be on such multi-disciplinary public forums and that their usual audiences tend to be from their own specific sectors or networks.

Although there are a great many fantastic projects and programmes out there, it still amazes me how unusual real cross-disciplinary dialogue and collaboration is. Nothing has been more joyful or generative in my work than learning from those working in disciplines very different from my own. Particularly in this time of climate and ecological crisis, the speed and scale of change required over the next few years require us to find better and more nuanced ways to co-imagine and co-create.

Recently, I was listening to the Planet: Critical podcast by journalist Rachel Donald and an episode called The Power of Community Imagination(2) which features Immy Kaur (founder of Civic Square(3) in Birmingham - which describes itself as a Public Square, Neighbourhood Economics Lab, and Creative + Participatory Ecosystem). I find it inspiring to listen to her speak so eloquently about the importance of dreams and creativity. This isn’t an ‘art world’ conversation - but more about community building, cities, inclusivity, and systems change… yet how refreshing that creativity is at the core.

Arts and culture can often enable spaces for understanding in the messy edges and overlaps between people and ideas. An old but still favourite quote from writer Amitav Ghosh is “When future generations look back… they will certainly blame the leaders and politicians of this time for their failure to address the climate crisis. But they may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable — for the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats.” (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, 2016). As a caveat, I would disagree with the idea that ‘imagining’ is somehow not all of our responsibilities. Nevertheless, the focus on artists and writers (+ dancers/ other creative folk too!) is important. So thank goodness for events such as the Dublin Dance Festival! Not only for entertainment or inspiration but also for dialogue and exchange. There are no singular ways of imagining, we need spaces and opportunities to feel, hear, and be moved. We need nuance, and to share ideas that are not fully formed.

I was particularly inspired recently by Vidya Patel’s Good Mourning Earth(4) performance ritual commissioned in response to Cecilia Vicuña’s Brain Forest Quipu(5) in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. Vicuña’s work was a 20+ meter high sculpture, layered together with sound, music, and video, and was built on decades of work alongside fellow artists, activists, and land defenders. ‘The Earth is a brain forest, and the quipu embraces all its interconnections,’ Vicuña says about the work. Patel’s commissioned response continued in the spirit of collaborative and expansive story-building, again the work involved a large number of multidisciplinary collaborators and explored connections between people and the planet.

I’m a big fan of artworks that in my mind have a deep and lasting echo. Through the interplay between creative projects, as well as the dialogue with audiences, ideas spread. This might sound cliche and obvious but ‘culture’ spreads ideas and to me this multi-layered echo exploring how we understand, live and shape the future together is really where ‘ecological art’ can have the biggest impact.

Another recent and very different and more practical example of a multi-layered project is A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction(6) written by Miranda Rose Hall and directed by Katie Mitchell, it was co-produced by the Barbican and Headlong in London. Yes, the very serious topic was… extinction. And there were lots of moving scenes and great dialogue around that. But I was equally inspired by the most basic and practical aspects of the work, it is amazingly set to tour the UK but without touring people or materials. A new model for touring theatre! Creative projects don't just need to be limited to talking about something, it is important that they consider the systems and conditions that enable the work to be realised too.

I don’t believe we need single answers when addressing questions like what the creative sector can do to help address this climate and ecological emergency. We need to create space and an appetite for complexity. For different solutions, in different contexts. For difference, for equity, for uncertainty.

Environmental Justice Cards Photo credit James Allan 1

Environmental Justice Cards. Photo © James Allan

Artist Harun Morinson has been developing a work called Environmental Justice Questions (2023 - ongoing ) which is made of invited questions relating to environmental justice by a whole range of amazing practitioners including artworkers, scientists, activists, writers, theorists, architects, growers, historians and horticulturalists. I love the multi-faceted, multidisciplinary approach and feel that it is a very generative starting point for anyone interested in exploring this space.

The arts (in the broadest sense) can be an extraordinary facilitator for testing and sharing new or alternative ideas about how we live now and in the future. It is a space that can allow for diversity in visions, and enables opportunities for juxtaposing ideas or expertise to sit alongside each other. Continuing in the spirit of opening up more questions rather than narrowing down to answers, I’ll end here with some questions of my own for anyone exploring the intersection of climate action and creative practice:

Where do our communities begin and end?
How can our creative work also inform the systems that we are creating within?
How can we build better stories by working together?

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.

Read all 3 essays in the series.


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