The role(s) of art under the shadow of climate change

An unfinished list of the roles that art can sometimes play. This comes from the work I did with Riksteatern in 2015-16.

In 2015-16, I had the opportunity to spend two years working with Riksteatern, Sweden’s touring national theatre, as leader of artistic and audience development. Part of my brief was to bring together practitioners from within and beyond the world of the performance arts to explore the role(s) of art under the shadow of climate change.

My starting point was to reject the basis on which artists are generally invited to collaborate in projects about climate change: however this is worded, it tends to come down to helping ‘deliver the message’. The result almost always fails – both as art and as political communication – because art isn’t a sophisticated extension of the public relations department or a cheap alternative to an advertising agency.

One of the fruits of this work was a list of the roles that art might sometimes play. I wrote this up in the context of a longer essay for Dark Mountain, ‘You Want It Darker’, but during this week’s Transformative Imagination workshop with the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, I realised that it might be useful to present this unfinished list on its own terms, as a contribution to conversations that seek to get beyond the old binary of ‘instrumentalisation’ vs ‘art for art’s sake’. So here it is:

  1. Art can hold a space in which we move from the arm’s-length knowledge of facts, figures and projections, to the kind of knowledge that we let inside us, taking the risk that it may change us.
  2. Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down.
  3. Like the bronze shield given to Perseus by Athena, art and its indirect ways of knowing can allow us to approach realities which, if looked at directly, turn something inside us to stone.
  4. Art can call us back from strategic calculations about which message will play best with which target group, insisting on the tricky need for honesty – there’s a line I kept coming back to, from the playwright Mark Ravenhill, that your responsibility when you walk on stage is to be ‘the most truthful person in the room’.
  5. Art can teach us to live with uncertainty, to let go of our dreams of control.
  6. Art can hold open a space of ambiguity, refusing the binary choices with which we are often presented – not least, the choice between forced optimism and simple despair.

(Thanks to Måns Lagerlöf for making the unlikely decision to bring me to work at Riksteatern – and to all the members of the Dark Mountain Workshop which I ran there and the guests who joined us in those conversations.)