Changing The Culture Reflections

19th August 2016

This year, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe's programme for participants, we hosted an event for festival participants and individuals working on environmental sustainability. With two of Edinburgh's other festivals, Edinburgh International Science Festival and Imaginate Festival, speaking on their own approaches to the topic, the discussion focused on collaboration as a key way to minimise environmental impact.

For those who couldn’t make it, here’s our summary of the event!

The Fringe and the Context

Rachel Sanger at Changing the Culture

Rachel Sanger welcoming everyone to the event

Rachel Sanger, Head of Participant Services at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, introduced the discussion by explaining the context of the event, as part of the Participants Programme for the Fringe. Supporting, advising and encouraging the participants of over 3,000 productions, Fringe Central hosts over 100 events on a variety of topics (on everything from racial diversity to marketing and mental health) with several themed around environmental sustainability. Rachel explained that this year’s venue for Fringe Central, the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) on Infirmary Street, was especially suited for our sustainability topic given its status as a green building!

Festival Collaboration

Next Creative Carbon Scotland’s Director, Ben Twist, gave an introduction to Festivals Edinburgh (the strategic umbrella organisation for the twelve Edinburgh Festivals) and their sustainability work as a whole through their shared Environmental Policy and the Edinburgh Sustainability Working Group (which meets on a quarterly basis to discuss the topic). He underlined that progress has not always been easy: the Festivals are working at a variety of scales, with different methods, and this complicates the coherence of collaborations.

Initially, the Festivals were scared of promising too much, and over-stretching the role of the arts. Their strategy was to introduce a dedicated Environmental Officer to bring the necessary time and expertise to the group, as well as to give the festivals a common connection point on environmental sustainability. This has enabled them to focus on concrete work such as the Environmental Strategy and to expand their efforts from carbon counting to artist and audience engagement, such as the Green Arts Initiative, the Swap Shop, and improvement on individual fronts.

Individual Approaches

We next heard directly from the Festivals themselves, with Amanda Tyndall, Creative Director of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, speaking about how the EISF is striving to be a leader both in practical matters such as staff travel and print reductions and in its philosophy and programme. This was demonstrated through their 2016 programme in particular, with the overarching theme of ‘Building Better Worlds’ and each programme strand focusing on a more sustainable future. Events this year included an event programme at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, their ‘Tiny Homes’ exhibition about how small a scale we are prepared to live at, and a lecture on the theatre success “2071, The World We Leave Our Grandchildren”.

Paul Fitzpatrick (Director of Imaginate) talked more of his journey so far when tackling environmental sustainability, when (unlike EISF) the festival has no obvious content links to the topic. Ben and Paul discussed meeting when Paul had just started at Imaginate: he was super enthusiastic, excited at being a trailblazer and keen to start working on sustainability straight away. 18 months later, he said that he feels his former self was somewhat naïve: he really thought that in a year he would be able to turn it all around, but hadn’t quite grasped the complexity of improving an already-engaged organisation, and the fundamental sustainability paradox of their existence as a international cultural event. We talked about the importance of enthusiasm from management, and how it becomes harder to constantly increase commitment to sustainable aims.

Inspiring Enquiry Through the Arts

Another strong focus of the event was innovation through collaboration, with Edinburgh International Science Festival working with partners like Imaginate to commission Lost at Sea by Catherine Wheels (around plastic waste and sharing our resources). Not only did this create a new window through which to see the world, it was also a project in audience development, contributing multi-fold to the success of the festival.

Lost at Sce

Lost at Sea, by Catherine Wheels, was a collaborative production of Imaginate Festival and Edinburgh International Science Festival, and contained environmental themes.

The speakers agreed that the intention of the arts is not to communicate or educate, or to reach people’s hearts rather than their minds as is often described, but instead to inspire enquiry through discovery. Artistic intention and quality needs to be at the forefront, with Paul highlighting that the mindset of “I’m going to teach you something” as an intended outcome would often lead to bad creative work. Amanda added that the increase of interesting work coming out of the USA, where climate change opinions are largely based on lots of cultural reference points (faith, history, media) rather than science, could be indicative of the creative stimuli that people are more used to be working with.

Common to both Festivals was the difficulty in sourcing good quality work on the topic, but the number of artists interested in creating work on this subject is rising. Coinciding with the topic becoming more mainstream, and with artists dipping in and out of it as one of their interests rather than focusing exclusively of environmental sustainability as their subject, we discussed how the festivals themselves could play a part in this by providing a platform for such new (and good, and if possible local) work, not only during their festival time but throughout the year.

Amanda Tyndall at Changing the Culture

Amanda Tyndall speaking about the Edinburgh International Science Festival

Getting Started in #GreenArts!

Questions from the audience demonstrated the range of thinking and queries in the area, and particularly on one of the overlaps between financial, social and environmental sustainability: “How do you attract audiences who are not already engaged in sustainability?”

Both Amanda and Paul urged for the content primarily needing to be good quality, and ultimately good art, citing that audiences have always had an interest in seeing work of strong artistic merit. They discussed the idea of working within these example with ‘stealth’ (and conveying environmental messages subtly), with Amanda highlighting how ‘science by stealth’ had been a programming tactic among science festivals for many years! However, she noted that for some events (particularly of high-level discussion) atrendees would likely be more self-selecting, and may initially pose a larger challenge to open up to new audiences.

A further question came from a visiting company, newly established as a festival and to considering environmental sustainability: “How do you get started working on this?”

Tips were provided by speakers and other members of the audience, such as:

  • Take a look at the free guides, resources and tools on the Creative Carbon Scotland website (or get in touch with Julie’s Bicycle if working in England or Wales)
  • Focus on growing good quality art on sustainability in your local context, offering opportunities for artists.
  • Tackle travel first, by writing down all business travel distances and methods (or by using ClaimExpenses.com!) to get an idea of your carbon footprint and how you could make more sustainable choices.
  • Staff engagement across the organisation is key, especially involvement of the higher positions, so make sure the Board is engaged from the beginning.
  • Be aware that you can’t be all shiny and perfect! It’s about small changes, and working on how to grow efforts as time goes on. It’s tough, but you get there.

This event took place as part of the Fringe Central Events Programme, which runs every August in Edinburgh for Fringe participants and performers. See the programme here, and download the Fringe Guide to Sustainability here.

Click for more information on the environmental sustainability work of Edinburgh International Science Festival, Imaginate and the Edinburgh Festivals

Lost at Sea was presented in spring 2016, but more information about future performances can be found on the website for Catherine Wheels.

If you’re a Scottish-based arts organisation working on environmental sustainability, you should be a member of the Green Arts Initiative! More information here.

Image Credit Catriona Patterson and Gemma Lawrence for Creative Carbon Scotland, and Catherine Wheels for Lost at Sea.

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We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.


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Supported by

Edinburgh Festival City Edinburgh Festival City

A project initiated by Edinburgh’s Festivals with key partners the Federation of Scottish Theatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network

Edinburgh Festival City Federation of Scottish Theatre Scottish Contemporary Art Network