Twist’s Shift #2

7th February 2021

Twist’s Shift is a new strand of semi-blog, less formal and structured than Ben's Strategy Blogs, more a rag-bag of thoughts and experiences from the last wee while.

It’s taken a little while to publish a second edition but, as for the previous edition, I hope there is something of interest for readers from both the arts/cultural end of things and the climate change side.

Talks and workshops

Despite – or perhaps because of – both the pandemic and the looming Brexit, the last few months of 2020 seemed to be full of requests for me to give talks on various topics at conferences in Europe. Or maybe it is due to the forthcoming COP. Here’s a rundown of a few notable events.

In October I was asked to be part of a panel discussion during a longer workshop being run for Creative Ireland, ‘a five-year Programme which connects people, creativity and wellbeing…. We are an all-of-government culture and wellbeing programme that inspires and transforms people, places and communities through creativity.’ The programme runs sort of parallel to, rather than part of, the Arts Council of Ireland (I think this has caused some controversy) and interestingly is funded (at least partly) through the Department of Environment, Climate Policy and Communications (my italics). Behind this workshop – which was aimed at an invited audience of policymakers etc. – was a report on Engaging the Public on Climate Change through the Cultural and Creative Sectors, which was published in 2019. This explores what might be termed an ‘instrumental’ use of the arts, although I personally find the instrumental/intrinsic argument old hat and a distraction. Most art historically has been produced ‘for’ some reason, often religion- or patronage-related, and much of it has been terrific; and there is no requirement on artists to work on climate change, although cultural organisations that take public money might reasonably be required to provide some social as well as cultural goods. However, I do accept that there might be a question of degree: it is important that some art and artists should simply be about making wonderful things, experiences etc.

Who’s at the table?

The interesting thing about the longer workshop was not so much what was said, although it was all good and useful stuff, but who was involved. There was a panel discussion with some arts officers and others with experience of running what I would say were quite traditional environmental art projects. But there was also a short film of an interview with Jenny White, who is the former head of the visual arts programme at the British Council and led on climate change there: an organisation which for some time was reluctant to make public statements, at least about the topic. Most striking perhaps were a welcome and introduction from the director of Creative Ireland and addresses by two government ministers – Eamon Ryan TD, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Communications, and Catherine Martin TD, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media (and Deputy Leader of the Green Party – a reminder of what a good coalition government can make happen…). And here we not only saw these two departments working together, in a way which in my experience is unusual; there was also an announcement about a programme with significant funds for Creative Engagement on Climate Change, run jointly by Creative Ireland and the Department of Environment and Climate and Communications. I understand the fund will launch in February. This builds on a commitment in the relatively new coalition’s Programme for Government to ‘Support Creative Ireland in their ‘Engaging the Public on Climate Change through the Cultural and Creative Sectors’ initiative.’1 An example for Scotland?

Building-in sustainability

In November, I was invited to be on a panel at the European Theatre Forum 2020: European Performing Arts in Focus on ‘Embedding Environmental Sustainability in the theatre and performing arts sector’. Our panel looked at how to get sustainability built into strategic and funding mechanisms in European theatre. Again, this wasn’t so much extraordinary for what was said as for the fact that it was happening at all. The three-day conference sought to provide a European representation for the entire sector as one of Europe’s major art forms, within and outside Europe, and its focus was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the performing arts and perspectives for the sector. Nonetheless, the whole of the second day was focused on climate change and environmental sustainability. Meanwhile, my colleague Catriona Patterson was (slightly confusingly) asked to give a talk at the more or less simultaneous European Theatre Convention on a similar topic but with a more practical focus. I don’t think that in previous years the European theatre sector has focused as much on climate change.

What’s more, in early December I helped shape and participated in the joint Satellite Meeting of the Informal European Theatre Meeting (IETM) in collaboration with Theatre Forum (the Irish version of the Federation of Scottish Theatre), which nominally took place in Galway, with the participation of the Galway 2020 City of Culture programme. The programme focused on environmental sustainability and climate change, with speakers including Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, the environmental and indigenous people’s activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrham, and the artistic directors of Druid Theatre Company and Branar, two very different companies based in Galway (who it turned out had never met…).

In my session I asked Catriona Fallon, who runs the Green Arts Initiative Ireland, and Gwen Sharp of The Green Room, an organisation working on social and environmental sustainability in the music industry in France, to discuss how they were seeking to bring about change strategically, rather than on a piecemeal basis. We talked about the need to challenge our business-as-usual approach to cultural production to enable organisations at all levels, from funders to companies, to facilitate ways of funding, making, performing and touring work that are good for artists, audiences and the planet – and we acknowledged how difficult this is! Later, I listened and contributed to a terrific discussion with embedded artists Maeve Stone and Anyuta Wiazemsky Snauwaert about their work on the Creative Europe project that Creative Carbon Scotland is leading, Cultural Adaptations. Our forthcoming Cultural Adaptations conference in early March will feature contributions from all of these people and Tania Banotti, director of Creative Ireland.

 There was a lot more at the Galway meeting than at the other events that was new and inspiring and again its very strong focus on climate change was striking. We have been working with Theatre Forum for a while now, which has led to the Green Arts Initiative Ireland; IETM has been increasing its work on climate change but this was by far its most ambitious and focused engagement with the subject. The audience – admittedly self-selecting – was enthusiastic and interested, albeit at very different stages of the journey. It demonstrated how the UK is possibly the European country working most coherently in climate change and the performing arts, at least, with Creative Carbon Scotland and Julie’s Bicycle (in England) working closely with their respective funding organisations and sectors. But clearly Ireland is on the move…  I wrote some preliminary notes for the Satellite Meeting participants, aiming to cover all levels of awareness.

Arts and globalisation

Finally, also in December, I delivered the keynote speech ‘in’ Lisbon for a conference organised by OPART (Organismo de Producao Artistica) entitled Navegar é preciso? Sentidos para a internacionalização da dança (my translation: ‘Is travelling necessary? Directions for the Internationalisation of Dance’). Navegar actually means (I think) ‘sailing’ or ‘to sail’, and by luck or someone else’s judgement this resonated with my talk, which started with a discussion about how the humble shipping container had been partially responsible for the globalisation of international trade, and that performing artists and the arts were just as affected by globalisation as the textile or any other manufacturing industry. This has many advantages: the possibility of more work far and wide and the chance to work with new collaborators; and for audiences and promoters a greater choice of work. But equally it has its downsides: competition for what work or performance slots are available from competitors far and wide. And international travel has implications for artists’ health, equalities (people with disabilities or caring responsibilities may find it harder to do) and possibly the nature of the work, which may end up being produced for an ‘international’ audience rather than rooted in a place as, for me, the best theatre is.

The Lisbon talk had originally been scheduled for March but was postponed due to the pandemic, which has been exacerbated by speedy international travel: the worst-hit countries are those with the most connections and permeability, whilst those which have managed the disease have done so by severely restricting incoming visitors. I argued in my talk for a radical localism and maybe a willingness to recognise that complete freedom to travel for all wasn’t ideal. Instead I wondered whether one way forward might be to consider a few slow, sustainable and extended trips in a lifetime, perhaps especially for the unburdened young, enabling learning and development, backed up with reports both from travellers and people actually living in other places. I pointed out that Shakespeare seldom if ever travelled beyond England but managed to imagine a much wider world in some very fine plays. This would be the bedrock of a long and sustainable artistic career, avoiding parochialism, nationalism and building a strong relationship with a local audience.

Confirmation

All these events and the requests to speak confirm what we’ve noticed in Creative Carbon Scotland over the last year: a great deal more interest in what we do. The pandemic has focused people’s attention on unexpected threats and new ways of working, and the forthcoming COP in Glasgow is concentrating minds. The EU is actively incorporating climate change into programmes such as Creative Europe, which is encouraging various European cultural networks to interrogate their ways of working, and consequently assumptions about international travel are changing. And maybe our own persistence – Creative Carbon Scotland will be 10 years old this year! – is beginning to pay off and people are catching on to the idea that what we’ve been talking about is mainstream, not crackpot. I’m a long-term pessimist but a short-term optimist and I’m looking forward to a positive, interesting and busy 2021.

by Ben Twist, director of Creative Carbon Scotland

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