TITANIA We are their parents and original….
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Act 2, scene 1
I’ve just been working as dramaturg on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Reactions in the press are mixed, with some feeling our at times dark and painful version does a disservice to generations of lightly-skipping Dreams – even though we’ve simply directly translated what is there on the page. They are Shakespeare’s words, not ours. It makes me think of the way that discussion of social changes that might avert a disastrous future seems to make people feel under attack for their current lives, a fear Renata Tyszczuk illuminatingly describes in her definition of Anthropocenophobia [http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/42/anthropocenophobia-the-stone-falls-on-the-city].
What is it about a culture that continually valorises originality and innovation but is so resistant to any perspective outside the norm?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has one of the greatest proleptic explications of ecological disaster in the history of literature. It is a play of non-reciprocal exchanges – there are no transactions as such – no ‘this for that’. Indeed, when King of the Fairies, Oberon ‘begs a little changeling boy’ from Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and she, bound by a prior deathbed promise to the boy’s mother, refuses to give up the child. The inability to conduct such a transaction is figured in one of the very few economic references in the play; ‘The fairyland buys not the child of me’. Written more than 400 years ago, Dream represents a world in which straight swaps only cause damage, figured particularly in the love-juiced lovers’ switches in affection – but in which the play’s many non-reciprocal exchanges can and do occur outside an economic framework. Through falling out with one another, the fairy monarchs fail to perform their role in the ecosystem, ‘to dance our ringlets’, and nature takes her ‘revenge’, causing environmental and seasonal chaos, as Titania admonishes Oberon:
…never since the middle summer’s spring
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By pavèd fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs which, falling in the land,
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard.
The fold stands empty in the drownèd field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain* flock. *sheep-plagued
The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud, *a game similar to noughts and crosses cut into turf
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter cheer;
No night is now with hymn or carol blessed –
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter; hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’* thin and icy crown *winter
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world
By their increase now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension –
We are their parents and original.
We are their parents and original: we caused it, and we are responsible. Like Oberon, by placing personal desire above the common good, the acquisitive nature of consumer capitalism makes us collectively place having stuff above the ecological ‘progeny of evils’ unleashed by our exploitation of material resources. Like Titania, our sense of obligation to others, to promises made and our pride in our society, history and nationhoods, make us stubbornly cling to our ‘rights’, whether it is the contemporary British conservative obsession with rolling back the state or Chinese state commitments to economic development in line with Western consumer values. China currently emits up to 30% of global carbon emissions (a proportion of which, perhaps around a quarter, is due to its production of consumer goods for the rest of the world).
If China were to unilaterally ‘green’ its economy (for which many of its smog-ridden city-dwellers would thank it enormously), it would have an astonishing impact on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
Whilst the latter perhaps has greater purchase on a moral stance, what Shakespeare makes clear is that neither position carries much value in the face of the destruction unleashed by actions so out of kilter with nature.
I held two ‘research-in-public’ events this month, with climate modeller Chris Hope, and architect Doina Petrescu. Future events are currently under discussion in London, Manchester and Brighton, as well as in Cambridge with Joe Smith on 23rd March, and Ha-Joon Chang on 8th May. Climate modeller Chris Hope’s thoughtful, clear and cogent articulation of how a tax on emissions would function (under the polluter pays principle) made the idea seem so self-evident that my only real question was ‘why aren’t we already doing this?’. Hope pointed out that there is clear evidence that as well as encouraging reductions in emissions, such a change in the tax system would produce economic growth. Amazingly, on Hope’s calculations of what each future tonne of carbon dioxide emitted might ‘cost’ ($125), such a shift would generate enough revenue to reduce significantly other taxes like income tax and VAT, whilst still leaving enough to increase funding for public goods like the NHS. I imagine such a change in the tax system would also encourage a profound shift in values away from material/consumer culture, to what might be called an event/experience culture. This is a shift that is already under way, but governmental measurements of economic outputs lag behind the times in the continued emphasis on consumer spending.
Bizarrely, I wasn’t even able to be at the second event with Doina Petrescu (my baby son came down with chicken pox complicated by bronchiolitis, and I couldn’t travel). But the event, as it turned out, didn’t really need me for it to work. Meanwhile I’ve absorbed a huge amount from listening to the audio recording. One of the key elements of this residency is the idea that artists ARE climate researchers, in the context of networks of connected artists, scientists and others. What ‘research in public’ allows is incongruous encounters, new engagements, and unforeseeable futures to connect. Through my accidental absence, and listening-in after the event, I’ve become more aware of how the event is a performance structure that is dependent on a number of actions, not on a particular individual. This is inspiring me to write a manifesto of ‘research in public’. Following the manifesto, in theory, means anyone could hold such an event – I will publish it at the end of the residency. Doina Petrescu’s reflections on scale, on the relationship between top-down legislation/facilitation, and bottom-up action, renew this sense of a network of relations. It isn’t just what is done, but how it is shared, and how the conditions for that practice can thereby be altered. If we are the parents and original of climate change, we are also the architects of the transformative practices that will combat it – and in doing so, improve the quality of people’s lives. As Petrescu said, ‘It is exciting to live in this transition because we have to be more creative’.
William Beebe and Otis Barton’s Bathysphere expeditions of the early 30’s paved the way for the pioneering adventurer travelling to distant worlds. Their first dive was also a cultural milestone. Over 30 years before the world watched a man step foot on the moon, through their box TV sets people across the US and UK were able to join these two men on their mission to the deep through a live radio broadcast, conjuring up images of abyssal landscapes and alien-like creatures as they vicariously journeyed to the deep. The rest of the world was able to live these adventures for years to come through the photos and books the two men created of their pioneering adventures.
The 60’s fired the starter gun for the race to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the deepest known part of the ocean in the Mariana Trench. USN Lieutenant Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard made the first manned dive in their bathysphere named Trieste. The descent took almost 5 hours, but they barely spent more than 20 minutes at the bottom due to a crack in their outer window – eek. No less than 50 years later James Cameron won the media-facing race with Richard Branson in March 2011, successfully completing a solo dive to the deepest known part of the ocean. Along with collecting samples for science Cameron’s main mission was to gather footage – images that will immerse us into unfathomable depths from the comfort of our cinema seats. Subsequently in 2014 Virgin Oceanic’s Deep Flight Challenger submarine, whose mission Branson described as ‘the last great challenge for humans’ was quietly shelved, somewhat shining a light on the motivations of the mission.
But aside from ‘challenging the adventurer inside us’, what are the driving forces behind our voyages to the deep? Is it in the name of exploration or exploitation, and can these interests be distinct? The infamous Jacques-Yves Cousteau opened up human ocean exploration through his films, books and TV series, along with co-inventing the aqualung that has allowed me, and thousands of fellow divers, to physically experience the magnificent underwater environment first hand. There is no doubt that Cousteau had a deep passion for the oceans and spoke out about the impact of human pollution, but there was another driver behind his work – his funders. Most of Cousteau’s environmental and marine survey research was funded by the oil and gas industry and the technologies invented were used to search for minerals. In 1954 Cousteau in fact conducted a geological and hydrographic survey of the Arabian Gulf seabed on his ship Calypso, identifying drilling sites which was the first phase in an exploration programme that eventually led to the discovery of oil. Another iconic ocean expedition from our history books is the great HMS Challenger (1872 – 1876). The only extensive voyage of its kind planned explicitly to gather data from the oceans, which made many discoveries that laid the foundation of oceanography today that was set in motion by the telecommunications industry. The first submarine telegraph cable laid across the English Channel in 1851 triggered a boom in telegraph communication and simultaneously prompted a realisation in both the government and cable companies that knowledge of the seabed was critical to the development of the industry. The Challenger’s epic voyage received national funding in the name of better understanding the depths of the oceans, whilst simultaneously ensuring expensive cabling could be laid down properly, opening up the possibility of connecting continents.
And what of today? The current industry driving ocean exploration is deep-sea mining. Amongst other things, the sea floor contains rare earth minerals, which are used to power emerging and ‘next generation’ technologies; electronics, computer chips, mobile phones, chemical sensors, cancer drugs, flat panel displays … the list goes on. According to an article in Nature magazine written in 2011, ‘demand for rare earth minerals has leapt from 30,000 tonnes in the 1980s to about 120,000 tonnes in 2010 — higher than the world’s current annual production of about 112,000 tonnes.’ There are two huge contentions here – firstly, scientific communities are struggling to keep up with the pace of industry movement and without sufficient baseline data of deep sea ecosystems, it renders it very difficult to manage and protect the land. We simply don’t know enough about this environment that covers the majority of the planet to understand the real impacts of mutilating it. In addition to this, there is also the very interesting problem of – if we’re going to extract these resources out of the ground who has the right to them? As much of the land we are talking about falls outside the areas of national jurisdiction it is the Common Heritage of Mankind. And just like the moon, the interpretation of what this actually means is somewhat vague and managed by a very small group of people. As Dr. Kerry Howell beautifully pointed out in a conversation last week – with the Antarctic the Common Heritage of Mankind is interpreted as ‘no-one should go there’. With the oceans it is interpreted as ‘everyone has a right to benefit from its resources’. In a conference on Space Law and the UN Treaty I attended a few weeks ago, rather than seeing the principle as potential for a future scenario where we might share resources and live more peacefully, the Common Heritage of Mankind was seen as a hindrance to space exploration. I actually noted a comment from someone who said ‘I’d like to see the treaty changed from space exploration to space exploitation’.
Whichever way we choose to frame this, there have been very strong warnings in a lot of the research I’ve been doing around deep sea exploration and the inevitable exploitation that follows – we simply don’t know enough about this epic frontier and its inhabitants to blindly move in. This is made comically evident in an anecdote from William Beebe’s biography. On one of his pioneering dives he tied a lobster to the outside the Bathysphere as bait, or in his words ‘a sacrifice upon the alter of oceanography’. On returning to the surface after a dive to 2200ft it was reported that the lobster was ‘more active than when it was sent down.’
… take heed, there’s much we don’t know of the deep.
We returned from Lao PDR at the beginning of this month in time for our second seminar in Sheffield. The intense 28 day shoot was highly productive and we now have much material with which to experiment with as we begin to construct our artist film and photographic works.
Over the course of our shoot we worked with communities belonging to 9 different ethnic groups: Khmu, Akha, Hmong, Lou Loum, Tia lue, Sidar, lanten, Lahu (Muser), Thai Neua. In dialogue with these communities we considered the challenges that they would face in the future due to climate change in relation to the ecosystem services provided by the forest surrounding the communities: food security, poverty, water stress and the loss of resources.
The experience allowed us to once again witness and confront climate change at ground zero as we crossed the gap between climate theory, policy, models and agreements to where climatic events, losses, discontinuities and catastrophe are indexical and present.
Over the course of the next month we will be working with the material we collected in Lao PDR and deciding how to progress.
Seminar two in the Sheffield School of Architecture
The second Culture and Climate Change Seminar which was held at the Sheffield School of Architecture focused upon Energy Futures and Urban Humans and considered future urban transformations and energy system changes.
Throughout the seminar we were asked what is it to live in an age described as urban and an epoch named after humans: The Anthropocene. And what are the central societal, economic and environmental challenges facing our cities now and in an uncertain future, and how our architects, urban planners and policy makers might respond.
Having just returned from a developing nation our questions centred upon the issue of rural urban migration and the gap between policy and practice. We wanted to know how do we plan for a massive increase in urban populations in developing nations and the boom of informal housing (slums)?
This month we are honoured to have had our first meeting with our mentor Oliver Chanarin in his London studio in Hackney. Together we discussed strategies to create a jarring experience for the viewer, questioning how we may contrast the environmental and humanitarian concern that is implicate in our footage and photographic works with for example a formal investigation of the gimbal* ( a footstep-less camera) which we are working with, a discourse on simulation or a formal investigation into the representation of climate change / environmental catastrophe in photography. Oliver is half of the artist collaboration Bloomberg & Chanarin. To find out more about their work please visit here: http://www.broombergchanarin.com/index.php
*A Gimbal is a motorized evolution of the Steadicam that with practice creates very smooth footstep less footage even when the cameraman is walking or running.
Whilst in London we went to see Richard Mosse’s new Exhibition Incoming, an immersive multi-channel video installation at the Curve gallery in the Barbican London. The work maps the unfolding migration crisis across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe with an advanced weapons-grade thermal camera which records the biological trace of human life.
As well as visiting the exhibition we also attended the two talks that accompanied the exhibition. The first with Sophie Darlington, Richard Mosse, Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost explored the creation of the work. The second with Richard Mosse and Anthony Downey considered how Richard Mosse used the military grade thermal imaging camera to attempt to engage and confront the way our governments represent and therefore regard the refugee.
During both talks Richard Mosse inferred the significance of climate change, amongst other factors, as a driving force for migration, stating that the current international migrations crisis is only the beginning of what we are to expect from climate change-influenced migration in the future. We highly recommend going to see the intensely moving installation, as we felt that the experience enabled us to come closer to an understanding of what is the quintessential experience of the Anthropocene from the perspective of migrants.
To find out more about Richard Mosse’s Incoming visit here: https://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=19949 or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0IUuYjdrOU
Collaboration at the British Antarctic Survey
In addition to what we are working on for the residency we have begun a collaboration with Anje-Margriet Neutel that is supported by the British Antarctic Survey. Anje-Margriet Neutel is a Community & Ecosystem Ecologist who works to understanding of the relation between the structure and stability of ecosystems. Together we are working toward a piece of work relating to climate change, ecological networks and the mechanism of feedback. The work we produce will be shown during the Festival of ideas in Cambridge in October.
To find out more about Anje-Margriet Neutel ‘s work please visit here: https://www.bas.ac.uk/profile/anjute/#about
Over the next month we will be working with the material we have already gathered in the UK and Lao PDR, creating new material and continuing the all-important conversations that are feeding our exploration of future scenarios. Stay tuned for excerpts of film and photographic works in progress!