Interview: What are ‘Climate Cultures’ (dot net)?

ClimateCultures.net – creative conversations for the Anthropocene is a new project trying to connect artists, thinkers, doers, ‘ordinary people’ around, well, climate change. MCFly interviewed its founder, Mark Goldthorpe, via the wonders of email. The complete interview is here below. It’s long, but definitely worth the time.

ClimateCultures – creative conversations for the Anthropocene

What ‘gap’ is ClimateCultures.net trying to fill?

Great opening question – because I’m not convinced we always need to fill in the gaps. Gaps are good places to explore between things that otherwise dominate our attention. The poet Robert Frost has a line “the interstices of things ajar” in one of his poems; something mysterious between things that look solid and certain and reliable, and like they really should not have gaps. Gaps can be dangerous and undermining, of course, if you think of cracks in the ground we’re standing on, or in the walls of the building we’re sheltering in. And there are plenty of cracks in the system we’ve built up and are convinced we want to stay living in because it feels so ‘natural’ and unchangeable… And gaps can be scary, if you think of the voids in our understanding of, and our imagined powers to control, everything – so obviously we want to fill those in. But gaps can be productive too, if you think about a pause before you choose, a thought before you leap – and the thing you want to leap across, to bridge but not necessarily to fill in.

I want ClimateCultures to be a place where people with a creative view of some kind can explore questions about climate change, the environment, the Anthropocene, while appreciating that all the questions are tangled and never ending and throw up contradictions and incompletenesses (if there is such a word). So, as much as anything, it is a place to generate gaps as it is to uncover them or to fill them.

Which is maybe a way of saying, it fills a gap between creative thinking on climate change and ‘problem solving’ – i.e. between seeing we need alternatives to the way we are now and thinking that simple solutions will get them for us, case closed, job done.

That’s not a good answer to a great question. The site offer much better ones!

When did you set it up, how have you been trying to grow it?  How much of your time does it take up?

I set up ClimateCultures – well, I had the idea for it last November, after a ‘creative summit’ I went to in Dartington (near Totnes, Devon). That was organised by art.earth, who do amazing three day events for artists and others on different ecological issues, and always from an interesting angle. Over the previous couple of years I’d been busy organising similar-but-different events with the charity TippingPoint: bringing together artists and experts in various aspects of climate change. Those were also amazing events, and exposed me to lots of creative people and ideas. I knew I wanted to continue the conversations I’d started at all these events – and to help others continue or develop their own conversations. Having been the one sending all the emails back and forth for TippingPoint, I knew there was an appetite for staying in touch beyond any standalone events. So the idea I had was to see if a new website could be a platform for ‘creative conversations’.

I actually launched it in March this year, after doing a survey of all the contacts I’d built up through TippingPoint and art.earth, and the very generous level of feedback I got to that. I’d not created any websites before, so it was the legendary steep learning curve. And I was very sure that I didn’t want it to be just a blog, and certainly not one dominated by me; so it’s been important to recruit different voices from the outset. It is a lot of work to get that going and keep it going! I have other things going on too, of course, so ClimateCultures is not all of my working week, but I do put in a significant number of hours on it – which I maybe should count up, but prefer not to.

I’ve mainly grown it by word of mouth (or as I originally typed, ‘word of moth’ – which could be an interesting approach). A lot of personal contact with prospective members, and encouraging the members to become prospective contributors. I think its breadth of artistic engagement helps with that; you don’t know whether the next post will be from a writer, a painter, a dramatist, a film maker or musician, whoever. And it will always be something a bit different to the last one, albeit on very complementary themes or topics.

Now that it feels established, I’ve begun to venture into social media, which I was determined not to do at the start. So we have a Facebook page and will no doubt get into the Twittersphere soon. It’s small steps, partly because that’s my approach with something new (to me) but mainly because I do want the site to mainly be a conversation between its members – although with an audience, of course.

What is your absolute favourite contribution to it (can be your own or someone else’s), and why is it your favourite.

I am very tempted to say “the most recent one.” I am very happy when I hit Publish and know there is something new that’s just become part of the mix. Or I should say “the next one.” I think Anthony Burgess always said that when asked what was his favourite of his own books: “the next one.”

But you want a proper answer, and I think this has to be something called A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. That is a series of posts rather than a single one, and I’m pleased it’s taking off. I invited members to describe three objects that illustrate, for them, the past, present and future of the Anthropocene – this new geological age which it’s said the human species has brought about. Not just climate change, disastrous enough, or the catastrophe of mass extinction, but the way we have changed the surface of the earth, its soils, mineral deposits, water, everything. That is so huge that it is overwhelming, of course, so I wanted to see how each of us could get a personal handle on at least some of it, a small part of it, through thinking about objects that have some meaning something to us, an emotional significance of some kind. I think it was the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss who said that “objects are good to think with.” Personal objects resonate, and I hope that seeing someone else’s selection sparks off ideas in others. So, over time I hope that this part of the site will grow into a collection of very personal ‘slices’ of what a past and a present time, as well as a future, feels like. It’s important to see that there are very many versions of ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ as well as of ‘Next’. I say more about it on the site, of course, and you can now see selections from a visual artist, a creative producer and a curator, as well as my own selection. And my absolute favourite contribution is .. the next one. Whose will it be?…

Devil’s advocate question – if climate change is going to be ‘fixed’ it will be with geo-engineering, or Elon Musk and his Tesla vehicles and his solar PV roof tiles.  Why does what artists and museum curators do/think/say matter?

I am on close terms with the Devil’s advocate. It pays to know what he is thinking (it does seem to be a he, too). And his question here is particularly revealing, because one of the key things that artists and others do for us is to point out “Err, no actually.” Geoengineering and other ‘big ideas’ will not ‘fix’ climate change. Not by a long chalk. Not only do I have a suspicion of all ‘fixes’ – the quick ones in particular – I also come over all quizzical when someone urges us to “see the bigger picture”; usually as a way of arguing that their preferred ‘big idea’ is the one that will work. The bigger picture is maybe a way of framing out the annoying details that get in the way of the supposed solution: not just the objections from others, but the complicating factors that just seem less relevant, a distraction from the main point being argued.

Not that I have anything against thinking big as such, and we do need to see the ‘whole’ that is the biggest possible picture, including everything of concern or of possible repercussion. But that is an impossibly big picture to hold in our heads all the time. So artists, I think, do a great job of showing us the small picture, the particular issue or concern or question. And each picture is different; even when an artist has a theme that she or he always explores, each take on it is a different take. And each artist has a different perspective or method or angle of attack. So we end up (but never end) with thousands of small pictures – and this is what we need, to help us to see some of the complexity and myriad possibilities. Small pictures to help is question the ‘fix’ – while still taking action, making progress. That’s the tricky bit, of course.

Behind the idea of a ‘fix’ is a bigger question: the problem. Is climate change a problem-to-be-solved? Or a predicament-to-be-addressed?

What does ‘success’ look like for the project in a year’s time?

After my last little rant, that is a great question! Success might be me having less to say. The question reminds me that I framed ClimateCultures as an experiment. That’s how I thought of it to myself and how I described it in the survey I sent out once I had the idea. I was careful to say that I would give it a year – and asked people what they thought it might or should become after that, if it survived that long. I should go back and look at the feedback, now that we are seven months in! But for me now, success a year from now would look like an expanded community of creative and curious minds asking each other questions and offering their own small pictures of where we are, where we could be and how we might get there. Most importantly, perhaps, what is still to be discovered.

By expanded, I don’t necessarily mean a huge number of members. We have just under 70 now and if we get to 100 I’ll be very happy. But what success would mean is an expanded conversation between those members, whether in posts and replies, the forum we started as a book club, or new activities under the ‘Curious Minds’ section, and lots of examples of people’s work in the Resources section.

And an expanded cross-section of the creative community – not just different kinds of artists, but also of researchers and curators across the spectrum; and a healthy blurring of the (artificial but sometimes helpful) boundaries between these three silos.

And an expanded audience for these conversations, naturally.

It remains a fairly modest ambition, I think, and on purpose.

What advice would you give your younger self/what lessons have you learnt on the way?

Bloody hell. That is a question I have seen other people answer but have never been asked myself. I think that the younger me would have had a lot more advice for the older one and would have been a lot less reluctant to give it!

One of the things I’ve learned is that, although we really do need much better laws, regulations and enforcement on environmental protection, and better awareness of the science behind the problems and of the opportunities behind whatever solutions we want spread, and more and better examples of how things improve when we do take action – that more and better of any of these is not going to be enough. Not without engaging our imaginations. Imagination is what opens us up to a ‘better’ being possible and achievable. And it’s what enable us to be creative and to come up with different ways forward.

The younger me might have nodded at that but not given it much thought. He used to have a lot more faith that pointing out the problems, explaining the reasons, selling the solutions and passing the right laws – and overturning the powers-that-be when they didn’t pass the right laws – would all make it turn round. “Yes, but…” is what I’d say now. Or rather, “Yes, and…” I spent a lot of time working on explaining the science and why we need to act on it, developing examples of ‘best practice’ to help persuade others to act, and trying to influence policies that would force people to change the way they worked. Most of it was good work, with some successes, and all of it worth doing then and doing more of now. It’s never wasted. But it was not enough. We need a more cultural and creative, questioning approach. Of course, it’s just as urgent as I always thought it was back then.

Another thing that comes out of that, and which I’ve learned through the work I did before going freelance, is that ‘awareness’ only gets you so far. ‘Action’ does not emerge straightforwardly from being more aware of the situation; awareness of how bad things are can stifle action, make us turn away. Instead, action often generates its own awareness – of the problems and of the fact that change is possible. And that is much more likely when we act in association with others. Not always agreeing or having a blueprint for action, but trying things out and seeing what others are trying, and making links where they help. And the fourth A in that set – which is not my devising, but part of a project I was involved in quite a few years ago – is ‘agency’: the sense that something is achievable and that your part in achieving it is a meaningful one. If you’re not so set on ‘raising other people’s awareness’ so that they (supposedly inevitably) will be more environmentally positive, but instead are trying things out in association with them, then the actions you come up with are more likely to result in the greater awareness we need. Your own and other people’s.

I doubt I’d have listened to much of that back then, but I’m glad I listened to a lot of other people later on!

How can people in Manchester (and beyond) get involved?

Ah, well. If we are talking about ClimateCultures then I’d say join in. If you are an artist who is just starting to think about how climate change and the environment affect the stories, poems or plays you write, or the films or games you make, or the sculptures or music you create – and how these could maybe affect how others see climate change. Or if you are a researcher at university – maybe on a Masters or PhD, or already have years of research behind you in the sciences or social sciences or the humanities – or are working freelance, and want to explore what others are up to and the questions you could help with or want help with. Or if you are working in museums or galleries or in magazines or online, working out new ways to get different voices and faces in front of people, to pose new questions or to reveal old ones in a new light. ClimateCultures is up for that. And I’m prepared to bet that a lot of other sites, venues, organisations are up for it too, in and around Manchester and everywhere else. And if you can’t find the one you are looking for in your neighbourhood, talk with others and set it up. Or set it up and then talk with others (action, association…) and see where it goes (agency, awareness…). And tell ClimateCultures about it too, of course!

I just published a post today on ClimateCultures, where one of our Members (dramatist Julia Marques) previews some amazing new work from another Member (composer Lola Perrin). Julia quotes the great climate change campaigner and writer George Marshall, and I used it so set a challenge at the end of the post (I like to ask something at the end of most of them, in what I call “Space for creative thinking…”):

‘Julia quotes George Marshall: “The single most powerful thing an individual can do about climate change is to talk about it,” and this is the response that ClimateKeys inspires (and ClimateCultures invites). What was the most recent positive conversation you had about climate change, and the most negative? What made the difference? And what can you create with one other person – a story, an image, a sound or song or a setting – to make (both) your conversations more positive?”‘

Maybe that’s a good starting point, anywhere.

Anything else you’d like to say.

You probably think I’ve said more than enough thank you very much… So I’ll just say that I think we need all the things that people are doing on climate change. It’s not a question of replacing anything with something else and only doing that. Activism, entrepreneurialism, politics, science, tending your garden or allotment, consumer activism, anti-consumerism, behaviour change ‘nudges’, meditation, big research projects, small conversations – and art, of all kinds and in all places. All of them, experimentally.

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About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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One Response to Interview: What are ‘Climate Cultures’ (dot net)?

  1. Pingback: ClimateCultures interview - ClimateCultures - creative conversations for the Anthropocene

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