Can artists save the world?

Written on July 10, 2009 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies

The environment is this year's big theme across the arts. Here's how Britain's greenest cultural avengers plan to save the world

Paul Arendt

As published in guardian.co.uk

"No artist has ethical sympathies," Oscar Wilde once wrote. "An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. All art is quite useless."

Try telling that to today's writers, artists, film-makers, architects, actors and musicians. An ethical sympathy – and, specifically, an environmental conscience – is fast becoming de rigueur. The last five years have seen an unprecedented flowering of eco-awareness and activism throughout the arts, at home and abroad. From giant multiplexes to 50-seat fringe venues, from sweaty stadiums to intimate galleries, artist are talking – and singing, and writing, and painting – about the planet's inexorable drift towards disaster.

The Contingency Plan, a play about climate change by Steve Waters, recently opened to rave reviews at the Bush theatre in London. Radical Nature, an exhibition exploring "art and architecture for a changing planet", is currently showing at the Barbican in London; it features the work of Anya Gallaccio, who has sawn a birch into bits and then reassembled it, as well as a piece by Joseph Beuys, the grandfather of ecological art. In Manchester last week, 83-year-old artist Gustav Metzger installed a forest of upended willows in the city centre – a powerful statement about a damaged world.

In September, McLibel director Franny Armstrong's new film The Age of Stupid, a dystopic imagining of a future Earth, opens around the world (it came out in the UK in March). Photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand's 90-minute movie Home – "an ode to the planet's beauty and its delicate harmony" – has just gone online . In April, Hull Truck revealed its dazzling new eco-friendly theatre. Paul McCartney wants us all to stop eating meat. Paul Weller plays the Eden Project on 10 July for the rainforests. And . . .

Well, you get the idea. There's a lot going on. The question is: can any of this art do any good? When an actor or a musician lectures us about global warming, our first instinct is cynicism: after all, is it possible to maintain both a private jet and a green conscience? The satirical website The Onion neatly nailed this contradiction, with the headline: "Alec Baldwin signs two-year deal to care about the environment."

Of course, climate change is a giant issue. Bewilderingly complex and often misunderstood, it is ill-suited to the emotional directness of art and storytelling. "It's about things happening all over the world in different places and at different tempos," says Steve Waters. "How do you unify that into one story? It's quite a challenge."

Artists' attempts tend to fall into two categories. There is the celebratory work reminding us how nice nature is; and there is the dystopian approach, which paints a stark picture of humanity's future. Occasionally, the two will come together, as in Marcus Vergette's Time and Tide Bell. Situated on the seawall at Appledore in Devon, the bell chimes a melody with the rise of the tide; as global warming worsens, this chime will become more frequent.

One positive thing to come out of this cultural greening is an increased dialogue between artists and scientists. Thanks to organisations such as UK-based charity Tipping Point, which brings artists and eco experts together, there is now a belief within the scientific community that the arts have a major role to play when it comes to saving the planet. "We're in the middle of a paradigm shift in how we see the world," says Peter Gingold, who runs Tipping Point. "It comes out of a sense of unease, that we have to do something. One of my dreams is to inspire a work so powerful that it provides the impetus to action – without something horrible having to happen first, and millions of people losing their lives." There is some precedent for this, the most obvious example being Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, which helped transform public understanding of global warming.

But culture can also lead by example: the greening of the arts is as much about the medium as the message. While the arts could hardly be described as a major polluter compared with the petrochemical industry, there is an ever-growing array of green initiatives, from fashion designers being urged to use sustainable fabrics, to theatres recycling sets. The National in London recently replaced all the tungsten lights in its Olivier foyer with LEDs, cutting energy use by 88%.

Meanwhile, organisations such as the Greencode Project in Canada are laying down international emission standards for the film and media industry. Even 24, Fox's torture-and-explosions show, is promoting itself as the first carbon-neutral TV production, a target achieved through the use of biodiesel trucks, lights with motion sensors and much carbon offsetting.

Can the arts really save the world? In the short term, the answer is probably still no. That job must fall to politicians. But what the arts can do is remind us that it's possible to save the world. Art can shock us – spur us – into action. "Artists can communicate in a way that scientists can't," says Judith Knight, director of ArtsAdmin, a London-based organisation showcasing contemporary art. "It's important for audiences to see that it's not too late – or people won't see the point in doing anything."

The film-maker: 'Documentaries are the number one way to save the world'

When she was a zoology student, Franny Armstrong wrote a thesis entitled: "Is the human species suicidal?" It's a question that haunts her film, The Age of Stupid. Set in 2055, it stars Pete Postlethwaite as the lone survivor in a fried world. From his base in the Arctic Circle, he looks back at what went wrong, through a video archive of news clips and interviews.

In person, Armstrong comes across as anything but pessimistic. The director of McLibel, a documentary about the court case brought by McDonald's against activists Helen Steel and David Morris, she believes humanity is now working to a frighteningly short deadline: just over five months. That's the period of time until COP15, the UN Climate Change Conference, which takes place in Copenhagen at the beginning of December.

"It's unbelievably central," she says. "The only way we can stop runaway climate change is to massively cut global emissions. The only way of cutting global emissions is an internationally binding treaty. And the only chance to get an internationally binding treaty is at Copenhagen. We have to start cutting emissions by 2015. If we fail at Copenhagen, there's no time to get another treaty in place."

As a film-maker, albeit an independent, low-budget one, Armstrong is part of an industry with a very high carbon footprint. Her own work is rigorously audited: making The Age of Stupid created 94 tonnes of CO2 – around 1% of that generated by Hollywood eco-disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, she notes drily (although that movie's credits claim its emissions were offset by tree-planting).

Yet the film industry has done more to raise awareness than any other art form. "Independent feature documentaries are currently the number one way to save the world," says Armstrong, "in terms of reaching the most number of viewers, completely uncensored." In March, The Age of Stupid had the world's first solar-powered premiere, in a viewing tent specially erected in London's Leicester Square. The carpet was green, not red, and celebrities were encouraged to come on foot or by bike.

Armstrong is pioneering a new brand of indie film distribution, whereby anyone can buy a licence to screen The Age of Stupid, and keep the proceeds for themselves or whatever climate campaign they may be running. "I wouldn't pick on the movie industry particularly," she says. "Everybody cutting a little bit is not the answer. We need legislation on a massive scale."

The architect: 'Wind farms? I think they're gorgeous, really lovely'

Ted Cullinan does not pull his punches. "We're roasting the Earth to death," says the architect, who was designing green buildings before the term "sustainability" was even coined. "Buildings have to respond to this, but sometimes it's difficult to persuade clients to spend the money."

Green architecture's big problem is the squaring of aesthetics with environmental considerations. This is where Cullinan thrives. His designs feel linked to the surrounding ecology: green is built-in. Take the Gridshell building he designed for the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex, where a gently rippling exterior looks like an extension of the rolling landscape. The lower level, which serves as the museum's archive, sinks into the ground, providing a cool, well-insulated storage space with minimum energy needs.

In Cambridge, where Cullinan studied, the pavilions he designed for the £60m Centre for Mathematical Studies manage to look both futuristic and strangely pagoda-like. Boasting natural ventilation, night cooling and solar shading, they are arranged around a central building that is topped off with a roof garden for insulation.

"If you insist on designing a house as you would have done before," says Cullinan, "and then stick solar panels on the roof, it's pretty horrible. But if you design an energy roof and a house to go under it, there are fantastic aesthetic possibilities that do nothing but interest and challenge me."

But Cullinan, now in his 70s, isn't too optimistic about the future of green architecture in the UK. Some hope, he says, is offered by the London Array, a giant wind farm off the Kent and Essex coasts that has finally got the go-ahead. "I think they're gorgeous, really lovely," he says of wind farms. "For some reason, people can't see power lines marching across the country, but they can see wind turbines, which on the whole are lower."

He feels the building industry is otherwise behind the times, though. "They will move as slowly as they can – for economic reasons. I mean, they're not evil. But they like making money."

The pop avenger: 'There are no silver bullets. We need a different way of thinking'

Alison Tickell is not a pop star. You won't have seen her at Live Earth singing about polar bears, or tumbling out of a Soho nightclub sporting a Fairtrade tattoo. Yet for the last two years she has been quietly revolutionising the British music industry. Tickell is CEO of Julie's Bicycle, a not-for-profit company working to reduce the music industry's footprint. She does this through research, carbon-auditing and the promotion of "green standards" for record companies and venues.

"Sort yourself out," says Tickell. "That's our philosophy. Then extend that message to whatever else you can influence." When Tickell formed her company in 2007, there were three central issues to address. The first was audience travel, which makes up an incredible 43% of the industry's carbon emissions; the second was the footprints of various venues; and the third was CD production, particularly plastic packaging.

Travel, naturally, is the toughest. It is indexed to so many factors, from the availability of public transport to the personal inclinations of music fans. "There are no silver bullets here," says Tickell. "It requires a completely different way of thinking. It cannot be done by promoters alone."

Still, she has managed to secure commitments from the four major record labels (Universal, EMI, Sony and Warner), as well as the large independent Beggars group, to reduce emissions caused by CD packaging by at least 10% within a year. Julie's Bicycle has created an online carbon calculator for venue bosses, and continues to research everything from the impact of touring to the growth of music downloads. (If the latter sounds as though it should be an environmental positive, it turns out to be a slippery, difficult-to-measure issue: one downloaded track might be stored on multiple MP3 players or servers, or burned on to CDs, all requiring power.)

Where does this leave the artists? Many musicians have embraced eco-thinking, notably Radiohead, who have carbon-audited their tours, encouraged fans to travel by public transport and, wherever possible, freighted their touring gear by sea rather than air. Yet there is a reluctance among some artists to "come out" for environmentalism, even though they may believe in the cause themselves. Tickell calls this "the green hush effect". She says: "In many instances, where a celebrity has got up and made a strong statement, the response has been the opposite of the intended effect." In other words, by speaking out, pop stars expose themselves to instant audit-by-media. "Obviously, I'm not saying we can't ask questions of our messengers. If an artist is simply lecturing us on climate change, and not making any commitment to it in their actions, they will be questioned. People aren't stupid. But the fundamental thing is the message."

The theatre guru: 'We've got hefty things to deal with. It's going to be a rocky ride'

In March 2007, the Arcola theatre made a bold announcement: the east London venue was planning to become the world's first carbon-neutral theatre. In terms of importance, it vowed to put green issues on a par with its shows and youth work. Much of this is thanks to Ben Todd, the theatre's executive director and green guru.

"The carbon neutral plan was supposed to make a point – to say: theatre can do this," he says. "The arts cost money. We do them because we believe they're important. Is the Arcola anywhere near being carbon neutral? No. Our objective is to reduce our consumption of everything." Todd's team have installed a hydrogen-powered fuel cell, which runs the LED lighting in the bar and the lights for selected performances. The cell puts out 5kW, less than a fifth of what is usually available. This sets a challenge for lighting designers: they aren't compelled to use the fuel cell, but it's surprising how many do.

The National theatre has also been experimenting with lighting. It is common practice for theatres to switch on their swivelling stage lights hours before a performance begins. However, more reliable technology has made this level of warm-up unnecessary. Last year, the National tested this by keeping the lights for War Horse switched off until 35 minutes before curtain-up. They came on perfectly every time.

The Arcola has yet to stage a main-house show about the environment, partly out of a desire to separate content and practice, and partly because such dramas are thin on the ground. However, the theatre does hold monthly Green Sundays, featuring film, music and spoken-word events on an ecological theme. Meanwhile, the Arcola has been appointed as administrator for the mayor of London's Green Theatre plan, which aims to deliver 60% cuts in venues' carbon emissions by 2025.

"I'm an optimist," says Todd. "If you're a pessimist, then kill yourself now. We've got some fairly hefty things to deal with, though. I think it's going to be a rocky ride."

The visual artists: 'Save the world? It's the human race that might need saving'

From cave painters onwards, visual artists have been inspired by nature. It's hard to gauge the effectiveness of visual art as a tool for raising awareness, however, since there's a tendency to shy away from anything so crass as a message.

Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey create green art in the most literal sense: they grow grass on Bibles, chairs, tree trunks, even the interior of an abandoned church. While it's tough pinning them down, they will admit their work reflects their growing concern about the environment.

In 2006, they retrieved the skeleton of a beached minke whale and encrusted it with alum crystals for a work called Stranded. "Dan was scraping away at bones and picking off maggots – it was dirty, stinky work," says Ackroyd. "As a vegetarian," adds Harvey, "cleaning a whale that has been dead for a long while isn't much fun."

Stranded was inspired by their journeys with the Cape Farewell initiative, which brings artists, writers and scientists together for trips to the Arctic. There, they saw beaches strewn with the bones of whales and walruses. "You think about how many of our major ports were built on the back of the whaling industry," says Harvey. "We plundered the oceans so we could have candles, soap, whale oil and whalebone corsets. Then petroleum was discovered and we've plundered that to the brink."

Does this husband-and-wife team feel the arts have a role to play in saving the world? "I don't know if the world needs saving," says Harvey. "It's the human race that might need saving. We've got to return to a balance within the world. It's about trying to gain respect for the planet again."


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