The Emergent Power of Art: A response to COP 21

Whilst practicing The Way of Council one of the most profound things I’ve learnt is that each person holds a piece of the truth, and each piece, however jarring, is needed to create the whole. This is a simple principle, but one that has far reaching consequences on more compassionate and successful communication as I learn to value all stories and to speak and listen from the heart; a quiet yet radical act and way of being in the world.

When any artist creates a piece of work they are telling a story, unraveling a piece of their truth, their response to the world or themselves and adding that piece into the circle, the greater conversation. These days, when an artist creates something –  one photograph, one painting, one song, one statement – it can spread, go viral, disseminate to as many corners of the globe that have internet access in a very short space of time. At the same time infinite pieces of creativity go unnoticed every minute of everyday. There is a spectrum of choices to make at the point of creation, and the point of sharing that creation with one other or ten thousand others.  When I create something I first and foremost have to find the value in itself, in it’s wholeness and worth it no matter what the outcome, no matter who listens or buys it, knowing I will never really know where something is spread or who could be engaging with it.

I was musing on these things when I was invited to be part of Swansea’s Conference of People; a series of local events envisioned by artist Fern Smith/Emergence as a creative response to the COP21 (Conference of Parties) climate change negotiations happening in Paris. Our own Conference of People brought together local artists, activists and community to contribute to that conversation. Many stories were shared in different ways over these weeks through film, performance art, photography, music, speaking, writing and reflection. Many people that came shared that it was powerful to come together in this space to not be preached at about ‘the issue’ but to see different perspectives, different responses and have a space to share doubts, fears and challenges.

James Balog’s story had a particularly profound effect on me. Chasing Ice is a documentary that follows his journey as an environmental photographer completing his Extreme Ice Survey where he ‘deploys revolutionary time-lapse cameras across the brutal Arctic to capture a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers’. As the New York Observer notes, the film ‘humanises an enormous and incomprehensible geological phenomenon with time-lapse images, putting unusually rapid geological change on breathtaking display’.

The affect of these images was indeed breathtaking. Such beauty and such devastation. Through Balog’s lenses I witnessed scenes I would never have viewed with my own eyes, scenes that affected me in a way that no speech or statistics ever could. My response to the film was one of hopelessness and one of hope.

I am hopeless because I have felt on a cellular level a response to this piece of art. I have witnessed undeniable evidence that the planet I live on is changing in climate and is melting and the water is rising. I feel my horror, anger, overwhelm and sadness. I also feel my apathy; my ‘so what that we can see that the ice caps are melting?’ my ‘it’s too late to do anything, we live on an evolving planet and it just so happens that the human race may have sped up this phase of the process by consuming in a grotesque way and there’s nothing I can do about it as an individual’ kind of apathy.

And I am hopeful because I have felt on a cellular level a response to this piece of art. Because I have witnessed undeniable evidence that the planet I live on is changing in climate and is melting and the water is rising. I feel my passion, joy and determination to be part of an enormous community of people who are doing what they can do. That what we each do is different and I don’t have to be a politician, scientist, geophysicist, filmmaker, public speaker etc etc. That we each bring our piece of the truth to this table. I do what I do and you do what you do, and we are all part of the conversation.

My overriding response to this film and to this event was not to do with the subject matter itself so much as the affirmation that art is important. Yes, that is it. The grand climax of this piece of writing: art is important, art is powerful, art is a valuable contribution to society. Apologies if you already knew this. It seemed I had forgotten. Mainly because I had been struggling to make ends meet and had been in a quagmire of self-doubt and self-absorption regarding why on earth I spend so many hours, days, weeks, months, years creating things and finding it hard to explain ‘what I’ve been up to’ and quite how to put into practice all that I want to creatively.

It feels important to note that I don’t mean Art with a capital A. I mean the myriad of ways that one can birth something out of the creative potential of every moment, to weave fragments together and create a new whole, to mould a new story that can be told and re-told through generations, to make beauty out of chaos and the intense desire that is both a privilege and a burden to need to encapsulate something in some way that makes it tangible to others and make meaning from experience.

Thank goodness James Balog bothered to do this. To return month after month, year after year to the same Arctic destinations, trecking through some of the harshest conditions on the planet, risking his life and facing huge technological challenges. Thank goodness he then sifted through years and years of footage from numerous cameras to create his film. I imagine there were many times he thought ‘why the f**k am I doing this?’ I’m inspired by his determination, dedication and vision and most of all to hold onto the intention of what he believed was possible.

When you boil it down, James Balog simply takes photos. But it is the holding of intention for what these photos become when offered into the larger conversation that speaks to me most. I’m grateful he trusted in a process that took years until he could see the fruits of his labour in his ‘solitary quest that had global implications’. For his art and for his mission he took a lot of risks so that he could tell a story in a way that no one else has.

His art had intention. He reminded me of what is possible when certain images, sounds, words are collated and combined in a certain way. He re-inspired me to focus on long-term projects that needs time and commitment, to trust in the art you are creating and spending many hours, days, weeks and even years on. He demonstrated trusting in letting a piece of art go and trusting in it’s emergence.

I’m sitting here writing this and you are sitting here reading this because of this process. My artistic work is effected because of this act, it is interlinked and we emerge in it together and bringing a new evolution to the table. Indeed this is Fern Smith’s definition: ‘Emergence consciously seeks to embody the values we treasure in a hope that a more creative, caring and compassionate planet might be our next evolution, revolution, or re-evolution’

Now that weeks are passing and I look back and wonder, did COP (in Paris, Swansea or anywhere…) make any real differnce? The answer is yes, even though I have no answers. Instead I am re-inspired and re-ignited to continue with my artistic practice. It’s not a question of whether that is enough, it’s not a question about having answers to some serious global situations, but it’s about whether I am choosing to ‘live the questions’, as Rilke writes. Perhaps this enquiry is the role of an artist.

After the screening of Chasing Ice I performed spirals as people sat in silence and reflected on what they had just witnessed. Another of the COP events premiered the Welsh screening of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything that asks the question ‘what if confronting the climate crisis is the best chance we’ll ever get to build a better world?’ After this I performed songs that spoke of transformation inspired by a film that offers solutions that may well change everything. It was a total pleasure and privilege to bring music into activism in this way, forming conversation and community on both a local and global scale. Thank you to Fern for the inspiration and to everyone involved. You can read more of the stories from the event here.


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