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Towards a Sustainable RCS

RCS’s vision is to nurture a sustainable community that supports and celebrates inclusive art-making, from grassroots to world-leading performance and production.

Staff from across the institution gathered to explore learning and teaching approaches alongside operational activities which foreground sustainability.

They also heard from Dr Laura Bissell, Athenaeum Research Fellow, Lecturer in Contemporary Performance Practice and co-chair of the Sustainability Committee, who presented Towards a Sustainable RCS. Here, we share an excerpt from Dr Bissell’s talk.

© Robbie McFadzean

What can art do? What can art education do?

Timothy Morton, ecological theorist and author of many books, including Dark Ecology and All Art Is Ecological, makes this statement: ‘all art is ecological’.

And what he means by that is that art includes its environment(s) in its very form. ‘Of course, all art is ecological, just as all art talks in various ways about race, class and gender, even when it is not doing so explicitly’.
The Collins Dictionary word of the year was last year was ‘permacrisis’, defined as an ‘extended period of instability and insecurity’. Researchers at the European Policy Centre argue that permacrisis is where ‘one challenge [is] seamlessly followed by the next’ but I don’t think this is quite right, the experience arguably, is more like a layering of multiple crises simultaneously, creating a palimpsest of crises.

Not just one after the other but accumulative. Writing one year after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, the researchers from the European Policy Centre claimed that the most widespread sentiment in the EU is crisis fatigue.

I know that as a community of staff and students there is a sense of crisis fatigue and that it feels challenging addressing everything that needs to be done. The reason I mention this is that we are not working in a vacuum; there is a context to our work. The Artist Placement Group would argue that the context is half of the work. And whatever your practice, the context that we are living in and working through, is one of climate crisis.

As we say in our mission statement which opens our new RCS sustainability policy: ‘We recognise that there is a climate emergency and that we have a responsibility to reduce our impact on the environment’. Not to address this in our approaches and our interactions with learners, is not being responsive to what is happening, and to acknowledge what our community is dealing with.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the internationally renowned performance artist who delivered a performance lecture in this very space in April of this year, organised by Professor Laura González and supported by RCS Research Knowledge Exchange, claimed 23 years ago that ‘Performance as an artistic ‘genre’ is in a constant state of crisis, and is therefore an ideal medium for articulating a time of permanent crisis such as ours’.

There is so much complexity when acknowledging where we are with climate emergency, it has hard to know what to do and often feels like steps forward are also steps back. Even taking action, or attempting to take action, can still be having a negative impact. This topic is very complex, and very loaded with our own ethical and personal feelings. What I think Gómez-Peña is indicating is that performance is a form that is itself in flux, on the cusp of new articulations of experiences, and I think that performance in an age of permacrisis will continue to provide spaces for experimentation, intimacy, community, questioning, grief and also a place for hope.

The term crisis has its etymology in a few places – a state of chaos and uncertainty is found in Latin as crisis, but there is also in the Greek krisis in the idea a ‘decision’ or ‘separation’, while the Indo-European comes from the idea ‘to choose’. So, we can consider these roots of the term crisis: a time of intense difficulty or danger and a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.
I like to think of this second one in relation to the climate crisis we are facing – what decisions and actions can we take, to move towards being more ecologically aware, but also in our various roles within higher education, with many of us having the privilege of being able to provide learning experiences for artists of the future, what kinds of knowledge and understanding of this can we share with our students?

How can we encourage them to think sustainably about their own creative practice? And for non-teaching staff, what can be considered in relation to your own role in the RCS and how we can all approach our specific work with these questions of sustainability in mind?

There can be a perception that making work in a sustainable way means giving something up, or not being able to do what you want to do, so I thought I would share a few examples of work in this area followed by what I think are inspiring examples of RCS student, staff and graduate works that have either used environmental concerns or climate crisis as the theme and content of the work, or performances that are not environmental in theme but have been made with consideration of sustainable approaches using the Theatre Green Book.

The Theatre Green Book is a guide that was created by production managers, and people working in theatres, during the Covid pandemic, to set three volumes: sustainable productions, sustainable buildings, and sustainable operations. It cites that 77% of audience members expect theatres to address the climate emergency. What do our stakeholders expect of us?

So, what can art do? On a very basic level, art can raise awareness of the problems we are facing. But there are lots of other ways in which it can work. Art and performance have a role in framing and defining moments. For me, performance functions as a means to understand the world we are in. For theorist Claire Bishop, the paradox of art is that it is ‘perceived both as too removed from the real world and yet as the only space from which it is possible to experiment’ (2012).

In the book Sustainability, Human Well-Being, and the Future of Education (2018), Justin W. Cook opens with the idea of learning at the edge of history. He says: ‘Today, it is hard to point to anything that is stable—the environment included’. He asks: ‘What is the purpose of education? Should education systems be burdened with sustainability? And how should we determine its purpose? To what end do we learn?’.

These are the questions we are grappling with, what are we actually doing as educators, and what can art education do? We are in a state of emergency. But I like to think of all the examples that Rebecca Solnit shares in her book Hope in the Dark (2016), which traces a history of activism and social change, about where communities have overcome some of what seems to be the most terrible and hopeless circumstances.

Sara Ahmed states: ‘Hope is an investment that the paths we follow will get us somewhere’ (2017: 46-7). What could be more hopeful that what our students are doing when they come here? With a belief that they can take their passion, their talent, and that it will get them somewhere. How can we as arts educators, not shy away from the difficulty of where we are, but find ways of working through this together, of finding out what our artists need in this specific context we are working in?

You may be thinking, it’s pointless, or it’s too much work or any of the other things that I think all the time about this, but I am going to give you an example of what ecological theorist Timothy Morton says about how difficult it is for us as individuals to know our impact.

The example he gives is of each of us, waking up, putting a key in a car ignition to go to work. Normal. But he talks about million keys all turning, and how the impact of this is great. ‘I am not doing this, not me, little Timothy Morton’, but the ‘heap of actions’ as he describes it, is having an impact.

This can work the other way too, taking care in what we are using, thinking of how we travel, what we consume in the day, how we encourage our artists in training to think about approaching their practice, these little changes, or as some organisations call it, little green nudges, can have an impact. Sending less emails can have a positive impact – fantastic!

What can art do? What can art education do? I am just one teacher, one human at one institution, but by Morton’s logic, addressing ‘global warming and mass extinction can only be done at a massive collective scale’ (25). We are creative people, it is frankly, terrifying, but it is the context in which we are working, in which our students are working. We can ignore it, or we can meet it in and try to find out what art-making in the Anthropocene demands of us. What I have learned so far, is that it means noticing, taking care, and making time for the consideration of how we do what we do.

The Contemporary Performance Practice team and I wrote about training artists in times of crisis, provoked by the pandemic which was published in the Performance Research Journal in 2020. We reflected that perhaps making art in an emergency is necessarily as much about creating the kinds of spaces and experiences that we need as it is about directly engaging with the politics, issues and wider ideas of crises.

Reference List

Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso.

Bissell, Laura and Gary Gardiner, Sarah Hopfinger and Rachel O’Neill. 2020. Training Artists in Times of Crisis. Performance Research, 25:8. p42-50.

Cook, Justin W. ed. 2018. Sustainability, Human Well-Being, and the Future of Education. Switzerland: Springer.

Morton, Timothy. 2018. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. Columbia: Columbia University Press.

Morton, Timothy. 2021. All Art Is Ecological. London: Penguin Classics.

Solnit, Rebecca. 2016. Hope in The Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Chicago: Haymarket Books.