On Sunday 19th May I performed again with my friend and musical collaborator, the composer, concert pianist and climate activist, Lola Perrin, in the final gig on her End Climate Chaos tour. The event was in a church in Heptonstall, and part of the evening is dedicated to a discussion by the audience on Extinction Rebellion’s Third demand: Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.
A couple of weeks before I had been down in Devon on a course led by Dougald Hine and Charlotte Du Cann of The Dark Mountain Project, which took as its themes the three principles of Jem Bendell’s Paper on Deep Adaptation (to climate induced near term societal collapse) : Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration in a Time of Endings.
I returned to my ‘normal’ life from a journey which had taken me to many places ; sitting round the fire with the group, hearing Jem talk about why and how he had come to write his paper and the response to it (almost half a million downloads at last count), how it had created a touchstone of recognition for so many about where we are and how we need to be; following Charlotte into the Underworld in a ritual of relinquishment; being with such a wonderful group of people from all over the world to be on the Dark Mountain together; hearing Dougald speak of art and the environmental tragedy we are all facing.
My role in the Climatekeys concert was both performing poetry and also giving a short talk about why music and poetry and other forms of art are essential in facing the troubled times we are in and the tragedy ahead. My journey up the Dark Mountain helped me think again about why on earth we make art about the impending climate crisis. This is what I said :
‘With what purpose do we convene? Belonging or Unbelonging?’
That’s a quote from the theatre maker Tim Etchells which I have used before in an essay on the cultural purpose of festivals. It’s a way to think about the purpose that we give to festivals and to the arts generally – music, poetry, performance, sculpture, painting, dance.
And especially in the time we find ourselves in. A time of climate catastrophe. A time of near-term political and – probably – societal breakdown. A time of mass extinction of non-human (and maybe also human) species. A time when we are looking at the unravelling of civilisation as we know it. A time of endings.
Maybe a time when we can start to restore the balances between the needs and demands of our own species and the rest of nature. Maybe a time when we start to question the assumptions of entitlement that the human race has to trash and loot our living environment in fulfilment of our own rapacious greed.
A time of humbling.
So what is the role of the artist in such a time? As artists we are immersed in that question and groping for an answer. But to me, that dual question, Belonging or Unbelonging? keeps replaying in my head like an earworm.
I would argue that as well as living in a time of climate collapse, we also live in a time of cultural collapse, an inability to make sense of our lives. Loss of meaning, loss of community is manifest in loneliness, suicide, addiction, knife crime – and yes, the rise of so called political populism. Culture-making is an essential human activity in all societies, and we need more than ever to do this together. We are, whether we recognise it or not, in the words of Harper Lee ’bound by a common anguish’ about the loss of habitat, species, the world as we know it. We need space to be together, to fully know what we know, but in ways which make it possible to look at. Rather than staring directly at the sun which will burn our retinas, we need a reflective practice, a way of looking which will make it true, yet faceable.
So much in our western culture is about the identity of the individual. The Me. I see and hear a lot of art – plays, poetry, songs – which is the story of self. Maybe we need to let go of the story of I and make it about the We. Make it about Belonging.
Not the Belonging of a flag or a slogan or a rejection of outsiders , but a real connection to other people around a camp fire (real or metaphorical). Allowing ourselves to sit in a dark place and understand together that the happy ending is not going to happen. That Them – our political masters/ representatives riding to the rescue and finding a solution, that’s not going to happen. Them is Us.
So what of Unbelonging? We all want certainty. Look at how we pin politicians down for an answer even in things that have no answer – how to deliver Brexit, for example. The greater the anxiety about our environment grows, the more we crave that certainty, insist upon it. But more than ever, we live in times of mounting uncertainty. What we thought we knew about the future, we don’t now know. What we didn’t think we knew, or didn’t want to know, we now have no choice but to know.
Studies have shown that highly creative people are those who can work most comfortably and productively with ambiguity and plurality of narrative. Creativity gives us the ability to live with uncertainty and make beauty out of it. A hanging anticipation of how a musical phrase will resolve ; a word you’re not expecting in a poem. To find this beauty we have to stand apart from the familiar, welcome the stranger at our table, embrace otherness, open our ears to other stories and find a shadow language to the floodlit stadium language of logic and news. We have to achieve Unbelonging.
There’s a third word I’d add to Belonging and Unbelonging. And it comes before.
Don’t we all have it? As part of the grief that we feel whether that’s about fire or flood or loss of species on our doorsteps, or the destruction of the coral reefs or the rainforests or the melting of arctic ice? Or our children and grandchildren not having the continuity of opportunity or hope that we had. Not the nostalgic longing for a false past : Make America Great Again, Rule Britannia; but a sadness for the things we left behind and should have brought with us, from our ancestors and from history, and deep time : connection with nature, knowledge of how to live simply, care for our planet and each other.
LONGING. BELONGING. UNBELONGING.In the times we find ourselves in, we need them all. And we look to art to join them up.