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  • Writer's pictureMadeline Shann

To Artists at the End of the World

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

Normalcy bias is what happens when we do not believe that an emergency is happening, because it is so extraordinary, but everyone and everything around us seems so calm. As social animals, we tend to think that if something terrible was happening, then surely somebody would intervene. People would act.

It’s a great bias to have if you don’t want to embarrass yourself during a fire-drill, but an unhelpful cognitive flaw to have in an emergency, because it’s paralysing. We wait, and wait, we keep calm and carry on, certain that if it were serious, there would come a moment where the announcement is made and people start rushing around.

But that Big Moment does not come.

There are small moments of course, every day, in many different forms, a tweet here, a warm Christmas there, a grim new graph, a megafire, but it gets drowned out by a deluge of distraction, downplaying, and silly, trivial bullshit. We get promised that it’s being addressed, and then nothing changes.

People in charge seem to think we have time. We can negotiate deadlines and cut emissions later, we can solve this by the end of the century, the grown-ups have a plan. But this is the plan: The plan is to pretend it is not happening, even as it happens, and we - the population - won’t get to grips with this until it kills us. That’s why they behave like there’s time. That’s the moment that comes.

How many people has that moment come for already, killed by extreme weather events, the famine brought by those, the conflicts brought by those, the mass displacements brought by those? How much have our leaders already cost us with their cowardly manipulations and political game-playing?

Accurately articulating this was one of the key achievements of David Sirota and Adam McKay’s film Don’t Look Up, a satirical, condensed review of the dynamic we have been living through so far; where, with the clock running down, knowing that everything that has to happen can only happen in that window of time, the forces we rely on to represent and serve the interests of the people act cynically instead as the enemies of our survival.

This year is one of our precious last useable years to act before total collapse. Climate and ecological collapse (distinct but intertwined) and therefore civilisational collapse.

This year, 2022, must be the year that we all become collapse-literate, collapse-driven artists. This must be the year that we heed activists and scientists’ desperate pleas to act like it is an emergency.

We are living at the end of the world. Not “only”(!) our grandchildren, or our children. WE will see it and we are seeing it, it is not the abstract future, it is real, and now. That is the situation. Let us not push this thought away. Let’s finally, seriously look at it. Together. The global conditions in which life on Earth evolved, agriculture was developed, civilisation was established, no longer exist. They are lost beyond reach. And we will hurtle further from these liveable conditions with every passing day of insufficient action. The rate of disasters we see now will not continue at this pace; because of the delicate, intricate balance that holds life systems together, collapse will happen throughout the globe, “slowly” at first (that’s now) and then, all at once (that’s very, very soon).

It considerably complicates matters, that we are actively and forcefully opposed in preventing or even mitigating this collapse by those driving it, the most powerful vested interests in the world.

I do not aspire to war, but the forces of capitalism - from the Fossil Fuel industries and powerful corporations to the governments they control - are ensuring the imminent destruction of life on Earth to further enrich themselves. In some places the action is slow, subtle and systemic, and in others it is brazen, brutal and bloody. They have the military, the media, private security forces, and the police. What other word is there for what we face? We do not need to declare war on them; they have declared war on us.

This is the context we are operating in. No one is coming to save us and we can no longer continue to do our jobs with the fantasy that this will change without us, that there is time for slow incremental change, that with some recycling and a little positive thinking, things will turn out for the best. They won’t.

What does this mean for us as artists?

It means that the work we do now is the last and most important we will ever do.

So what are we going to do?

The most crucial first step is to truly understand the context we find ourselves in, to understand the urgency and shortness of time, and rearrange our plans and priorities accordingly. The process of fully understanding this devastating prognosis not only for the self but for the whole world is an intense and profoundly disturbing one, but its one we must go through to have a chance of acting in accordance with the demands of the task. It is also necessary to understand the interplay of oppressive forces at work, that this is white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy that is driving us over the brink, not a natural development, or a lack of data or technology. And lastly we have to come to terms with the fact that what is required at this point is a radical social and cultural upheaval, a mass mobilisation in the name of Climate Justice, to achieve the non-negotiable demands of staying below 1.5C. It’s a lot of info for a post like this so I’m going to recommend some primers below if you don’t know all this already. *

There’s not much more climate scientists can do at this point. They’ve told us clearly and repeatedly what’s happening, and yet mass mobilisation is nowhere to be seen. We’ve been warned of certain suffering and death and yet we still tolerate the attack on our future. We go to work and act normal.

This isn’t about facts anymore.

This is about the collective imagination. This is about power, self-efficacy, how we see ourselves in the world, how much we understand the mechanisms that shape our lives. It’s about what we desire, what we believe, what we perceive as possible, or acceptable. It is about whether we have the empathy and the strength to fight the war that is being waged against us, against everything, the entire planet Earth.

As artists, this is our area of expertise. We are the ones with these gifts, in these roles, at this point in time, whose job is to reach people, awaken emotions, create connections, catalyse breakthroughs, problem solve, turn things inside-out, dream beyond the scope of our circumstances, and as I never tire of quoting Toni Cade Bambara: make the revolution irresistible.

So next, we need to wield our considerable strength. We figure out where we are most useful, powerful and brilliant, and start working there.

Some of this work is sounding the alarm. This is hard work!

People usually find it so burdensome to hear about the coming collapse, a bad climate show would probably be worse than no climate show at all, and would risk discrediting creative climate work and the topic itself. Denial is a hell of a drug! It is virtually impossible to convince people of something they don’t want to be convinced of, especially when its something that they secretly, deep down, really know. If you’re too subtle, they choose not to hear you, if you come on too strong, they also choose not to hear you, and then also, probably, to hate you (there is rarely any space between these states).

Luckily, there are some artists who are good at bell-ringing; who are compelling, charming, subversive, seductive, irresistible, who can catch an audience by surprise, or scare the living daylights out of them, rile them up, agitate and empower them. If this is you, then for God’s sake, get on with it! It is absolutely possible for art to shake a person to their core. Presumably experiencing this first-hand was what drew many of us to be artists in the first place, and if you have this power in you then you must use it, now is absolutely the time.

But sounding the alarm will not work for everyone, and more importantly, many people are aware of our predicament already, they just have no idea what to do about it, so just as crisis awareness is only one part of the problem, it is only one part of the work.

Think about how else these collapses manifest. It is not “just”(!) the environment, this is the breakdown of civilisation that we are facing - existing oppressions are intensifying, and new ones are taking shape, authoritarianism and fascism are rising, so reconnecting us with our humanity is what we have to do. These crises are intimately linked with human rights, with feminism, with race, with disability, migration and borders, poverty and class, land, food, geopolitics, and with oppressed groups, who are always scapegoated and targeted first. There is not a shortage of angles here!

The work is also communication and forging narratives, which can reach people in a way that facts alone cannot. Just look around; the climate denial narrative is still going strong in the face of abundant, observable evidence. But we can watch it smoothly segue in real-time to other dangerous narratives as soon as that is useful: That it’s too late to do anything anyway so we may as well not try. That infinite growth on a finite planet is possible and necessary, whatever the cost. That a billionaire white saviour will deliver us. That it’s the fault of China. That it’s down to poor brown people having too many babies. That what we really need to do is build walls to protect our precious nation. That people made vulnerable by ability, geography or class are necessary collateral damage.

Well, some of us work in narrative don’t we? Whether through making our own or responding to existing ones. Do we have something to say about this?

And what about personal and interpersonal narratives. What can they tell us about who we are, how we got here and where we will go next?

The work is also making space for processing and grief

The work is psychology, philosophy, sociology and soul-searching, thinking about the worlds within ourselves

The work is making science visible, tangible, accessible, thinking about the world beyond ourselves

The work is making space for consciousness raising - for people to be together and feel how our lives are being shaped by the same forces and we have power to shape them ourselves when we unite.

The work is playable, immersive, labyrinth-making

The work is space and time

The work is asking how we live together

The work is politics, good and evil, money and oil, information

The work is amplification, platforming, raising people up and bringing people together

The work is seeing the world differently

The work is spiritual, reverent, otherworldly

The work is sci-fi, speculative fiction, fantasy and dream-work

The work is connecting us with our history. Local history, class history, ancient history, world history, modern history, histories of struggle, uprisings and rebellions, moments when what was “normal” was disrupted and changed forever. Colonialism drives our current crisis. Patriarchy drives it. White supremacy drives it. Why are we reinventing the wheels of struggle when our ancestors and our peers have struggled already and have so much to tell us about it? Why are we so ill-equipped to face demagogues using crisis to grab power when we have been shown where this leads? We need more storytelling and bringing ghosts to life. We need more insight and perspective, we need to be reminded of what it means to show up, just once, on the timeline of the world, and have the opportunity to decide what comes next.

The work is experimenting with form and creating things that don’t already exist and thinking outside the box so we remember that there is something out there. It’s facilitating learning to use our brains and senses in ways that everyday life doesn’t make time for.

And GOOD NEWS, some of the work is also FUN STUFF! It’s community building and creating social cohesion, it’s articulating the utopian vision that we move to instead, it’s making us fall in love with the planet we have, any and all of the billions of lifeforms we share it with, and with each other. It’s saving lives, and saving Life, it’s reminding us what it is to be here alive together; how wonderful, how precious, how deserving of protection.

A lot of it won’t look like collapse-driven work at all. It might even be work that IS made as an escape, as a breather, as a life-affirming, rejuvenating bit of time off in order to keep going.

Fun, pleasure, delight and joy are also a crucial part of this fight, they are part of what we are fighting for, and essential to fortify us against despondency and despair in these increasingly dark times.

HOWEVER all this is not to say that we’re doing it all already and nothing needs to change; that is not the case. We need to have rigour about this now. This should not be cover for all of us just doing whatever we want and just adjusting the framing, as if this is a funding opportunity. We can't just keep hoping that progress will gradually filter through, just by virtue of art being good. Because that has not worked.

Right now, looking at the arts from the outside, you would hardly know there was an apocalypse happening at all. For us to be responding proportionately to what we face, the arts must look and feel completely different. We have to have a real understanding of what this final shapeable moment is, and hold ourselves accountable to that, whether we are doing the work that is grave and deadly serious, or silly and light and fun. And when our work is centred around comfort and hope, this should not be at the expense of that truth.

We can relax more and do our best work if we know we can trust each other to also be fighting the same fight. The coming challenges are complex and multi-faceted and we must meet them collectively, playing to our greatest strengths.

If we are deeply, acutely aware of the context in which we’re making work, this should guide us in what needs to be done. Is it the most helpful thing you could be doing? Is this how you’re best placed to help in the fight for the living world? Are you using all the power you have? Because nothing else matters. Surely the pandemic has taught us by now that it doesn’t matter how well-laid your plans are or how hard you worked for your dreams, in the face of disaster and the absence of a functioning society, they are not going to happen. Nothing that we want is going to happen if we don’t turn this thing around.

Of course I am not the arbiter of what art is the “right” art, but if we are being honest with ourselves; self-indulgent, navel-gazing projects exist. Career ambition, the desire to be seen in a certain way, the need to sell tickets without trying or thinking too hard, or just doing something because it interests us and we fancy it, these factors often drive art getting made, and in those halcyon Holocene days, that was fine. But this is the Anthropocene, and we have different responsibilities now.

There are consequences to our actions as artists. If we allow comfortable art work to take up space, time, resources, attention, and then art work which could really make a difference goes unheard, that is a consequence. If we do address these topics directly but fail to understand how historical and structural oppression is core to climate and ecological collapse and thereby reinforce this oppression, that is a consequence.

Maybe you don’t see yourself as political, or radical, maybe you don’t think of it as your job to change the world. But you are already doing that. To collude in normalisation in the face of imminent, visible planetary catastrophe is as political as it gets. To abandon the Majority World to the first ravages of collapse is political. To have rare and precious access to the hearts and minds of so many people as we decide the fate of all Earthly species, and say nothing, is political. Neutrality is off the cards at this point.

And what else can we do, practically, structurally?

We can stop shilling for Fossil Fuel companies and gouge them out of our sector. They are guilty of ongoing crimes against humanity and all life on Earth, the scope of which is impossible to imagine. The progress that has been made on this in the past few years is wonderful, but it is despicable that they are still involved with some of our most prestigious institutions, it is not exaggerating to say they should be no more welcome than the Ku Klux Klan. Top tip! If you wouldn’t invite the Klan, don’t invite the Fossil Fuel companies! They kill way more black people! None of us should launder or promote them, they should not be allowed near our institutions in any capacity. There is no more plausible deniability around being complicit in what these organisations do. We must remove them immediately. There are great people already on this:

@artnotoil @cultureunstained

Every part of the arts industry should divest from Fossil Fuels. Equity for a Green New Deal are working on a divestment campaign. This is great, we need more of this. We should continue to think seriously about who else is a beneficiary and a perpetrator of omnicide and extractivist violence, and gouge them out too.

These crises are not niche interests or passing seasonal fads and they are not going away. Programming, booking, publishing and curation should reflect this. We should also seek to decentralise Minority World perspectives, and do more to platform people with insights and perspectives from all over the world, especially from the frontlines of these crises. Retreating into an ethnocentric bubble is one way our mainstream media seeks to downplay the ferocity of climate breakdown, and the humanity of the people it impacts. We can and must combat this.

If our sector means ANYTHING, we should get rid of the gatekeeping, admin, bureaucracy, and busywork that keeps creators tied in knots, haemorrhaging our precious time and energy, and kissing rings. There is no way this is the optimal system for getting art made and experienced.

I know this is easier said than done, but it’s not just a pain in the neck for the artists, it systematically holds back from the world the art we need. Enough. We need something fit for purpose.

Those of us who are used to more traditional set-ups; auditoriums, galleries, should think about whether we can take our art more directly to people, and how. Can it happen with the community? Can it happen in the streets? Can it be a direct action by itself, or part of one?

Of course we can also think about how we can operate as artists beyond the art itself. The well-oiled machinery of capital which drives collapse is pervasive and well-networked and works at every level, and we must meet it there. How can we create or support and expand existing projects and groups, from grassroots and local to regional, national, international? How can we coordinate with the work already being done? Can we support impacted communities with trauma-informed creative and healing practices? Can we build confidence and public speaking skills in activists? Can we hold space to enable people to network, skill-share, dream and plan? To think big and wild, laterally, creatively, ambitiously, fearlessly? Can we infiltrate the corridors of power?

We must recalibrate how we plan and conceive of the future. Why are venues making ten-year plans which do not take into account that their buildings are literally forecast to be underwater in that time? (I'm not being cute, check out the Climate Central coastal risk screening tool for London 2030 )

This is not leadership. This is fantasy, it is irresponsible and a form of climate denial. The most dangerous thing we can do at this point is further delude ourselves about time, and the robustness of normality.

VAULT Festival has just been cancelled for the third time due to Covid (which lest we forget, is a side-effect of ecological disruption). This was terrible, and unfortunately, predictable. Is that how we are going to do this? Instead of facing the root cause when we actually have the opportunity to change it, are we to just stubbornly keep planning things for a world which will not accommodate them, and then cancelling them, over and over again as if in a fugue state? Do we expect this disruption will ease up as our life-supporting systems finally buckle in the heat? Of course it won’t! We have to grow up and plan for what is actually likely to happen, not what we wish were happening. And if that is hard and frightening, then all the more reason for us to properly plan for it! We are getting enough gaslighting from the media and our political leaders, we don’t need more from our industry. Yes this is happening. Yes really really. If it is untenable, act like it.

And there’s more, there’s so much work to be done and so many more ideas we need to have and share, and not a moment to lose, we need all hands on deck and we need everyone.

So that’s the ask. That’s the New Year’s Resolution I am begging us all to make together.

Understand that this is an emergency, and then act like it.

We are not powerless. We have the gifts and privileges to fight where it really matters, to break this deadlock of normalisation, helplessness and denial. We are beautifully placed to make a difference, to reach people in time to reduce the coming harm, to envision a better world, and to empower us to build it together.

Now let’s put our shoulder to the wheel and Let’s Go.

*If reading about the scope and shape of the crisis in this way is new or unfamiliar, here are some book recommendations for primers in case you are keen to start but absolutely stuck with where and how: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, This Changes Everything and/or No is Not Enough by Naomi Klein, Six Degrees by Mark Lynas. These are the ones I happen to be able to personally vouch for. Sorry they’re all by white people! For me personally, these are some of the books that comprehensively introduced and laid down the scope of the problem, gave me nightmares, etc. There’s lots more diverse, recent and inspiring reading/listening/watching to be done beyond these though, ask around!

I would also really recommend following scientists and activists on social media.

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