A reflection on the IETM Aarhus Plenary Meeting 2023 + Welsh Theatre and The Climate Crisis
A few months ago I was asked to speak at NTW's Welsh Theatre and The Climate Crisis seminar at The Riverfront, in Newport. One of the organisers, Chris, was aware of some of the work I've been doing, trying to make my practice more eco-ethichal and sustainable. As part of the seminar I was given space to talk about the stuff I make, and how I'm adjusting my practice to reduce my environmental impact. I was keen to speak about these things, and would have done, if a month before I hadn't visited the IETM Plenary Meeting in Aarhus. I didn't realise it at the time, but a quick trip to Aarhus percolated in my brain much longer than I thought it would.
Invited to Denmark by Dirty Protest, four Welsh theatre-makers attended the Plenary Meeting, entitled; Living On The Edge. It was an gathering of performance makers from all over the world, meeting to share space, learn, watch, connect listen and express. This global gathering focused on the question of of theatre's place within the climate crisis.
Flicking through the programming of the festival, I wasn't sure what I should attend. Some seminars represented more abstract engagements, with some being more useful for people who regularly attend IETM. In attempting to get something out of everything, I found myself attending a talk with indigenous Sámi people, as well as people who identify as being from other indigenous cultures. Also, a day later I shared a specific moment with Reneltta Arluk, an indigenous woman and native of the Northwest Territories, in what we know as Canada.
These, instantly became rare moments of consciously experiencing some hard-wired thinking, change. Props to IETM for hosting these incredible women, but also for ensuring they were not only guest speakers but given centre stage as curators of content.
Knowing I had so much more to think about, learn and do, I decided to share my experience of 're-thinking' with those in attendance at NTW's Welsh Theatre and the Climate Crisis seminar. Below is the transcript of the speech I gave. It was entitled Without Comfort or Connivence.
My name is Justin Teddy Cliffe I’m a freelance artist and theatre maker, living and working in Newport. I make contemporary new devising work that is responsive to the world, urgent and reflective of the society I live in. I privilege creating experiences over telling stories, and for context, I also work a lot with young people, I collaborate with other artists, sometimes produce, and often find myself working in education.
I’ve been asked to come here today to talk about my work and how I make it, maybe talking about examples of “best practice” when it comes to working sustainably and in a way that is intuitive to the climate crisis.
However, I’m not going to claim to know that much about that stuff, and I actually think other people here will be able to talk much more meaningfully about specific approaches, protocols, practices and methodologies that are … green or eco-friendly, maybe highlighting ways to achieve net zero, or carbon neutral, or shrink our carbon footprint all together, even tho I personally think the whole carbon footprint thing is mostly a big distracting myth created by fuel companies to re-locate culpability, but that’s a rant for another time.
So, instead of trying to talk to you about a science I know very little about, I instead want to share some recent experiences I’ve had a to talk to you about some things that I think will be very important to us as we move forwards with a desire to tackle a global crisis;
Firstly, I want to talk to you about the changing the conversations we have, and the ways in which we have them, and then I want to talk to about the title of the talk, ‘without comfort or convenience’.
So firstly, let’s talk about conversations
What do I mean when I say “conversations”. Well, generally speaking I’m talking about the things we say as people, locally, to strangers, to friends, relatives, colleagues, people at the bar, corner shop workers, car park attendants, dog walkers, people we accidentally spill stuff over on the train etc. but I’m also talking about the kinds conversations we have nationally with our audiences and participants, and how actually I think both those kinds of conversation, should be one and the same thing.
As creators and producers of art, we surely have a desire to create meaningful change. Therefor I think our first and biggest hurdle is to figure out how we can enable artists and the public to have a more useful conversations about the climate crisis.
In order to do that we have to drastically reconsider now how we make work, but who makes our work with us. This approach promotes the necessity of including more voices, reaching more people, and spending less time preaching to the already converted.
So… How might we do that? Such a big, difficult thing. The answer is... I don’t know. But what I do know, is that attempting to figure that out will no doubt be uncomfortable and inconvenient.
Which brings me neatly onto the title of this talk. And to get there I’m going to need to give you a bit of context. Recently I was invited by Dirty Protest theatre to attend a conference in Aarhus, Denmark, hosted by IETM, an international network for contemporary performing arts.
The focus of that three day event was the climate crisis, and in some instances it was affective, but also occasionally disappointing, as I attended a mixture of talks and workshops, that offered a range of solidarity, with the occasional blunder that only offered solipsism.
Today though, I want to share with you a particular highlight. There was a talk I attended by a group of indigenous Sámi women of Norway. In this talk they spoke passionately about the preservation of culture, they talked about how they co-habit, build and work, and how they utilise their traditions to live in a kind-of harmony with the natural environment. It was an incredible moment for me, to hear these perspectives and discover something I’d previously been very oblivious to. As these women spoke, given the context of the arts festival, they eventually began to highlight the frustration they they feel when Artist's travel to them and explain how desperate they are to share Sámi stories and experiences. They even spoke about how they’d been visited by cultural organisations, who were interested in adopting "their solutions" to the climate crisis. The idea that what is seen by others as a quick solution, is for the Sámi people, a way of life.
There’s a kind of madness to that logic that I think is mirrored in our current creative industries. Because as these agencies approached the Sámi people to mine their knowledge, they misunderstood a very fundamental thing; even if they had extracted solutions, they would never work when they attempted to implement them in a vastly different world to the one in which they were created. It just wouldn’t compute. The Sámi people live hands on, they hunt and grow their own food, they make their own clothing, cultivate and maintain large portions of natural landscape, they travel differently, communicate differently, celebrate differently, see time differently and experience the world differently. So whether it was art or policy we were hoping to improve by interacting with them, it's fundamentally doomed to fail within the rigidity of the temporary mechanisms within which we hope to utilise it.
And as I sat there hearing these women complain about the 'extractionists', I realised that in the past I have been an extractionist. Because what the Sámi women we’re actually talking about was their frustration with colonialism, and a kind of working methodology that pretends to listen, but is really there to extract.
As I understand it, this extraction is multi-faceted. It is something hardwired into colonial thinking, and it's something that is propagated by the privilege of being able to think about it, talk about it and... extract it. So in thinking about this concept of colonisation back in Wales, I find myself questioning the industry that prides it's self on it’s ideas, on it’s intellectual property, on it’s writers, it’s auters and it’s visionaries. The thought of decolonising this aspect of our practice is very uncomfortable and very inconvenient. Because it’s what we do, it's how we’re educated to create and write bids, and in this way the system supports it.
The second moment of profundity came to me during a talk entitled; Art and Activism II - Transforming culture through artistic influence. It was here I would listen to Reneltta Arluk, an indigenous woman and native of the Northwest Territories, of Canada. There were other speakers at this talk, and each was asked to bring in an item they could talk about. Reneltta brought in a moose skin wallet. A beautiful, small, embroidered, leather pouch. She explained how the wallet was made. Through a process of tenderising the skin of the moose, leaving it to hand, soaking it, hanging it and then scraping it, for hours with a special stone. This process took days to achieve, and required a hundred years of inherited knowledge. All of this effort, to produce... a wallet. Something that I would have maybe bought online for ten quid. Because without the appropriate context, meaning, identity and understanding, that process sounds bizarre. Because to properly understand it is to rewire our thinking, and challenge our commonly held perceptions. These things were originally done because they were the only way, now they are done because they matter.
And so it brings me onto this idea of ‘convenience and comfort’. And it’s an idea I’ve been fascinated by since Denmark. Because I feel like our desire for connivence and comfort drives the decision making of our everyday lives. Outside the context of making theatre, it’s why we choose fast fashion, Amazon prime deliveries, single use coffee cups, our car instead of the train. It’s comfort and connivence that sometimes makes us abandon our personal responsibilities to the planet. And I don’t blame us, because unfortunately our current government has created a world in which it is increasingly more difficult to live comfortably in, so we’re just clinging on to what ever we can get, but maybe that’s a rant for another time too.
Because right now I want to circle us back to thinking about where we’re at as the creative industries, and how so much of what we do is embedded in comfort and convenience. Whether it be the comfort and convince of colonial practice, the comfort and convince of using tried and tested models, the comfort and connivence of working with the same people, the comfort and connivence of performing to the same audiences, the comfort and convenience of never challenging ourselves to fail, take a step back, listen and build again better. Because there are better models out there for us to use, there are better ways for us to communicate with more people in a significantly more meaningful way.
So to finish, I want to re-introduce us to the Sàmi people, who live most of the year in freezing cold temperatures, retaining their way of life and committing to live in a way that is more intuitive, honest and brave. Because as I consider it, they’re living without a lot of the connivence and comfort we choose to have, but they’re so much more enriched because of it.
And so if we agree as an industry we want to be better for the planet, and then following that we want to have better conversations with people about climate change (or indeed about anything), then we are going to have to endure without comfort of convenience, whilst we figure out why we’re failing before building it back, but better.