This summary of the network’s activities was prepared — using the given titles and within the confines of a single A4 page — for the AHRC day seminar ‘Narrating Environmental Change’ on 14 June 2011, at the Royal Geographic Society.
This network was primarily composed of researchers in theatre/performance studies, but also had significant input from geographers, artists, and activists. It examined the potential of site-based performance as a means of representing the dynamics (and histories) of envir-onmental change. Most genuinely site-specific theatre practice tends to be explicitly local in orientation–e.g. reflecting on local history or community identity. But can the local specifics of human habitation and environmental impact also be used, in performance, as a means to reflect on global ecological questions? To help focus our discussions, the network met in three contrasting, iconic sites: Fountains Abbey World Heritage Site (N. Yorks); Cove Park artists’ retreat (Argyll & Bute); Kings College’s former Anatomy Museum (central London).
1. Public value/engagement: As a practice-focused network, our work sought to develop perspectives and approaches relevant to various external partners/stakeholders. These include the National Trust, at Fountains Abbey, where a collaboration with the estate’s Head of Landscape is moving towards on-site public performances in 2012, exploring both historic environmental changes and current threats to ‘heritage ecology’ from climatic conditions. This project is coherent with NT’s new policy of extended public engagement through arts. Another developing outcome is a collaboration with the Environment Agency, towards devising performance models for engaging communities with questions of flood risk (follow-up meeting planned in Bristol at Cabot Institute). This will build, particularly, on themes of home and habitation explored extensively by network. Also engaged during network programme have been professional artists/companies including Dead Good Guides, NVA, Fevered Sleep, PLATFORM, whose work has been variously used as a focus for critique.
2. Narratives and Stories: Network discussions proved suspicious of mainstream climate change narratives and their “apocalyptic” orientation – seen as both disempowering and rooted in distanced spectacle rather than lived experience. Instead, experiential engage-ment with changing environments (particularly on a domestic scale) became a key concern. At Cove Park, ten solo performances were made and presented (and documented in detail on our blog), representing a spectrum of individual responses to the physical location and climatic conditions. For the London meeting, three new performances were commissioned in advance, which fused the intimacy and locatedness of live encounter with the fact of London’s status as a global hub of environmental impacts (e.g. via oil industry). These included two city walks (by PLATFORM and Phil Smith) and a live, online collaboration with environmentally ill performance artist Julie Laffin (confined to her home in US).
3. Arts and Humanities perspective: This network was concerned with exploring modes of public engagement rather than looking specifically at scientific data. Its value, perhaps, lies in its emphasis on the lived experience of place – and thus on the significance of ‘amateur’, ‘local’ knowledges, as well as ‘expert’ perspectives. Liaisons with both NT and EA (see 1 above) have brought into focus this need to find creative models for bridging a perceived gulf between expert and popular understandings of places/environments. Future develop-ment of network outcomes will address these concerns further. These include journal editions and conference activities, as well as critically-informed performance work.