Living Creatively at a Time of Climate Catastrophe

This is a transcript of the brief provocation I gave at Environmental Engagement and the Politics of Creative Practice workshop at Open University in Camden on 27th June 2019 - part of the Doreen Massey Annual Event.

LIVING CREATIVELY AT A TIME OF CLIMATE CATASTROPHE

 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

(Auguries of Innocence, William Blake, 1803).

 

We are living at a time of climate catastrophe:
A catastrophe of our own making.

 

Can we live creatively at a time of climate catastrophe?

 

Or are “we” and “our” culture subsumed

By demonic shackles of our own making;

Our own “mind-forged manacles”?

 

Capitalism offered us a false promise:

A place in the sun

And a swim in the ocean.

A false utopia.

A monster that devours

Everything

With its grabbing hands

And technologically advanced tusks.

 

The trap of compliance

Was laid centuries ago.

Though only now

Has the trap

Not only ensnared

Everything,

But also wrapped us

In systems thinking,

In the cognitive.

 

We believe that

A solution-focused approach

Can save us,

But it cannot save us.

 

We have no “solutions”

For a climate catastrophe

Of our own making.

A world

Burnt to sinders

By our own

Exploitation;

Our own foolish greed.

 

And we,

We are all complicit.

Their snares,

Our snares,

Are everywhere.

 

And I tilt my head back and I swallow the pills

I no longer feel alive

Re-order the rolls, straighten the pies

My prices are starting to lower

They're starting to lower

 

And this is the last time

That I'll sit with my mouth wide open

And wait for the flies to come in

From the grave of a grocer

The grave of a grocer

(The Supermarket Strikes Back, Mull Historical Society, 2003).

 

We talk about “our culture”.

Yet there is no

Our culture;

No singular.

Instead,

We have many cultures

Which they crush together

And use it to exclude

Some of us.

 

Like the systematic exploitation

And false systematisation

Of our planet,

They have convinced us

That they know

What’s best for us,

When it is clear

That they do not.

 

The supermarket never sleeps, yeah

The supermarket never sleeps

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

 

Relief from muscular pain

And my faint heart beats away

Are my hands on the controls?

(Barcode Bypass, Mull Historical Society, 2001).

 

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake, c. 1790).

Contradiction is what makes us human.

It creates dialectical tension.

If it is ‘good’ to passively obey heavenly reason

And ‘evil’ to energetically disobey it,

To exist in hell,

Then is it not better to be

Of the Devil’s party?

 

If, as the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott argues,

‘Living creatively is a healthy state’,

Whilst ‘compliance is a sick basis for life’,

Does this mean we, as artists,

Are of the Devil’s party (Winnicott, 1971, p. 65)?

 

If the artworld is now so utterly instrumentalised and normalised in the service of technocratic neoliberal governance and corporate exploitation, does it fetter us to reason, to rationalism?

 

Is this what creativity is increasingly becoming today –

Creativity as non-creativity:

Uncreative?

 

Uncreative creativity is about obedience,

False consent,

Compliance,

Conformity.

It deprives people

Of their freedom

To achieve self-realisation and relative autonomy;

It kills creativity;

It disempowers;

Alienates us.

 

Art (particularly in its recent creative industries reincarnation) has entered into a Faustian pact with neoliberalism, gaining power and influence but only by becoming entirely incorporated into market economics, entrepreneurialism, commodification and consumerism.

 

Art as life, as living, is clearly spatial and political, intervening in between the institutions of art and society.  And it is in these socially produced spaces that cultural activism can make a difference. Just look at the work of the #dropBP campaign.

 

The tide is turning. And cultural activism is leading the way, using the carnival, the carnivalesque as a way of upsetting the relentless, yet deeply weak, PR machines employed to disguise the savage destruction of our planet by the corporate and state institutions of neoliberal capitalism; of turning it all on its head.

 

But our cultures are ordinary.

They exist in the everyday.

And we need a Revolution of Everyday Life.

 

Look at the actions of activists and filmmakers at Bacton, Norfolk:

Shell paid to net the beaches and cliffs where sand martins nest.

They placed nature in a plastic cage.

They blamed migrant birds for the destruction of the local environment.

They blamed birds for the flood risk to their massive gas terminal!

They blamed nature for a climate catastrophe of their making!

But…

Images and film of the birds forlornly attempting to get back home appealed to the hearts and minds of almost everyone, everywhere.

The nets are gone.

 

But we must go much further. Our everyday lives must be creative and free.

 

Freeing creativity from both the strictures of traditional aesthetics and the institutions of art can ‘rehumanise’ individual human expression.

 

Human experiences take place within everyday life and it is here, I suggest, that activist art operates and where potential for change can take place.

 

For Winnicott, ‘cultural experience’ occurred in the potential space – a third space ‘between the individual and the environment’; its origins located in ‘creative living first manifested in play’ – in transitional phenomena and play (2005 [1971], pp. 133-5).

 

For Winnicott, compliance is ‘a sick basis for life’, whereas it is healthy to live creatively (2005 [1971], p. 88).

 

He is here setting up a dialectic of living creatively and living in compliance.

 

There is a clear link between living creatively with a sense of trust and the ability to play freely within the potential space of individual experience.

 

Likewise, exploitation or suppression of the potential space threatens, if not destroys, creativity, trust and cultural experiences.

The potential space is a space of both ‘union and separateness’ capable of tolerating both ‘dependence and loneliness’ (Jemstedt, 2000, p. 129).

 

It is also a place of symbolism and ‘the complex matter of the meaning of meanings’; a place where self-discovery and the realisation of individual potential can develop (Davis & Wallbridge, 1981, pp. 160-9).

 

For Winnicott: ‘the essence of cruelty is to destroy in an individual that degree of hope which makes sense of the creative impulse and of creative thinking and living’ (1990 [1969], pp. 232-3).

 

The imposition of rules and norms can negate creativity and individual freedom.

 

And the monolithic demon of capitalism threatens not just our individual freedoms, but it also created a climate catastrophe that threatens to destroy our entire planet.

 

We need to find new ways of being and living on our planet.

And we need to make radical changes to the way we exist now!

 

We must find ways of living creatively at a time of climate catastrophe.

 

Every Night and every Morn

Some to Misery are Born.

Every Morn and every Night

Some are Born to sweet delight.

Some are Born to sweet delight,

Some are Born to Endless Night. 

(Auguries of Innocence, William Blake, 1803).

 

THANK YOU.