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
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
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.
Burnt to sinders
By our own
Our own foolish greed.
We are all complicit.
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
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 creativity is about obedience,
It deprives people
Of their freedom
To achieve self-realisation and relative autonomy;
It kills creativity;
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!
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 , pp. 133-5).
For Winnicott, compliance is ‘a sick basis for life’, whereas it is healthy to live creatively (2005 , 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 , 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).