Guest Blog: How To Be A COPtimist - Reflections On A Conference

Our latest guest blog is a reflective article from Renaud Wiser of New Movement Collective on his experience at the How To Be A COPtimist conference held in May this year.

In December last year I received a bursary from DanceEast offered to aspiring dance leaders curious about settings, organisations and industries beyond dance. I decided to use part of it to fund a placement with Julie’s Bicycle as I had heard about their amazing work bridging the gap between environmental sustainability and the creative industries. As many artists of my generation, I am concerned with the impact our way of life has on the environment and cannot but feel anxious while witnessing the effect climate change has on our world.

To overcome the feeling of powerlessness that often takes me when I think of the small impact I have as a single individual to take on such a global challenge and to find out what is achievable as a director of my own dance company, I was keen to spend time observing an organisation tackling this issue within the art sector.

My first task during the placement was to attend Julie’s Bicycle’s conference How To Be A COPtimist to summarise the topics of discussion and offer a view of my experience of the event.

The conference took place in the wake of COP21 in Paris and the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the first ever universal, legally binding global climate deal.

As the conference unfolded I was glad to witness a rich and inspiring debate. I could sense the huge optimism following the events in Paris, the adoption of new targets and the unprecedented speed at which it all suddenly happened. The message was clear. Hope is prevailing, credits to the power of the general public and the collaboration of organisations and government. More people are stepping up as the world becomes aware of our impact on the environment. However, the challenges remain considerable and the need to act immediately is essential.

The central question of the conference was: How can we make the Paris Agreement a reality? What needs to be done?

This blog summarises some of the answers and reflections shared during the day which resonated with me the most.

The Role of the Arts

Creative industries are not a peripheral force in the action to help resolve environmental challenges. The art industry touches an ever-growing part of society and has become a sizable part of the UK’s economy. As art entertains a personal, sometimes visceral relationship with its public, the various messages it carries have a real impact on society.

This leads to a first role for the arts - artists and arts organisations as role model. What struck me most during the conference is the power of positive examples. Witnessing the success of projects developed sustainably is an incredible motivator. It awakens a sense of pride, creates healthy competition and pushes us to do better. We know there are actions that work such as the ones taken by the London Theatre Consortium (sharing of data, resources etc.), what they need is greater visibility. This highlights the responsibility of arts organisations and their leaders to make the right choices, to be more explicit in their policies and consider setting a carbon budget as an integral part of any project planning. Organisations doing so should be proud of their efforts and share their achievements with artists, funders and the public to activate a greater sense of responsibility.

Setting an example is also the responsibility of artists. Clearly not all artists are making work about climate change, but the way to be exemplary is not simply bound to what their art says. It can be about how art is made. Advances in production techniques, low power stage lighting, recycling etc., means much more efficient and sustainable means of producing and presenting artworks are available. I feel as artists, we can open up that discussion with the arts organisations supporting us.

A second role that came through the discussions is the creative industry as educator. Arts organisations and artists can teach audiences through creative activities and interactive artworks how to have an impact on a personal level. This particular point is not about artists having to reinvent themselves as educator. The art produced by artists should not be forced to have other purposes than being great art, but a lot of creative practitioners are already working with recycled materials and sustainable production techniques. Allowing the public to learn from their experience and encouraging their own creativity will in turn raise their awareness and give them tools and inspiration to apply some of those principles at home.

The conference highlighted the benefits of teaching staff members about sustainable behaviour at work, which can be done in organisations of all scales. It gives them a sense of achievement and a more personal relationship with their job, linking their work with a greater impact on the wellbeing of society in general.

Art organisations can also suggest to artists working with them ways to adopt a sustainable practice and inform other arts organisations of the tools that have helped them resolve sustainability problems.

The art world can be a strong force to mainstream the debate. Artists and arts organisations engage with large numbers of people. This is a chance to give environmental issues a bigger visibility and to bring climate change into the public consciousness. With the amount of data that we encounter on a daily basis, environmental issues can easily disappear within a flow of other news about economy, politics, terrorism or warfare.

Artists, by touching their audiences on a personal and visceral level, can create a unique frame for the debate that will encourage active thinking from audiences therefore allowing the topic to stay with them for longer and eventually alter their behaviour. Artists ask questions, they can be subversive, they challenge orthodoxies and create struggle. They observe the world and their work can act as a mirror of our own behaviour.

Arts organisations can develop an environmental agenda and be strong advocates for change in provoking discussion and promoting active citizenship. 

Collaboration and Interdisciplinarity

All my previous remarks have in some ways highlighted the importance of a notion that was constantly coming up during the conference, collaboration. There were numerous examples of ways to maximize efficiency and reduce carbon footprints by sharing data, partnering with each other to avoid redundancy, sharing skills, resources and networks and by simply inspiring each other. It is definitively something I want to take on in my own practice. It feels though further efforts need to be made to develop interdisciplinary actions and not just in the cultural sector but with the industry and the government.

Throughout the conference, talking about climate change very soon extended the debate to broader societal and political issues. It is clear that in order to reach the objective set by COP21, our whole society will need to change. There is a clear tension between sustainability and Capitalism. The art sector can propose alternate business models. Some institutions are already moving away from scale up or die policies. Examples of circular economy, such as the Fab City Global Initiative can be inspirational for the cultural sector to take further steps towards a carbon zero future and develop new and healthier models of transactions. There are many examples now of how doing the right thing is also right economically and the arts can activate collective conscience and imagination, offer alternate realities, rethink social consensus and help our society transition.

A strong point was made about the need to develop a unified discourse while questions were raised on whether the cultural sector needs to be further engaged with current societal issues. Is there a need for an ethics committee within the arts and for a forum to champion collective action and a certain vision of the world, a space to channel anger and develop our activism? Recent events such as the What Next? series, which I try to attend as often as possible, seem to be moving in that direction.

As always, implementing change doesn’t come free of challenges. Recently, my colleagues at New Movement Collective and myself in an effort to reduce the amount of unnecessary waste we generate, decided to develop our new show, Collapse, A Period Drama, as an entirely paperless production. No paper tickets were issued, our programmes and the show's marketing were entirely digital with no flyers or posters printed.

Further to this, elements of our set and production design have been recycled and reused from previous NMC productions and those of the collective members. It was a gamble, it took additional work to re-invent a marketing strategy and to some extent was a leap into the unknown. Previous productions had relied to a large extent on flyering. There was palpable tension as we were following ticket sales. We had to deal with a fair amount of restrictions reusing set elements not made for this specific performance location. All those challenges were eventually resolved creatively and ended up having a positive impact on the overall production both creatively and financially.

Both the experience with my colleagues on our new production and the day spent observing inspiring and challenging discussions during Julie’s Bicycle’s conference How to be a COPtimist have strengthened a belief that we, as artists and arts organisations, can play a significant role in helping shape our world. It has encouraged me to be more active and take responsibilities. It feels that if there ever was a moment to get involved, now is the time.

How To Be A COPtimist: Culture, Creativity and COP21 was held in May 2016 at King's College London. Speeches and resources from the event can be found by following the links below.

Image: Collapse, a period drama by New Movement Collective at the Southbank Centre. Picture by Soma Sato.

Sustaining Creativity