School of Crawl: Art, education, environment

WE'RE EXCITED TO ANNOUNCE THE LAUNCH OF SCHOOL OF CRAWL, OUR FIRST CREATIVE EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMME.
 

Thomas's London Day School, Kensington
21st - 28th April
Exhibition: 12th June

deforestation.jpg

School of Crawl is designed to teach students about the local biodiversity surrounding their schools, with the aim of broaching wider issues of biodiversity loss on a UK and global scale, and inspiring a sense of responsibility.

In partnership with GiGL (Greenspace Information for Greater London) and the Royal Parks Foundation, we will be exploring the relationship between human activities and urban wildlife in London; the main contributing factors, and
how we can reduce our impact. 

Just like our clothing, we will be assisting the students in making their own up-cycled and “activated” T-shirts, enabling them to wear their own stories. Based on the wildlife they share their space with, their personalised garments both target the fashion industry’s excessive waste problem, and weave environmental consciousness into their daily lives.

 

Helping young people engage with the issues that will define their lives, we’re inspiring the next generation of environmental change-makers.

 

 

 

keep an eye on our project page! We'll be updating you regularly with more info on the key issues, people and objectives behind School of Crawl...

 

‘UNLESS’ is more: Space to Breathe and the power of storybook activism

Greenpeace UK, Tension in the Air, 2017, Somerset House, photo: Gabi Gershuny

Greenpeace UK, Tension in the Air, 2017, Somerset House, photo: Gabi Gershuny

‘Like all the best stories, Mary Poppins teaches and inspires us. She’s an invitation to search for our best selves, and a reminder to care for those around us - especially children.’ Mel Evans, Greenpeace

It was about time us Londoners found some Space to Breathe. After a week on high alert for air pollution, reports of rising respiratory problems, and headlines begging protection of pupils, the brief exhibition that occupied Somerset House’s River Rooms over the 28th and 29th January was a welcome chance to creatively discover, explore, and discuss our concerns. And who better to help navigate our airborne predicaments? Floating above the Bank entrance and greeting visitors was Mary Poppins, back to protect the city’s young, and luckily she’s got company. 

Part of the Greenpeace installation Tension in the Air, Mary was initially flown outside of Parliament to pressurise action from politicians when only six days into January the UKbroke its legal air pollution limit for the entire year. This time she joined Space to Breathe, a weekend of creative action in response to the crisis, commissioned and produced by Cape Farewell and cultural producers Shrinking Space, in partnership with King’s College London’s Environmental Research Group. Accustomed to the coal smog in 1910’s London, Mary with her magic bag seems well equipped to tackle our own set of toxic pollutants. As a familiar and powerful symbol to ease our engagement with complex environmental issues, she joins an emerging stable of storybook modes and characters enjoying a similar revival.

 “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.” Dr. Seuss, The Lorax, 1971

 “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.” Dr. Seuss, The Lorax, 1971

At the end of last month, Climate Change was published as the first edition in the new Ladybird Expert series. Continuing on a more serious route from their wildly successful Books for Grown-Ups - pastiches of the iconic 1960s and 70s series - the publishers are tackling our so-called “post-truth” era with a range of expert informed introductory guides. Climate Change - written by Prince Charles together with former executive director of Friends of the Earth Tony Juniper and climate scientist Emily Shuckburgh – is a 48 page digest of the chore facts, events and potentialities, illustrated evocatively with watercolour scenes of past and present realities, and future alternatives. As with Mary, the marriage of the brand’s nostalgic and“much-loved imprint” with expertise from leading figures makes the relatively intractable subject accessible and informative.

Another old tale summoned more recently to meet the challenge was an early environmental classic by Dr. Seuss, The Lorax. The protagonist, and the books namesake, was called upon just last week by Dartmouth professor of Mathematics and Computational Science Dan Rockmore, in pursuit of a leader for climate activism at the outset of Trumps muzzling efforts on the USA environmental agenda. Penned almost 46 years ago, the creature was the spokesperson for the Truffula trees during an eerily prophetic industrial deforestation led by the relentless Once-lers. Amidst the scant remains of ‘smoke smuggered stars’ and ‘bad smelling sky’, the Lorax leaves a small pile of rocks inscribed with one word, “UNLESS”. Hanging on this last shred of hope in our own period of ecological uncertainty, Rockmore pleads that ‘We Must all be the Lorax’.

'The New Nationalism, 'The Economist, illustration by David Parkins, 19th November 2016

'The New Nationalism, 'The Economist, illustration by David Parkins, 19th November 2016

“The real power of myths lies in their capacity to become self-fulfilling prophecies: they create our reality as much as they describe it.” Alex Evans, Open Democracy

There’s been a great deal written recently on the power of stories within environmental advocacy and campaigning. Most pertinent is a recent book by Alex Evans, adviser to Tony Blair on poor-world economics, and co-organiser of a UN climate-change summit. Brief but hard-hitting, The Myth Gap advances his theory that the key to all successful movements is powerful, morally gripping narratives. He attributes the relative success of COP21 in Paris (compared to Copenhagen), as well as that of the 2016 Trump and Brexit campaigns, to one common determining factor: robust story-telling and myth-making. Our once rich, myth-centred culture has given way to literal and scientific-based knowledge, leaving room for dangerous “anti-myths”; ‘you are what you buy’, ‘collapsitarianism’, and nationalism. To counter these, as we recalibrate at the start of 2017, it’s essential that we ourselves become myth-makers and storytellers, ‘drawing good conclusions’ from tales gone by, or creating new forms of collective storytelling that reposition ourselves, both present and future.

Within the realm of visual art, this message is particularly powerful and resonant. In the brief range of examples touched upon here, we are seeing an encouraging return of familiar storybook modes and characters being repurposed to facilitate engagement with contemporary climate issues. In its emergence, this trend introduces great potential to develop an existing encyclopaedia of forgotten wisdom and symbolism. It paves creative space to find new ways for anchoring shared values, narrowing political divides, and tightening diverse communities. Perhaps more powerfully, it provides a wellspring of inspiration for constructing new stories. Here too, we're beginning to see exciting experimentation, particularly in the fields of digital animation and virtual reality.

“The Virtual Reality experience inspires us to imagine how individuals can transform and de-carbonise their city…” Exhibition guide

Space to Breathe offered a promising display of these approaches. Whilst Mary Poppins harnessed new power from stories of old, the first installation inside the exhibition was a stimulating taster of the potential for invention of new tales. A collaboration produced by Cape Farewell, Shrinking Space, pioneering Virtual Reality & Immersive Content studioHammerhead VR, and the King's College Environmental Research Group, Energy Renaissance was an immersive experience transporting the participant into a post-carbon Strand, just outside of Somerset House. Following the journey of a luminous girl with an eco-Midas-touch, the streetscape was transformed with her every skip into lush greenery and renewable energy technologies. It demonstrated the impact and potential of individual behaviour and actions in realising this prospective utopia and in doing so, viscerally motivated us to consider how our own stories might be rewritten to achieve the same.


Space to Breathe was part of Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility commissioned and produced by Cape Farewell and Shrinking Space, in partnership with King's College London's Environmental Research Group.

Wellcoming the ‘Umwelt’: Making Nature, and other causes to be optimistic about humans and animals

Budgie specimens illustrating colour variations © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Budgie specimens illustrating colour variations © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

‘No matter how you see nature now, you’ll never see it the same way again’,
Exhibition webpage

On 1st December the Wellcome Collection opened the doors to their most recent exhibition, ‘Making Nature: how we see animals’, kicking off a yearlong programme that delves into our relationship with the natural world. With less than reassuring political commitments to the global environmental trajectory mapped out at the start of 2017, its revolutionary pitch sounds about right. Indeed encouraging in itself, the zany display joins a wider positive trend within art, science and technology that lends me optimism to trust in its confidence.

The meaning of the German word ‘Umwelt’ recently fell into my lap with coincidental and fortuitous timing. Literally translated as ‘environment’ or ‘surroundings’, the concept was developed in 1909 by Jakob von Uexküll, Baltic Biologist and “father of ethology” (the science of animal behaviour). Put simply, it’s the study of how living organisms experience and interpret shared environments subjectively, acknowledging variations in perception, communication and signification. This pursuit and appreciation of life through the eyes of other beings surfaces in an intriguing and important way in Making Nature, and is doing so far beyond.

Installation shot of Allora and Calzadilla, The Great Silence, 2014 © The Artists, courtesy Lisson Gallery

Installation shot of Allora and Calzadilla, The Great Silence, 2014 © The Artists, courtesy Lisson Gallery

“Goodbye, I love you.” 
Allora and Calzadilla, The Great Silence, 2014

At the entrance to the exhibition, The Great Silence is a dual video installation by contemporary artists Allora and Calzadilla, audibly and textually narrated by Alex - a parrot. The footage parallels a Puerto Rican sanctuary for endangered parrots, with the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest single-dish telescope, used to monitor communications with extra-terrestrial life. Alex’s empathic voice draws from Irene Pepperberg’s scientific research into the sophisticated communication and emotional complexity of Parrots. His sign off – a real excerpt – is a tribute to her incredible findings, and a wake up call to us viewers. We search endlessly for alien life whilst those closest to us gradually disappear.  

Our attempt to inhabit Alex’s non-human perspective is made more striking by what follows. The four themes of the exhibition - ‘Ordering’, ‘Displaying’, ‘Observing’ and ‘Making’ - trail the shifting religious, social and cultural history of human interactions with, and public perceptions of nature. It winds through eclectic art and artefacts, alongside institutional constructions of nature in museums, galleries and zoos. What emerges, particularly since the nineteenth century, is the increasing tension between the assertion of an anthropocentric hierarchy, and the preservation of ‘wildness’. 

Beatrix Potter, Illustration to The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 1902, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Beatrix Potter, Illustration to The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 1902, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Anthropomorphised taxidermy dioramas, commercialised zoo mascots, and tigers kept as pets. The final room sees the logical conclusion of this course today. A display co-curated by the Center for PostNatural History in Pittsburgh, USA, exclusively shows examples of human interference with the reproduction, habitats and DNA of various organisms, and their place in human culture. Domesticated pigeons to alcoholic lab rats. Through many different forms and for a host of reasons, our denial and invasion of the subjectivity and agency of other creatures knows no bounds.

‘As with the visually seductive natural history documentaries on our televisions, the danger is of looking at animals but not seeing them.’ Exhibition information guide

The late and brilliant John Berger approached these issues of representation and repression of animals in About Looking, 1980. Along with the physical, he discusses the process of ‘cultural marginalisation’, and the emergence of the ‘so-called silent majority’. From Disney’s Donald Duck to the explosion of animal picture books, our ideology over the past two centuries has positioned animals always as ‘the observed’; vehicles for our expanding knowledge and power, but increasingly distant from us in reality. 

Still from Planet Earth II, ‘Mountains’, Photography: Jacques-Olivier Travers, Slovak the Eagle © 2017 BBC

Still from Planet Earth II, ‘Mountains’, Photography: Jacques-Olivier Travers, Slovak the Eagle © 2017 BBC

These ideas are explored particularly in the ‘Observing’ section of Making Nature, and interestingly with specific reference to natural history documentaries, around which similar debates have recently cropped up. Planet Earth II - Attenborough’s latest masterpiece - whilst attaining the highest performing title of 2016 across all television, did not go undisputed. Fellow BBC presenter of Springwatch, Martin Hughes-Games, warned against its mode of ‘escapist wildlife fantasy’, and its disregard of the ‘worldwide mass extinction’ currently underway.

Amongst the series’ suite of state of the art filmic devices that Hughes-Games likely had in mind was the sensational and breath-taking imagery from an eagle’s eye view, 5,000m above the Alps. The shots, accomplished through a miniature 4k 'lipstick' camera strapped to the eagle’s neck, achieved “unparalleled” results, Attenborough himself admitted. They might indeed be the most fantastic yet, but is this necessarily irresponsible in terms of how we view nature?

The process of filming this sequence was posted on the BBC website, where it stressed that in combination with footage of wild birds, the point-of-view camera allowed for the ‘true sensation’ of the eagle’s flight. Despite controversy over the use of a trained bird (by a conservationist whose intention it is to return them to the wild, it should be noted) the results wielded a worldwide surge of astonished and amazed responses on Twitter, and contributed in part to the unprecedented impact of the series worldwide.

‘Above all, through designing-with other species, ACI could help us reassess what sustainability is about and reconsider our place within a shared, fragile ecosystem’Clara Mancini, ‘Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI): changing perspective on HCI, participation and sustainability’, 2013

Like with Alex the parrot, we no longer simply observe the eagle, but are invited to inhabit its perspective. Rather than moving further away, we come closer to our fellow animals, and an appreciation of their experience of living in the world we share. Whilst vital that this is joined by exposure to the realities of accelerating climate change and species extinction – of which Planet Earth II might admittedly have more thoroughly addressed – the impact of an experiential shift from our own outlook seems useful, and the overwhelmingly positive and widespread response is encouraging.

Still from U.S. Geological Survey, Polar Bear POV Cams (Spring 2016) Credit: USGS

Still from U.S. Geological Survey, Polar Bear POV Cams (Spring 2016) Credit: USGS

POV cameras are not new to scientific and conservationist communities – NatGeo has been working with Crittercam, for example, since 1987. But it’s more recent that they are moving into the public realm, helping to change our perceptions of nature and bring attention to critical environmental issues. Earlier in January, POV footage of Polar Bears in the Arctic was released by the USGS on Facebook and quickly spread, allowing our immersion into the effects of thawing sea ice on the endangered bears. Young Brighton-based Artist Felix Prater recently took a similar approach recently; recording life in Brighton as an urban fox. Similarly, in the world of Animal-Computer Interaction, “pawticipatory” design processes are increasingly developing technology, programmes, and games that cater to a multi-species community.

"We know human activity is having a negative impact on the planet, we know that a lot of the problems to do with biological diversity are as a result of the ways we've thought about nature,” Honor Beddard, exhibition curator

In 2011, Neuroscientist David M. Eagleman expressed his hope for the concept of the ‘Umwelt’ to become ‘embedded in the public lexicon’, for its capacity to capture ‘the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities’. The current trend of re-orientating our gaze to a non-human perspective, in Making Nature and beyond, approaches an answer to his call. It is a powerful tool to broaden our concept of reality, and challenge our hierarchical relationship with an increasingly fragile environment. In turn, this will hopefully aid a necessary shift in the way we treat the world around us.
 

Making Nature: how we see animals has free entry, and will run until 21 May 2017.
For more information, see: https://wellcomecollection.org/MakingNature