Again and again at the Edinburgh festival, the question was asked ‘What can the arts and culture do?’, in the face of a regime seemingly inured to even the most disruptive forms of direct action.
by Peter Adkins
“Is this your first experience of the apocalypse?”
The voice on my phone was empathetic. Trained to sound understanding. It was a warm, breezy afternoon in early August and I was sat on a bench in Edinburgh’s Meadows, a large park in the centre of the city that historically served as common grazing land for sheep and cattle. Festivalgoers streamed past me, heading to and from shows. From the nearby Circus Hub, a big top erected just down from me, a band playeda jazzy cover of a KT Tunstall song. It all felt distinctly un-apocalyptic.
“Have you experienced a change in weather recently?” the operator wanted to know. “Have you witnessed any wildfires or sandstorms? Do you think you could carry 40-kilos for 10-miles? Could you swim the English Channel? Would you be able to outrun a pack of wild dogs? Do you think that things are getting better?”
It was a bubble-bursting start to the festival. Edinburgh might look fine, appearing relatively inured to climate change compared to, say, Greece, Canada or any number of locations that have been ravaged by heat, storms and other natural disasters this summer – butany sense of complacency, the phone operator looks to impress upon me, amounts to a denial of reality.
My interlocutor is Katrine Turner, one of a number of artists, writers and performers whose work at Edinburgh’s various August festivals looked to engage with, rather than obfuscate, the fact that everything is not okay. Really not okay.
Turner’s An Alternative Helpline for the End of the World is a work of performance art in which participants receive a one-to-one phone consultation at a pre-arranged time and are guided through an algorithmically determined conversation about how to cope with the climate crisis.
Installed in a glass-fronted booth, festival goers could watch Turner perform as she sat in a one-person call centre. Turner was trained as a handler for the NHS Coronavirus Response Helpline during lockdown. She subsequently took the concept of a script-led helpline as the basis for a work that brings to the fore both the urgency of our situation (How long is it until we really do have climate change helplines?) and the inadequacy of our current institutional infrastructures to offer any meaningful help.
It was an affecting piece and darkly absurd in its execution (when I was briefly placed on hold Skeeter Davis’s sugary-sweet 1962 pop song ‘The End of the World’ played down the line). The operator talked me through some initial questions, checking I understood that the service offered advice not answers, before asking me a series of multiple-choice questions that created a unique pathway through the computer-generated script. At the conclusion of the call, the algorithm picked out what it had decided was the piece of climate change advice I needed to hear.
Despite the novelty of the experience, I was amazed at how quickly I fell into a politely dissociative back-and-forth, just as I would during a real encounter with a tele-operator following a script. Both of us took on the role of bad-faith actors, constrained by the limits of what could and couldn’t be said. It was a deeply powerful reminder of the complacency and emptiness of language in such scenarios, and the lack of meaningful conversations and decision making in the face of the Anthropocene.
It’s little surprise that anxiety over the hollowness of climate change discourse is inspiring new creative works. Events such as Glasgow’s COP26 in 2021 have fuelled concerns that governments have neither the political will nor vision to deliver the change needed to mitigate even the least devastating futures currently forecast.
This was the explicit premise of Crash and Burn, a play written by Will Leckie and directed by Zoë Morris. Set aboard a private jet carrying oil tycoon Joseph Johnson (Nick Gill) and Hollywood star Amodius Vassano (Leckie), along with their entourage, to Glasgow for COP26, the play took the form of an ecological thriller as cabin attendant, Lewis McKenzie (Noah Miller), outs himself as an environmental activist willing to down the plane in the name of the planet.
While the initial tension came from Lewis’s demand that Johnson publicly own up to human rights violations and environmental crimes, the subsequent twists and turns entwined personal and environmental histories, as the shadowy pasts of each passenger and their complicity with the fossil fuel industry came into clearer focus.
Like Succession’s Logan Roy, Johnson sees his ascendancy to the 1% from his working-class Scottish roots as the result of hard graft and the free market, while his environmentally conflicted daughter, Jane (Emily Gibson), is only too happy to give the company a greenwashing makeover if it means she gets her share of power.
If at times events felt a little close to HBO’s family-tycoon drama, Crash and Burn avoided becoming “Homework: The Show” (the adage that Shiv Roy gave to overly-worthy shows whose conscience comes at the expense of entertainment). Instead, Leckie’s script did a fine job of weaving issues (ranging from Russian-triggered energy insecurities to North Sea oil wealth to atrocities in the Niger delta) within a taut, well-paced drama that explored the efficacy and morality of direct, and potentially violent, civil disobedience.
Crash and Burn’s conclusion was, unsurprisingly in the current climate, not particularly optimistic about the future. In contrast, The Trash Garden, one of two plays written by Padraig Bond and performed on alternate days with Debating Extinction under the title of The Climate Fables, was a fresh take on end of the world narratives.
A farcical inversion of ‘Genesis’, The Trash Garden presented Evelyn (Kristen Hoffman) and Atlas (Luis Feliciano) as the last two living humans, residing in a kingdom of plastic waste as they wait to be ‘extincted’. Through a series of vignettes, the audience watched the pair pass the time until their death and, what they anticipate will be, their ascent to heaven.
They play out heteronormative fantasies of what life was like before, with Atlas taking on the role of the drunken abusive husband, and Evelyn the lascivious insatiable wife. They have dinner conversations over meals of plastic bags (as the actors chewed and, seemingly, swallowed slices of flimsy plastic there was an audible intake of breath among audience members). Evelyn resists the offer of an apple from the Devil (one of several roles played by Tibor Kane Lazar) who, having run out of humans to torment, has grown bored. Atlas has nightmares in which he is swallowed up by a huge, unrelenting oil slick. They imagine what it would have been like to see New York City before it was submerged by the Atlantic, struggling to conceive stepping out on a street and seeing as many as ten people at the same time. ‘What would I have said to them all?’ Atlas exclaims in perhaps the play’s funniest moment.
At one point, Evelyn finds a discarded Ouija board and conjures up the ghost of David Attenborough, who then starts to narrate the scene as if it is one of his documentaries. An example of how the play’s exuberance of ideas sometimes leant it a little unevenness, the ghost of Attenborough succeeded in highlighting the play’s central message. The human species can be identified by its large brain, ghost Attenborough explains, which has enabled its imagination and story-telling capacity.
As meta-textual references go, it was on the nose but effective. The restless games and play enacted by Evelyn and Atlas emphasised the mutability of the narratives we bring into being and the human imagination’s capacity to attune itself to, or else disregard, changing environmental circumstances. Avoiding the clichés engrained within apocalyptic narratives, the play’s use of physical comedy served as an engaging, humane and very funny enactment of how, like the trash littering the stage floor, we might decide which narratives we want to hang on to and how we might best recycle them for the future.
On less sure ground were the one-person shows I saw that took climate change for their focus, with the format perhaps leading these performers to reduce the big, almost overwhelming scale of the climate emergency to individual stories of personal growth.
Dennis Trainor Jr served as Communications Director for the Green Party’s Jill Stein’s 2016 presidential bid. His play, Manifest Destiny’s Child, told the story of his experiences on the campaign trail. Framed around Trainor’s existential crisis as he struggled with depression and a stalled career as an internet show host, the narrative became suddenly gripping once he is unexpectedly offered a top role in Stein’s team and we glimpse the inner workings of the party machine.
Slick in its production and well-acted, the script unfortunately didn’t seem to realise where its strengths lie. A third act that saw Trainor break with the Green Party and join the oil pipeline protests at Standing Rock in Dakota unfortunately resituates the climate crisis as a vehicle for character growth (a fact underlined by the bafflingly triumphant note of a finale that didn’t mention that the pipeline was constructed and continues to operate).
In contrast, Ted Hill’s stand-up show, Ted Hill Tries and Fails to Fix Climate Change, consciously engaged with the way in which causes, such as environmental activism, can become vehicles for personal ambition.
Hill’s comedian alter ego, a thin-skinned narcissist, brazenly approached climate change not as a problem but as a publicity opportunity: if he could fix climate change, he might win global plaudits and celebrity.
This premise, which could have been the basis for a razor-sharp satire of the kind of greenwashing celebrity that Crash and Burn successfully engaged with, unfortunately became the basis for a series of jokes that instead pivoted on Hill’s solipsism.
Although there were some funny moments, with one particularly good polar bear joke hinging on correlation being mistaken for causation, there was a sense that, like in Trainor’s show, an opportunity to meaningfully fuse the personal and global scales of climate change had been missed.
The most confronting moment of Hill’s set was when he presented his audience with the carbon footprint of his show: 2.4 tonnes. This figure, which Hill calculated from the Edinburgh Fringe’s publicly released sustainability statement, brought up the question of whether cultural festivals, even those programming climate conscious shows, are doing more harm than good.
At ‘Displaced Art in a Displaced Climate,’ a discussion panel that took place as part of the Just Festival, the composer Matthew Whiteside highlighted research suggesting that 97% of all emissions at any given show come not from the performer, but the audience travelling to the venue. That would make Hill’s show responsible for 80 tonnes of CO2. Sustainable infrastructure to bring together performers and audiences does not yet exist, as Whiteside pointed out. And integral to this problem, as this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival made clear, is the ever-pressing issue of funding.
The Book Festival’s ‘Climate Positive’ series of events was perhaps cursed from the moment it took such an upbeat name. First Greta Thunberg pulled out of the festival, stating:
I cannot attend an event which receives sponsorship from Baillie Gifford, who invest heavily in the fossil fuel industry. Greenwashing efforts by the fossil fuel industry, including sponsorship of cultural events, allow them to keep the social license to continue operating.
Next a public letter signed by more than fifty authors, including Zadie Smith and Ali Smith, threatened to boycott the 2024 iteration of the Festival unless the organisers drop anysponsor that invests in fossil fuels. Then, during the festival’s opening night, Mikaela Loach halted her talk at its mid-point and, inviting the writers Mohammed Tonsy and Jessica Gaitán Johannesson on stage, unfurled a banner demanding the Festival drop Baillie Gifford.
Perhaps not the kind of climate positivity the organisers had intended, it was nonetheless a deeply moving moment. Emotionally overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility resting on her shoulders, Loach spoke of the disappearance of Jamaica’s coastal settlements and read a statement from a Columbian woman impacted by an open cast mine partially bankrolled by Baillie Gifford.
Leading members of the audience out through Edinburgh College of Art’s grand building to the festival’s main square for an impromptu protest was a powerful and courageous gesture. Yet despite the emphasis on activism and her exhortations for direct action, its actual impact wasn’t immediately clear. Some of the festival’s mostly white, mostly middle-class audience half-heartedly joined in with a chant demanding that Baillie Gifford had to go. Others sheepishly wandered away to the next talk or the bar.
I was reminded of the emphasis on denial in Turner’s piece and why comfortable conversations are often less powerful than those that make us feel self-conscious. Despite statements from the organisers, it is unclear what next year’s book festival will look like.
One of the bleakest yet most effective portrayals of what climate activists face in their struggle to create a better future came during Crash and Burn. Oil magnate Joseph Johnson, speaking to eco-activist Lewis McKenzie, calmly explained that it didn’t matter if his plane was downed and everyone killed: he will be replaced and the oil machine will keep on turning. The stranglehold over planetary resources wouldn’t even be dented.
Again and again at the Edinburgh festival, the question was asked ’ What can arts and culture do?’, in the face of an economic and political regime seemingly inured to even the most disruptive forms of direct action. Running through nearly all of what I saw was an emphasis on our imaginative capabilities; that we need to examine earlier narratives to see what they reveal about how we got here and invent new ones adequate to the moment, while also paying attention to the material infrastructures that platform such work.
That might mean, as Whiteside suggested during ‘Displaced Art in a Displaced Climate,’ a renewed emphasis on slowing down and building community (sentiments that chime with The Glasgow Review of Books’ own commentary on events at the Book Festival). Writing this I am drawn again to Turner’s piece, easily the most innovative of all the climate change work I encountered during the Festival, and its emphasis on the materiality of the discourse that surrounds climate change.
Simply changing the words we use or the questions we ask won’t be enough until we fundamentally rethink how we’re framing such conversations and narratives. The piece of advice that the computer algorithm picked for me, by the way, was a passage from David Wallace-Well’s The Uninhabitable Earth warning that despite all the apocalyptic media audiences have passively consumed for decades, we are unprepared for the crisis unfolding in front of us. The diagnosis? A catastrophic failure of the imagination. The solution? Well, as the operator had informed me at the beginning of the call, she can’t offer any answers, just advice.
About our contributor
Peter Adkins (www.peteradkins.net) is the author of The Modernist Anthropocene (2022) and editor of Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene (forthcoming). He’s currently working on a project examining how oil shaped British literature during the long twentieth century. He teaches in the English Department at the University of Edinburgh.