Diversity and Climate Art: Anna Lau

Anna Lau

Anna Lau

Anna Lau is a member of Arteries, weaving a world where many worlds fit, connected to the earth. www.arteries.earth

How would you describe your practice and your approach as an activist/artist?

I could say I focus on race, gender and class based inequality and the environment. More fundamentally though, I’ve been concerned about how static, colonialist ways of categorising life has facilitated oppressive management, policing, and destruction. And the ways we undo this, creating abundance in the place of scarcity; I like to think of these as pluriversal futures.

Economies have become ‘globalised’ in ways that almost perpetually colonise others, rather than through convivial encounters where practices, knowledge and resources are shared, where we take the time to really learn each other’s worlds. The way of life ‘the West’ developed (through plunder and colonisation) was never going to work for everyone, given that even in the 90s, the average US citizen lived a lifestyle that would need 8 earths to sustain for everyone. Take into account inequality and you see how lifestyles promoted on TV screens across the world are out of the reach of everyone but a tiny fraction of earth’s people. This means that the systems most of us are forced to consume from – even if we don’t want to – create death. You can’t develop fossil-fuel intensive systems that only sustain a tiny minority and not generate conflict, kill people and destroy the earth. Instead of looking at root causes, the trend has been towards increased monitoring, greater policing and accelerated commodification – of people’s bodies, down to genetic material, and their minds, including cultural expressions of resistance – with fantasies of ‘fourth industrial revolution’ technologies generating ‘hypergrowth’.

It’s systemically racist because colonialist narratives erase or stigmatise worlds outside the imaginary of the ‘White West’, whilst simultaneously plundering them. Whether it’s the textile industry in 15th century India, or the Edo’s fractally-designed capital city (looted and destroyed by the British in 1897), or regenerative agriculture systems pretty much everywhere. Yet influential research continues to narrate an origin story of every state in a universal league table, with ‘underdeveloped’ states ‘graduating’ as technology gets handed down along the globalised value chain. This sounds so stupid, and obviously it’s described differently in the research, but that’s still the hidden (and sometimes not so hidden!) origin story – one of many ghosts in the system. Which gets inside our heads. Many people want to emulate white people, or want their country to be ‘developed like the West’. We’re not being taught the fullness of our histories. And so, as our many worlds are destroyed, privileged groups come up with ‘new solutions’, whilst impoverished folk are criminalised for these very same practices; cannabis in regenerating health or seed-saving in regenerating agriculture, to name just two examples. Seed-sharing and saving is often associated with ‘subsistence agriculture’, seen as a ‘state of nature’ that non-Western countries graduate out of into manufacturing. I remember once looking at a paper narrating this kind of story at the same time that an article about China de-industrialising DRC’s textile industry in the early 2000s popped up on my news feed. These repeating cycles of violence – at the whim of market crashes and mega development projects – are really traumatising for people.

So we can’t talk about ‘economic growth’ in a vacuum. That reflects a Cartesian universe, ‘I think therefore I am’, where thought inventions cause traumatic harm in the real world. For example, property is seen as a value-neutral object, whereas during the time these economic models were being developed, elites were benefitting from the mass enslavement of millions of people and justifying it as a way of ‘civilising’ people. Which itself sits uncomfortably close to the economic idea of development, turning people into units of labour and consumption. I wrote a research paper last year, and at the launch, an academic voiced the view that people are naturally lazy and needed to be pushed into Victorian-era factories to kick-start industrialisation. Our societies were de-industrialised by colonisation! Also…really?! Dank, brutal factories are the best ways in which humans can manifest our creative potential on earth? And development experts are saying this in the same breath as worrying about technology eliminating jobs. As if production and innovation processes that treat people like machines won’t create the problem of people losing their jobs (often crap ones anyway) to machines!

The people I collaborate with through Arteries reflect ‘I am because we are’ or ‘You are therefore I am’. These better express reality, how we shape and are shaped by our encounters with each other. A hierarchy of violence and erasure of peoples, ways of being, of thinking, has skewed what is taken as normal, what is justified, whose deaths and lives matter more. Undoing this needs serious work to better understand the dynamic contexts we live in.

Which means ‘green’ issues need to be treated as social, not just technical issues, considering power (in its many forms), joining the dots between the perspectives of different people – especially those who have been marginalised – and the changes in their experiences over time, as well as learning from the past. People have developed all kinds of wisdom on how to live well together. Our past, present & future is bound together; so as we re-search the past, we simultaneously re-set what kind of future we create. Once we understand the root causes of problems, we’re able to think more clearly and design useful innovations, rather than diverting resources into soon to be obsolescent ways of meeting the same basic needs humans have had since humans came into being.

How do you explore climate change? Tell me about your work.

Climate change is not just an isolated problem, it’s a collection of acute symptoms of deeper problems. Symptoms – in both chronic and acute form – have been presenting themselves for a long time, but they’ve often been treated as separate and isolated problems.

I explore this through a platform I’ve been developing called Arteries. We’re interested in re-telling narratives, based on understanding causes and working with partners creating systemic change, based on their particular context. At the moment, we’re working on an intergenerational education network with partners in Zim around the sustainable development agenda, but offering an approach that deals with some of the problems I’ve touched on more generally here. And with many groups in other places, including in London.

As part of this, we’re also curating events, ‘creative encounters’ to listen and learn between people who may come from different traditions, yet are interested in building a ‘pluriverse’, a world where many worlds fit, connected to the earth. Working on a ‘Pluriversal Journey’ for the summer, in London. Slowly developing a website to host content.

A challenge is that many of the people whose perspectives reveal better ways of doing things don’t have access to the know-how, power and resources needed to change things at a systemic level, whereas people who have a lot of social power generally haven’t had their world go to shit and asked themselves what’s up with that. This is one of the reasons why – to use a cliché – diversity matters.

Art can engage us and hold us through conflicts, to go deeper, work through our partial views, our traumas, our defences and protection mechanisms, to feel and see the complexity of the realities we live in. We do use art forms including music, poetry and visual arts, but more than that, how to practice the art of living well with others? This needs artistic space – where people can hold in their minds and hearts all of this complexity – to feed into fluid and responsive infrastructures that support conflict to be held, invisibilised voices to be heard and to respond to this. So it’s not so much people considered climate change experts who offer the solutions here.

What is the intention of this work/research?

There are many people doing amazing things out there. And people telling stories about how we’ve got here that reflect more experiences. Developing narratives – new myths – that reflect the pluriversality of the world can raise the profile of all that work, and help grow more of these ‘alternatives’ by normalising them. Arteries is a very small drop in this ocean.

We should never underestimate the power of stories. What we are able and not able to imagine create the systems we live by. Many privileged people are limited by their imaginaries, as dominant and dominating as that world is. Taking a more constellational approach means being less bounded by the constraints that historical time and geopolitical space create around what is considered ‘useful’, ‘feasible’ or ‘valid’, giving us more possibilities to work with.

Do you think you can have an impact?

I hope so! What has been important to me is that narratives are tied to projects that model this approach in particular places. That’s why we work with partners. Sharing the learning and supporting these approaches to grow. Whilst Arteries is about beginning to do this in a ‘formal’ way, that’s pretty much what I do, informally, since I can remember working like this. One thing I’d say about today is that many of us have access to information about anything and everything, anyone with a semi ‘smart’ phone basically. Much of which doesn’t help us to reconnect to nature, as nature. So this relates to how to do this work. Sorting through all this information, which can often be noise, into relevant narratives.

How are you funding this work?

Social and environmental grants from like-minded charities so far, small bits of money. Myself! Am thinking now about larger funding groups and also developing re-search and in-sight, learning journeys and other offerings, including events, that can sustain the platform. So if anyone reading this knows any potential donors or who themselves want to collaborate on this, that would be amazing!

Is your approach culturally specific?

In many cultures our inner worlds are seen as a microcosm of the outer worlds. Oxygenated blood flows through arteries from the heart to the rest of the body, keeping us alive. Arteries try to find ways to nourish each other and the earth. The people I work with are immersed in many cultures, evolving the ideas and practices we inherit with our own experiences & creating anew. I’ve been exposed to indigenous cultures across Latin America, to Chinese, re-made in Malaysia, to my experience of Britain which has been first growing up in white, middle-class countryside, to living in London, where I have friends with family histories from all over the world. But culture isn’t a static and fixed object, cultures are fluid and changing, reflecting and responding to encounters. Especially like I said, given anyone with a phone can pretty much consume stuff from anywhere else so long as it’s online. With so many people moving around and trying to make their homes in new places. It’s interesting though because I think a white person being asked whether their approach is culturally specific would find it weird since they don’t tend to think about having white culture do they? We are made through encounters: ‘I am because we are’ right? When I hear people talk about ‘culture’ I feel like they’re often describing non-white cultures in terms of how they differ from white/Western-ness, rather than reflecting how the people of these ‘cultures’ would describe their own culture.

Who is your audience?

People already doing similar work – different parts of this puzzle – and growing an audience through that. I know lots of people doing things like this in their own context. I’d like to connect with like-minded organisations, and grow our impact by collectivising more.

Do you think diverse artists are less involved in exploring the climate issue?

They’re generally not doing things directly on climate change as a carbon problem, but in other ways. Many artists are looking at social justice issues, like access to water and land and their distribution, or disrupting racist narratives around their experiences, their ancestral histories and futures, it’s just not framed as a ‘climate issue’.

Why do you think most of the funded work or Arts projects we see seem to be by white artists?

I think because funders are also mostly white and see the problem in similar ways. I think at least in terms of funding for environmental projects, they see this terrible thing happening to nature, with animals and landscapes they love being destroyed. Which I get, you know. We are nature. It’s hard to see life be destroyed. But the ways in which people – mostly black and brown – are being harmed by the same projects – from mining to industrial agriculture – is seen as unrelated. Or, I’ll be honest, in many cases just not as important, that’s how far people are dehumanised by colonial imaginaries. They become backdrop, or collateral. The gaps in empathy are a real and painful thing. POC artists I know are responding to symptoms we recognise from our experiences and what we know of history. It’s not that we don’t care about the environment, it’s just we see so much pain and dehumanisation, so many untruths being spread, we can’t leave these aside because we see how they are connected.

Do you think the arts has the potential to educate and inform audiences about the climate challenge?

Yes, but if just focusing on the carbon problem then no, because people have too much else to worry about to think about this, unless they can connect with it. And as I said, people connect to the issues that make sense to them from their experiences.

Do you think we need specific arts projects by and for diverse audiences to widen the impact and encourage change in society?

Yes, because they’re doing important work but it is not getting the big funds or the high profile gigs and profile. It’s a resourcing issue.

What else are your thoughts on this topic? What would you like to see more of and what is necessary?

So to kind of summarise…it’s obviously more complex than this, but when you strip it back to fundamentals you see that economic growth mostly means GDP production and consumption, which has meant turning people and land into commodities…..creating false scarcity. Because you cut down worlds of abundance – food, rituals that build community, medicine, building materials, everything that sustains life in that place – and you grow a palm plantation for food and cosmetic products, or build a cement factory for building material. This creates scarcity. So the solution in a lot of sustainability thinking is that we have to manage these resources more effectively. But we have to understand what’s missing in our approaches. For example, the idea of a circular economy – where the idea is that the waste products of one production process goes into another to reduce pollution – is trendy now, (whilst also being a feature of most societies throughout history) but circular economies aren’t really a solution if they’re not also about undoing the white supremacist, imperialist, patriarchal appropriation of resources and knowledge, in the present and into the future.

I do want to see more of us coming together and supporting each other though, despite the differences in how we approach things. Which sounds really kumbaya, but actually people are so divided, and increasing precarity means people are being run into the ground, it’s hard, we end up fighting each other. Also marginalised people are always doing the work of getting privileged people to listen. Many people do harmful things in wielding their power to ‘solve things’ (I include myself in this) so it’s really important to understand what’s missing in our perspectives. That means a lot of hard work and being willing to listen, really listen and to transform ourselves, from inside out.


Harpreet’s Reflections

Anna highlights that as well as exploring the impacts of rising temperatures and carbon emissions, its important to actually look at the causes, so Climate Cause if you like. This absolutely, makes sense, its not logical for example to spend all of our time and resources to research cures for cancer without looking at what is causing it in the first place, to also find preventative measures that would and could put a stop to it, rather than simply putting a temporary plaster on a growing epidemic (that I think also allows for further profit making and can take the attention away from the root of the issue). Anna looks at the causes from a social, political and economic perspective, linked with colonialism and power. The first step is to tell different sides of the story and demonstrate what has and is happening, causing detrimental effects, but not without suggesting alternative global systems that are built on equality and justice. Her approach also suggests that a lot of the knowledge already exists historically and held by our ancestors, that combined with new technology and science could lead to solutions that are more strategic than just adapting to change, that focus closely on the impact to people, as well as planet. Anna is confident that POC need more profile, resources and encouragement to explore this issue, that I agree with, as there is some interesting work taking place, and room for a lot more. As long as the work does not become tokenistic and must be coming from a place of integrity. This is not easy to measure or control, and again those with the contacts, networking ability and I think often the old boys network get the biggest piece of the pie. The old boys network is not just a group of white middle class men, they absolutely exist in their own form in POC and diverse circles too. But as Anna said, its a cliche but diversity really does matter in the case of art about climate change, climate cause…whatever we call it.

For an introduction to this series of articles see New Narratives on the Climate Story.

This project has been supported by Creative Climate Leadership, a programme supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union

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