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I spent a chunk of last week in a very cold and snowy Toronto at Staging Sustainability 2014, a conference with the subtitle “People. Planet. Profit. Performance.” It was masterminded by Ian Garrett of the Center for Sustainable Practice in The Arts, who teaches at York University. The University was one of an impressive array of sponsors, reflecting the reality that many scientists took part side-by-side with artists and scholars.

In fact, I began to feel that we are beginning to bridge the gap that C.P. Snow—whose own life braided art and science—wrote about in his important 1959 lecture, The Two Cultures, beginning to achieve a common understanding and discourse. As Snow described the problem more than half a century ago (some of his observations are dated, happily, but sadly not the thrust, I think):

There have been plenty of days when I have spent the working hours with scientists and then gone off at night with some literary colleagues [...] I got occupied with the problem of what, long before I put it on paper, I christened to myself as the ‘two cultures.’ For constantly I felt I was moving among two groups—comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at all [...] By and large this is a problem of the entire West.

I’m extremely interested in the way that artists seem to be building—or perhaps the correct word is “living”—the bridge between these realms.

If the people I met at this conference are any indication, there is a growing awareness that transformation of consciousness—awareness, empathy, and social imagination leading to action—is key to stimulating useful response to climate change and the practices that have catalyzed it. Increasingly, others see that artists possess the necessary skills to open hearts and minds, to counter the despair so often induced by an avalanche of facts and figures. Here’s how I put it in my opening keynote (the video should soon be online and I’ll feature it, but let me know if you’d like the full text):

To achieve all four forms of sustainability, as I said earlier, we need to address not just the software of society but its operating system: our basic skills of awareness, perception, and interpretation, and how we act on them.

I am using the word “we” literally. Everyone who makes art or who supports its creation and presentation is a consciousness worker. When we also want to heal the world, then whether we make theater or dance or compose music or paint or make films or write, our medium is consciousness and our work is its transformation. What then is it that qualifies artists—“consciousness workers”—to focus on our collective operating system?

I will use my next few blogs to feature some of the interesting work and ideas I encountered at Staging Sustainability. Up first, the Cape Farewell Foundation, dedicated to promoting “a cultural response to climate change” by “bring leading artists together with climate scientists, engineers, economists and health practitioners.” (This link is to Cape Farewell North America; the parent organization is Cape Farewell UK). The results include a wide range of impressive works commissioned by Cape Farewell or inspired by these interactions. I saw the exhibit Carbon 14: Climate is Culture on its closing day at the Royal Ontario Museum. To create it and the accompanying performance festival, Cape Farewell engaged 25 North American artists with “scientists, politicians, new energy technologists, economists, and social scientists. The artists were asked to develop ideas and artworks—through a process of action-based research—that would form the basis of an exhibition.”

I got to Toronto too late for some of the work I wish I’d been able to see, but I did get to one impressive piece of musical theater, Cynthia Hopkins’ This Clement World, which interweaves her personal struggles with addiction and our collective addiction to Big Oil. It moves back and forth in time and space from a Cheyenne woman murdered at Sand Creek; to Hopkins’ own Cape Farewell-sponsored voyage to the Arctic on a restored sailing ship crammed with artists and scientists; to a folksy alien visiting our planet today; and to spritelike time-traveling resident of the post-industrial future. Part of our truth in relation to climate change is the war of hopes and expectations that arises when we think about the future; Hopkin’s work externalizes it powerfully.

As Cape Farewell founder, photographer and video artist David Buckland, has said, "It is too early to say whether Cape Farewell’s activity foreshadows a shift in the artist’s role in society. It is clear, though, that a cultural response is essential to address the problems facing our overheating planet." The site is well worth exploring. Be sure to check out the videos and books.

Next blog, more about what I learned at Staging Sustainability.

Cynthia Hopkins’ music is beautiful. Here’s a clip with footage and music from This Clement World.

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