🗓 June 9, 2022 ⏰ 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm CEST, 💻online
How can decision makers in policy fields best connect with the knowledge that creative research uncovers when investigating the biodiversity and climate crises? Artists have been exploring ways to deepen our connection with the more-than-human, taking innovative approaches to sustainability challenges. Creative practices have the power to change how people think and act in relation to ‘nature’ and the living things around us, so how might the world benefit from these insights?
In June 2022, the CreaTures project invited policy makers, artists, and practice-based researchers to the event Managed or out of control? Bridging policy and creative perspectives on ‘nature’ (part of the New European Bauhaus Festival). Six panellists from policy and creative practice presented their conceptions of ‘nature’ and ideas about how creative practitioners and policymakers might work together to trigger the transformations needed for planetary care. Whilst different approaches and challenges emerged, what was striking was the commonality between perspectives.
Four key points to take away –
Speakers were wary of approaches that do not step outside power dynamics of extraction and exploitation. For instance, Michal Mitro argued that the idea that we need to ‘fix’ climate change and biodiversity loss is a human-centric one, assuming humans are separate from the rest of nature and somehow control it. It was agreed that dominant Western beliefs about nature need changing to acknowledge that all life is interdependent and vulnerable to human negligence.
- Create spaces for deep listening
The need to create spaces for deep listening ran across the discussion – perhaps most profoundly to ‘tune in’ to more-than-human life-forms, but also to connect humans working together across sectors.
Phil Tovey from DEFRA described how the schedule and usual working environment of policy makers is not set up in a way that makes entering into this sort of deep listening easy. Finding ways to make space to slow down and ‘be’ can enable transformative ideas to take shape.
In order to listen deeply, we need to acknowledge our own subjectivity and position, and to be quiet and observe, giving space for the more-than-human to communicate with us in their own ways, through their own bodies, interests, and points of communication. Markéta Dolejšová explored this in depth, describing arranged walks through the forest led by Chewie the dog.
- Value experiential knowledge as a powerful route to transformation
Several of the speakers described the way experiencing feeds more effectively into transformation than reading about others’ experience. This is particularly true when relating to beings that communicate using ways other than human language. Artists are ideally placed to explore this, and their work can offer fresh perspectives in discussions about ecology.
The Treaty of Finsbury Park, for example, explores new ways to build empathy with non-human life-forms. The treaty is a Live Action Roleplay Game; participants are assigned a species mentor, attend a preparation workshop and then can take part in interspecies assemblies representing the species they were matched with. The game builds understanding of the more-than-human species in the park in a playful and engaged way that fosters more creative forms of understanding.
- Enable translation across spheres
All the speakers agreed that transformational shifts require new ways of working across disciplines and settings. Clive Mitchell from NatureScot noted that policy makers almost always work within a specific ‘domain’ e.g. forests, water, etc, without necessarily connecting these to the wider systems round them. Artistic processes operate more freely, often creating situations where multiple forms of expertise can be heard and valued together. More holistic approaches can enable insights into new ways of relating and inspire potential solutions that domain-specific experts may miss, in being so focused.
Spaces that allow for communication through and between these different approaches allow artists and policy makers to find common languages across differences. The ‘soft spaces’ engagement approach introduced by Astrid Mangnus from SCP provides an interesting example – offering sessions when creative methods can undo hierarchies and provide freer spaces for designing alternative futures. Here, policymakers are invited to take deep listening and experiential knowing more seriously, while creative practitioners are invited to explore what an ‘evidence base’ for their practice might look like.
- Move from extractive to regenerative value systems
Modern Western cultures have created devastation for living things. To move towards regenerative futures, speakers proposed that we change our value systems and re-imagine our worlds. However, these cultural dynamics need to be paired with practical, remedial action on the ground as part of holistic systems change. The Zoöp project presented by Klaas Kuitenbrouwer subverts a pre-existing legal framework to incentivise the regeneration of land. Instead of being a hidden vulnerable externality, more-than-human inhabitants of the land have a seat on the organisational board, intended as ‘shareholders’ of a better future.
Markéta Dolejšová, representing the EU CreaTures project, presented artworks that ask people to embrace more-than-human worldviews – for example by role-playing as animals (in the Treaty of Finsbury Park 2025), being taken on a walk by Chewie the dog (in Open Forest) or dining with multi-species companions (in Refuge for Resurgence). With these works from partners, she illustrated the possibilities inherent in stimulating imagination, by playing, experimenting and storytelling, for finding new forms of understanding of the world around us.
Klaas Kuitenbrouwer is a founder of Zoöp, a governance model that seeks to incentivise regeneration, rather than extraction. Organisations sign up as a Zoöp and appoint a Speaker for the Living onto an organisational board, using existing co-operative legal structures to represent more-than-human dwellers (inspired by cases of legal personhood for rivers).
Astrid Mangnus, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP), introduced the idea of transformation – the need to make urgent and radical changes to our ways of life, to halt the breakdown of earth systems. She highlighted how creative practices can be helpful in creating ‘soft’ spaces, where the governance of social and natural systems can be explored more imaginatively (outside of traditional ‘hard’ governance spaces).
Clive Mitchell, Strategic Resource Manager on nature and climate change at NatureScot, described the hidden values at work in how we talk and think about nature – even when we use the same scientific terms. Policy must balance the costs and benefits in how we use our shared natural resources, meaning that we cannot avoid questions of climate and environmental justice, he said.
Michal Mitro, an artist and researcher, spoke about the importance of relationships. Coming from a background of psychology and sociology as well as arts practice, he works with a forest that was once carefully managed by humans but is gradually growing wilder. His work acknowledges that we are always coming at things from a human point of view, but can listen to and contemplate other perspectives.
Phil Tovey, who leads the DEFRA futures team, highlighted some of the barriers to incorporating the needs of more-than-humans in policy. Policy-making is often not set up for deep listening. He suggested that more-than-human empathy needs to be combined with practical action involving a range of groups to be effective as a technique for governance. Creating systemic theories of change would be helpful to translate across spheres.
CreaTures’ Nature: managed or out of control event was encouraging in bringing together artists and policy-makers to respond to social and environmental challenges. There were differing approaches, but more noteworthy was the shared worldview between the artists, researchers and policy-makers in terms of vision and aims. In addressing the urgent need to find new, more sustainable and nourishing, ways of living on our shared planet, it can be all too easy to assume we need to abandon either the radicalism of imagining different futures or a focus on impacting everyday life. However, with suitable translators between contexts, the space for dreaming and deep listening to develop into practical action looks possible as well as important.
Thanks to all the speakers for their time, and the rich insights that they shared.
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CreaTures project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870759. The content presented represents the views of the authors, and the European Commission has no liability in respect of the content.