Tue, 21/08/2018 - 05:05 -- eyeline
Performing climate

'Climate change’, argued Carolyn Merchant in 2015, ‘[is] the most widespread catastrophe for the human future’.1 In 2018, as ice melts, seas rise, people die or are displaced and made homeless by catastrophic weather, and extinctions spiral, we need hardly be reminded of the precarious future for human and non-human communities on the planet. Yet as Merchant also points out, what makes reiteration of the fundamental crisis a moral imperative is climate-change denial. Merchant outlines how unpredictable climate requires new ways of living in the everyday. Modern science in centuries past was based in prediction and certainty. Today we live with something she calls ‘the cascade effects’ of climate; the unpredictable, chaotic, unanticipated impacts on everyday life of cyclones, earthquakes, droughts and heatwaves caused by industrial humanity.

A growing body of research and practice identifies the potential of the creative arts to lead a response to Carolyn Merchant’s claim that responding to climate change and global warming is our moral responsibility. Operating naturally between academic, public, and industry domains, the visual and performing arts have never been more important for influencing imaginative and visionary modes of public engagement with planetary problems. If people are not listening to scientific warnings based on data, then the arts can draw them in through the imagination, combining mysterious symbolism and ritual with clear narratives about suffering and isolation caused by climate, and, in the process, bridge boundaries between people and understanding.

Animateur of ‘Composed Theatre’, Michelle St Anne, has adapted her practice to the social imperative of communicating the increasing impacts of heatwaves on the everyday lives of ordinary people. To do this, she works between academic, artistic and public spheres. Performing for her company, The Livingroom Theatre, but a partner in a grant with the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney investigating the possibilities of knowledge translation through art, her latest academic project is Anastasia, and its various iterations include the culminating performance, Lola stayed too long (2017-2018). Anastasia and its performative iterations were composed over a period of six months. Through rehearsals and workshops the work grew like collage, and, as it developed, the audience (who followed the project from beginning to end) developed with it.

The subject of Anastasia was heat, a silent killer that claims the lives of society’s most vulnerable citizens. Those who live alone, are old and sick, and die at home, forgotten like the ill-fated Anastasia, an old woman living in social isolation. The performer was St Anne’s mother, and the performance a blend of the real and imaginary, the personal and public. But the victim might be your mother, or mine. Bleak and black in atmosphere, the work nevertheless also expressed hope for a more positive future based in social change and climate-awareness. The narratives St Anne constructed by sculpting space with sounds, objects and moving bodies, were not so different from Carolyn Merchant’s narratives about science and nature. Artist and philosopher both recognise how Romantic impulses have placed the human-being outside Nature and in opposition to the environment. But to narrate those ideas through performance is infinitely more challenging than explicating through words on a page. To maintain the poetics of performance but introduce the clarity of communication in the hope of social change, even harder. It is a challenge that artists in all fields of practice grapple with.

What new conceptual frameworks are appropriate for artists responding to environmental change in the twenty-first century? Can artists succeed in engaging general audiences about environmental realities through the sensuous aspects of art? These are questions that circulate today in response to increasing numbers of environmental works exhibited at contemporary art events and biennales. Often they involve a specific type of public politics, similar to the one Jane Bennett calls ‘political ecology and a notion of publics as human-nonhuman collectives that are provoked into existence by a shared experience of harm’.2 Art’s place in political ecology has become a major talking point in YouTube videos of conversations between the philosopher Timothy Morton—who is a strong advocate of the power of art to affect public understanding of environmental crisis—and leading contemporary artists, including Olafur Eliasson. Art, Morton argues, plays a vital role in ecological thinking because it ‘deals with intensity, shame, abjection, and loss’.3 In spheres of artistic practice, artists today express their outrage at what they perceive as citizen indifference and public incapacity to act on catastrophe. Writer, Lloyd Jones, argues we may have lost our capacity for outrage. His new novel, The Cage (2018), takes the reader into the lives of traumatised refugees escaping disaster. In the face of what he observes as denial of crisis, Jones has created a work of activism to counter what he perceives as the pervasive problem of ‘catastrophe and crisis … sliding into entertainment’.4 There is a sense among artists that more must be achieved. Amitav Ghosh, in The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable (2016), addresses the urgency of the relationship of art and climate and is perturbed to find the subject usually confined to nonfiction literature rather than novels and short stories. Ghosh comments more broadly about contemporary poetry, art, architecture, theater, and prose fiction,

'Throughout history these branches of culture have responded to war, ecological calamity, and crises of many sorts: why then, should climate change prove so peculiarly resistant to their practices?'5

Helping audiences to feel, touch, smell, and see calamity, lies at the heart of Michelle St Anne’s Anastasia project. Audiences—if that is the right word for non-performers attending her events who find themselves actively part of the performance—feel and live the guilt of the bystander who is the everyday witness to catastrophe. A collaborative ethic permeates the work. More than an example of experimental theatre, the final performance, Lola stayed too long, was an experiment in art’s capacity to translate academic research about heat and climate denial into forms capable of reaching the wider public, and impact changes in public comprehension by allowing people to confront the issue through the dream-like space of art. At one point, for example, the air was filled with recordings of narrated transcripts from research into the impact of heatwaves on residents in Penrith, Sydney, by humanities scholar, David Schlosberg. Also recorded was the voice of sociologist, Kari Norgaard relaying stories told by people living with the consequences of global warming in western Norway, stories that informed her book, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (2011).

‘Composed Theatre’ is a relatively new term for an art form that combines a variety of performative elements including visual art, dance and sound, and everyday objects. According to David Roesner, who is a theorist, teacher and practitioner of this new theatre, and a Professor of Theater and Music Theatre at LMU Munich, as well as mentor for St Anne as she developed Lola stayed too long, Composed Theatre is distinguished from other theatre forms by its emphasis on artistic process rather than performed product. In a recent book co-edited with Matthias Rebstock, Roesner explains its approach as ‘musical material’. It is the musicalisation of theatre that truly underpins the compositional thinking that makes this art form different.6 St Anne agrees that every image she performs begins with sound and with music.

When Roesner writes about Composed Theatre he explains it as a field where aesthetics and ethics meet and where modes of contingent and affective actions blur the boundaries of the optical and the acoustic, as well as the visual and the aural. Instead, the senses become defamiliarised so that audiences smell, touch and see sounds, hear visions, or smell and touch with the eyes. The historical background of Composed Theatre is therefore avant-garde performance including Fluxus, John Cage, and the Bauhaus. With process rather than product as the ideological underpinning, under the direction of Michelle St Anne, Composed Theatre is a means for performers and audiences to undergo a journey of communal exploration through open-ended actions.

St Anne refers to Anastasia as ‘performing climate change’. To that end, it was composed in three stages, with every stage a public performance or open rehearsal. But the final performance, Lola stayed too long, was site-specific. Performed in the Veterinary School of Sydney University—a school founded on science and reason—the audience followed St Anne and performers Lian Loke, Kate Gorman, Alicia Gonzales and composer, musician and performer Alexander Spence, as they used sounds and props to evoke, in non-rational languages, the idea of suffocating heat and lashing storms.

It is difficult to represent in words the sensory experience of Lola stayed too long, except to say that for an hour the performers elicited from the audience intense, emotional feelings which gave them tangible points of entry to the narrative dimension of the work. Susan Sontag once argued, about life in an age of over-production and over-consumption: ‘What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more’.7 Amidst the sounds of searing heat, and visual evocations of blinding light, an old woman died and disappeared. As if to find her, the audience ascended a staircase cascading with colour, transformed from its everyday, institutional appearance by the alchemical properties of art. At the top of the stairs, the audience passed cabinets of animal bones and entered an animal dissection room filled with extraction pipes, drains, and stainless steel tables, with black curtains and white shrouds, and with the lingering smell of death. Behind a curtain two figures watched heat radiating from a single bar heater; another slowly wrapped her head in white cloth to the sounds of icebergs calving; a purposeful figure on skis moved through a sculptural landscape, sprinkling salt, an elephant danced amongst the unfolding chaos to a Barry Manilow song; and a scientist explained to the audience the defenses used by a reptile to protect itself from heat. It is not the first time the Living Room Theatre has performed with the presence and trace of animals: a live horse, taxidermied fox, cat and birds, a live laboratory reptile. They are reminders that human-beings share the planet with a myriad other beings, but beings they have treated as the stranger.

It is difficult to relay the surreal scenes that unfolded inside that Veterinary building and why and how they managed to suggest precariousness, fear, mania, and an ominous future. Some events took place behind people's backs. Anyone who followed their nose, looked straight ahead, followed the leader, and did not pause to look behind them, or to the side, at the sensory landscape—who did not notice, for instance, how a building in the background suddenly lit up in scorching red—became, themselves, personifications of public ignorance and the blindness of people to environmental change.

What does it take to translate heatwaves into performance? Can theatre be useful in helping to negotiate climate change, or do not enough people experience theatre for this art-form to make a difference? Can theatre communicate academic research on shock heat events to a wider audience, and at the same time communicate the grief, trauma and loss that extreme heat causes in the real world? Lola stayed too long was a grim, uncomfortable, pessimistic poetics of the Earth. Among the many memorable images was an inscrutable elephant-masked figure. The beast danced, read the paper, and looked away from the pain of others. This indifferent figure was surely the embodiment of the indifference of climate to human suffering. For centuries, the planet has been a stage for human actors. But in the twenty-first century, as Clive Hamilton argues, the tables have turned and the planet, comprising all human and non-human elements, is an active agent in human demise.8

In Michelle St Anne’s performance, though, it was specifically the bodies of female performers that met their demise and assumed the burden of heat-induced trauma, fatigue and stress. Climate is a gendered problem: women’s lives are more vulnerable to the impact of global warming due to social injustice, gendered roles, a cultural disposition among women like Anastasia to stay quiet and hold back from asking for help, and the reality that the majority of women in the world live in poverty where their bodies are ‘at the frontlines of climate impacts’.9 It was largely through the female body that Michelle St Anne directed and performed her evocative and memorable images of denial, compassion, dissociation, fragmentation, memory, social isolation, and the mental states of loss and grief that are so difficult to represent.

The Living Room Theatre, Lola stayed too long, 2018. Photograph Dagmar Reinhardt.

The Living Room Theatre, Lola stayed too long, 2018. Photograph Dagmar Reinhardt.

The Living Room Theatre, Lola stayed too long, 2018. Photograph Dagmar Reinhardt.

The Living Room Theatre, Lola stayed too long, 2018. Photograph Dagmar Reinhardt.


1. Carolyn Merchant, Autonomous Nature: Problems of Prediction and Control from Ancient Times to the Scientific Revolution, Routledge, New York and London, 2015, p.1.

2. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2010, p.xix.

3. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2010, p.10.

4. Linda Morris, ‘Dumb witnesses: Author Lloyd Jones and the obligation of the bystander’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 March 2018, p.25.

5. Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2016, p.10.

6. Matthias Rebstock and David Roesner, Composed Theatre: Aesthetics, Practices, Processes, Intellect, Bristol, 2012, p.326.

7. Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’ in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1966, p.14.

8. Clive Hamilton, ‘Climate change signals the end of the social sciences’, The Conversation, 25 January, 2013, http://theconversation.com/climate-change-signals-the-end-of-the-social-sciences-11722. Accessed 20 December 2017.

9. Mara Alejandra Rodriquez Acha cited in Giulia Nicolini, The Environment is a Feminist Issue, http://www.fcome.org/portfolio-view/the-environment-is-a-feminist-issue/. Accessed 12 April 2018.

Ann Elias is Associate Professor, History and Theory of Contemporary Global Art at the University of Sydney.