What We Talk About When We Talk About the Arts and Climate Change in Higher Education

And. It is a small word, an ordinary word, a word “used to join two words, phrases, parts of sentences, or related statements together.”

And. I imagine you are here because you’re interested in the arts or climate change. I find it difficult to imagine someone typing into the search box merely an and.

But I have, this past month, been finding out more about what the and that joins arts and climate change consists of. More specifically, I’ve been speaking to some of the academics, artists, and educators who submitted courses and programs in response to our call out for degree programs, courses, and syllabi that integrate arts with the study of climate change. How does that integration work? What is its function? Where might it go next?

And. If the word’s meaning rests on its ability to join together other words, we skip over it, the way we might skip a red light, in our rush to reach whatever this particular sentence’s beginning has led us to believe will be its final destination. But what if we just – stopped. What if we climbed out of the car, if we stuck our head out of the ever-narrowing tunnel of our particular academic or artistic discipline. What might we see?

And. What struck me most while conducting this research was how willing those teaching and running these programs were to see just how much their individual discipline couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see. They were scientists who wanted to reach across to the arts and artists who wanted to reach across to the sciences, or who simply refused the assumption that they are separate. Working with whatever resources were available in their home institutions, they weren’t scared to explore the between-spaces, or to make mistakes.

The Center for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), Sweden

Indeed, some initiatives, such as the student-initiated Centre for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Sweden, came from this premise, as explained by Malin Östman, educational coordinator of CEMUS at large: “We started from the idea that climate change is too complex to tackle from only one angle; we need to work together to find solutions.” Although homed in the Earth Sciences – “you’ve got to put it somewhere!” – the Centre adopts an interdisciplinary approach across all its courses, drawing students from a wide range of academic backgrounds.

Similarly, Alan Boldon, Managing Director at Dartington Trust, set up his Arts and Place MA at Dartington College of Arts in the UK out of a desire to bring together a diverse network of artists, activists, and academics working with place who, keenly aware of their own discipline’s limitations, wanted to learn together. Open to creatives in any discipline, the residency-based program offers the opportunity to engage with the Dartington Hall estate and surrounds from the perspective of a wide range of different specialists, ranging from activists to artists to mycologists.

Dartington Arts School, England

Although climate change is not an explicit focus of the program, Alan found that if you pay careful enough attention to the place in which you’re embedded, it is difficult not to see it. Students, he found, are sometimes best placed to reconcile the different and often contradictory modes of knowing that result from these enquiries: “experts are often so immersed in their particular method, they can’t always look at how to reframe it or to put it into relationship with other practices.”Here, interdisciplinarity is an and which places teacher and student, expert and professional, on a more even playing field.

“What we need,” say Ingrid Horrocks and Laura-Jean McKay, leaders of the Eco-fictions and Non-fictions undergraduate course at Massey University of New Zealand, “are narratives capable of holding multiple threads and scales – the global as well as the everyday and the domestic.” For them, good writing, and good eco-fiction and non-fiction in particular, leads to a natural interdisciplinarity: an and that is unafraid of its own awkwardness.

Yet and can also be awkward at a practical level: not all departments of institutions are supportive of interdisciplinarity, partly because it is expensive in terms of teaching hours, it often requires different materials of facilities. Horrocks and McKay have found, ironically enough, that the subject’s disciplinary slipperiness – its deliberate lack of discipline – means that it is often regarded, from the outside, as “niche.” Constantly defending and justifying the approach can be exhausting. COVID-19 has brought additional challenges, particularly as so many of these programs build their and by focusing learning around the body, face-to-face interaction, bodily and experiential learning, and interaction with specific physical environments. The pandemic has made the need to find new ways of being, working, and thinking together more urgent and apparent than ever.

Massey University, New Zealand

And can also, Boldon points out, be intellectually and artistically disorientating: “my experience of interdisciplinarity is that you’re often thrown back to your discipline. It’s often disorientating in a quite brilliant way, you think: How did I come to know this? How did I end up with this way of working?” And, then, is a between-space which, if we can sit with the uncertainty of it long enough, becomes a journey of its own, and one that allows us to see new pathways toward and away from wherever it is that we call home.

And can also be a way of recalibrating our relationship to home once we are in it. Ian Garrett, at York University in Canada, instigated, alongside his Design for Performing Arts MFA program and related courses, a weekly seminar for people from across the institution who were interested in sustainability as it pertained to the campus environment. “I wanted to start a more immediate meta conversation about where we were all working and what systems of sustainability looked like there.” It was really well-met by people in the facilities department who became great allies. “They were interested that people were interested in what was happening on the campus and how it was managed.”

York University, Canada

Garrett’s approach, and his obvious comfort in inhabiting the and between disciplinary approaches, stems largely from his interdisciplinary career background. He trained as an architect, thinking he might design theatres before he “went too far” and moved into scenography, where he noticed that the sustainability issues that architects were discussing as a matter of course were completely absent from theatrical design theory and practice. He began to ask specific questions about the sustainability of his materials. This became the “catalyst” for a broader attempt to bring together insights and ways of working from both disciplines: “I thought back to my architectural training and started wondering whether there was an equivalent way of thinking in my theatrical design.” His program, in addition to bringing together thought on sustainability in the built environment with theatrical design, deliberately challenges the traditionally narrow focus of theatre conservatory education by using a systems approach and project-based learning to teach students that the theatre is embedded in a complex web of societal, environmental, and economic contexts:

I don’t want them to just be thinking about swinging a hammer and putting up a show; they should be asking what the theatre looks like within a broader context. I always try to bring into the pedagogy a sense of what is beyond it.

Interdisciplinarity can help not only students but educators and researchers to locate and inhabit new ands at the edges of their disciplines. Almost everyone I spoke to said that it had made them reconsider their practice and their research for the positive, and this held true not only of those leading whole programs but those teaching specific courses as well. Linda Hassell explains how her involvement with the Performing Ecologies module at Griffith University in Australia, has transformed her understanding of creativity’s relationship to climate change:

The perspectives developed through writing and building my course has changed my way of thinking about theatre making, such as voracious and unsustainable technical and production practices whereby the aesthetic is the major concern (e.g., lighting design). The course has allowed me to explore principles that can create similarly effective aesthetics that are more sustainable.

When it comes to arts and climate change in higher education, then, interdisciplinarity is an and in which we are both traveling and sitting still, reaching out and taking in. In my next three posts, I’ll examine these approaches in more detail focusing first on philosophies, second on pedagogies, and third on hope, despair, and the future. In the meantime, let us know what the and of thinking, making, and teaching the arts with climate change means to you.

(Top image: Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia)

This article is part of our series on Arts & Climate in Higher Education.

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Clare Fisher is a novelist, short story writer, and researcher based in Leeds, UK. She is the author of All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) and How the Light Gets In (2018). Her work has won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She is studying for a practice-led PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds and teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College and Queen Mary University of London. She can be found on Twitter at @claresitafisher.

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