Artists all over the world are reacting to the climate crisis with acts of creation, and Ruthie Collins finds that Cambridge is part of the movement
“Facing up to the ecological crisis – it’s really hard, emotional and frightening. But people react to art, they can have an emotional reaction more to art than to the concept of it all – or just the science.” Community artist Hilary Cox is talking about the wave of environmental art activism that has increased exponentially since the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its report on climate change last October. “The act of creating something useful and being part of change is good for us,” she continues.
Crisis at this level, with stark warnings of potential extinction of life issued by thousands of scientists, is an almost impossible concept to grasp for many. It’s tempting to wish it would all just go away. But it won’t. A rallying cry comes from Extinction Rebellion Cambridge, which attracts people-turned-activists from all kinds of backgrounds across the city. Art: just one of the creative tools for activism. “People are so full of ideas and creativity – with a little facilitation they really blossom,” Hilary says. “Across the world this movement is creating resources, sharing and supporting. It’s a collaborative way of working, about being the change.”
Whatever your age, there are plenty of ways you can get involved and help to make a difference, from guerrilla gardening to helping with stalls and festivals, and a regular working art group is held at Cambridge Artworks on Victoria Road. Support has also been offered by Cambridge Junction to create banners, as well as by Kettle’s Yard, which has started to offer artist workshops with Hilary in environmental art activism for young people.
“Making a banner one morning, then seeing it on the front page of The Guardian – you know those messages are getting out there. This is a different way of getting headlines,” says Hilary, who also led an artist talk at Kettle’s Yard on environmental art activism earlier this year. “It’s about finding different ways of sending out a message, bringing people together to create solutions, new ways of doing things.”
The act of being part of change is good for us
The local group is also helping a Cambridge wing of the Red Brigade, which brought carnivalesque street theatre, with participants all dressed in red, to Extinction Rebellion’s two-week shutdown of London in March, described as “a slow motion Buto meets Venice Carnival-style procession aiming to create beautiful disruption using the architecture of the streets to create powerful and arresting imagery.”
It was after the second world war that the environmental movement became politicised by writers. Rachel Carson’s pioneering book Silent Spring, published in 1962, became a New York Times bestseller, raising awareness of the impact of pesticides. One of the pioneers of the environmental movement, her work fused science and ecology, highlighting the interconnectedness of man with the planet. “In nature nothing exists alone,” she wrote.
The merging of art and science in today’s environmental art activism is particularly incendiary in Cambridge, historically home to so many world-famous scientists and radical thinkers.
“The city is full of artivists and interesting people and the group is really open. People come along to the working art group and say they haven’t made anything since school. But they get stuck in,” says Hilary.
Environmental art can be about embracing sustainability and using creativity as a means to connect with nature – important in an age defined by mass extinction and separation. Clare Crossman, nature writer, runs Nature Writing in the City, creative writing workshops at Othersyde. Loukas Morley, once a judge for the Anglia Ruskin Sustainability Art Prize, has a workshop full of seedling trees, and uses found objects and reclaimed materials in his practice. “It’s really about saying to yourself, when looking at the planet – would I treat my mother like this?” he says. Cherishing nature is as important as protesting, with concepts of renewal and rewilding all key.
It’s not just Extinction Rebellion Cambridge using art to raise awareness. Last March, Cambridge Carbon Zero Society took over King’s College to push for the University divesting of fossil fuels. Using stencils, they spray-painted the walls of the college – the bright colours echoing the peacefulness of their protest. This year, a motion was passed for Cambridge University to cost out all advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuels; a positive shift.
“Making art can help strengthen a cause,” says Hilary. “It’s a regenerative process.” As pioneering activist Vandana Shiva said: “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder… the planet is carrying you.”
For more on Extinction Rebellion Cambridge visit facebook.com/groups/xrcambridge or email Hilary Cox on mshilaryc@gmail.