February is the National Arts Month, an annual celebration mandated by Presidential Proclamation No. 683 (s. 1991) that aims to promote Filipino artistry and harness the arts as a catalyst for nation-building. 

 

To join this national observance and for this month’s #RealiTalk feature, we talked to Filipino Climate Reality Leader, poet, and writer Padmapani “Padma” Perez on the critical role of artists in the growing transdisciplinary effort to advance climate action.

Getting people to grasp the enormity of the climate crisis has proved a challenge for scientists. How can artists contribute to the growing interdisciplinary collaboration on advancing climate action, especially in the time of pandemic?

 

Padma: When people all over the world went into lockdown in early 2020, tweets and memes erupted on the internet reminding everyone (or at least everyone on social media) that it was the work of artists keeping us sane and giving us comfort during the pandemic. The music we danced or sang or cried to, the books we read, the movies we loved and talked about, the photographs that showed us we weren’t alone in this—each of these is a result of someone’s creative labor. The meme made clear that art is part of everyone’s lives.

Artists have the ability to draw our attention to things that matter through words, music, dance, theater, paintings, photographs, sculpture, installations, and more. They have the ability to take something we think we know and turn it on its head so that we are surprised or provoked by their creations. Artists can make us feel seen, recognized, and valued. They have the power to move people, to move our feelings and our thoughts. This is nothing short of magical.

 It’s this ability to focus people’s attention, draw people in, and touch the wellspring of emotion that artists can bring to climate action. Pandemic or not, artists can make powerful works of art that will matter to someone, move across borders, and inspire people to get involved and take action.

What art forms are the most effective tools to help change people’s mindsets and shift culture toward sustainability? How can the government, academe, and private business sector harness these art forms to advance their climate advocacies? 

 

Padma: I want to flip the question around and ask, what are the tools that government, academe, and businesses can provide for artists to do the work of shifting perspectives and making change from the ground up? What do they have to offer that artists can harness to advance climate advocacies? Can the government open up entry points for creative engagement? As the Poet Luisa Igloria says, “We need to visualize change before we can act on it.”

More than providing establishments with a set of tools, art is itself a way to engage with and reimagine government, academe, and the private business sector. Art’s role in climate advocacy goes beyond being a tool for the creative communication of science and policy. Through making and rearranging things or playing with materials, artists give us other ways to experience and revivify our relationships with one another, with our environments, and other species. Art can also make it possible for people of different backgrounds, ages, and cultures to support one another in a shared cause, even across distance and without meeting face to face. 

Apart from giving us discovery, delight, and new perspectives, art can also challenge, perplex, and rattle us. Art cannot be merely entertaining, decorative, or pretty. Maybe this is what we need to snap us out of complacency and business as usual. Science has already established that business as usual is unsustainable, but real systemic change is moving too slowly. So perhaps we need to be disturbed. And where a superstorm might jolt us out of our false comforts with destruction, art can stir us into action through creation. This is where artists and poets come in.

While the pandemic continues to limit our movement, there are still so many possibilities for engagement between artists, scientists, organizations, academe, governments, businesses, and most importantly, local communities and individuals stuck at home: radio (or podcast) dramas, photostories, flip top, spoken word, public art, illustration, comics, zines, animation and other exciting things that creative people can surely dream up together.

"It’s this ability to focus people’s attention, draw people in, and touch the wellspring of emotion that artists can bring to climate action."
PADMA PEREZ

What are the opportunities and difficulties you’ve encountered bringing together writers, artists, activists, educators, to co-create and collaborate for climate action?

 

Padma: Creative collaboration is easy to say, but harder to do. At the Agam Agenda, part of our work is to open up spaces for transdisciplinary collaboration between the sciences, arts, and humanities. To do this, we ourselves have to unlearn habits of mind around territoriality (in areas of work), ownership (of concepts and processes), and competition (for resources and audiences). We ask people to come out of their comfort zones and work in contexts and with people that they might not otherwise encounter or even consider reaching out to. This is not a small thing to ask because we’re all up against old structures and boundaries. 

For example, in academe, scientists and scholars are expected to maintain disciplinary boundaries. We’re all still learning how to be interdisciplinary and there are a lot of walls that need to be broken down in the process. Going back to the question on art and tools, maybe art is the sledgehammer that will break these walls down and then bring forth a new architecture for collaborative and mutualistic futures?

Another challenge we face is how the climate change conversation is dominated by colonial paradigms of “development” and sustainability. We can see how this is so detrimental in excluding or not paying enough attention to the experiences of those most vulnerable to climate-related impacts, resulting directly in un/conscious biases, lack of access, injustices in reform or solutions, etc. Often, the places in which climate change is a matter of life and death become invisible. This is partly why the Agam Agenda’s forthcoming book, Harvest Moon: Poems and Stories from the Edge of the Climate Crisis, sought to bring together poems, stories, and lyrical essays from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America, written by poets, journalists, scientists, and novelists who bear witness to climate change.

Following the success of the book Agam: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change, the Agam Agenda is now developing a new international literary anthology on climate change. Can you tell us what to expect from this new book?

 

Padma: Harvest Moon (out later in 2021) is an anthology of 30 climate narratives (poetry, fiction, and essays) written in nine world languages, prompted by 30 black and white photographs, from 24 countries. Most of the pieces are written in English or Spanish but the book also includes poems and stories originally written in Zapoteca, Kankanaey, Swahili, Bahasa Indonesia, Turkish, French, and Chinese. These are all translated into English.

"Art's role in climate advocacy goes beyond being a tool for the creative communication of science and policy."
PADMA PEREZ

Our contributors include Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Yuvan Aves, Leonardo Padura, Irma Pineda, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, and Malebo Sephodi. (Try googling them! They’re incredible!) So readers can expect to find a diversity of world views, imagery, and possible futures in the pages of the book.

 

We speak to many of the contributors of both Agam: Filipino Narratives and Harvest Moon on Agam the Climate Podcast, which we produce in collaboration with Ground Bravo studios. You can follow the podcast on Spotify. In the podcast, we talk about the piece they contributed to the book, their work, and their reflections on the roles of artists in facing the climate crisis. While we get ready to launch Harvest Moon, we are busily spreading our spores, chasing wild ideas, and organizing sessions that bring into conversation scientists, writers, artists, activists, and educators for climate action. Abangan!