February 11, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.