What is performance art?
Performance art is a creative and expressive form of live art, which involves artists and other individuals using their bodies, actions, and narratives. Participatory performance art actively engages individuals in a shared creative experience, making it a powerful tool for community building. In the context of environmental and climate issues, performance art can convey messages, evoke emotions, and inspire change. More specifically, it can:
- Raise awareness
- Foster critical thinking and emotional connection
- Actively engage participants, communities, and audiences
- Spark discussion
- Provoke action in response to climate change and its various impacts
Key characteristics of performance art for climate change include site-specificity (designed for a specific location), interactivity, and the emergence of meaning during and after the event.
The history of performance art in the climate crisis
Climate change performance art began to gain prominence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as the global awareness of climate change and its environmental impacts grew. Amongst the early practitioners were Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison. Often referred to as the “Harrisons”, this artist duo was at the forefront of ecological art for decades. Their work, dating back to the 1970s, includes large-scale art installations and performances that address ecological challenges, including climate change. Two other artists are Joan Jonas, who’s pioneering contributions at the intersection of art and environmental issues laid the groundwork for climate change performance art, and Mel Chin, who addresses issues at the intersection of social and ecological challenges through innovative projects like Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project and a two-part mixed reality art installation in New York’s Times Square.
While sometimes activist in nature, the impact of participatory performance art stems from the emotional connections they foster as much as their implicit, and sometimes explicit, call to action. These works challenge conventional thinking and offer alternative perspectives on the climate crisis, emerging from diverse cultural viewpoints. Their educational value includes simplifying and making climate science more accessible, while also inspiring creative ways of thinking about and addressing climate change. With the ability to engage emotions and feelings, performance art can be a powerful way to deal with the trauma associated with the climate change crisis.
Recent examples of performance art include:
- First performed in 2007, in New York City, Eve Mosher’s High Water Line involved the artist using blue chalk and a stencil to mark the projected high-water line across the city to visually convey the potential impacts of sea-level rise, engaging communities in a thought-provoking dialogue about climate change’s local consequences.
- Daniel Crawford’s A Song of Our Warming Planet is a ground-breaking musical composition, first created in 2013, that translated climate data into a poignant piece for cello and piano. Each note in the composition represents a specific year’s global temperature, creating a compelling and emotionally resonant narrative of the increasing temperatures over time.
- Ludovico Einaudi’s Elegy for the Arctic took place in 2016. Playing his grand piano on a floating platform in the Arctic Ocean, Einaudi used his music to draw attention to the urgency of climate change and the melting polar ice, offering a visually stunning and haunting audio tribute to the endangered environment.
- Tanya Tagaq’s Nacreous is a spellbinding performance that fuses traditional Inuit throat singing with modern experimental music. This evocative work, created in 2018, not only explores the deep connections between Inuit culture and the environment but also serves as a response to the pressing issue of climate change in the Arctic, where rising temperatures are drastically altering the landscape and traditional ways of life.
- Erika Zambello’s Tempestry Project is a participatory performance project that blends climate data, fiber art, and community engagement. This ongoing initiative, started in 2017, invites individuals to create textile pieces that visually represent temperature data, fostering a sense of environmental awareness while highlighting the local impact of climate change.
A case study of climate change performance art
In the winter of 2021, the Chicago-based Walkabout Theater Company invited me to create a new participatory work as part of their interWEBS_ project. interWEBS_ is described as a series of intimate and remote collaborations from thematic seeds of land, storytelling, and social transformation. It was through this invitation that I created the first iteration of Letters to the Ice when I invited people from around the world to engage directly with the grim reality that global ice loss is currently catching up to the worst-case scenario predictions.
What are the climate mental health impacts to youth in the Eastern Canadian Arctic?
Climate change is significantly affecting the mental health of youth living in the North. Research conducted in Nunatsiavut shows that while climate change has broad-reaching effects on mental health, these impacts are not evenly distributed. Communities and individuals most vulnerable to the mental health consequences of climate change include Indigenous peoples of the circumpolar regions, who face heightened exposure to climate-related risks and disruption in traditional knowledge systems, and whose overall well-being is deeply intertwined with the environment. As a result, an increasing number of young people, including those in Iqaluit, Nunavut, are grappling with eco-anxiety, feelings of loss and grief, and uncertainty about the future.
Addressing the mental health impacts of climate change on youth necessitates a multifaceted approach:
- Providing culturally appropriate mental health support and resources
- Nurturing resilience and coping skills
- Promoting eco-friendly behaviours and sustainable practices
- Actively involving youth in climate action
- Recognizing and validating their concerns and emotions
Participating in climate change performance art projects is one way to empower youth and complement traditional mental health support. Engaging with these types of projects can have therapeutic components in the broadest sense, offering individuals a constructive outlet to tolerate and modulate the troubling emotions and distress that arise when confronting the changes to our environment. Participation can equally foster a sense of agency and community engagement. Participatory performance art is inherently about public communication and collective experience, which distinguishes it from personalized therapy. Thus, its therapeutic components must be seen in the context of social and environmental justice.
Over the past four decades, the Arctic has warmed at four times the global average rate. These warmer temperatures are disrupting traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering practices, making it increasingly difficult to access country food sources and maintain Inuit culture. Alongside the growing instability of ice coverage, shifting wildlife migration patterns, upon which Indigenous communities rely for sustenance, are contributing to heightened food insecurity and safety concerns during land/ice-based activities. These disruptions are eroding traditional knowledge and practices passed down through generations, including insights into seasonal weather patterns, animal behaviours, and safe travel routes. The consequences include a loss of traditional ways of life, the stress of adapting to changing conditions, and the looming threat of displacement, all of which are profoundly impacting the physical and mental health of Nunavummiut (residents of Nunavut) and other Arctic residents.
Addressing the disproportionate impacts on Inuit and other Northerners involves:
- Supporting adaptation strategies
- Preserving traditional knowledge
- Allocating resources for technological innovations and sustainable practices
- Increasing access to physical and mental health support services
- Actively engaging Indigenous voices, including Elders and youth, in shaping climate policies and decisions
Performance art about climate change has been used as a powerful took to engage community voices in decision-making processes. Through performance art and other interactive events, community members have shared their concerns, perspectives, and ideas related to local, regional, or global decision making, communicating not only the urgency of climate issues, but also mobilizing people to become active participants in shaping environmental policies. One example is the Climate Change Theatre Action initiative, which brings together performers to create and perform short works addressing climate change. Following each performance, audience members and participants engage in dialogues about the themes presented; many of these discussions have led to local initiatives, environmental advocacy, and policy recommendations.
Case study: Letters to the Ice, Iqaluit 2023
As an Arctic resident, it was important to me to bring this work to my local community in Nunavut. To achieve this, I collaborated with a group of Iqaluit high school students and their teachers Samantha Abbott and Cheryl O’Keefe, including Kaniq Allerton, Denise Campbell, Sean Caza, Tinuoluwa Egbuna, Angel Egeni, Amsden Faulks, Maren Hayward, Morgan Abel Plunkett, Wasi Abdur Rahman, and other Inuksuk High School students who preferred to remain anonymous. The project spanned nearly four months and involved discussions about the significance of performance art addressing climate change, as well as the importance of letter writing.
I suggest that the act of writing and reading personalized letters to the ice is significant not only due to the intimacy and authenticity of voices within these letters, but also because they underscore the agency of individuals and the strength of collective action in addressing the climate crisis. Furthermore, this activity invites us to imagine the ice as sentient, capable of receiving and bearing witness to the messages contained within the letters.
Working within the majority-Inuit city of Iqaluit, I considered it appropriate to ground the project within Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, the traditional knowledge and societal values that guide all aspects of social relations and practices. This approach led me to incorporate Inuit Elders observations about climate change as gathered during a 2001 conference.
During one of preparatory sessions, I invited the students to engage with a set of questions designed to explore their perspectives on climate change’s impact on the North:
- How do you think climate change will impact the North?
- How does ice – or melting ice – impact your life?
- Ice (see, hear, taste, smell, feel) * descriptive language*
- How does climate change make you feel?
- What do you want to change? Why?
- I’m sorry ice for ________________.
- Who would you like your letter to be read by?
- How does performance art help fight climate change?
There was no specific order as the students moved between tables where these questions were displayed on large sheets of paper. They frequently engaged in small groups discussions, sharing their thoughts and responses as they navigated through the questions.
After the students completed their letters, we made a collective decision regarding the ideal location for reading the letters to the ice. These recitations were recorded on-site at the ice edge within Rotary Park. We now have a collection of 13 audio-video capsules, along with the letters from students who chose not to read their letters aloud, all of which are available here: https://devoraneumark.com/works/letters-to-ice-2023/.
What are the impacts of Letters to the Ice?
The Inuksuk High School participants in Letters to the Ice had a wide range of responses to the question, “What do you want to change? Why?”. Some of the students mentioned wanting peoples’ feelings, attitudes, and behaviours to change, while others identified advancements in policy and the need to reduce pollution and plastics in the Arctic. Some students included responses to “How does climate change make you feel?” in their letters, which speak to the grief and sadness that many of the students expressed, but also to their hope and resolve to be engaged.
“Dear Ice, I still don’t know how to look at my life without seeing an inescapable absence of you.”Sorry from Sienna Dyer Dunphy
“Dear Ice, “I would like to apologise for how long it has taken me to realise these problems. For the majority of my life, I had no idea what was happening to you. I wish to change my ways of ignoring you to helping out. I know it is way easier to just pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does matter and does affect our world. I hope at least some people understand and change their ways. It is never too late to help.”Grade 9 student
In response to the question about the contribution of performance art the fight against climate change (they had not yet completed their letters to the ice at this time), the students’ answers included:
- It shows climate change in a different way.
- To demonstrate the impacts and just how much is changing.
- It helps by bringing awareness to the problem and helps people visualize the impact.
When asked about their desired audience for their letters, participants expressed a range of preferences, including “anyone” “everyone” and “people who are interested”. Some aimed for a more political audience, mentioning individuals such as the Iqaluit mayor, the Prime Minister of Canada, and President Biden. Others mentioned scientists and policy makers, as well as people who may not yet be fully aware of climate change or believe it to be hoax.
Within the Inuksuk High School setting, Letters had several notable effects:
- The inclusive collaborative approach ensured that all the students could participate in the creative process, regardless of their prior knowledge or experience.
- Collaborative fostered a sense of common purpose, created shared memories, and nurtured a connection within the group and with the Arctic environment.
- For some, this experience marked their first live video recording. Creating the project together offered students a sense of agency and accomplishment that could extend beyond this artistic process into other aspects of their lives.
- The integration of traditional Inuit knowledge about the environment and climate change served cultural transmission by passing on valuable insights to others.
- The students felt a sense of pride in expressing their identity and contributing to the larger youth movement advocating for climate change awareness and action.
What else might we need to know about climate change performance art with youth?
According to a 2021 article by Caroline Hickman, Elizabeth Marks, and their colleagues: “Climate anxiety and dissatisfaction with government responses are widespread in children and young people in countries across the world and impact their daily functioning. A perceived failure by governments to respond to the climate crisis is associated with increased distress.” It was especially heartening therefore to learn that a judge in Montana ruled that young people in the state have a constitutional right to a healthful environment, finding in a landmark case that the state’s failure to consider climate change when evaluating new projects was causing harm.
If we are to be successful in co-creating meaningful climate change performance art with youth, we therefore need to enhance the potential for significant, tangible, and measurable impacts to emerge from the projects and need to consider the following factors:
- Youth participation: Actively involving youth in the planning, development, and implementation of the performance artwork. Ensure that their voices are heard and that their ideas shape the project’s design. Create a safe and inclusive space – over time if possible – for youth to express their concerns, ideas, and creativity.
- Relevance and local context: Tailor the project to the specific climate change challenges and environmental issues in the local community. Ensure that the content, themes, and performance methodologies resonate with the experiences and concerns of the young people.
- Interdisciplinary approach: Encourage the integration of various disciplines such as performance and other art forms, science, education, community organizing, and mental health. This approach can provide a holistic perspective on climate change and offer a well-rounded and sense-making experience for youth.
- Mentorship and guidance: Provide mentorship from experienced performance artists, scientists, and community leaders – including local Indigenous Elders – who can guide and support the youth throughout the project. Their expertise, culturally-relevant knowledge, and emotional support can enhance the quality of the art, ensure the accuracy of the climate science, and promote mental health.
- Community impact: Consider the broader impact of the project on the community. How will the performance art project raise awareness, inspire action, and engage the public? Plan for post-performance discussions, workshops, or other initiatives that encourage further dialogue and community involvement in addressing climate change at the local, regional, and global levels.
Articles and Online Sources
Elder’s Conference on Climate Change: Final Report, published by Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated on March 21, 2001.
The Arctic Is Becoming Wetter and Stormier, Scientists Warn, published in The New York Times on December 13, 2022, by Raymond Zhong.
A Song of Our Warming Planet, is Daniel Crawford’s original musical composition, first created in 2013, that translated climate data into a poignant piece for cello and piano. The work continues to evolve with the changing climate.
Climate Change Theater Action, is a worldwide initiative utilizing the performing arts to amplify crucial messages about climate change and motivate positive change.
Elegy for the Arctic, was inspired by voices from around the world calling for Arctic protection. The Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, carried Ludovico Einaudi and a grand piano to Svalbard, Norway, where he performed his composition in front of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier.
High Water Line, Eve Mosher’s work involved using blue chalk and a stencil to mark the projected high-water line across New York City to visually convey the potential impacts of sea-level rise. She has since enacted this performance in other places around the world.
interWEBS_, produced by the Walkabout Theater Company, presents a blend of performance and technology that explores the interplay between virtual and physical worlds in the context of climate change and social engagement.
Joan Jonas, stands as a pioneering artist whose ground-breaking work addresses climate change, employing her innovative artistry to provoke dialogue and awareness regarding the pressing environmental challenges of our time.
Letters to the Ice, commissioned by Chicago’s Walkabout Theater Company, Devora Neumark solicited letters from around the world addressing the state of the rapidly deteriorated state of the cryosphere. If you would like to submit a letter to ice to be included in this project, please email: email@example.com.
Letters to the Ice, Iqaluit, is a collaborative project initiated by Devora Neumark with the participation of Inuksuk High School Students in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
Mel Chin, is a visionary artist renowned for his impactful work addressing climate change, using his creative talents to draw attention to environmental issues and promote sustainable solutions.
Nacreous, by Tanya Tagaq weaves together music, storytelling, and visual art to evoke the urgency of environmental preservation and Inuit wisdom in the face of climate change.
Tempestry Project, engages communities in a unique participatory performance. Erika Zambello invites individuals to create knitted and crocheted art pieces that visually represent local climate data.
The Harrison Studio, as prominent figures in the eco-art movement, the collaborative duo Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison dedicated nearly four decades to partnering with biologists, ecologists, architects, urban planners, and fellow artists to foster cooperative conversations aimed at discovering concepts and remedies that promote biodiversity and community growth.
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Burke, M., Ockwell, D., & Whitmarsh, L. (2018). Participatory arts and affective engagement with climate change: The missing link in achieving climate compatible behaviour change? Global Environmental Change, 49, 95–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2018.02.007
Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, E., Mayall, E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., & van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), e863-e873. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3
Middleton, J., Cunsolo, A., Pollock, N., Jones-Bitton, A., Wood, M., Shiwak, I., Flowers, C., & Harper, S. L. (2021). Temperature and place associations with Inuit mental health in the context of climate change. Environmental research, 198, 111166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2021.111166
November 13, 2023
Author: Devora Neumark, Ph.D.
Editor: Colleen Rollins, Ph.D.