A+E Collective on Engaging Creatively with Climate Crises

A+E Collective is a group of creatives working in design, film, food and writing, coming together to awaken people’s imaginations and investment in a better world. We caught up with them to reflect on how we can engage creatively with climate crises.

Your work tackles the most pressing and depressing issues but does so with poetry and wit? Was this a choice or just how you like to work? 

Why that’s very kind of you to say! I think one of the first decisions we made as a collective was to consciously find ways of approaching climate crises that allowed us to explore the resulting anxiety of that, while also nourishing alternative modes of consciousness that don’t get stuck in the denial or paralysis phases of grief. In the few years A+E have been together, we’ve experienced the word ‘anthropocene’ take root in popular consciousness, alongside surges in climate activism (from XR to the Fridays for Future marches), but political progress on issues of a just energy transition, food security and land struggle remain painfully slow. We’ve always wanted to foster participatory spaces for engaging these issues without claiming any authority or moral position. Performance work — whether through meditation scripts, fictional trauma response units, poetry or other forms — opens a speculative environment in which people can bring their own narratives and emotions to the issues raised. If we show a film we’ve made, we want to engage people’s responses to it. We are more about asking questions and provoking more questions and exploratory methods than we are about providing answers. There’s a sense in which the search for solutions, the idea that we could just ‘hack’ or ‘fix’ what’s going on, is just cleaving to the same thought modes of capitalist reproduction that got ‘us’ into this mess. Involving others in our work feels like a poetic gesture of address and solidarity that lets others in and keeps expanding and challenging what’s at work when we say ‘us’. When so much of being an artist or consumer under neoliberal capitalism is about that ‘I’ and its productive capacity, it feels good to speak as a collective, a ‘we’, in shared curiosity. Our first publication, But There is No Land Near the End (2018), brought together artists and writers around the world and offered an exploratory topography of ecological methods, values, ethics and aesthetics. This editorial and curatorial project, funded by Creative Scotland and launched with performances at The Art School, Glasgow, was an expansive way of figuring out where we wanted to go next. Sharing that space — in the room and in print — was so important to improvising and exchanging intimacy and ideas.

Although we come from a range of backgrounds in terms of our practice — from design to theoretical knowledge to creative writing, illustration and curatorial work — we are constantly sharing skills and holding each other’s disciplinary or practical assumptions to account. I think in general this makes for a more accessible, playful and open-ended output. One thing we noticed early on was a shared experience of climate grief and exhaustion in the face of so much burgeoning information on climate breakdown and extinction. Coming together was a way of sharing resources but also emotional support, and we realised the stories we told each other to keep going, or the absurdities that kept us laughing, were just as important as the theoretical reading we did. There’s a sense of needing to release ourselves from doom and gloom while also finding generative ways through an ongoing climate melancholia that won’t just ‘resolve’. We find poetry, humour and wit in existing ecological forms (from the weird communications of mycological networks to the resonant, lyrical and hospitable affordances of the colour blue). There’s a desire for sympoiesis, or making-with (a term we borrow from Donna Haraway), instead of just ‘extracting’ these ideas or forms from some kind of Nature over there. We’re much more interested in how they actually permeate our imaginaries and in doing so shape what futures we can speculate and demand in mutual and continuous acts of making art. Ecological thought is not just what we think but also how we think. Timothy Morton has this phrase ‘the how is the what’ which repeats throughout their work and speaks to this.  

 We often feel helpless in the face of the Climate Crisis, what simple steps do you think we can take to make a difference? 

One of the most effective ways we’ve found in dealing with our climate crisis anxieties has been talking to one another and the people around us. This talk might be on daunting or smaller topics, it could be about how we’re feeling, offering each other advice on personal challenges, or providing practical solutions to bigger logistical tasks. Finding a climate cafe group is a good way to meet people and talk through these feelings with others who are feeling the same way.

After a while, you’ll begin to see that your feelings of helplessness are not only just happening to you. There’s so many people feeling this way – and by discussing these feelings together we can first begin to improve our wellbeing, and then move onto bigger actions which are capable of improving our local environment and population. They are also a vital space for sharing experiences of difference: many of us have climate anxiety but our precarity, experience of grief and material situations are often very different. The non-hierarchical space of the cafe can help nurture a more inclusive, diverse, interconnected and radical approach to thought and action. It’s also very scalable: small groups like this all over the planet can collectively contribute in making a difference. 

But there are things you can do on your own. Each week try to make space in your calendar for down time – to just exist, without any pressures to do work or social activities. In this time it’s important to try to avoid technology, which will help to re-ground you to Earth. You could read, meditate, practice yoga, head for a wander without any particular destination, call a friend, lay down in the grass in your back garden or in the park. Try to recreate a feeling of intimacy with the more-than-human that you had as a child: walk in the rain, notice the shapes in clouds, describe all the insects you can see. We advocate keeping diaries and journals (of all kinds – hand-written, illustrated, audio recorded or in phone notes!) as a way of keeping touch with the everyday world.

On a practical level there’s so many small steps we can take to look after ourselves without being at the detriment of the planet. Everyone goes on about this, but cooking with as much wholesome, seasonal and local ingredients is one thing which can have a hugely positive impact. By eating a more plant-based diet, you’re helping to do a pretty incredible job of reducing your carbon footprint without having to sacrifice on delicious food.

Watching your digital footprint is also a very easy way of reducing your impact on the climate crisis. Anyways Creative opened my (Lucy’s) eyes to the carbon content of our online presence (website, social media accounts) and communications. A typical email for example, is responsible for 4g of CO2 emissions, and with an image attachment the carbon footprint rises to an average of 50g as it takes longer to transmit and requires extra storage. There’s a huge world of low carbon web design out there, and there are so many methods to reduce your digital footprint. But the first step you can take is to empty that old and cluttered inbox, you’ll be surprised how carbon heavy it really is! 

Individual responsibility takes the focus away from the big polluters but it’s also dangerous to think that we cannot make a difference on our own; one way of thinking about this is each and every one of us are nodes in a fractal pattern of becoming that spirals out into wider systems. 

Equally, a lot of our mental capacity for decision making tends to be spent on small ‘green’ acts which can quickly be dwarfed by one high carbon choice which we may ‘gift’ ourselves almost as a reward for all the effort choosing the ‘sustainable’ option. Instead, climate psychologists advocate using our energy to go straight for drastic, systemic change as much as possible even if it comes at the cost of the little things. This is more relevant to policy-makers and those with power but it is an insight that makes a lot of sense. 

You’re multi-tasking and multi-talented with skill bases from art and design and literature and food. Is the future multi-disciplinary? 

We would love to think it is! The multi-tasking I think comes deep down from the stage of precarity we creative people find ourselves in, especially as self-sustaining, self-started and self-driven creatures. When trying to find a space in the creative industry or art-scene, you have to adapt to so many different roles and improvise to survive, I am sure we have all experienced this within and outside the collective. I also feel like the current neoliberal work scenario is changing and distorting itself so much that it demands we are all masters of all trades — and I wonder if we are sometimes more like jack of none. 

Inside the collective we have always tried to be as horizontal and permeable as possible, to allow each of us to fill in the gaps organically. This also means that we allow ourselves to have individual pauses, to rest and take each other’s roles and tasks when some of us are unwell or need a break; we function like a family.  Like in our playful approach to everything we do, we also play amongst ourselves sometimes swapping roles, trying different things, this keeps us awake, stimulated and always learning. Although of course some of us fall naturally into specific tasks because of our personalities/star signs and nobody gets super excited answering emails (except the juicy commission ones)!

We all bring completely different experiences to the table which allows us to cover a wider range of sectors. I like to think of us as an octopus changing colour in their sleep and timidly extending their tentacles to anything that seems edible, playable, thought provoking and glittery. I think as a collective we are like one human with 4 different brains combined into one, but the “multi-talent” also grows out of encounters with a myriad of fascinating individuals we have been lucky to learn from, both within and beyond Glasgow’s art bubble. 

Where Maria might weave a long poem from collective dream fragments, Lucy can make a garden out of a cake, Finn spin a porcine yarn from tales of working abroad, Ane confect a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic short film from bacteria cells, archival footage and a borrowed camera. 

When thinking of the future of multidisciplinarity I need to think about the past first and what immediately comes to mind is the fascinating American “eco-cult disaster” Biosphere 2, created by a group of people called “The Synergists”.  Leaving aside all the ethical issues and eccentricity (which we kind of love), the synergists were scientists, architects, poets, food growers, artists, performers…. and they put all these disciplines together into incredibly ambitious projects including the construction of a boat which they use to travel the world.

Perhaps a less cultish and extravagant angle is Olafur Eliasson’s studio, which comprises a team of craftsmen, architects, archivists, researchers, administrators, cooks, programmers, art historians, and specialised technicians. His studio has more than 100 people including a Head of Encounters! Probably their ultimate goal is to work towards Eliason’s artistic vision rather than a collective one, but I think the studio space itself is a congregation of multidisciplinarity at its best. Other examples include the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a feminist, anti-colonial marine science lab which self describes as ‘[e]qual parts research space, methods incubator, and social collective’. Just as science is dominated by certain gendered, colonial and elitist norms, the worlds of art and academia often reward individual success over collective effort. 

If we take ourselves seriously as multispecies subjects, enmeshed in the ecological systems of this planet, we must work in a multi-disciplinary way to understand, respond and engage with more ethical and generous forms of coexistence. We want to read about solarity, energy futures, climate activism and the commons and more from speculative, historical, scientific, poetic and environmental perspectives. Our approach is expansive and deeply entangled and open to past and future voices.  

What’s next for A+E Collective?

We’re going through a period of reflection, thinking about how we approach projects and the best way to sustain ourselves both financially, artistically and ecologically. We’re excited to continue cultivating alternative perspectives on the climate crisis bringing diverse disciplines and topics together to create a more nuanced understanding of where we’re at. For now we have a three part sound series (more of a collage than a podcast) which will be released during COP26 in association with colleagues at the University of Glasgow and Rice University. The overarching theme is ‘energy’ and there’ll be an episode on FOOD, REST and PLAY. It looks like there’ll be loads happening over COP so stay tuned on our channels for more. We have other things in the pipeline but we’re keeping a lid on them just now. 

There’s so much we have our many senses geared towards, but to name a few things: we’d like to reflect on how to grow the collective sustainably, not only in the amount of projects we create and accept and solidifying our practice, but also looking into ways of making our work more ecologically minded in a practical way — an example of this is developing a low carbon website. Part of this might include applying for funding, which would allow us more time to work mindfully on upcoming projects and their afterlives. 

After many months of Skype life, we’re currently dreaming of a physical space where we can create and collaborate with others in-person, and foster a community around things like reading groups and cooking. A lot of our work is workshop or event-based so we’d like to explore more outcome-oriented projects such as making films, publications, maybe even an installation or exhibition — all the while strengthening the base of our research in environmental theory and ecological art practice. In general, we’d love to educate ourselves to make our work more accessible, and reach a more diverse community in terms of age, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, neurodiversity, disability and class backgrounds. This could go hand-in-hand with expanding our practice beyond the art world and coordinating with different institutions.