#ArtUnlocks Climate Action

Writer Chris Sharratt explores creative projects that focus on climate action, and tells us more about how artists and art organisations are taking imaginative and creative action around climate change.

From Scotland’s urban centres to its rural Highlands, artists and art organisations are taking imaginative, creative action on climate change. With the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Glasgow from 31 October – 12 November, there’s a growing feeling of momentum and purpose. There are projects around peatland restoration and land rights, biodiversity and the reduction of waste, climate colonialism and the importance of Scotland’s little-known rainforest. As art unlocks, artists are offering ideas and leadership for the urgent task ahead.

A large number of the small woodlands that make up Scotland’s environmentally important rainforest can be found in Argyll, also home to the international artists’ residency centre, Cove Park. To coincide with COP26, Cove Park is producing a year-long programme of commissions and activities as part of Creative Carbon Scotland’s Climate Beacons initiative, which supports collaboration between the arts and environmental organisations. Working in partnership with Argyll and the Isles Coast & Countryside Trust (ACT), Cove Park CEO Francesca Bertolotti-Bailey explains that the project’s focus is on the “protection, conservation, regeneration and biodiversity of the native rainforest of Scotland”.

Planned events include a ‘Climate Cafe’ to be hosted every six weeks, featuring artists from different disciplines in conversation with environmentalists, biologists, botanists and ecologists. There’ll be organised walks too, taking participants through Argyll’s beautiful woodlands, plus two artists’ residencies, one of which will involve making a film to be shown locally and also online. Bertolotti-Bailey says that throughout the year of activity there will be a strong emphasis on working with local primary and secondary schools: “It’s a bit of a crazy, super ambitious menu of activities.”

Bertolotti-Bailey explains that what she calls “climate chaos” is now Cove Park’s main focus, driving decisions in relation to the artists it works with and the projects it commissions. It recently became a member of the Green Art Lab Alliance and other current projects include a British Council-supported collaboration between Scotland and Ghana that will create an eco-sustainable ‘open landscape classroom’ for its 50-acre site. “The environmental crisis will become a permanent pivot for all the activities at Cove Park,” she says. “The next three years will be a period of enquiry, as we develop a sense of what we can do to progress the thinking and practice around this most pressing problem for humankind. That’s not light touch, that’s serious – it’s the real deal.”

Cove Park is creating one of seven Climate Beacons’ projects across Scotland. Another involves two venues in the Highlands – Timespan in Helmsdale and Lyth Arts Centre – who are working with the University of the Highlands and Islands Environmental Research Institute. The collaboration has a strong focus on peatland restoration – 20% of Scotland is peatland, much of which can be found locally in what is known as the Flow Country in Sutherland county. Peatlands are vast natural carbon sinks, but over 80% of Scotland’s are in need of restoration. Last year, the Scottish Government launched a 10-year, £250m programme to restore these precious natural habitats.

Co-programmed activities themed around climate issues will include drive-in movies on Helmsdale’s Highland Games field and a radio podcast that will feature discussions between local people and climate activists from around the world. Central to Timespan’s contribution will be a specially commissioned Immigration Policy for the Highlands, which will address issues of climate colonialism, land redistribution and reparations. Timespan director Sadie Young stresses that this is not a conceptual project – the intention is for it to be something that can be taken on by activist groups, with the ultimate aim of it becoming law. “We’re currently in discussion with leading immigration and Scots land law barristers and lawyers, as well as activists in Guyana and Jamaica,” explains Young. “One of Timespan’s guiding principles is that we have to have actionable things. So this immigration policy has to have a material benefit in the real world.”

Helmsdale has a population of just 800 and is perhaps best known historically as a Highlands Clearances village. Young describes Timespan as “like a community hub – we know everyone locally”. She adds: “Everything is rooted locally. Every single thing we do comes from the culture in Helmsdale, but it’s always understood within a global context.” Land ownership and issues around re-wilding projects are other major areas of concern to be addressed in the arts programme. A radical agenda? Young disagrees: “What we do is common sense and necessary.”

The same could be said about another climate-conscious art project with its base some 200 miles south west in Glasgow. The Circular Arts Network (CAN) is billed as a ‘circular economy tool for the arts’. It was launched with the aim of creating a framework for sharing resources and materials, with a strong emphasis on reuse and upcycling. Formed last year by the Sculpture Placement Group, which works to prolong the life-span and engagement with sculptures, Glasgow-based artist and co-founder Kate V Robertson explains how CAN opens up an existing culture of sharing and reuse to a much wider community. “There is a lot of sharing and good practice that happens already between artists, but it’s within informal networks,” she says. “We really wanted to make that more permeable, so it’s not dependent on what studio complex you’re in or if you know people or not.”

Robertson talks of CAN being like “a Gumtree for the arts”. Users register and can then either give spare or unneeded resources or get things they might need, either for free or at a greatly reduced price. “As an artist, this is something that I’ve wanted to exist for years – just a quick go-to place where you can say, ‘Does anyone have this?’, or ‘Would anyone like this?’. As an individual practitioner I wasn’t in a position to set it up, but as the practice of Sculpture Placement Group evolved and sustainability was coming to the fore, we though that perhaps it was part of our remit to drive this forward.”

CAN has teamed up with a number of construction firms who regularly donate spare building materials, enabling the reuse of items that might otherwise have been thrown away or recycled. Crucially, although conceived as an arts network, it can be used by anyone able to make good use of the resources on offer. “We’ve had materials taken for community gardens and things like that, and we’re encouraging people like teachers to access it for materials they might want to use in school. It doesn’t matter that they’re not artists. The point is that it’s a framework for people to use as they need and as they want. Really, the more the merrier.”

Robertson’s attitude is typical of the approach of artists and others involved in the visual arts. Just as the problem of global warming touches everyone, contemporary artists are working with local and international communities to create a positive impact through art.