Reflections in Oil and Water (Part 2)

Alan Read introduces PLATFORM’s James Marriott and Mel Evans

So here I am, weeks after the fact, finally finding the headspace to reflect on the discussions at our final network meeting in May. (See my previous ‘Part 1’ posting for commentary on performances that weekend.) To be fair, there was a lot to absorb those two days, and it took a lot of mental unpacking — but here are some reflections that also take in, en passant,  certain thoughts and experiences that have occurred since.

1. Local Power

The opposition of local/global  is one that plagues discussions of environment/ecology. It was also the driving construct behind this network project in this first place: i.e. the thought that we might somehow use the specifics of particular localities (sites) as a means of ‘reflecting’ on global questions of environmental change. At our first two meetings, I think, we struggled at times to get our heads around this task: it’s one thing to look at what’s immediately around us, and even to make performances within it, but quite another to meaningfully connect that with some abstracted ‘bigger picture’. At Cove Park, of course, the presence of nuclear submarines in the waters around us clearly had a ‘global’ dimension. Yet few us knew what to ‘do’ with that information, perhaps not least because the Cold War-era provenance of such weapons systems makes them feel (dangerously) obsolescent rather than intrinsically related to current questions about environmental and climatic change (nuclear power, after all, is now considered by some as part of the solution!).

In London, however, the sense of local and global being intrinsically inter-connected became much more palpably apparent. As Doreen Massey writes, with profound simplicity, in World City:

“Actions in one place affect other places. Places are not only the recipients of the effects of global forces, they are – in such places as London most certainly – the origin and propagator of them too, and this raises the question of responsibility, and specifically a responsibility beyond place. . . . [Thus we] need to build a ‘local’ politics that thinks beyond the local. What is developed here is an argument against localism but for a politics of place.” (p.15)

Too often, I think, site-specific performances function as a kind of ‘localism’ in the sense Doreen uses it here: parochially self-enclosed, and with little sense of a bigger picture. In this respect, the walking performance led by PLATFORM around the City of London provided a powerful counter-example: we were looking at local places, particularities of street layout and architecture, while listening periodically to a story about BP’s impacts in the Gulf of Mexico… PLATFORM’s subsequent discussion at Kings College, around the “Carbon Web”, further underlined this connectivity — as they mapped out the way that BP and Shell have tendrils reaching into every branch of the (London-based) British establishment (government, judiciary, media, cultural organisations, etc.) …. Doreen Massey’s subsequent reflections on PLATFORM’s presentations, and on her own research into London as world city, also contributed powerfully a sense of the immediate locality around us in London being the seat and nexus of corporate and institutional power vectors that really do stretch around the world. We can’t cop out and pretend that London simply ‘reflects’ these global dynamics: things said and done in London actively shape these dynamics (through performativity as much as material decisions – statements of confidence in credit ratings, etc.). Or put another way, those dynamics do not exist in some abstract, disembodied state regardless of individual or collective human intervention… As Doreen reminded us repeatedly (and we need to keep being reminded), the global ‘market’ is too often treated as a set of untouchable natural laws rather than a human invention which can be regulated and modified if we want it to be.

Who is ‘we’? That’s the crucial question, of course, because even when we appreciate that the local is productive of the global, it’s still tempting to assume that such productivity is somehow the property of somebody else. ‘Them’, not ‘us’. And to some extent, it must be said, we fell into that habit during our London meeting – of regarding the power-holders as being, well OK, proximate to us physically, but still another species of person. It would be easy enough (if not really fair on PLATFORM) to draw such an interpretation from our walk around the City: ‘who are all those people inside those glass skyscrapers?’  Similarly, one could misread it into Doreen’s discussion of the things she loves about London – of London as a very progressive city, socially speaking. There is her/our London (the London of multicultural diversity) and there is ‘their’ London (the London of multinational capitalism), and it’s all too tempting to see these as somehow being layered over each other but still quite separate – like different plateaus or ‘planes of consistency’.

It must be said that this sense of separateness is one that the barons of the City are themselves doing their utmost to entrench. In World City, Doreen deftly analyses the financial sector’s performative endeavours to paint themselves as a special case, the economy’s ‘golden goose’, and thus as an exception to the normal rules ‘on the ground’ — arguments that our politicians have for too long been entirely willing to embrace (just as they have, we are reminded this week, been entirely too willing to embrace certain media powers such as the Murdoch empire). I was struck forcefully by this, a couple of weeks after the Kings College event, when I was back in London for a round of REF panel meetings that were held out in Docklands, at a corporate conference venue at South Quays. Looking out from the cafeteria terrace, all I could see was water (the old docks), blue sky, and glass… the interchangeable glass boxes housing financial corporations that have sprung up on all sides of this liquid space. Straight ahead of me was the new Fitch building – so much bigger and more uncompromising than the company’s former home, the relatively human-scale location we had visited on the PLATFORM walk… The whole area felt like it was trying to rebuild itself as some entirely non-local non-place, supremely without identifying characteristics, a great glass mother-ship of Kapital, descended from above onto East London… ‘We are not you! We are other, and your mortal rules do not apply…’

And yet… What was I doing there myself? I was there to help determine assessment criteria for the Research Excellence Framework. To many in academia, that exercise feels like an imposition by ‘them’ on ‘us’. Of course, as a panellist, I don’t see myself as ‘them’: I’m helping to represent ‘us’ in a peer review process. But no doubt to some, I am complicit in a suspect process – I have become one of them. My point being that none of us ever thinks about ourselves as one of them. The other week I attended a seminar on ‘ethics in banking’ organised by the ethics specialists at Leeds University, which was led by two bankers in pin-striped trousers. Very nice men, it seemed – very approachable, very frank about their sector’s shortcomings – and very clear that people working in the financial sector don’t regard themselves as villains or gangsters, but as honest folk making an honest living. Yes, the financial rewards may have skewed their frames of judgement, but to some extent isn’ t that true of us all? The most striking element of the analysis at that seminar was in fact that banks tend to have so many different layers of corporate governance that one committee will simply pass on a crucial decision to another committee, and so on. So when the bubble burst in 2008, it was at least partly because nobody was taking responsibility for – well – taking responsibility.

I’m digressing slightly, but I may also have found my way back to Doreen:

“Conceptually, it is important to realise that the global is as much locally produced as vice versa, that an imaginary of big binaries of us and them (often aligned with local and global) is both politically disabling and exonerating of our own (and our own local place’s) implication, and that the very fact of specificity (that places vary) both opens up the space for debate and enjoins us to invent.” (World City, p.10)

Places vary. Sites are specific. But that variation and specificity is also about how we choose to do our looking. (In what ways do we choose to exonerate ourselves before we open our eyes in the morning?) The striking contrast in tone between the two walks we did that weekend in London (PLATFORM’s large-scale, impersonal, corporate landscape; Phil Smith’s friendly, potted-green, lived-in streets just off the Strand) underlined for me very clearly the sense that place is a product of how you look at it. And looking with a sense of responsibility is perhaps one of the hardest things to do. When we look at our places, not theirs, what should we be seeing that – most of the time – we don’t? (I’m thinking here, for example, of PLATFORM’s reminder that the USS pension scheme – and thus my own retirement income – is heavily reliant on oil investments.)

And so how exactly, re-Doreen’s words, are we (1) to apprehend our own implicatedness in these things, and (2) “enjoined to invent”? That is, how might performance provide a (politically enabling) tool or process to help with that process of seeing?

Something PLATFORM’s Mel Evans said at one point during our discussions stuck in my memory. She could take responsibility for her own bit of the world, she joked – by riding her bike and by eating vegan food, keeping down her personal carbon footprint – but in the big scheme of things such personal gestures make very little difference. There’s little point in getting sanctimonious about them. That’s why, for her, working and campaigning with PLATFORM is a way to take personal responsibility beyond her own immediate square of earth. To apprehend the global within the local.

Thanks Mel. But what can the rest of us do? Can we “fight the power”?

“Yes we can!” (thanks Barack)

Yes, maybe we can. Because we have more power – we, us, me, you – than we think we do.

On the subject of which…


2. Local Knowledge

On the second day of our London meeting, the network group was presented with a very particular kind of challenge by Michael Guthrie – Community and Stakeholder Relations Manager with the Environment Agency. Having given us an outline of the EA and its work, particularly with respect to flood risk and prevention (likely to become an ever-more-significant issue in the UK if climate change projections are accurate), Michael challenged us – working in small, breakout discussion groups – to come up with ways in which site-based performance might be used to engage urban communities, who haven’t flooded in the past, with the question of flood risk and the need to take adaptive / preventative measures.

I had scheduled this intervention and discussion to take place on our last afternoon, because I wondered if we could – collectively – try to summarise our network’s thinking over the 3 sessions in pursuit of a particular, concrete question. (Rather than just talking in general abstractions.) What I hadn’t quite anticipated – although I probably should have – was the extent to which Michael’s intervention from the outside would prove controversial. Some in the room felt quite strongly that an avowedly instrumentalist question of this sort, coming from a representative of a fundamentally instrumentalist Agency, needed to be questioned or even resisted. We were restaging in miniature, perhaps, the 2008 skirmish during which the UK government’s former Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, accused arts and humanities academics of “shirking the climate change fight”, of  “staying in their disciplinary ‘comfort zones’ and failing to engage with scientists on the problem of climate change” (THE, 24 Jan 2008). Yet as UEA’s ‘Professor of Climate Change’ Mike Hulme rightly notes, “this engagement must work both ways. It needs to be acknowledged that the role of arts and humanities is not simply to translate scientific knowledge into public meaning, as though science is the only source of primary knowledge” (Nature Climate Change, Vol. 1, July 2011).

Michael Guthrie, it turns out, is a performance-minded scientist, working ‘both ways’: he later confessed to having deliberately worded his challenge to us in quite a blunt, expecting way, because this was representative of a ‘typical’ Environment Agency approach. He wanted to ‘play that part’ to see how we’d react to it – and sure enough, some of us didn’t react very warmly. But from Michael’s point of view, this game strategy was important as a way for him to think through, personally, a question the EA itself is having to review – that is, how it addresses other groups and communities…

Traditionally, the EA has operated – like many other government agencies – in an essentially top-down manner: it brings its expertise to bear on a particular problem or locality, and then imposes its solutions. That approach is now becoming less feasible because of the sheer scale of government cut-backs following the recent financial crisis: the EA, with many thousands fewer staff, nationally, needs to engage more directly with communities to get things done ‘on the ground’. In a sense, this reality falls neatly into line with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ voluntarism agenda, but Michael was at pains to stress that this move was in line with what the EA itself had been concluding anyway… That the application of top-down measures has real limitations. ‘Expert knowledge’ is one thing, but when working with and in particular sites/communities, it needs to be married with ‘local knowledge’ in order to get things done effectively. There is never a ‘one size fits all’ solution, even to generic problems like flood risk. Since local people usually know a great deal more about their localities than external agencies do, that knowledge can (and should) significantly inform the EA’s own assumptions about what needs ‘doing’ on the ground… and by having both an input in dicsussions and a role in realising what then happens, local people are also able to take ownership (if you’ll excuse the BS phrase) of decisions being made about where they live.

That’s the ideal scenario – but the problem, as Michael explained to us, is that local communities are often mistrustful of the kind of governmental authority represented by a body like the EA. Moreover, his experience is that people don’t necessarily respond ‘logically’ when presented with rational, scientific arguments about action that might need to be taken to obviate risk. (That much is evident on the global scale, when it comes to climate change scenarios!) So other strategies for engagement – perhaps creative, affective ones – are also necessary, and that is not at all where EA expertise lies. Hence Michael’s challenge to us…

I wonder if we too, as a group of (mostly) theatre and performance academics, were responding to Michael like a ‘local community’, mistrustful of the kinds of ‘authority’ that he represented (as a scientist and EA representative). Did he pose a bit of a threat, even, to our ‘local customs’? Did we assume that he was imposing something on us, and thus somewhat miss the fact that he was appealing to us for help, for a two-way dialogue… We had knowledges that could be valuable to him, just as he had knowledge that we could make use of on our own terms.

I’m slightly over-stating the case here, of course: the small group discussions we had were constructive ones, and have opened up the possibility of a follow-up meeting in September, in Bristol, to further the possibilities of working with the EA towards developing a model for site- and community-based performance engagements. (As Dee pointedly remarked in the break-out group I was part of, ‘Let’s just imagine that we want to be doing what Michael’s asking…’ That proved a deft way to circumvent a lot of potential arguments, in order that we could, indeed, use our imaginations…)

But it does strike me, on reflection, that there are important, broader questions underlying our various constructive misfires that afternoon. To take the case of ‘climate change’ itself, for example, there is an ‘authorised’ or ‘common sense’ discourse at work in most discussions around the subject that this is a scientific issue to do with measurable physical factors and complex projection models… and therefore one that most non-scientists either (a) lack the expertise to engage in, and/or (b) feel intimidated by because the real experts are somewhere over there – them, not us. And yet, as the afore-mentioned Mike Hulme stresses in his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change (CUP, 2009), climate change is now every bit as much a cultural idea as it is a set of physical measurements. (Too often – as we’ve noted before – that idea is drawn in crude terms, like a Hollywood disaster movie…) It is, moreover, only at the level of culture (discourse, politics, imagination) that societies will be able to address the global challenges that climate change presents. Cultural analysis and engagement is, in fact, entirely beyond the skill set of most scientists – which is why Hulme, despite being one of the single most respected experts on climate change on the planet, decided to undertake a part-time MA in History at UEA, in order to start to think through these cultural dimensions of the question.

To return to my point earlier in this posting: we all of us have more power than we think we do, and part of that power lies in the kinds of knowledge that we possess. It’s all too easy, living inside the bubble of one particular set of disciplinary reference points, to assume that our own ‘expert knowledge’ is really just ‘local knowledge’ (i.e. of little use or interest to anyone but ourselves, or those curious outsiders who might wander onto our ‘patch’). But as Michael Guthrie reminded us (and Mike Hulme, in a sense, confirms), local knowledge is a form of expert knowledge — and it can prove invaluable to other ‘experts’, who inevitably know less than we do about, for example, strategies for public performance.

On 14th June, I attended a day seminar at the Royal Geographic Society titled ‘Narrating Environmental Change’, in which Steve Daniels and the AHRC had drawn together the Principal Investigators from all the 2010-11 ‘environmental change’ networks – for a kind of meta-networking event. Mike Hulme was a guest speaker, invited to draw the threads together at the end of the day, and he did this by interlinking a number of points flagged up in the various network summaries that had been collated in a booklet for the day’s participants (to read my summary of our network, go to ‘Summary’ under ‘Network’ on the toolbar above).  It was striking to me, perhaps because I’m habitually paranoid that I never do anything of ‘substance’, that Hulme singled out as noteworthy various key points arising from our network — especially our resistance to apocalyptic ‘disaster movie’ narratives of climate change, and our insistence instead on ‘lived experience’ (and live performance as a mode by which to reflect on it). Performance people have an important contribution to make, if we can avoid ‘shrinkwrapping’ ourselves within our own frames of reference (alas, that was very much my experience of May’s PSi conference Utrecht, but that’s another story again…).

Perhaps I’m rambling again, but I want to close this posting by referring to two elements of our London network event that I haven’t mentioned yet. One was J.D. Dewsbury’s paper “Material Impositions and Immanent Inhabitations” — a complex meditation on (if you will) ‘lived experience’ in particular sites. J.D. drew on physical examples from each of the network’s three event locations to explore how material conditions impose demands on human behaviour within those sites, but also how those conditions are themselves the consequence of past inhabitation, and indeed of human habit. This is a fairly crass summary, from leaky memory, and I’m hoping J.D. will be making the paper available for us to read again, carefully – either on this site or in a prospective journal edition arising from the network. But my concern here is the closeness of J.D.’s geographic/theoretical eye in looking at details such as seating arrangements (whether in the USS building or in the ruins of Fountains Abbey). This was an attentiveness to the miniature that paradoxically rendered the possibility of expansive thinking… thinking which J.D. invited us all to participate in by beautifully structuring his presentation to incorporate periods of open discussion. His approach seems to me, with hindsight, exemplary of this notion of sharing ‘local knowledge’ (in both the spatial and disciplinary sense) in a way that facilitates constructive exchange beyond the confines of that locality.

In a similar, but also very different way, David Williams’s presentation the previous day – in his performance paper Plumbbob – struck me as a demonstration of ‘local knowledge’ rendered as ‘expert’ knowledge. David’s allusive text explored the particularities not of a geographic site but of a temporal moment — that of the week of his birth in 1958 (was it?). A copy of Time magazine from that week was used as a source of extraordinary, juxtaposed visuals that complemented David’s reflections — 1950s advertising imagery and celebrity smiles jumbled up against images of Nevada H-Bomb tests and the soldiers asked to stand in visual proximity of the test site.  This strangely potent mix of cultural memories, further enhanced by David’s occasional fragments of song, suggested a kind of affective temporal geography, a deep mapping of a passing moment whose implications continue to ripple out towards us over 50 years later.  In what ways, David seemed to be asking, are we shaped by the moments into which we are born? What forms of toxicity – whether cultural or actual – do we ingest with the air around us? And how might a re-examination of these forces that shape us prove necessary to our future survival?

Rigorous attentiveness to place and time – a sensitivity to affect as well as logic –

Yes we can.


Closing conversation on Friday 20th May, Anatomy Museum.

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