Art for Change

by Sarah Dobson Arts Author - Liz Whitehead

Liz Whitehead, Co-Director of Fabrica, Brighton’s centre for contemporary art outlines the potential for the arts to change behaviour.

The arts are one of our city’s precious resources, with hundreds of artists and creative producers continuing to live, practice and present their work here.

The value of the arts to Brighton & Hove is often, and quite rightly talked about, in terms of developing our city’s reputation and revenue. Of equal importance is how the arts help us encounter and understand complex situations and questions about ourselves, and the world around us.

Feeling, understanding, empathising, being able to imagine yourself…these are the prerequisites to changing attitudes and behaviours, and are the responses that the arts are particularly good at precipitating. This is important for the Biosphere programme and its implementation because the challenge the Biosphere is addressing is wide-ranging and complex and our current behaviour - as individuals, families and communities - is a big part of that challenge.

Most of us (I include myself here) are not environmental scientists nor ‘deep green’ conservationists, yet it is our interest - the majority - which must be engaged, our understanding which must be cultivated, and our attitudes and behaviours that need to shift if we and other species are to thrive. The arts have the power to engage our senses, our emotions and our minds – leading us to a more thoughtful place where we can reflect on our behaviour and make better decisions.

This May, as part of Brighton Festival 2015 a number of exhibitions and performances invite us to immerse ourselves in experiences that investigate some of the most pressing environmental issues of our times. Here’s a snapshot:

At the old vegetable market in Circus Street, sound artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey present Gauge, an artistic response to critical issues around water. A multi-sensory experience it combines an exhibition, a sonically orchestrated environment, performative elements and a series of talks, and is giving audiences a unique hands-on encounter and the chance to witness the effect they have upon their environment. During the weekend of 16/17th May, there is a special event of Water Matters – Gauge meets Biosphere, in which children and families can explore our water environment through a Minecraft virtual world and people can take part in a daily discussion (2 pm).

Near The Lanes at Fabrica, Marcus Coates’ strange and beautiful film installation, Dawn Chorus, uses unique digital methods to explore the relationship between birdsong and the human voice, and similarities between bird and human behaviour. The wider gallery programme draws parallels between birdsong and human language, investigates our complex relationship with nature and is introducing visitors to the work of the RSPB, Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere and the Forestry Commission.

Birds, this time as a signifier or metaphor also play a key role in A Murmuration, a new collaborative project by artists Sarah Wood and Lucy Harris with acclaimed writers Helen Macdonald and Olivia Laing at ONCA gallery near St Peter’s Church.

And Lungs, a new play by Paines Plough explores the moral dilemma of a couple who want to have a child but are uneasy about it at a time of overpopulation, erratic weather and political unrest.

The achievement of the UNESCO Status for the Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere in June 2014, and the campaign that preceded it, brought together environmental conservationists and arts producers for the first time and this year’s Festival programme has undoubtedly benefitted from that process. However the enthusiasm for arts programming of this kind has not come out of vacuum.

In 2005-2006 Eco-Brighton, part of Brighton & Hove’s Making a Difference cultural programme (funded by the Urban Cultural Fund), aimed to raise awareness of environmental issues and provide opportunities for artists to engage in ecological debate. It produced a number of new works and events, including:

Dance performance, The Palm House at Stanmer Park (2005), which was conceived by artists Charlie Morrissey, Graeme Gilmour and Paul Harrington. Set in a huge disused glasshouse it explored human nature and nature as a whole, drawing parallels between how our treatment of our environment is a reflection of our treatment of ourselves.

Chris Drury’s permanent artwork Fingermaze at Hove Park (2006) is based on a giant's fingerprint. Drury is a land artist based in Lewes whose work explores art and nature and our ancient relationship with both.

More recently arts organisation ONCA (One Network for Conservation) set up in Brighton in 2012, and have now established a year-round arts programme to foster and inspire a greater understanding of ecology through art and creative practice. ONCA are one of the few permanent arts spaces in the UK dedicated to this agenda and are linked to an international network of artists, arts producers, researchers and environmental conservation professionals who share their mission.

The Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere is here to stay, but there’s still a lot of work to do if it is to achieve its goals and retain its UNESCO status. The arts have a key role to play here by commissioning the very best artists, to make great work, that really engages a broad range of people with the environment.

Liz Whitehead

Co-Director of Fabrica

Liz leads on developing the artistic and engagement programmes at Fabrica.

She is a Member of the Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere Board and Vice Chair of Brighton and Hove Arts & Creative Industries Commission.

Fabrica is a member of the Green Britain Partnership.

Based at the former Holy Trinity Church in central Brighton, Fabrica commissions and presents large-scale, exhibitions that respond to its unique space and often explore key human themes. Since exhibiting Woodlock in 2006 and Dawn Chorus this year, Fabrica has presented a number of other works, which interrogate our relationship to the natural world. In 2014 On Balance, presented works by Jacob Dahlgren that celebrated the sensual pleasure of the material world, whilst examining the environmental cost of commissioning and de-commissioning a major artwork. Also in 2014 REEF by Simon Faithfull sank a boat to make a new home for marine flora and fauna and gave exhibition visitors the chance to explore an underwater wreck without having to dive it. In 2013 Kaarina Kaikkonen re-configured thousands of colourful, donated shirts into two beautiful and powerfully affecting artworks. Annemarie O’Sullivan’s Cluster in 2012 re-appropriated sustainable local architectural building materials into large scale basket-like sculptures, and in 2010 John Grade created the Elephant Bed, a monolithic interpretation of the life-cycle of the coccolithophore. Billions of these invisible algae congregate just beneath the surface of the world’s oceans and, when they die, their protective outer casings drift down to add to thick sedimentary layers on the sea bed. At the end of the Ice Age, one such strip of shale and sand washed down from the Sussex Downs, eventually compacting into the bed rock, the Elephant Bed, below modern Brighton and Hove.

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