Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world


Bethany Gibson: In conceiving the Scales Project, I hoped that artists would engage with each other’s work both online and off-line — and that they would, in some cases, bring to the project connections previously forged, so that viewers and listeners and a wider community of artists could experience these original or earlier points of contact, and the flights of inspiration that have since launched from such connections.

Joanna Lilley and Mandy-Suzanne Wong have brought here a kind of multi-layered collaboration. They had each already produced work that inspired the other; and then, from that foundation of inspiration, they stepped further into mutual engagement and wrote pieces for the Scales Project.

Each artist, below, describes the initial ignition of their writing in relation to the other’s; and then, following, we three had a conversation about human vs non-human subjects and perspectives in their work.


Mandy-Suzanne Wong: Joanna Lilley’s Endlings, a collection of poems devoted to extinct animals, doesn’t just invoke but takes on and lives through so many emotions and sensations which it never normally occurs to us to associate with the anti-phenomenon of extinction, that irreversible unhappening. We think of extinction as something that happens to other animals; not to those we live with and certainly not to ourselves. We think extinction is for dinosaurs, for things so distant in time they seem almost imaginary. But extinction is really death, extinction is millions upon millions of deaths. And there is nothing that is universally closer to home, as it were, than death. It’s become dangerous to keep pretending that extinction is a fadeout into the imaginary, is reversible by technology, is anything other than what happens when a loved one breathes their last in a hospital or all alone. Endlings is the first artwork I’ve encountered that dares to make that connection. This story is inspired by that work.

Joanna Lilley: This poem series is a response to Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s mesmerizing Awabi fiction chapbook about the ama — ocean women who have traditionally earned a living from diving deep into the sea to harvest sea creatures for food. As a lover of outside swimming for whom encounters with water form a personal narrative, and as a poetry and fiction writer preoccupied by human and non-human animal relationships, I am intrigued by these women whose bodies seem amphibious, and the beguiling, anguished discoveries in Awabi of life under and above water, and intergenerational survival and mortality. These exploratory poems set at three different water bodies are inspired by, and attempt to pay tribute to the Awabi stories.


BG: I am interested in what brings each of you to what you write about. Do you have, would you say, an “eco-consciousness” that plays into your art (as of course it would)? Is there something about the natural world you write about that really gets you, or something about your lived experience, in this regard, that necessarily finds expression in your art?

MSW: Nearly all my writing so far has been about how non-human beings affect, move, change, surprise, infatuate, inspire, and overpower human beings. I didn’t realize at first that this was eco-consciousness. For years I didn’t even realize I was doing it. But whatever kind of story I set out to write, be it a literary mystery or speculative fiction, the story always begins with a non-human being that goes on to become the driving force of the entire project. I don’t mean anthropomorphized non-humans like Bugs Bunny and the Transformers; I mean bits of paper, plants, snails, boxes, and ordinary doggy dogs dictating the course of human characters’ lives and psychologically altering them forever. It was actually other artists — non-literary artists, in particular the multimedia artist-activist Kathryn Eddy — who made me realize I could turn my inclination towards non-human-driven stories into deliberate fictional portrayals of and non-fictional arguments for anti-anthropocentrism. And that’s where eco-consciousness begins. Eco-consciousness must begin by debunking anthropocentrism. I’m always coming back to Timothy Morton’s “double denial of human supremacy.” He writes: “No: we are not in the centre of the universe, but we are not in the VIP box beyond the edge, either. To say the least, this is a profoundly disturbing realization. It is the true content of ecological awareness.” 

JL: I think what brings me to writing about the natural world is simply that I, probably like most writers, write about what I care about. I’ve cared deeply about animals for as long as I can remember and have always had trouble understanding why humans treat other species so badly and don’t seem to understand that we’re animals too. The poems I wrote as a child were often about coming across animals that had been mown down by cars — abruptly reclassified as roadkill — or witnessing trees being chopped down to make room for houses. It was an awareness of non-human lives suddenly being curtailed that I couldn’t help tuning into and getting very upset by as a child. Indeed I still do. I should say I don’t always write about non-human animals or environmental issues, but I do love writing about place and see that as an exploration of humans in habitats they grow up in, choose to move to, or are forced to live in. It wasn’t until I was on an Arvon writing workshop years ago in England that it was pointed out to me by one of the tutors, novelist Patrick Neate, that everything I wrote had an animal in it somewhere. So, I was nudged further in that direction a little bit like Mandy-Suzanne was. I hadn’t realized animals were such a recurring presence in my writing, and am still grateful for that observation all that time ago. It helped me find my voice and identity as a writer.

BG: What are your views about art’s place in activism, or about art’s ability to reveal truth or to move people to a view, or to act?

MSW: Eco-activism must begin with ecological awareness, which as I said begins with consciously adopting the multiple humbling perspectives of anti-anthropocentrism. Once you realize the human-as-be-all-and-end-all perspective isn’t the only one, you realize there are countless other ways in which to relate to, say, long-dead seasnails. Art can reveal the existence of those other points of view, as it can speculate on the consequences and futures that might come out of a perspective which considers a seasnail as sentient, alive, and important as a human. Art can also be and inspire powerful critiques of the anthropocentric status quo and the capitalist, religious, and imperialist ideologies underlying it. My forthcoming essay collection, Listen, we all bleed, is about radical multimedia artists who use sound to critique anthropocentrism and advocate for non-human animals’ protection. Nearly all my own work now has anti-anthropocentrism as its deliberate objective.

JL: I feel that the arts are as important to activism as facts and figures because at their best they give us a way to engage personally with whatever the issue might be. While we of course need data and evidence to build arguments and debate positions, it seems we need to make an emotional connection in order to change our behaviour as a species, and I think that’s where stories and other arts come in. You might start taking physical distancing and mask-wearing more seriously when you hear tales about the nurses sleeping in their cars so they don’t carry COVID-19 home to their families, or read Robert Alan Jamieson’s new book of poems, Plague Clothes, which he wrote while he was recovering from COVID-19 symptoms, or follow the COVID Art Museum on Instagram. However, I don’t think all art must be about activism. As you say in your question, art’s role — if it even needs to have one — is to reveal truth, and that could be a truth on the scale of misguided human ideologies or on the scale of a child climbing a tree. Similarly, I heard artist Anish Kapoor say on the radio just the other day that it’s not the artist’s job to be a journalist. I’m intrigued by how each one of us experiences what happens differently, and that, I feel, is where art comes from rather than from creating art in order to illustrate an agenda. Mandy-Suzanne’s Awabi is a phenomenal example of activism coming from the unique and personal. I knew nothing of the ama she writes about and whose lives she recreates. I feel as if I’ve discovered a whole other facet of my own species. And now because of her stories I care deeply about the threats to their existence. 

BG: Do you have views on artists taking cues from each other’s work, and how that can push an artist’s practice to a new place, or just fire up the inspiration, or open up new pathways? 

MSW: Yes! As I’ve said above, it was other artists, working in completely different media, who made it clear to me what I’d apparently always wanted to do with my own work. Within the literary arts, too, it’s the work of others that makes me want to write. Jo Lilley and I ended up in touch with one another because we were both scheduled to participate in a conference and art exhibition at McMaster University called Animals Across Discipline, Time & Space, in which artists of all sorts were to come together with scholars and activists to celebrate and advocate for non-human animals. The pandemic cancelled the conference, but by then I’d been blown away by Jo’s collection Endlings, which made me realize just how many different ways of feeling had never even occurred to me. And for me, as a literary artist who sees the development of her craft as a lifelong effort, that’s everything.

JL: I actually wonder how writers can become writers unless they’re responding in some way to work that’s already been created. I loved reading books as a child and always felt as if the written word was more my language than speech. I’ve been struggling to work on the novel I’m trying to write and it’s been so inspiring to read Awabi and open up little pockets of air in my mind and let poetry pour in. When I was writing my poetry collection about extinct species, Endlings, I made a point of seeking out visual art on the extinction theme to connect with species in ways that went beyond encyclopedia entries and exhibits in a museum. I love how all the arts inspire and animate each other. It’s hard to imagine one without all the others. Poetry, for example, is quite possibly just another dimension of painting and music. 

BG: Getting to know your work, and being able to extend the conversation beyond the art, as it were, has truly deepened my understanding of the issues and conditions and concerns that run through your practices. It’s been both fuel and fire. Thank you both for your generosity and collaboration. Let’s keep talking …

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