Like so many of us, I am consumed with thoughts of the future. I worry incessantly about the climate crisis, I am horrified by the mass extinction underway. I can’t stop thinking about where we are headed. The workings of our highly commercialized society seem surreal, even absurd. I lose sleep, I think in circles, about everything getting worse, about another species gone, about hottest years on record. I am noticing things I hadn’t before, and taking them to be alarming signs of change. To my eye the atmospheric light looks different, hazy, as if I’m already dreaming about a time past. In order to get through the day, I focus on other things. I drive my car, I buy cucumbers in plastic wrap. And then my thoughts snap back, and I wonder about my sanity.
I have children, so the very notion of future — the one we have wrought for ourselves — is one that panics, puzzles, and then outrages me.
My children skip school to go to die-ins, they talk pragmatically about not having their own children. They approach an understanding of what’s happening with the trepidation of approaching a monster. And it’s a monster we humans have created. How to explain that, to ourselves? And how to explain the inaction, and the outright denial, the wrapping of defences around ourselves, in response? How to understand our continued commitment — here, in the relatively affluent communities of North America — to living as if there were no tomorrow, to our rapacious appetites, to eating, travelling, accumulating, and spreading out over all available natural space, as if it were a birthright, as if it were our destiny? As if devouring, and then making and acquiring and throwing out more and more stuff were indications of our success, as a species?
I have been dogged by these questions. And I am fascinated. Why do we behave the way we do, even if we know the behaviour leads to ruin? And how is it (what is the process) that we come to understand or truly see an issue, and then what does it take for us to respond accordingly? Why does this self-made predicament seem so intractable? Because it is self-made, and is implicit in the damaging and overreaching ways we have been living, which we are unable or unwilling to reassess? Why are we unable and unwilling? Is this who we are, as humans? Has self-destruction been in our DNA from the beginning?
In my professional life I read a lot of stories. I consider how they work, what the authors want them to be, and how to make them more convincing, how to make them get under the reader’s skin. And I know that many writers are consumed as I am consumed, with worry, with horror, with questions about the ecological collapse we are in the midst of. And so, I wonder, why has art seemed — in some respects — slow or unequal to the task of taking on this existential threat? Why are all the stories not about it? Or, maybe the question is, why are the stories that do exist not resonating in a way that is making us see, and then act? Because if we could truly see, wouldn’t we act? (The jury is still out on that one.)
I believe in the unique ability art has to slip reality in sideways, so that when we experience a work of art, we feel we’re inhabiting the truth of something. We get it. And once we’ve got it, and once our feelings and thoughts are engaged in this new reality, they sometimes change. We might resolve to do new things, in the face of what we now know. We might see value in things we hadn’t before.
Art can push us, can open up questions we need opened, can reflect realities we have previously been unable to truly inhabit.
I have long wanted to start a project with my artist brother, based on the idea of how we each communicate. I am more at ease with writing; he has a facility with images. Maybe I could write something, and he could reply with a drawing. I wondered, how would that change our communication, using the modes of self-expression we each feel most comfortable in — how would it make it richer, or allow us to say things we might otherwise not?
The idea of the project with my brother led to a curiosity, an excitement, about how artists would communicate with each other, in their own languages — that of their individual disciplines. How might a visual artist create something that sparks something in a writer, who writes something that sparks something in a poet — and thus how might a larger conversation be moved? Would a back and forth allow artists to get closer, through novel, unexpected, dynamic access points and sticky intersections, to certain ideas? Would conversations through art open new pathways? I am compelled by the idea that connections like these could create sparks, raise questions, up the ante, pull others in.
And would that exchange form a community? I think it might. And I am confident that this community would ask pertinent questions, in and through and about their artistic practice — and in so doing would push narratives and art forms into new and necessary territory.
Maybe these narratives will get us closer to how we’re feeling and thinking, and then also to ideas that we have to start dwelling on and in, about how we live, and how we will live, about our attitudes to the natural and built environments and our place in each, about what we feel we deserve in this life, even what constitutes a good life.
I think we need new stories, or maybe it’s old stories. Maybe we need new art forms to communicate even small glimpses of what we’re heading toward. I certainly think we need a new understanding of ourselves. Maybe we aren’t here to conquer. Maybe we’re here to connect.