Joyce McMillan: The importance of Creative Carbon

In May 2014, artist Ilana Halperin sailed with a small audience to the Isle of Staffa where she delivered a spoken-word performance at the mouth of Fingal's Cave, in conjunction with her exhibition at An Tobar. Picture: Comar
In May 2014, artist Ilana Halperin sailed with a small audience to the Isle of Staffa where she delivered a spoken-word performance at the mouth of Fingal's Cave, in conjunction with her exhibition at An Tobar. Picture: Comar
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A WEEK from now, a group of 12 artists will be gathering on the Isle of Mull for a three-day residency which – if last year’s experience is any guide – may well change forever the way they look at the world around them, and at the role of art in that world.

The event, hosted by the Mull arts organisation Comar, is a weekend of reflection on the relationship between arts and sustainability; and it’s organised by the Edinburgh-based Creative Carbon project, set up in 2011 by theatre director turned sustainability expert Ben Twist – with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Theatre and the Scottish Creative Arts Network – to support arts organisations and individual artists interested in how the arts reflect the coming transition away from a carbon-based economy, and in how that transition, in turn, will impact on the arts.

“I think most people are still struggling to get their heads round the extent of the change we face,” says Twist. “If the Scottish Government carbon targets for 2050 are met, for instance, then a child born in that year will probably never travel in a vehicle with an internal combustion engine, never see a domestic gas-fired heating boiler, and rarely if ever step on a plane; we are looking at a huge civilisational shift, over just one generation. And it’s obviously important not only that artists and arts organisations play their practical part in that shift by finding less carbon-intensive ways of working, but also that we become fully aware of the huge role artists can play in helping us to imagine new worlds, and move into new times.”

The result, at Creative Carbon, is an organisation currently mainly funded by Creative Scotland, with support from the City of Edinburgh Council, Glasgow Life, and the EU-funded Europe-wide Green Arts Lab Alliance (GALA), that not only advises artists and arts organisations on how to reduce their environmental impact in the key areas of travel, energy use, water use and waste recyling, but that increasingly finds itself involved in a wider social and creative agenda.

“One thing that’s increasingly clear,” says Twist, “is how arts organisations often find themselves at the heart of a new localism, new efforts to create ‘virtuous circles’ of self-starting local activity that help to free communities from the grip of an unforgiving globalised economy. Over the last two years, for example, we’ve been running a series of events called Green Tease – it’s a monthly get-together over tea and biscuits – in which groups of artists and others who are interested in a more sustainable future come together to keep in touch.

“And interestingly, we’ve found it much easier to get that going in Glasgow than in Edinburgh – so the project ended two weeks ago with a terrific day at the Tramway, involving us and international partners from the GALA network, when we had over 150 people discussing everything from how to build sustainable food cities, to how to darn and recycle your clothes with style.”

Creative Carbon, in other words, is an organisation right on the cusp between bureaucracy at its most demanding, and a brand new creative world; part official agency helping arts organisations with the latest round of environmental box-ticking, part forum in which artists can explore vital ideas about how environmental change impacts their work, and alters their very relationship with the physical materials they use. “What we find,” says Twist, “is that once you involve artists in the sustainability agenda, you become ever more aware of how this huge change we face offers positive creative opportunities, as well as risks and losses. Now, I’m off to Mull. And there’s definitely something about Mull – that terrific physical environment, the community and economy there, and the role of the arts in it – that invites very clear thought about arts and sustainability; it was a transformational weekend last year, and I hope this one will be the same.”

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