Joyce McMillan: How the performing arts world can "build back better"

Coronavirus is going to transform what the arts scene looks like – and that includes its carbon footprint

A Creative Carbon workshop in progress

Sunday morning, and I am tuned to the latest online edition of the brilliant Comrie Conversations, community discussions from the heart of Perthshire about all the possible futures of Scotland, and the wider world. Today’s subject is how to ensure a thriving future for the arts and culture, as and when we emerge from the Covid-19 epidemic; and one of the speakers is the award-winning novelist James Robertson, who invites us to consider how we might move on from a way of life that “we always knew was unsustainable.”

“If it is insane to return to the economic model of constant growth which us having such a disastrous impact on planet,” he says, “then we have to apply that logic to culture, too. If it is unacceptable to go on filling aeroplanes with stag and hen parties bound for Prague, then it is also unacceptable to fly authors to Toronto or Calcutta for a one-hour event, and a couple of wine receptions.”

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And so begins the debate – only intensified by last weekend’s announcements of substantial government support for the UK’s arts organisations – about exactly how the world of the performing arts can “build back better” after the Covid-19 crisis. There is already a growing consensus among major leaders of arts organisations that going straight back to “business as usual” is not, or should not be, an option. Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, has written that the future for festivals like EIBF must be a hybrid one, which gradually builds back live audiences, while finding new ways to promote discussion and build community online. The Edinburgh International Festival’s artistic director Fergus Linehan told The Scotsman that after Covid-19, “none of us is going to have any excuse for not coming up with some brilliant new thinking about what an international festival might look like, in a time when we are all going to have to reduce our carbon footprints, fly and travel much less, and think much harder about how we relate to the communities in which we work”. And off the record, some artists are willing to concede that some of the carbon-costly international work they have done in recent years has been largely pointless in artistic terms, flying thousands of miles to perform briefly in western-style theatre spaces, and returning home without making any real creative connection with the city or community involved.

All of which creates a changing landscape of new opportunities Creative Carbon Scotland, the organisation founded back in 2011 by former theatre director Ben Twist to help Scotland’s arts organisations think about their low-carbon future, and now regularly funded by Creative Scotland to the modest tune of £150,000 a year. Creative Carbon’s work essentially involves two strands, headlined “transformation of culture”, and “transformation through culture”; in the first, the organisation advises and works with arts companies on how to reduce their own carbon footprints, and in the second it works with the rest of the environmental sector, and the wider business and public-sector community in Scotland, to encourage the use of arts and artists in raising consciousness about the need for a just transition to a low-carbon world.

“I think I’d say that since about 2016, there’s been a marked cultural shift in awareness of these issues,” says Ben Twist, who is currently working from home in Edinburgh. “People and organisations started to come to us, much more than when we first launched; and that hasn’t stopped during Covid-19.

“I also think most serious artists, as individuals, are now intensely aware of and engaged with environmental issues and the need for a just transition, and they’re looking for ways to work that reflect that. At the moment, we have artists working with several major environmental projects across Scotland; and I hope the current crisis will help open up more of those opportunities.

“There are threats, though, associated with the current cultural and financial shock we are experiencing. Personally, I wouldn’t much mourn some of the ‘elite internationalism’ we’ve seen in the arts in recent years, which often doesn’t produce very interesting work; but we do need to think of ways in which artists can have a richer and more sustained interaction with other countries and cultures, perhaps by travelling less, but better. And for many artists now, the distances between communities in their own countries and cities – to do with wealth and poverty, or race, or culture – represent a more interested form of exploration than international travel from one glitzy city centre to another, and it could be part of the low-carbon transformation of the arts to help support that.

“There’s the risk – which haunts me, as a former theatre-maker – that large parts of the audience may just never get back to going to the theatre or concert hall and sitting in large groups. That’s something I think we can’t afford to let go, as human beings; that collective experience is what helps us to feel and think together, rather than as atomised individuals, and we must find ways of continuing to make that possible.

“And finally, like any crisis, both the climate crisis and Covid-19 have the potential to make inequalities worse, to trap millions of poorer people in their circumstances, and to block their access to creativity and the arts. But if we work hard at making theatres and music halls into community-building machines as well as performance venues, if we respond to the work artists increasingly want to do, and if we get it right, then I really think the arts can play a key role in helping us through a low-carbon transition that’s both local and global, and that leads to a more equitable, sustainable and creative way of life, for everyone.”

Creative Carbon Scotland, www.creativecarbonscotland.com

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