A career built on failure
Why the arts will never succeed in communicating the truth of climate and global change
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When I started making art, I had a vision of the work I hoped to create. Unfortunately, I made a choice early on which guaranteed that I will never achieve that goal.
My dream was simple: to make an artwork that captures the huge global transformations taking place on the planet. A piece of art that expresses what's happening to the Earth at this moment in history.
When I say 'what's happening to the Earth,' I'm talking about the big changes over the last few thousand years. The sudden rise of one species of primate, which exploded in numbers and then destabilised the planet's biosphere. Mass extinction, climate change, the scattering of nuclear radiation and plastic particles across the entire planet. The birth of cities. The creation of a single connected global ecosystem as humans transport animals all around the globe. The vanishing of an old world and the appearance of a new one, and our scramble to stay alive amidst the chaos.
These changes are huge and abstract, and it's hard for us to grasp them. Our brains weren't designed to grapple with huge numbers, with slow timeframes, with complex connections. Still, if we try hard, we can sometimes catch a glimpse of it.
Art is a tool that helps us reach outside our normal understanding. A good artwork gives us access to worlds beyond the one we know. As an artist, I've always believed that art could be a lens to help people grasp this extraordinary moment in history we're living through.
If you want to create artwork about huge planetary systems, some artforms are better than others. Literature - both fiction and non-fiction - is good at worldbuilding. Visual and installation art are good at making abstract concepts tangible and real. Film and photography can capture literal snapshots from the frontlines of global transformation.
Unfortunately, I make theatre. And when it comes to illustrating large-scale change, theatre is the worst artform of all.
Theatre is a relational artform. It's very good at showing things on a human scale. A theatre performance can capture the subtle interactions between human beings at the scale of individuals, families or communities. It's a perfect form to explore emotion, decision-making and conflict. It's absolutely terrible at capturing big abstract systems.
So from one perspective, I picked the worst possible tool for the job I set out to do. If I'd been thinking logically when I chose my artform, I wouldn't have picked theatre. I should have set out to write literature, or make installations, or picked up a camera.
But the truth is, as an artist, you don't really choose your form. In my case, I fell into theatre in high school. I met a community of people who were also passionate about it. I fell in love with the experience of making shows, with the feeling of performing to an audience, with the craft of making a live experience. I never made a logical decision to dedicate myself to the theatre - it just drew me in.
So then: you don't get to pick your artform, but your artform determines the tools you have available to you. I want to tell stories about huge global transformations, but the tools I have are the tools of theatre - and they're just not fit for the job. The result is that everything I make is a failure.
As an example: the big project I'm working on at the moment is a series entitled You're Safe Til 2024. Over six years, musician Reuben Ingall and I are creating a new show each year, each one looking at a different aspect of climate and global change.
For the first show in 2019 (entitled You're Safe Til 2024: Pilot Episode), we spoke to 30 different scientists, and asked each of them, 'What's the biggest change happening in the world today?' From their answers, we made a kind of live documentary.
We wanted to create a snapshot of the huge changes happening to the world today.
The explosion in the size and number of chickens over the last 70 years. The disruption of the nitrogen cycle which has led to huge oceanic dead zones. The way that microplastics have saturated the planet, appearing everywhere from the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean to fresh rainwater in the Colorado Rockies.
But the part of the show that resonated with audiences wasn't any of the extraordinary facts we shared. What connected was the emotional story of a struggle to engage a stranger at a party in a conversation about the climate. All the incredible stories about the transforming planet became the backdrop for a human story about our inability to connect.
So, from my perspective: a failure. But an interesting failure. In trying and failing to do one thing - communicate the scope and scale of human transformation of the planet - we managed to do something else - to tell a story about how it feels to live in this strange time.
There are many ways that theatre limits your ability to tell a story about climate and global change. For me, one of the key restrictions of the artform is theatre's lack of scale.
One of the key insights of climate and systems science back in the 1970s was the need to look at the Earth system as a whole. The way a lot of science works is that we take a piece out of the system and study it in isolation. This yields great insights, but we also miss something important - because that piece of the system doesn't behave the same way when we put it back. The whole Earth system has emergent properties that we can't understand by breaking them down into smaller components. The connections between components are as important as the components themselves.
For me, theatre faces the same challenge in telling stories about the Earth. In a 60 or 90 minute theatre show, we can zoom in and look at one aspect of the whole. We can tell the story of one family, one community, one event. But we miss the most important part of the story - how it all connects together.
This is similar in many ways to the fragmented way we digest news and media digitally. Learning about the world through an algorithmic newsfeed is a disorienting experience of trying to make sense of disconnected slivers of information. A 90 minute theatre show might be more focused than a 90 second TikTok, but when we're talking about something on the scale of the planet, they both fall drastically short.
I've been dreaming for years of ways to get around this limitation - and it's led me, inevitably, to the world of durational performance. This is why the final episode in the You're Safe Til 2024 series will be a eight-hour show. Instead of trying to compress a huge global story into an hour or two, we'll give ourselves time to explore all the different parts of the picture, and the critical connections between them.
A durational theatre performance not only allows space for deeper and richer stories, it also creates a kind of immersion and demands a kind of surrender from its audience. It's the way you surrender dancing to an all-night DJ set, or running in a marathon. It's the kind of immersion you experience swimming in the sea, or standing in a rainstorm. It's an immersion and surrender we experience every day living at the bottom of an ocean of air, on a planet whose biosphere is unravelling around us.
Of course, simply making a long theatre show is no guarantee of communicating anything new about global change. A durational show can succeed or fail just like any other artwork. The only thing you can be certain you're going to conjure up in a longform work is exhaustion - which can be good or bad.
I'm excited for the possibilities of this show. I think it will be a special work, and that it will go beyond anything I've been involved with up until now in capturing what's happening to the world. But it will still fail.
It will fail to capture the scale and scope of the extraordinary changes that we're living through. It will fail to reveal the true nature of this strange moment in the planet's history. It will fail, because every artwork fails.
But artistic failure is a particular kind of failure. In the sciences, failure is also inevitable - every scientific theory fails to capture the true nature of the world. But through the process of experimentation and review, over time, scientific theories become 'less wrong' - they grow increasingly accurate as they close in on the true nature of things.
There's no 'less wrong' in the arts. It's all wrong, and there's no final truth that artworks are converging on. But the failures themselves are interesting in their own way. And so a career built on failure after failure can be its own kind of success.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
I’m very excited to announce that Boho is doing a couple of public events next month! We’ve spent the last few years working on some new projects with partners like the Australian National University’s School of Cybernetics, the Lowitja Indigenous Health Research institute, and the Earth Observatory Singapore. But sadly, we haven’t had a chance to share these games publicly. So we decided to hold a couple of ‘Taster Menu’ evenings. These are informal gatherings where we play some games and have a drink.
If you’re in Sydney or Canberra, please come along! These are free events and are very informal - so feel free to drop by just for a while, and bring a friend or two. Details in the links:
6.00 - 8.00pm Tuesday 15 March
Verity Lane Market, upstairs in the Sydney Building, 50 Northbourne Avenue
6.00 - 8.00pm Tuesday 22 March
107 Projects Gallery, 107 Redfern Street, Redfern
Last year, Jordan Prosser and I were commissioned by the Centre for Marine Socioecology (CMS) in Tasmania to create a new show about the future of the world’s oceans. CMS had just finished work on a series of research reports entitled ‘Future Seas’, which explored two possible scenarios for the world’s oceans in the year 2030. They invited Jordan and I to turn those scenarios into a story.
Together with extraordinary graphic artist Sacha Bryning, Jordan and I wrote an epic globetrotting action thriller entitled Full Metal Aquatic, which follows a hijacking on a massive offshore ocean facility. In the spirit of our previous work CrimeForce: LoveTeam, Full Metal Aquatic looks at two possible versions of the narrative, one in each future.
It was a pleasure getting to create the work, and in particular to get to visit Tasmania to present it. Looking forward to sharing it more widely. In the meantime, here’s one of Sacha’s beautiful renderings.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.