Making art while the world is burning

in
  • Videos
October 18th, 2020
A woman on the beach facing the water with her hands on her head

We're so excited to share this piece with you, and introduce you to an artist that is generously willing to share her story and her talents with us. Halena Seiferling is an organizer, communicator, project manager, and policy analyst, plus she is an amazing dancer and fierce advocate for a better world. Here Halena reflects on meaning in the midst of overlapping crises, and how, in our darkest moments, art will save us.

Crises colliding

Now, more than ever, we know we’re in a crisis. We told ourselves that the systems in our society were reliable, unbreakable, unshakeable. But we’ve also known for years – decades, in fact – about risks that could not only cause these systems to fail, but could cause massive destruction and suffering for us and our loved ones.

We knew, but it felt far away. It felt unlikely. It felt overblown. Surely, by the time we got to that point, someone would have fixed it.

We knew, but yet here we are, after another summer of record heat and forest fires – the same as every year lately. Except, of course, that this year is not the same. This is the year when everything stopped, when industry and economic growth slowed down, when we’re rethinking so-called unchangeable systems like health care and social welfare and having conversations about what it truly means to live in community with each other. And after years of climate activism that has sometimes felt fruitless, this is the year when things seem to be finally changing: global CO2 emissions are predicted to decline by about 8 percent by the end of this year, compared with 2019.

After years of climate activism that has sometimes felt fruitless, this is the year when things seem to be finally changing.

But none of this is by choice. None of this was the result of deliberate planning to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and to increase the resiliency of our communities, together. No, it was forced on us, through a pandemic, in what seems like a worst case scenario but is certainly not. This year is only a taste of how, if left unchecked, the devastating impacts of climate change could wipe out the systems, both physical and social, that we rely on to organize and enjoy our lives. For many of us, it’s our first experience of two global crises colliding and threatening everything we took for granted.

Dancing through darkness

So what do we do now? We take this as a warning, a cautionary tale. We waste no time to create and implement systems that are more sustainable, adaptable, and resilient.

People are hungry for solutions, and we need the experts. Engineers, policy wonks, economists, and scientists are essential. We need those with the know-how to design and implement these systems.

I have a Master’s degree in public policy, and I’ve worked in research, policy, and advocacy for close to 10 years. For three years I worked on climate change adaptation policy, focusing on how local governments can understand and plan for the climate impacts facing their communities. I’ve read the proposals, plans, and memos, with new policy ideas and old ones revamped, that aim to address current crises and prevent future ones.

But earlier this year as the pandemic overturned my life, when I was struggling to get out of bed, and when the news felt numbing and unreal, it wasn’t that expertise that helped me. Logic and facts were of no use. It was art that saved me. It was friends and strangers who made and shared art that was beautiful, uplifting, silly, sad, and authentic. It was my brain and body slowly remembering that I am still also a dancer, slowly discovering that it still felt good to move my body, slowly exploring new creative ideas and projects.

As the pandemic overturned my life, when I was struggling to get out of bed, and when the news felt numbing and unreal, it wasn’t that expertise that helped me. Logic and facts were of no use. It was art that saved me.

I have been a dancer my whole life. The dancing that began in my parents’ living room when I was three evolved into more than 20 years of training, performing, choreographing, and teaching. At times I’ve forgotten that I’m a dancer or felt I should ignore that part of myself in order to focus on more “important” things. But in recent years I have remembered just how important my movement, my art, and my expression are, not just for myself, but also for connection and for community.

So we need the engineers and the planners and the behavioural economists, but we also need the artists. We need the people who dream, create, move, and shake in ways that help the rest of us see exactly what we’re fighting for.

In recent years I have remembered just how important my movement, my art, and my expression are, not just for myself, but also for connection and for community.

Art can show us the gap between where we are now and where we could be. Art can be immersive, evocative, and tangible in ways that policy proposals never can. When we take in art, be it at a gallery or a live show or through our headphones, we’re deciding to open ourselves up to new stimuli that might make us feel things we didn’t before. We come in ready for an experience. Art can help us try on new systems, new possible realities, without the certainty of our current reality holding us back and getting in the way. After all, it’s just art.

Art will save us

Art has long provided relief, inspiration, and re-examination of the world we thought we knew, especially when it comes to the environment. For example, Cree artist Kent Monkman is world-renowned for his paintings and art installations that ask us to reconsider the concept of an open, empty wilderness that existed before settlers came to the place we call Canada. His works often show a beautiful natural landscape, similar to those of the Group of Seven Canadian painters, but insert Indigenous peoples and settlers into scenes of violence, dispossession, or humour to “[reverse] the colonial gaze to challenge received notions of history and Indigenous peoples.” By showing landscapes that depict scenes from our history and suggest potential alternative scenarios, we as viewers can better understand what has happened in the lands we occupy and what kind of future we might want. While controversial, Monkman’s work has been showcased around the world and contributes significantly to a deeper understanding of our relationships with land and with each other.

By showing landscapes that depict scenes from our history and suggest potential alternative scenarios, we as viewers can better understand what has happened in the lands we occupy and what kind of future we might want.

More recently, a short film from The Intercept called “A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” uses powerful storytelling and visuals to paint a picture of a world, a few decades from now, that is resilient and sustainable. Narrated by USA Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and illustrated by artist Molly Crabapple, the film asks viewers to consider what our communities could look like if we avoid the worst impacts of climate change and instead forge a much better path, and it also demonstrates exactly how to get there. At the time of this writing, the film was been viewed on YouTube more than 800,000 times and was nominated for Outstanding Analysis: Editorial and Opinion at the 2020 News & Documentary Emmy Awards.

Our species is capable of so much complex thought, yet we are not very good at long-term planning. As the saying goes, we cannot be what we cannot see. We need people who can show us what a more honest, resilient, and community-driven world would look like, feel like, sound like, smell like, taste like.

We need people who can show us what a more honest, resilient, and community-driven world would look like, feel like, sound like, smell like, taste like.

And once art shows us what’s possible, it can also inspire us and engage us in the process of building that potential future. In the span of just a few months now, we have had to rapidly reshape our daily lives, our public interactions, and our plans and expectations for the future. Now is the time when we’re hungry and willing, not just for far-away dreams, but for ways to make our day-to-day lives feel meaningful again. We need and deeply desire ways to feel connected to each other, to find the beautiful parts of life again, or to be inspired instead of afraid.

Art will save us, now and later. And the gap between now and later is rapidly closing.

Moving from the heart

So what kinds of art do we need? In my opinion, we need art that looks like the world we want to build. We need art that is made by and shows us people and experiences as richly diverse as our communities. We need art that highlights interacting with each other with care, with slowness, with compassion. We need art that explores sharing public spaces, that is accessible to everyone in our communities, that is shaped by local environments and resources, that welcomes new mediums and types of expression, and that empowers both artist and audience.

The trick, though, is that making art while the world is burning is a strange thing. For me, the feelings come and go in waves. Sometimes I feel joy and gratitude for how much is still so beautiful, how much is still possible. Sometimes I feel calm and grounded when I think about how, no matter what, the sun still rises and sets, the wind still blows, and the waves still return again and again to the shore. Sometimes I feel terror and grief and paralysis at how much has already changed and how little time remains within which we can safely change course. Sometimes I feel pure anger – at the politicians, the corporations, the generations before me, myself. Sometimes I feel nonchalance, because it’s all going to burn anyway so why not do things that feel good now while we still can?

Surely there is something else I should be doing rather than wiggling my body around in a studio or on a stage. It feels so selfish and indulgent. It feels like wasting time. It feels non-essential. But it is essential.

What I feel most of all is guilt. Look at the data, look at the parts per million, look at the fish with stomachs full of plastic. Look at the three academic degrees I have on my shelf. Surely there is something else I should be doing rather than wiggling my body around in a studio or on a stage. It feels so selfish and indulgent. It feels like wasting time. It feels non-essential.

But it is essential. Beyond showing us what’s possible and inspiring us to get there, we need art to help us take care of ourselves and our communities as we do that hard work of building a better world.

The system change we need will not be easy, and it won’t come quickly. It will take all of us, with all the skills and abilities and ideas we each have, for a very long time. And we are not going to get there if we all burn out along with the world as we know it. We are barely at the starting line now. It will at times be frustrating, uncomfortable, and challenging.

And so we need to do the things that humans have always done to find meaning and feel community. We need to make, share, and consume art. We need the artists, both among us and within us, now more than ever.

--------------------

Author photo: Jenne Pastega, @jennepastega

Halena Seiferling (Halena Lou) is a dancer, artist, and community organizer on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-waututh) Nations. Halena holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from Simon Fraser University and works in policy advocacy and community development. She also creates and produces dance works in various styles. Learn more about Halena at www.halenaseiferling.com.


Share it

  • By Halena Seiferling

In Closing

How does your body feel these days? Can you invite some gentle movement into your eco-anxious practice this week?

If you love to move, sing, write, paint, film, photograph, sculpt, or express yourself creatively, we hope you take time to indulge yourself, and use those responses to share your story. As we deepen our love for the world around us, we shore up the courage and capacity needed to keep moving forward.

Onward, friends.