How to dance against climate change

Text by Teemu Mäki. Translation Lola Rogers., 12.9.2020

In his essay Teemu Mäki depicts the environmental impacts of art and suggests ways to reduce them. You can dance against climate change by creating pieces with bodily language that is an antidote to the dominant consumer capitalism and its human image, the body of the gladiator, he writes.

nainen ylösalaisin ja takana koivu

Teemu Mäki: You’ll be a tree © Jonatan Sundström


New music [– –] has taken all the darkness and guilt of the world on itself. All its happiness is in the knowledge of unhappiness; all its beauty is in denial of the semblance of the beautiful. – Theodor Adorno (1949)


Art’s environmental impacts

What are the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts of contemporary dance? How much per performer, or per viewer? Does dance do any more harm than the work of poets, painters, or filmmakers? If all goods and services were lined up in a row according to their environmental impact, where would a contemporary dance performance belong?

In theory, all a dancer or poet needs for their art is a working body or a beat-up laptop, but what happens in practice? What’s the environmental impact of printing a book of poetry, or distributing it to bookstores? Producing a dance performance might consume fewer natural resources than producing a television series, but if the audience for the tv series is a thousand times greater than it is for the dance performance, should the artists producing the performance regret their choice of profession?

The direct environmental impacts of making, presenting, and distributing art can be large in any art form. In 2017, Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s Despacito was the most streamed pop song of all time.  Immaterial works and their internet distribution have a reputation of environmental friendliness, but Despacito‘s 4.6 billion views consumed as much electricity in 6 months as five poor African countries used the entire year (Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and the Central African Republic).

Many artists worry what meaning or point their works have in the shadow of climate change and other serious threats. If an artist creates an abstract or very ambiguous— that is, a poetic— work of art, are they guilty of irrelevance, or promoting escapism? Does an artist now have a duty to only create “emergency art” that deals with humanity’s most acute problems? Philosopher Theodor Adorno said in 1949:

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.

Should we likewise say now that to create works of dance during the sixth mass extinction is shameful?

Years later Adorno regretted that his words had been misunderstood. His original meaning was that after the Holocaust, one couldn’t write the same kinds of poems as before. The same holds true today. Climate change and the sixth extinction are central subjects of art, and they influence all other themes.

Art also has indirect environmental impacts. I don’t mean the ones that result when the audience comes to the theater by car or when someone turns on the light to read a book—since those are also, in my opinion, direct environmental impacts. I mean how a work of art impacts the environment through people. Art can change people’s world view, their world of experiences, their values–and thus also their behavior. These indirect impacts on the environment can be much greater than the direct ones, Despacito‘s example notwithstanding.

It doesn’t make sense to estimate the environmental impact of a work of art in the same way as you would the impact of, say, patio furniture, because works of art are not just a neutral place to hang out for their users; they are a way to engage with the most important questions as actively, honestly, and comprehensively as possible. Or at least they should be.

What to do?

A) Reduce the direct environmental impacts of your art. Use sustainable electricity and costumes and sets made with recycled materials. Don’t fly when you bring your performances to festivals… Get the assistance of an environmental expert. The expert might say, “It’s good that your theater has switched to using recycled toilet tissue and printing programs on recycled paper, but if you really want to make a change you should switch your restaurant to a vegan menu.”

But those actions aren’t enough. Even if a theater succeeds in reducing their direct negative environmental impact to zero, even if they make a positive impact by planting their yard full of trees and bushes, they will still cause harm if the performances inside reinforce the view of humanity and way of life that has led to global eco-catastrophe.

B) Take a stand in non-artistic ways, too. Hang a banner on the wall of your theater and print a text on performance tickets that reads: WE DEMAND AN END TO TAX SUBSIDIES FOR AIR TRAVEL! REPLACE THEM WITH A CLIMATE PROTECTION TAX TO OFFSET THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF AIR TRAVEL!

C) Change the world through art. Reveal shortcomings and search for solutions. Propose new values, new ways of living and new forms of happiness.

It’s important to use artistic tools to demand rapid cessation of the burning of fossil fuels, but even more important to make art that searches for alternatives to the vision of humanity and ways of being that have led us to this ridiculous predicament where people know that they’re destroying their environment and themselves but don’t know how to change because the compulsion for economic growth won’t permit it, because the market must not be disrupted and the gross national product must not be jeopardized, because it would risk mass unemployment, because we don’t dare give up the comforts we’ve gained, because we think we can’t put the brakes on unless everyone else puts the brakes on at the same time…

Some artists develop participatory ways to change humanity’s relationship with the non-human. They create alternatives to a relationship with nature in which humans are consumers and everything else mere resources. The art collective Other Spaces describes their method this way: “The core of our practice is collective physical exercises that help us get in touch with unfamiliar forms of being and experiencing–that help us visit ‘other spaces'”.

… Read the continuation of the essay in the Focus magazine, pp. 16–20 (it’s free) ›