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Maritime artists address environmental issues

This story first appeared in The Coast on June 11, 2009:

Laura Burke, Carla Gunn and Emily Vey Duke discuss their varying approaches to art and the environment.
By Chris Benjamin

Reasoning with a psychopathic culture hasn’t been much fun for environmentalists. It’s probably futile anyway—if you wanna change minds, you gotta touch hearts first. And touching hearts is the work of artists, not policy wonks.

“Art hits us viscerally,” explains spoken word artist Laura Burke. Burke, known for dropping earth-loving rhymes, will compete as part of Halifax’s national slam team in Victoria this November. “It does something typical education can’t do.”

The hard part is saving sermons for preachers. “The first draft of my novel was too didactic,” says New Brunswick novelist Carla Gunn. Her debut novel, Amphibian (which just got picked up by Random House Germany), is the story of nine-year old Phin, a David Suzuki in training—if he can survive the anxiety of saving the world from grown-ups. “The most challenging thing was to make Phin engaging and interesting, but not preachy. He has a lot of knowledge to share, but that can alienate an audience.”

The solution was to lighten Phin’s earth obsession with the humour inherent in a child’s frustration with the adult world. “Phin is very funny,” Gunn says. “He’s so observant in a raw and sarcastic way, which helped when he was over-the-top. Much of what he says is dark and disturbing, but those messages are balanced by humour and hope.”

Hope is a word environmentalists increasingly struggle with as predicted outcomes of climate change become more dire. Phin finds hope in locusts, which live in isolated pockets until the right environmental conditions arise. Then they swarm together. “Phin imagines swarms of people who care like he does, in massive mobilized units,” Gunn notes. This image helps Phin channel his anxiety into action, something Gunn thinks we all need to do.

Like Phin, she takes her motivation from nature. She grew up in the Miramichi, near a large field, a forest and a river. “I was motivated to write about the environment because of my experience with nature,” she says. “As I wrote I became more passionate about protecting it.”

Gunn became involved with a citizens’ group fighting the University of New Brunswick, which was hawking off large chunks of its forested wetlands to big-box stores. “They’re the experts on helping people with the most pressing problems and they’re doing this,” she says. “We look to experts to help us out of crisis without understanding that the experts themselves are limited. Until we’re all involved, we won’t solve the environmental crises we face.”

Some have given up hope altogether. As author Derrick Jensen puts it, “the most common words I hear spoken by any environmentalists anywhere are, ‘we’re fucked.'” Humanity being fucked is a major theme in the video art of Halifax native Emily Vey Duke and her partner Cooper Battersby. It is prevalent in the duo’s most recent project, Beauty Plus Pity, which showed as part of the Nova Scotia Art Gallery’s recent Forces of Nature exhibit. “This view is stated explicitly in much of our work: we are beyond redemption, we have reached a hopeless place environmentally,” Duke says.

Despite her own neurotic, “almost superstitious” tendencies to recycle and seek sustainable means of transportation, she says “the efforts of the environmental movement are largely futile.” Duke doesn’t consider this message bleak. “It is a source of great satisfaction, a relief to recognize that humanity is not going to go on as a blight infinitely. Whatever organisms survive us will rebuild this planet with relative harmony.”

Like Gunn, Duke and Battersby temper a difficult message with humour. Duke adds that shameless anthropomorphizing also helps. “We’re unabashed about making animals or inanimate objects things with which we can sympathize.” Allowing, or forcing, that emotional response and sympathy is the goal of the work, rather than getting people excited about the “nuts and bolts of the environmental movement.”

Laura Burke also aims heartward, but she dares hope her audience will also pause to think on whatever they feel. “With my poem, Water, I wanted to relate how we treat ourselves and each other with taking care of the environment. Hopefully the poem hits home for people and they see that when we don’t take care of ourselves we don’t take care of the world. Some people think I’m too idealistic, and for some it really speaks to them.”

For Burke, staying off the pulpit is as simple as checking with herself to make sure she’s speaking from the heart. “I stay abreast of environmental issues, but when I write I start with the personal, with having a relationship to the natural world.”

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