A conversation between Susannah Haslam and Lou-Atessa Marcellin
Franz Erhard Walther, Neo-dada performance. Kope zu Kopf über Kopf. 1967. Image: Free Use.
Greetings Art Workers!
This month we have a CONVERSATION with researcher, writer and educator SUSANNAH HASLAM and artist and organiser LOU-ATESSA MARCELLIN. They talked with me about the Open Curriculum, their radical education project aimed at rethinking how to build literacy and educate workers about the climate emergency.
Training people about man-made climate breakdown or to be more carbon aware, is something that is beginning to be implemented in various types of institutions of art and education in the UK today on a nationwide-scale. Organisations like the Climate Literacy Project, Julie’s Bicycle and Creative Carbon Scotland are leading this approach. As much as I agree with teaching people about their ecosystems and the environment, I do question whether instructing people about the life cycle of greenhouse gases, or how many parts per million of carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere (412 ppm, in case you were wondering), will lead to the type of societal and revolutionary action that is needed. In fact, I would argue that literacy development is not only about the process of learning a language or information about a subject area, but it expands to include the active role of the reader or writer in constructing meaning and this process is inherently social in nature. On the 10th and 14th June, as the world witnessed the abuse of refugees by a radicalised UK government, Harsha Walia’s words spoke loudly to me. Walia writes, “refugees and migrants defying Fortress Europe do not require the variable empathy of Europeans; their movement is ultimately a form of decolonial reparations”. Borders displace millions whilst holding others in place. Defining those who go against these restrictive regimes as reclaiming what is owed to them as opposed to the axioms of dehumanisation or pity, is the type of vision I think is needed for a worker’s climate literacy. There is no talk about carbon dioxide. No definitions of greenhouse gases or biological cycles. Only justice for the earth’s inhabitants. As Cornel West says “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Commissioned for Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline, the Open Curriculum is precisely focused on this alternative form of council. Developed by Susannah Haslam, with contributions by Araceli Camargo, Megha Ralapati, Apex Zero and Charles Pryor the curriculum asks, how might the mindsets and practices of art and education, the actions that are often second-nature to its pedagogues and practitioners, be used to revise approaches and mediate knowledge and understanding?
The project will go live this autumn and be accompanied by a public event and performance by Lou-Atessa Marcellin. In the following CONVERSATION Haslam, Marcellin and myself collectively define what we think is meant by ‘carbon literacy’, determining the location of the term through a discussion on the acts of love, solidarity, atmospheres and slowness.
At the end of the newsletter there’s also an ace opportunity, an OPEN CALL for committee members from our friends at The NewBridge Project.
As always, if you are interested in getting involved or would like to have a conversation please get in touch. We are particularly interested in art and educational cooperatives and groups who want to get involved with the Open Curriculum!
Until next time,
Justice/Love: Interview with Susannah Haslam + Lou-Atessa Marcellin
Point A. Carbon Literacy Training
DA: At this point, when it comes to climate rhetoric, I think it feels like it is either narcissistic doom-mongering or overly positive claims. I think many people in the UK feel pretty disillusioned with these polar narratives. They know that both messages, and the channels of their delivery, are broken. All the carbon literacy kits I’ve come across are written in a detached but perky training model vibe. They have questions like, “What are greenhouse gases?” and “How is the climate here and elsewhere going to change?”. Who is this for, really? It sounds out of touch and is just a continuation of the many faceless narratives of ecology, science and technology that are fed to us by institutions and the media. The ongoing reality of climate breakdown, how this shows in our lived experiences and in our communities across the world, is far different. By 2050 an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in only three areas, Africa, South Asia and Latin America. This is in addition to the millions of climate refugees and people forced into exile or (labour) migration already. What does it even mean to teach carbon literacy to art workers in this context?
SH: In All About Love, bell hooks states that “there is a gap between the values [individuals] claim to hold and their willingness to do the work of connecting thought and action, theory and practice to realize these values and thus create a more just society.” And I think that there’s something important in hooks’ thinking that echoes what you outline here; that there exists a dangerous disjuncture in this separating-out, or disconnection, between the imperative and the action, or in your terms, the “faceless” thing and the face/s here. To continue with this metaphor, finding faces for the narratives written on climate justice, is not just about locating fault lines of climate change, or imaging those most impacted by it, but is instead, and also to draw from hooks, about courageously enacting the principles of a love ethic which is based on showing care, respect, knowledges, integrity, and holding the will to cooperate. Faces that shimmer off the edges of this courage are, I reckon, impossible to image; they resist capture because they look, they are, different in every context. Solutionism is the wrong approach — Dani, we spoke about this early on — because it assumes that something can be fixed with existing tools — if that was possible, then surely this something would have been fixed by now.
In the way I understand the arc and critical work of the open curriculum, it is less about teaching carbon literacy and more about finding better use for the so-called tools we have in art and in education, towards a new starting point that is always already carbon literate. I mean, I don’t even know what this fully means yet, but I’m sure it means that it, carbon literacy, can no longer be a virtuous bolt on. Too, teaching carbon literacy is to continually ask questions wrapped up in the foil of ‘what are greenhouse gases?’ And ‘how is the climate going to change?’ only to not find the answers. For carbon literacy, we need to dig deeper and reflect; to dig deeper, we need to think, know and be in relation to people, not discourse per se. And that’s often really tricky in an art world that is still premised on a triangulation of art school, exhibition, and market, as systemic gatekeepers, wrapped in discourse. The project of the open curriculum is to avoid its co-option, if that makes sense, and instead break into this triangle to bend its angles and to sit within them: rather than training artists for, and to be resilient in, a spectacular artworld, encouraging people to just pass through, it is instead about finding love: encouraging genuine dialogue, and learning and knowing from that, and finding the confidence to stick with something, to commit, and to cohere all of this. This is what we do in education — this is what we fight for in education, these are our tools — and so I propose that we take these elements of love, dialogue, confidence and coherence and work them back into that.
These four qualities and capacities are often given primacy as affordances of working within or proximate to art, in education, and as part of and within associated organisations and institutions. However, they are often exercised as trade offs, for precarious labour, low-pay, inequalities and inequities systemically rubbed into the fabric of arts and education worlds that we know. So, I propose to put them to work differently, enfold them productively back into arts organisations, as practicable skills almost towards being in better relationship with the climate, being in solidarity with our communities of practice, colleagues and comrades towards just energy transition in arts work. So, when you ask what it means to teach carbon literacy to arts workers in this collapsing context, I think it’s also helpful to separate out and reconsider those terms of teaching and literacy in as much as the arts work, workers and collapsing contexts, if we are to act.
DA: I think this is what art organisations and non-profits mean when they say that art, as an aesthetic mode of communication, can help society to work towards climate action. The argument is that culture has the capacity to help people close the gap between their values and their actions. But when it comes to ‘climate literacy’, I think we need to undo so much of the learning that is presented to us as neutral and ‘universal’ and envision new forms of communication. A new language of how to interact with one another, look after one another and engage with the things that others produce. How might an open curriculum, as a sort of hookian technology of translation, help workers acknowledge if not begin to address these deeper systemic problems?
SH: This is such an interesting proposition, that the curriculum, in fact the broader project, in one way takes the form of a large-scale, plurivocal technology of translation! Specifically, we hope that the curriculum might model a form which does offer something to comrades in arts work; that is, something else to open up opportunities to reflect on the work they already do, in relation to the organisations that make and frame this work, and or the systems that limit that work. I’m keen to learn how organisations — as entities — too can do this realistically, of course this depends on a lot, but let’s say for example that employment contracts in an organisation are just rewritten to account for the carbon literacy of its workforce (workers, infrastructures, ecologies, environments), to mark this as a starting point that is always already carbon literate, that is, shows care, respect, holds knowledges, integrity, and wilfully to cooperates. This also feels a bit literal as well as a bit too loose, as it is a lot more nuanced. What i’m trying to get at is this what if, how do we get to the point that contracts — terms — of employment protect its workforce (as above) throughout just transition? What if institutions just committed in practice to doing things better? As many readers will be familiar with ongoing struggles in further and higher education, this gap, impasse, and polarity in positions between business and education is wedged by two totally incoherent projects; essentially for matters of profit and matters of love. You described this earlier on: the gap, impasse, and polarity produces the same struggle essentially between two differing matters, and this is where a problem lies. What’s confusing is that surely it is in the interest of both to find something in common, but their languages, and not solely in terms of communication, don't cohere.
I am also interested in what this new language of climate justice is; one which is based on other forms of interaction based on caring for each other. I believe that love, dialogue, confidence, coherence as capacities can form that basis. Dani, we came to these capacities in conversation when trying to work out what a curriculum is, what learning is, what education is: why ask what greenhouse gases are when we can ask where love is or, importantly, can be at work… I’m mindful that I speak from a place of immense privilege here — I encounter a lot of love in my work. I also think that love does not have to be this deeply personal thing either, it is practised often without any depth, and materialises in repetition, focus, and at distance. Back to hooks, there is a possible way to love in practice and this is often much bigger than and less centred on self. Part of this selflessness is derived through a willingness to not be led by ego in our work – I would say that there is something important in this finding in common that privileges the inherent collegiality of work.
This type of collegiality is also solidarity and exists in multiple forms from the structuring of work spaces, and organising with colleagues, to the stuff that happens outside of work. Although referencing a totally different context to this, I want to share something that Charmaine Chua mentioned recently in a talk, ‘Against the Line’, where she discussed the mattering and locations of solidarity ranging contexts such as Amazonian United’s organising on the shop floor in the USA, to the recent strikes in UK Higher Education, and the necessity of conviviality across this solidarity, which helps to characterise forms of love in practice. Chua powerfully draws on the example of a BBQ; that eating together is not solely for sustenance (and yet it is also all it is), it also creates space and time for genuine bonds to form, to care, to love, to the point that you can not not struggle in solidarity together. This point resounds so literally to me and my colleagues – we have been taking industrial action for some years now demanding that our institutions address pay discrepancies, increasing workloads, systems of equalities and equities, and casualisation. And so much of that common language of solidarity is found not solely in the fact that we work together in the same place, under the same or similar conditions – material and symbolic – but actually in the time spent with one another to the point of caring enough to work in solidarity. It’s really straightforward, and really powerful. Here Chua emphasises the role of love and conviviality and the sites in/on which they matter; this becomes a demonstration of care despite work, through cooking, eating, sharing, spending time, making space together outside of work.
Dani when you first shared SDNP with me, we discussed the 1976 Lucas Aerospace Alternative Plan, which radically proposes alternative ‘socially useful production’ methods for technologies at Lucas Industries, an aerospace manufacturer, in the face of cuts to jobs in the light of new technologies and internationalisation. The configuration of the plan involved numerous teach-ins and forms of finding in common with one another under the common belief that state funding that the company received could be better put to work in the production of more socially useful products rather than military contracts. The point I’m making here, despite the plan not being taken on by the company, is that the workers of Lucas Industries found productive and creative language in what they believed in and what they knew they could achieve at work. For just transition in arts work, the implication here is a recognition of the capacities of cultural practice as genuinely generative and contributory, and subsequently is in its claim over (at least some of) the narrative.
The Open Curriculum becomes a possible space in and from which to learn, and through which those narratives form, move and reshape in each time and at each point it lands, from the Stanley Picker Gallery, onwards. An open curriculum is situated and not generalised, is reflective and not didactic, requires participation in its continual rewriting. For this open curriculum, and to return to hooks, “‘embracing a love ethic means that we utilize all the dimensions of love — “care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect, and knowledge” — in our everyday lives [this includes work]. Being aware enables us to critically examine our actions to see what is needed so that we can give care, be responsible, show respect, and indicate a willingness to learn.”’
DA: From the beginning of the project, Susannah and I knew that we wanted to commission a translator, an ‘interlocutor’ of sorts, to disseminate the Open Curriculum in a more public way. I originally had this idea of teaching the curriculum to environmental managers and officers as a sort of skill-swap. After we explained the project to you, Lou, you came back to us with an interest in the idea of ‘slowness’ and ‘atmospheres’. Can you tell us how and why you were attached to these two themes and how they will materialise in the public presentation of this project in the autumn?
LAM: When I started my MA, I went to take a test to see if I had dyslexia and it turned out that I didn't, but the lady doing the test said to me: “You’re just a little slow”. What did she mean? On what criteria was she relying to define my slowness? I never envisaged that I was slow, probably because it’s something seen as negative in society (slow = stupid). But after thinking about it, being slow is what defines my relationship to the world of human and other-than-human. ‘Being slow’ is probably the reason why I like to be shown how to do things, repetitively, observing the gestures, the body language, the technicalities and emotions that are put into something. I’ve learned to learn by mimicking others until I master the task and can appropriate it. It made me develop close relationships with others, relying on them to achieve what I needed to, seeking their knowledge. So being slow allowed me to be with others, not just consuming who they are but to take the time to know them intimately.
Slowness is why I developed a collaborative practice with Diaspore, recognising that I, alone, could not possibly cover all my interests and that other people could talk about it more eloquently and in great detail. And that their thinking made mine evolve and grow. Ash McAskill talks about how “slowness is a tool for an artistic inquiry of vulnerability, inclusivity, and care.” And how we need to “move away from prioritising capitalistic organisational models of how an artist's body should move.” For what purpose does the body/mind need to perform, be productive. For whom? To what end?
Not being a very good student (in the academic sense), I’ve always favoured a model of learning based on lived experience. I’ve been lucky enough to meet people who took time to share their knowledge with me, as opposed to teaching me what they knew. There is a nuance between those two approaches of transmitting knowledge. One implies to spend time with the other, to reveal what you know; that being a technical skill or more abstract concepts, sharing your strengths and doubts, and being a vulnerable teacher. The other is a process of disseminating facts. This led me to co-found Ronces with Paquita Milville. Ronces is an artistic and pedagogic platform undertaking experimental and critically aware projects offering new readings of the landscape and its surrounding milieu. Ronces is a seasonal school, meaning we let ourselves be paced by our surroundings, it’s a place where knowledge is shared in a non hierarchical way, it’s a place for friendship, for being vulnerable, for laughing, for sharing personal stories and histories, for absorbing and being absorbed, for idleness. We wanted to set up a space, but now that I think about it, the idea of ‘atmospheres’ seems more appropriate to describe the feeling we ‘ve experienced throughout the different schools.
To bring it back to the Open Curriculum, slowness is a way of marking interdependence. I see this as something different from the Slow Movement, which has been criticised for its privileged approach to the environment. In the performance, slowness will characterise how we exist and work with one another.
What I like about atmospheres is that there is this idea of porosity, of seeping through, of life support. Performer and dramaturg, Alice Van der Wielen-Honinckx talks about atmosphere in a beautiful way in her essay ‘Space as Atmosphere, Floating in a Molecular Bath’ (2022). In the text she writes She talks about something she calls ‘Bathing in Resonance’, -
“Together we attune and let ourselves be affected, immersed, and even absorbed by an atmosphere that, as I like to see it, partly belongs to a molecular realm. This realm exists on an ontological level that precedes psychology, memory-models and instrumentality. In fact it precedes any kind of individuation altogether and therefore necessarily also evades semantic determination.”
It’s about breathing each other, moving as one in a totally disorganised series of gestures but somehow finding a rhythm and beauty in which we can exist simultaneously. It’s about hanging out, interrupting something to become conscious of someone/ something else. It’s about time, and time again, taking the time to exist or exit perhaps. It’s about doing things for the sake of it, for self-love and self-care so you can love others. I like to think about how I can be an atmosphere for someone else. Becoming a mother turned me into one quite literally. Although like every atmosphere I can run out of breath and need to decarbonise myself!
DA: I love your interpretations of these two ideas. One of the first talks I did as part of my Stanley Picker Fellowship for Ben Judd’s The Origin project was called ‘Atmospheric Attunements’. For many transnational identity people like myself, there is often a desire to know about family, history or context and this is often met with gaps, silences or absences. I am very interested in how atmospheres, materially and figuratively, allow us to find sudden senses of common-hood with a place. As a motif, atmospheres enable an exploration of belonging and attachment to our environments and show threads between environment and thought. In his book Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong (2011), Anthropologist Tim Choy retells a story about how, because he was an expatriate, he mistakenly thought that he could handle the polluted air in Hong Kong and that somehow he had a claim to the atmosphere in a way others didn’t. Obviously he was proved wrong because he ended up being very sick from the air pollution but he refers to this experience as “siding with warm air”, something that is a “localizing and nativizing endeavour”. How might breathing in polluted air, something that is intimate and automatic on a bodily level, scale up to be in relation to how someone might fix their national identity? I am intrigued by your beautiful comment; about being an atmosphere for someone else, is this your way of disseminating the Open Curriculum? Not only as a multi-person thing but by creating an ‘atmosphere’, something that is material-and-semiotic simultaneously?
LAM: Yes, to translate the Open Curriculum, I will use slowness and atmospheres to stage an interactive public performance. I will identify key concepts from the recorded conversations Susannah is having with Araceli Camargo, Megha Relapati, Apex Zero and Charles Pryor and I intend to use them to create an ‘atmosphere’ from which a group can engage in work to learn with one another, from one another, and to sustain and build solidarity. The idea is that the curriculum becomes a possible space—an atmosphere— in and from which to learn, and through which those narratives form, move and reshape in each time and at each point it lands.
Point B. Alternative Educational Model
The Open Curriculum is an experimental alternative educational project. It uses some of the observed and experienced affordances and capacities of art and education to critically reflect on what carbon literacy for arts workers might mean. Curriculum proposes a critical sidestep from training manuals and guidelines and rather understands the imperative to act to be based on genuine and empathic learning. The curriculum, as an instrument of institutional education, is an infrastructure to be better put to work: practically curriculum/curricula is/are the composition/s of subjects that form another instrument of institutional education, a programme. As a composition, the curriculum should care for, respect, know, be true to, and cooperate with its subjects, which in turn formulate actions. Curriculum is usually moderated, mediated, often in exchange for cash in a limited time-space window. Comparatively, The Open Curriculum is an open composition, initiated by Dani Admiss and developed and led by Susannah Haslam. It has evolved through the encounters of Araceli Camargo, Megha Ralapati, Apex Zero, Charles Pryor, and Lou-Atessa Marcellin in their work as practitioners and thinkers crossing thresholds of study. The Open Curriculum provides an infrastructure to rework, and about which we begin to reimagine what carbon literacy is. Here our subjects are carbon, solidarity and work and this curriculum is built with love, in dialogue, with confidence and by cohering voices, forming and offering an open speculative, experimental alternative learning infrastructure to the SDNP project.
Susannah Haslam is a tutor (research) in humanities at the Royal College of Art in London and a research fellow with Theatrum Mundi. Current research navigates loving and equitable relationships between contemporary education and cultural institutions and infrastructures; queer and critical subjects, solidarities, pedagogies, practices and environments; tertiary-level educational alternatives and expansions. Susannah works mostly in collaboration with others: current collaborations are with Dani Admiss, Lou Marcellin, Araceli Camargo, Megha Ralapati, Apex Zero, and Charles Pryor developing an open curriculum for the Sunlight Doesn’t Need A Pipeline project. Susannah wrote her PhD on the ‘Educational Turn’ in art and alternative art education, and previously studied visual cultures.
Lou-Atessa Marcellin is a cultural producer researching ideas of ecosophy in the ecological framework which interconnects social and environmental spheres.With a background in fine art, a graduate of the Royal College of Art (MA Performance) and UAL Camberwell College of Art (BA Photography), she founded the multidisciplinary research platform Diaspore (www.diaspore.org) and co-funded a seasonal school called Ronces (www.ronces.org). She is the Outreach Manager for the research organisation Theatrum Mundi and has been a visiting lecturer for UAL, the Royal College of Art, The Slade and Goldsmith University in London. @diaspore_projects / @rrronces
✍✍✍📝📝 Join The NewBridge Project’s Programme Committee
Deadline: Monday 25 July 2022, 5pm
We are recruiting 4 paid Programme Committee members for the period September 2022 – March 2024.
This new Committee will be responding to our new theme ‘The Home’ and will work with the staff team at The NewBridge Project to curate an arts programme.
NewBridge believe in many voices being represented through our projects and exhibitions, and we work with a committee to enable new narratives, methodologies and approaches to emerge across our programme.
Programme Committee members will be paid a total of £6,230 each over 18 months, at a rate of £12 per hour for a 7-hour day, which works out at around 4 days a month. They will also have a shared budget to commission new work and produce projects and exhibitions.