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Sustainable Design in Performance

PLUNGE by Michael Pinsky in which illuminated markers on London, UK monuments were placed to denote future changes in levels. The types of projects we focus on in this course.  credit Kristian Buss.

PLUNGE by Michael Pinsky in which illuminated markers on London, UK monuments were placed to denote future changes in levels. The types of projects we focus on in this course. credit Kristian Buss.

Having completed my first year at YorkU as Assistant Professor of Ecological Design for Performance in the Faculty of Fine Arts, I'm thrilled that this next year will see the addition of a graduate course on Sustainable Design in Performance. Though we ran a version of it last year for our first cohort of MFA Designers--a programme for which the course serves as a core of the first year course work--the 2013/2014 academic year will see it fully supported and integrated into curriculum. 

Sustainable Design in Performance will prepare students to tackle issues of sustainability in theatrical and related artistic practice, especially, but not limited to, as it relates to performance disciplines. Students will build their literacy in contemporary sustainable thinking, environmental/climate issues, emerging models of creation, pedagogy, and community stakeholder engagement through a combination of research, modelling and field work as strategic change agents in professional settings. Artists have the goal of creating good art; all people should have the goal to do things sustainably and take every opportunity to remake the way we make for a sustainable future. The goal is to create new, more sustainable methodologies in art and performance by looking at the history of arts practices through the lens of new techniques being embraced across design, construction and other fields. This course takes a systems thinking, solutions oriented approach to cross-disciplinary innovation with application and resonance in theatrical and artistic production.

In it's previous iteration last year, student projects focused on a variety of topics such as the the commercial use of pine beetle wood in BC, the impact of programmable paints on the modularity of artistic construction, and interacting with park management for site specific performance. We also welcomed a few guests like Adam Metlzer from the Arts:Earth Partnership in Los Angeles, which is focused on green business certification for arts organizations, and Australian Eco-Scenography researcher Tanja Beer. The course culminated in change agency projects that presented cases for expanded investment in Energy Efficiency at the Grand Theatre in London, ON and a best practices guide for designers working in outdoors theatre. 

This next year will feature work with Cape Farewell, the organization founding in 2001 by artist David Buckland to instigate a cultural response to climate change. Cape Farewell is now an international not-for-profit programme based in the Science Museum's Dana Centre in London and with a North American foundation based at the MaRS centre in Toronto. We will be fortunate to work with Cape Farewell as they plan for their Carbon14 festival which will feature an exhibition at the ROM from October 2013 - January 2014 and a performance series at the new Theatre Centre in February 2014. We will also work on helping to plan "Staging Sustainability" conferences in downtown Toronto (February) and Zurich (May) as a follow-up to the conference hosted by York in April of 2011. 

If you're interested in knowing more about the course please contact me at, enrolment will continue through the end of course sign-up this fall. 

The theater is no place for a plant

Every evening in most theaters, the air conditioning is turned up high, while technicians check every piece of 575w+ lighting and meticulously focused speaker clusters. They ensure that there is no foreign light, that the artificial fog moves the right way, and that the audience is comfortably buffered from influences we don’t control.

Usually, when I talk about theater being an unsustainable process, I am referring to the temporary nature of production. This lack of permanence, unlike “green” building, doesn’t justify a capital investment in sustainable construction materials, like Forest Stewardship Council (F.S.C.) lumber and no-Volatile Organic Compounds (V.O.C.) paint. There is a big difference in building your house and building A Doll’s House. But on top of all of that, the actual environment of the theater is an inhospitable one for most living things.

As a graduate student at CalArts, I worked on a production of Naomi Izuka’s SKIN, in which the scenic design had a ground row of living plants between the audience and the stage. Conceptualized as a natural lens to view a gray industrial space (really the theater itself), we worked long hours on supporting this living design element. This included setting a schedule to remove the plants front the theater, daily, as to bring them outside into the sun. We installed a plastic membrane between the soil and the rest of the set to allow for regular watering. We had to find mature plants, and spares for those that died, to fill a flower bed 1’ by over 100’ for two weeks of performances. Finally, we had to figure out where these plants would go two weeks later, when we were finished with them.

And after all that, the plants never looked real. In the hyper-designed theatrical realm, their lush leaves looked bland -- so much so that they were lit with a bright green as to make them “pop.” Here was all this effort to include a living thing, but ultimately for something that looked fake. Aside from the knowledge of the crew, we could have skipped this life support system entirely, and plastic plants would have been just as effective. But this was graduate school, so we were allowed our indulgence.

While I was living in Houston, Texas, I was contracted to design a set in a large warehouse space. The play called for a large facade in a tropical location. I very much wanted to grow the facade, and deeply invested hours of research into kudzu. Kudzu, for those unfamiliar with "the plant that ate the South," is an Asian vine that was brought into the United States to assist with abating erosion. But, as with many attempts to introduce foreign flora or fauna into a new region, it took over. It can grow over one foot in a day and is known for enveloping homes in a season. Of course, on a tight schedule, I wanted it for its quick growing properties, but soon learned that it was illegal to bring into Texas. A plant that could tough out the harsh theatrical environment, so hardy and aggressive it is legislated against its use.

As a human being, not solely dependent on sunlight for my day-to-day living, I recognize the unnatural situation of entering a building early in the morning to sit in a dark room and then leaving once it is night. This is the theatrical environment of many contemporary theaters. During the winter months, I’ve not seen the sun itself for days, and have weathered a couple blizzards in a tee-shirt with no clue as to the snow pack outside. And, when I’ve tried to bring the outside inside, it’s been a poor substitute for a substitute or just plain disallowed.

As a child, I grew to love Shakespeare at a theater in Southern California called the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. It was started by Will Geer, an actor best known as Grandpa Walton. He had been blacklisted during McCarthyism and retreated to land he had purchase in Topanga Canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Here he grew vegetables for his livelihood, with a road-side stand, but also began a theater company in an outdoor amphitheater.

I would later work at the Theatricum Botanicum as an administrator, but this is where I first learned to listen to theater, to let go of the words on the page and fill in the rest with theater artists at work. There, theater takes place in natural canyon with railroad ties for bench seating and a simple stage that is a deck over a sometimes-stream.

And, what I learned there is that you can’t design this environment. The annual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is magical because it doesn’t need anything except to happen. It is natural and spontaneous in this canyon in a way which the controlled environment of the theater space downtown could never really replicate. For all the technology to make theatrical magic, this place used as itself is a better substitute than the substitute.

Of course, when you tried to put Arthur Miller on that stage it was, at times, to mixed effect. It’s hard to make a living room believable in the woods.

But we should be thinking about our theater spaces in the same way that landscape architects think about working with an indigenous environment: What is the best thing for this place and use? How do we make a theater space that fulfills our needs and desires, while supporting life? A part of sustainability in architecture is about environmental health: natural lighting, air-quality, safety. Perhaps rather than just putting solar panels on the roof, we should be thinking about making sure a building allows life in the first place.

his was originally posted on and is reposted by permission from the Ashden Directory:

MITOS21 Conference on Sustainability and Culture

mitss_SustainabilityConf2I've recently returned from the MITOS21 Conference in Thessaloniki (, Greece where I was invited to represent the US approach to issues of sustainability in arts presentation in terms of policy and programming with our European colleagues.

My presentation was on the impact of sustainability and climate policy in the US (or lack there of) on the Arts. Following my presentation I shared the stage with Moderator  Iphigenia Taxopoulou (General Secretary, Mitos21), Simon Brault (Vice-Chair, Canada Council for the Arts & CEO, National Theatre School of Canada), Christopher Miles (Deputy Cabinet Director, of the Minister of Culture, France), Neil Darlison (London Director, Theatre, Arts Council of England) and Alison Tickell (CEO, Julie’s Bicycle, London), Ian


2013-04-19-13.30.32Representatives of political authorities from Greece and abroad, cultural policy-makers and experts from various fields were gathered to map out and shed light from different perspectives on this emerging international regulatory framework, i.e. how the principle of sustainability is endorsed in national and supranational cultural policies and how it is reflected in instruments that are directly or indirectly linked with the field of culture, such as the relevant European policies, EU directives, legislation, economy, development.

Below is the text of my talk on the impact of US climate policy on the Arts sector:

The Unites States is the largest per capita contributor to greenhouse gases in the world. Yet climate change remains a political minefield, deeply tied to strong and varied political and commercial interests. More and more, building regulation is integrating requirements for sustainable design into new construction, resulting in a rising number of LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) certified cultural facilities. While facilities are trending toward "going green," operations, as well as creative practices in museums, theatres and music halls often do not correlate to the building's environmental standards.  US policy and public discourse around sustainability is a complex, problematic and varied topic.

In the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies' (IFACCA) report on Arts and Ecological Sustainability from January 2009, it's stated that: "the arts sector is uniquely positioned to inform public debate on climate change and to explore solutions. Examining worldviews, social realities and physical circumstances has been a concern of the arts since prehistory. As public concern about climate change and other ecological issues grows, so does the engagement of arts practitioners with these issues"

This view has found it's way into many policies governing the dispersal of public money to arts organizations. Some of this manifests in operational consideration, some of it in the management of facilities. However, in the United States, neither approach has been consider outside of isolated examples in terms of arts funding.

Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta Georgia was the first LEED certified theatre in the US, but barely make note of it, aside from a subpage on their website. More widely known, Portland Center Stage in Portland, Oregon became LEED Platinum when opening the Gerding Theatre at the Armoury in 2006. A number of building projects began to develop soon after. New York Theatre Workshop  began work on what would be a LEED Gold workshop across the street from their performance facilities on 4th street on New York's Lower East Side. Brooklyn based Theatre for a New Audience began a capital campaign for a new space, intended to seek LEED certification (and currently nearing completion) (jean guy lecat). In Los Angeles, the grant that essential started the CSPA came from the Centre Theatre Group and was tied to the renovation of the Mark Taper Forum and building the brief for an Arts Leadership building to replace all of the offices for organizations resident to the Music Center in downtown LA. As these LEED certified arts projects grew in number, a common theme emerged as well: The buildings might have been "green", but no specific efforts had been made to consider what was on stage. This fact, stated plainly in a 2007 site visit to Portland, led to a number of the research efforts of the CSPA looking at production.

Many of these projects were either halted or stopped as a result of the 2008 economic downturn. Those which have completed have been able to integrate their LEED aspirations in their buildings, but often times this can come out of the codification of LEED standards into building codes. For instance, it's not possible to complete a building using any public funding on Manhattan without essentially meeting LEED Gold standards. Since it's nearly impossible to build at all in that area without public funds, this had resulted in a growth of green building, certified or not.

In fact, in recent conversations with architectural consultants and members of the USGBC, a rising area of concern is the possibility of a future where LEED certification is no longer an aspiration. All of that standard's marks for certification are slowly being incorporated into building code.

In this way, policy in the US has had a direct impact on development, capitalization and management of arts facilities. These buildings are rarely made without some public funding component. As a result, more and more are being built green out of requirement. This does vary widely across the nation though, as these policies are typically established at the municipal or state level. There is yet no federal policy that factors into this equation. Until President Obama's second inaugural address this past January, there really hasn't been a clear federal sustainability or climate agenda to speak of, and that intention has yet to be acted upon. Only 38 of the 50 states in the United States have established policy on sustainability. 4 of those have yet to complete their sustainable action plans. That leaves 12 states without any clear policy on sustainable or climate issues.

Though there may be little policy that impacts the arts and culture sector with regards to issues of sustainability, this hasn't prevented action from being taken. Though there is yet to be any larger funders, such as the Doris Duke or Andrew Mellon Foundations, who have taken up the cause of sustainability in arts and culture (despite having separate funding priorities in both arts and environmental issues which do not overlap), there have been ambitious initiatives which have been funded. The Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego developed their Green Theatre Choices Toolikit in partnership with Brown & Wilmanns Environmental, LLC with funding from the MetLife Foundation. Childsplay in Phoenix, Arizona has been doing important research around lumber issues in scenic construction. In New York, Los Angeles, and Phillapelphia new infrastructural projects dealing with sharing of resources across theatrical communities have started independently of one another with support from their municipal arts agencies and primary funding coming directly from the potential user base.

A recent change of interest though has been coming from our work in our idea of Cultural Offsetting. An idea, which has in part been inspired by a conversation I had with Alison Tickell, also on this panel, in 2009, which relates to the potential for positive environmental outcomes based on gathering people in one place. We've seen promising data that potential energy consumption is less in theatres and at concerts than would be estimated to be consumed by audience if they were at home. Our initial data 15% less  and emerging data 15-40% of that. With the development of methodologies for estimating the carbon footprint of audience and artist travel, expected economic impact based on cultural participation, better metrics for energy and resource consumption compared against typical audience behaviours, we feel that it is likely that cultural participation is better for the planet than people sitting at home. This has led to two thoughts:

One, that by measuring the environmental impacts of cultural activities we can show that without any change, these events are already more eco-positive than no activity. And, that this has led to more interest in sustainable change; the conversation about changes is now generally positive and meets with less resistance as a result of starting from a place of immediate benefit, diffusing resistance that originates from an expectation of future restrictions.

And, Two, that changes, even small changes, which--with regards to the actual footprint of an event--may lead to nearly negligible reductions in that isolated footprint, are magnified in direct proportion to audience participation in such events. Further combined with the public awareness that is possible by tying sustainable themes to content or around content, the potential impact of arts and cultural activity may have greater return than that invested in building projects.

This all really just restates, in a way which is connected to tangible administrative outcomes, the IFACCA summary from 2009. And, as a result we've been able to peak the interest from funders, including those tied to public investment in culture as a clear way to connect these priorities. So while there may not be clear policy affecting arts and culture in the United States in terms of sustainability, there may finally be a way of understanding the connection in our philanthropic system of support which often relies on a pure capitalist approach tied to returns as dollars, visibility or social impact, to really take hold.

Giving Voice: Art and Eco-Justice

Adapted from the original here:

In December of 2009, I traveled to Copenhagen for the fifteenth Conference of the Partners meeting, better known as COP15. I was there to serve as a witness to the artistic and creative responses to COP15. I was not looking to observe the UN Climate Change Conference itself; I felt this was easily accessible through remote media, and, in some ways, the less interesting event. While COP15 itself had far reaching implications for international governments, I felt my presence could serve to chronicle the other voices that were trying to be heard through less formal means. And, in the winter edition of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts Quarterly, I asserted that this creative sound -- from the gallery exhibitions to the street-performance demonstrations -- was the only collective, non-political voice. There is no political body that serves as the voice of the holistic sense of Planet Earth quite like those of artists.

About six months later I participated in the Arts in the One World Conference at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). In this past year, its fifth, the theme was guhahamuka, a Kiri Rwandan word that refers to the breathless attempt to articulate the inexpressible. And again I came to these thoughts of giving voice to that which can not speak for itself, and trying to communicate things which are nearly impossible to communicate. I continually come back to the necessity of art to fill this void. I see creativity as not just that oversoul of our celestial orb and home, but that which gives all people and things a chance to communicate with others without requiring political power or similar agenda-ed platform.

Invisible 5, a project by Amy Balkin, is a prime example of this type of work. Organized as a self-guided audio tour through the California Central Valley along US Interstate Highway 5, this project highlights ecological issues related to the history of this thoroughfare from Los Angeles to San Francisco. This additional layer of spatial encoding transforms the experience of transiting across a typically uneventful stretch of highway into a shocking story of rapid ecological disturbance, injustice, and racism. It reveals a hidden past, lending the inspiration for the project's title.

My own motor-touring experience comes with a personal history of making this driving numerous times. My father was raised in the San Jose area, and my paternal grandparents were laid to rest there. I grew up traveling back and forth fairly frequently. My brother and sister in-law lived in Oakland, and my wife and I traveled when we could to visit our little nephew. Were I not to have met Amy and heard her speak about this project, I perhaps never would think about the secrets just beyond the shoulder of the road as I barreled along this route. Without this piece, there would only be silence, and I would have traveled on, ignorant of the veiled violence.

In Balkin's project, we are told of the duality of this region's former riches. We hear about building up the area surrounding this new thoroughfare, the impact of oil, the creation of large agribusiness, industrial farming, toxic waste, and deadly fog. The stories are told by activists, residents, officials, and rangers. Without this compilation, though, one might never know the tales this land now holds. There are those who would prefer we weren't paying attention; things are rarely hidden for the sake of being hidden.

From the largest gatherings of political powers on the future of global ecology to the environmental maladies laid at the feet of small rural communities that aren't expected to say much, it is important that silence isn't encouraged. There is no advocacy in silence. There is no remembering in silence. The small island nation of Tuvalu, who became a household name through advocacy at COP15, is about to vanish due to the rising seas, and uses its little might to assert that it doesn't want to be forgotten while the larger nations jabber. This example is most compelling because it was the closest to a pure voice that exists in these political talks. It is not talking about the threat to its economy, but simply survival.

We could start to talk about any number of instances where advocacy is needed. The Bhopal incident in India was only recently revisited when Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide and had to answer questions about this tragedy. In order to appeal to developers, structurally sound public housing projects were closed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The list goes on in terms of injustice and ecology, and a lack of advocacy predicated on environmental grounds.

This is what makes a project like Susie Ibarra's "Song of the Bird King" so important. It is an effort to amplify the voices of those affected by the over-fishing, commercialization, and subsequent acidification of Lake Sebu in the Philippines. But it also shows use the problematized arena that art must step into. It is easier to talk about the negative environmental impact of an action. There are more metrics for the destruction of habitat and ecosystems than the cultural consequences; We can talk about sea levels rising. We can talking about the annual fish kill of a body of water. We can talk about the toxicity of particulates in the air. But we cannot empirically state the effects on a population and how this affects its culturally sustainability.

We live in a world where so many are culturally and geographically disconnected from their lands of origin that we rarely consider the importance of place to people. As Susie's project notes, only four percent of populations live indigenously. But we find it difficult to even understand the connection of people to their non-indigenous homes, like the farming communities of California's Central Valley or those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. When a storm is coming, we ask, "Why don't people just move out of the way?" without valuing a personal or a cultural attachment to place.

This is the root of ecojustice, providing fairness to a person's or people's habitat, and, while images of drowning polar bears are heartbreaking, helping us recognize our humanity in environmental issues. Balkin's work highlights those we don't see in an area we see as vacant -- the "away" where we keep throwing everything. We forget about the tragedies like Bohpal that continue to affect lives discarded by corporations on the other side of the globe. Who knew about the small islands in the Pacific until their inhabitants spoke up? Tuvalu and others are merely tropically anomalies with little to exploit. And, in Song of the Bird King, there is the vision to look at Lake Sebu, not just as environmental issue, but one of those rare places still connected to a culture and people.

Fusebox Festival Sustainability Study

522024Sustainability is a complicated idea. Amongst other possibilities, it can refer to environmental and economic issues. With the effects of the global economic climate on arts funding, both are hot topics when taking about the creative sector. However, most conversations don't address both this definition AND issues of environmental sustainability, even though both are equally included with the most commonly held definition of sustainable development and ideas of the triple bottom line.

In August of 2011 Ron Berry and Brad Carlin got in touch with the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts to talk about the Fusebox Festival and issues of sustainability. Leading up to the festival through the end of 2011 and the first part of 2012, we developed a methodology for measuring various impacts of Fusebox on its community with two primary things in mind. First was to explore the idea of cultural offsetting; looking how environmental, social and economic impacts of the Fusebox interrelated. The Second, because this was Fusebox, was how this would, itself, fit the programming.

To address the first concern of interrelated impacts, we tracked the carbon footprint of audience travel, the density of audience attendance over time, various forms of engagement, the potential economic impact of the festival, and key external factors like weather and non-Fusebox events across Austin. Using the various data sources, we then generate graphic representations of how these factors related to time and space in Austin. It was the next step which made the project part of what makes the Fusebox Festival and the CSPA unique. The infographics we created were enlarged by hand to create an installation which covered the East wall of the festival hub. The former Tops Furniture Warehouse, and the adjacent field had been temporarily taken-over by the festival to serve as the central gathering point for audience, artists and curious passersby. Using reused 8’ x 4’ scenic flats--generously donated by the Austin Scenic Co-op--the computer graphic data representations were translated into spray paint and string, by local leaders in sustainable practice in theatre, Derek Kolluri and Jennifer Lavery.

While the project hasn't explicitly drawn a clear link between the economic and environmental sustainability of the Fusebox Festival, it has given us common ground to consider the connection between culture and climate as a direct and metric relationship. Many of the environmental issues we look at in the cultural industries, outside of the messages we express, come down to resourcefulness, and have a positive financial impact on the arts organizations and producers who actively pursue more environmentally sustainable practices. So, as organizations which already balance mission and money, valuing sustainability both environmental and economic should easily fit in our administrative framework. And, building these connections will make us more nimble, smart and responsive in the markets we're tied to in our greater society.

Download the PDF orPurchase a Hardcopy HERE

Sustainable Development and the Arts

Why do we care about environmental sustainability in the arts? As art makers, It is already difficult to keep our doors open, get audience in seats, sets on stage, paintings on the wall and so on. Is this another restriction on how we can do things? Are these more restrictions on what we can create?

Why do we care about the arts in environmental sustainability? We're already trying to cut carbon from private automobiles, change over to renewable energy sources and figure out what to do with all of this plastic. What makes the arts any different from what people are doing in their homes and offices? Are the arts unique in this equation? As a small percentage of our economic engines how can the arts drive innovation like the construction or another industry?

As director of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, an organization devoted to exploring the intersection of sustainable development and the arts, these questions are the center of every decision we make. It is clear to us that these issues are intertwined, but how do we express this to our partners and stakeholders?

The truth is that these questions aren't easily answered. Not like ones about why we should choose electric mass transit versus private vehicles powered by fossil fuels. The issues of cost of living, emissions and pollution, political holdings and global conflict bombard us constantly. Billions of dollars are spent on both sides of these issues. There are constant global discussions on trying to make sure our planet will be livable, in a quality way, for our grandchildren and beyond. So who has time to worry about art? Isn't it a luxury in these times of extreme crisis?

I ask about what we're trying to save, if not our culture and way of life. If art is lost in our efforts to carry on, what is it that we're carrying on? Our earliest record of how we interacted with the world is artistic. These elements of our identities and culture define "us"; not just who we are, but that we are. These signifiers of humanity and what we value establish the very things which we're attempting to sustain. If we're to consider the quality of life and ability to function in keeping a person on life support, shouldn't we attempt to do the same for our entire civilization? Looking at the cultures of the pacific, threatened by rising sea levels, erasing their homes and the culture that ties them to their place, how can we not say that the entirety of sustainable thinking has a cultural element?

And for the converse, how can we say we represent the ideas of our culture unless we are mindful of how we act within it? If we don't think about how we make, being mindful of resources important to our creative output, how can we claim to speak for a society where resources are limited? If we don't think about what we are making, being mindful of how our creative output represents ideas, at the forefront or in the background, which are at the center of our thinking on the ability of our civilization to continue, what exactly are we talking about of merit anyway?

We do live in an era where we see a division between art and science... or anything we can measure and quantify. It is easier to predict how many degrees the planet will warm, or that sea level will rise based on parts per million of definable elements than it is to say how many children will lose touch with their ancestry because of catastrophic climate change or how the stress of forced migration to pursue arable land will cause traditional dances to be lost. It's easier to express what will happen than it is to express how we will experience the change.

But as seemingly difficult as this might seem, this is our fourth dimension of sustainability, which is what we are trying to sustain. And, without this, who and what are we beyond another invasive species?