Co-Authoring the Future

Participatory Performance and the Climate Crisis

Addressing the climate crisis will inevitably create winners and losers, as society must weigh the cost of proposed solutions against the value of what and who needs protection. This not only impacts practical issues like how funds are allocated for infrastructure and economy but also comes down to a very basic question of what humans mean to each other in times of global crisis. I believe the arts are undoubtedly key to addressing this.

In the words of Jonas Staal, ‘If we want to change the world that we live in, we will have to imagine this change first. And the imagination is the domain of the arts.’[1] And so, artistic renderings of post-climate utopias emerge, ripe with the potential of an egalitarian and more united society. An artist, however, quickly finds that she is no more equipped to assign winners and losers than any other individual; indeed, anyone’s perspective will fail to account for that to which they are experientially and societally blind, no matter how exhaustively the issue has been researched or how creatively one has explored what might be possible. For this reason, co-authorship through participation is vital, because it broadens a single point-of-view into a network of perspectives.

The potential of this network is explored by French philosopher Jacques Rancière, who speaks of the artist as the creator of a landscape through which the participant, as an emancipated spectator, paves her own road based on lived experiences. This creates a kind of apart-togetherness, which ‘links individuals, and makes them exchange their intellectual adventures.’[2] In this article, I would like to take this metaphor a step further, entertaining the notion that all of life’s experiences can be viewed as a landscape—one through which many drivers are choosing their own roads, intersecting and diverging as they do so. World events and societal issues like climate change, social justice, and economy become a shared geography in this metaphor, viewed from many distances and directions. Artists intentionally reshape the landscape, open new areas for exploration, and expose individual drivers to each other’s perspectives. The additional challenge of the artist who engages in participatory work is to depict just enough of a landscape that participants also have the power to alter it. When it becomes a site of shared creation and discovery, it becomes more than just a conversation about a metaphorical mountain, river, or valley on the map of human experience. It becomes a social story that can be used to shape culture around issues that affect everyone. This, in my opinion, makes co-authored participatory art an ideal way to have a conversation about climate change action.

With this in mind, my fellow travellers, I invite you to go on a road trip with me (or, near me, maybe I should say), to explore emancipated spectatorship more thoroughly by looking at how our experiences guide our decisions about which direction to travel, and where these roads have the power to lead us.

And lest I take myself too seriously, I have interjected my own light-hearted conversation between myself and an imaginary (and unattainable) self-awareness.

Audio clip #1 Marco Polo

Just as we are born into all corners of the globe in our physical reality, so too are we born to vastly different life circumstances; social, cultural, and economic landscapes shape us through both nature and nurture, and set us in vastly different locations on our metaphorical map before we even begin our travels. And yet, Jacques Lacan (a student of Sigmund Freud) identified developmental stages recognisable to humans as a common thread. One of these he coins the mirror stage, or the (metaphoric) moment when a baby notices her reflection in the mirror for the first time and realises she is distinct from the world around her.

Mother is not me

Blanket is not me

You are not me

She is now a subject, sovereign over her actions, and everything external is relegated to an object. What is her relationship to that object? How does she interact with, obey, consume, or destroy that object? She has a hunger to learn these things from her parents in order to master the world around her. And so, by exploring this new landscape, she is indoctrinated into the symbolic order—the world of language, and embedded within it are power relationships and social norms. Subjects translate their unique lived experiences through this culturally shared system of signs and symbols, and this is the basis of all learning.

As Laura Mulvey explains in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ the baby views its reflection as ‘more complete, more perfect’ than her experience of her own body. The concept of I is born, and with it a lifelong mismatch between the experience of self and self-image.[3]

Audio clip #2 Mismatch

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Sicut Cervus.

Psalm 42:1.

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

As the deer longs for the flowing streams, so longs my soul for Thee, O God.

I am not even me

How does this mismatch of self and self-image affect the roads we choose to travel? I’ll give you an example from my own experience. I am an opera singer. Every time someone asks me my profession and I say, ‘I am an opera singer!’ my self-image (Mirror Self) and I have an argument:

I am confident, intelligent, cultured, and artistically talented.: Mirror Self

Inner Self: Liar. I don’t make enough money singing opera to be an opera singer.

I love the glamor of the stage—the lights, the costumes, the adrenaline—: Mirror Self

Inner Self:—constant rejection, personal and brutal criticism.

I have a great voice!: Mirror Self

Inner Self: I love singing, but a lot of people don’t like my voice.

I AM WORTHY OF YOUR LOVE: Mirror Self

This internal conflict leads me to wonder if I chose the road of opera singing because I simply love singing and performing and find the art form inspiring, or because I have learned that the labels ‘confident, intelligent, cultured, and artistically talented’ are my way to be useful and productive in society. I imagine that in claiming these ‘empowering’ labels, I relinquish the ability to pave my own road. I now travel down a highway built for people like me, heading toward a destination more important than the place I’m driving through. The landscape might seem interesting, but I have places to be. I’m a very busy person and there’s no time for detours.

Audio clip #3 It’s a cult

Words have power. They don’t just signify objects or actions; they tell stories that define the world. Their significance extends well beyond the processes of speaking, listening, reading and writing; language also relies on the memorisation of small spatial stories encoded into the body. Mark Turner, in his book The Literary Mind, discusses the phenomenon of image schemas, ‘skeletal patterns that recur in our sensory and motor experience.’[4] He notes that small spatial stories like ‘the tea pours into the cup,’ ‘he threw the ball,’ or ‘we followed the path’ are encoded in the nervous system in ways that are multi-modal (meaning the same image schema can be used to speak about a story, see it, feel it, perform an action, or even make a visual or sonic representation of it), and this encoded knowledge can then be used to understand new stories. For example, in a conversation about ‘falling in love,’ my experience of falling—feeling exhilaration and loss of control—comes into play. I am reminded of my experience of forcing my way through an obstacle when talking about having a ‘breakthrough.’ My experience of recovering from a cut or scrape is recalled in the proverb ‘Time heals all wounds.’

When I consider creating an artistic landscape for emancipated spectatorship, these shared spatial stories are invaluable tools I can use to sculpt the terrain. If I add a steep mountain (let’s say this is a metaphor for struggling to rise above a difficulty in order to gain wisdom), the participants will understand both the sensation of struggle and the feeling of being on top, both through having experienced a steep climb that ended in a beautiful view at some point in their life, and through having undergone some kind of life struggle that tested their limits before they ultimately succeeded. The points of view might differ, but the experience is something that many people hold in common.

In a similar way, image schemas are also used to create narrative imagining of how humans should behave in society: social norms. Labels chosen to show value to others are often reflections of these norms. Those who display them are considered competent and productive, while those who do not are marginalised. The pressure to conform can be immense, and choosing not to can cause a breach in society that can only be resolved by either adapting to reintegrate the marginalised party or by casting them out.

Audio clip #4 Do the right thing. Do it all the time.

Norms that create a sense of otherness can be a major hurdle to self-discovery, because it means refusing to co-create the social landscape. Years ago, on a very different road trip, I literally drove through the entire state of Alabama without getting off the highway. My rationale went like this:

People in Alabama are racist. They hate Yankees (this is a derogatory term for people who live in the Northern States). They have very high crime and low education. We do not share the same values. I am not safe here, and I’m not interested in seeing it when I am alone and vulnerable. I will just keep driving until I hit Florida.

That was a shame, because I will never know what Alabama could have taught me about myself or the world at that critical time in my life. I didn’t give its cultural landscape a chance to teach me new stories, and because of that I never shared them with other people who might never visit Alabama. Because I was afraid of what I would find, I chose to wear the label of Yankee for its social power, and my social norms had control of the steering wheel that day.

Being an artist means understanding the danger of never getting off the highway. A world threatened by climate change demands of us that we sculpt an artistic landscape that can serve as a site of exploration and an intersection of roads coming from all points on the map. We are, inescapably, members of a society that performs inequality even as it speaks with good intentions. But I believe that a shared story of an equitable future is possible if the apart-togetherness that Rancière speaks of is given a creative voice through participatory art. And if that story is placed next to the story of our present, we might all have a better idea of which general direction to drive as we navigate through the climate crisis. If nothing else, we have done the important work of trying to get closer to each other, learning the lessons of an intellectual road trip we would never have gone on if we hadn’t decided to explore our surroundings instead of simply being too busy (and too isolated) to ever question our destination.

Audio clip #5 Apart/Together

All voices performed by Jessica Renfro.

Jessica Renfro has performed as an opera singer in over 40 productions on stages throughout the US and Europe. She has also self-produced and toured multi-disciplinary performances around the US, and most recently wrote and directed Evil Ever Afterfor Erasmus University’s Cultural Platform Evening. Behind the mic, she has produced sixteen audiobook titles for Audible, including the recently released collected works of Lewis Carroll. She is currently in her first year at ArtEZ University of the Arts in the M.A. of Theatre Practices programme, exploring different models of participation in advancing climate change action.


[1] DiEM25 Nederland, ‘Artist Jonas Staal on the Art in DiEM25,’ YouTube video, 4:25, September 12, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAXLRqFTJwU&f.

[2] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2008), p. 17.

[3] Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Screen 16, No. 3 (1975): 6-18.

[4] Mark Turner, The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 16.