This is the first of my interviews with other artists about public/participatory art, climate change, ecology and climate action. Poet, touring cyclist and storyteller Devi Lockwood is on the move, collecting stories of water and climate change. You can read more about her, her process and her travels at One Bike One Year. Devi and I emailed these questions and responses back and forth between Fiji and the U.S.
DL: First question for you: when did you first start becoming anxious about the climate?
KS: Your question has two answers. I started being … provoked, I guess … by the possible effects of climate change (mainly sea level rise) in 2010 or so. But I started feeling real fear and grief and helplessness in the fall and winter of 2013 after reading an article on ocean acidification–so not climate per se, but carbon-caused changes–and ecological decline. And then I started learning more and more about the fragility of ecosystems, and the ability even of smaller rises in temperature, for example, to disrupt them. I don’t know if people were writing and talking more about larger-scale ecosystem effects of a rise in global temp around that time, or if it was just like when you notice something and then you’re switched to noticing it, you see it everywhere.
Do you feel that fear and anxiety are part of what’s moving you to collect stories? What are the other things spurring you, and what do you hope the project will lead to or push for?
DL: I try not to let fear drive me. What’s moving me is a combination of my love of listening and raw curiosity. I just graduated in May with a B.A. in Folklore & Mythology, and so the act of listening, for me, is an act of love. this project is a love letter for me to the world. I’m not a scientist, but I am a listener. I can’t measure change, but I can document it through recording the words that people tell me. I am twenty-two years old and I think that water and climate change are and will continue to be the defining issues of my generation.
I was recently in NYC to record audio stories surrounding the People’s Climate March. 400,000 people flooded the streets to demand more meaningful measures to address climate change. I spoke to activists from Uganda, Mexico, Indiana, Toronto, and beyond. The energy in the march was electric. You know those moments in your life when you feel that you are doing something that is just right, both for yourself at this moment and for the world you are a part of? That’s what’s moving me. It’s hard to put into words, but I’m doing something that feels right for me at this time.
I am intrigued by the complexity of the problem, and also how it intersects along axes of race, gender, and class. I hope that this project will push for greater listening––that it will allow folks who listen to the stories I record an opportunity to get outside of themselves and their experiences and thoughts for a moment and to feel the weight of another’s story on their shoulders, to consider their point of view. Climate change is a global issue, and to address it we need globally-minded folks with open ears and small egos and open hearts. I believe that climate change poses a challenge to humans to reinvent our relationship to our surroundings and also to each other. I want to be a small part of that effort.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a wonderful talk called the “Dangers of a Single Story”. Listening to another’s story is a way of knowing. Listening is an act of love. If there’s one thing we need across lines of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation right now, it is love. And if not love, at the very least openness and a willingness to listen.
Are you anxious yourself? How does this project help you temper that anxiety?
KS: I am very anxious! As a person, but also about the effects of climate change in particular. But what you’re saying about listening to people’s stories is resonating with me very much, because if I’m listening to a confidence I invited, then I’m concentrated on hearing what that person is saying to me and seeing what they’re showing me. They were real before, but now my acknowledgment of their reality is active and laborious–I recognize them and want them to feel that.
Being able to acknowledge the realities of others, shared and also different needs and desires and fears, seems like the small version–the seed version–of bigger political and practical changes that could help salvage something from the effects of climate change. I think love has power when it is an action, something we do, not something we feel. How can I love, actively, the inlet in Jamestown, RI where I go swimming? How can I love, actively, the guy who started out as a climate trivializer and may still be one, but I’m not sure, because he ended up talking a lot to me about his mother’s tomato plants? How can I love, actively, a tiny frog that only lives in a place where I’ve never been?
When the answer seems out of my power is when the anxiety comes back. But when I’m listening to people and we acknowledge each other as members of a shared world, I feel like I’m answering that question of active love in that moment.
That’s another thing that I think our projects share: their temporality. They’re not totally evanescent (we’re writing things down when people share them with us) but mine, at least at this stage, feels more like a pile of brief and powerful encounters that transform the moment and maybe seep into a longer-term state of mind than it feels like, for example, recruiting people to a sustained commitment to practical action. Can you talk about how you see these stories and your relationship to them and their tellers adding up and shifting over time?
DL: That is a great question. Right now I am enmeshed in editing the hours of audio that I have recorded so far. I’m only adding fades to the beginning and end of the piece, but it is slow going. I am doing my best to be fully present in the experience of listening.
There is a beauty in temporality. That’s what I love about people––we’re always changing. We’re moving. We’re dynamic. We’re unfixable. The me of today is both like and unlike the me of yesterday, the me of a few hours ago. The question of which stories I hear (and those that I don’t) is left mostly up to chance.
I know that I am changed by listening with the whole of my heart. I know that listening connects me to a sense of place in a way that simply looking and taking pictures does not. I have always been an auditory learner. I hope that the recordings I am making will become an audio archive that people can visit and revisit in the years to come. It’s a small trip, a small snapshot of life, but an archive nonetheless.
While recording, I am doing my best to be attentive to not only the content but also the rhythmic structures of the stories I collect. Anna Deavere Smith has this wonderful paragraph in her book “Talk to Me” where she says:
“Character, then, seemed to me to be an improvisation on given rhythms. The more successful you were at improvising on language, the more jazz you have, the more likely you could be found in your language, that is, if you wanted to be found in your language. Some people use language as a mask. And some want to create designed language that appears to reveal them but does not. Yet from time to time we are betrayed by language, if not in the words themselves, in the rhythm with which we deliver our words. Over time, I would learn to listen for those wonderful moments when people spoke a kind of personal music, which left a rhythmic architecture of who they were. I would be much more interested in those rhythmic architectures than in the information they might or might not reveal.”
I’m listening for “rhythmic architectures,” for iambs and trochees and dactyls and spondees. Ultimately, I want the stories I collect from around the world about water and climate change to be in conversation with one another. We can go nowhere without dialogue, and dialogue doesn’t just happen at the level of governments. If we entrust everything in authority, we are toast.
I believe that storytelling (and, perhaps more importantly, listening) are forms of activism.
This is a big question and I’m curious about your response, too: Can you talk about how you see these stories and your relationship to them and their tellers adding up and shifting over time?
KS: Now I want to read that Anna Deavere Smith book, too. The rhythmic architecture of who a person is, and how a person might build themself in speech, or build themself into speech–how listening, then, might make room for someone to do that.
The short answer is, I don’t know right now, and I’m feeling my way towards it. Here are a couple of things that have happened since the project’s beginning, in May:
A bunch of times downtown, I’ve run into people who spoke with me at the booth, and we’ve recognized each other, and asked how each other are.
I’ve collected a bunch of names and email addresses and skills/interests, in both formal and informal ways, of people who seem like they’d be interested in acting together or sharing with each other if they had some sort of plan for that.
Some people have invited me to talk about the booth, up to and including the North Kingstown Rotary Club, a class of Brown students who want to do a similar project around disability and access, and a group of Providence teens who are meeting to talk about the future of the city.
But how to bring all those things together? Climate change feels very near to me, very urgent. Because it’s already happening, because the sooner we make the large-scale decisions that could reduce the damage we’re doing, the better–and I agree with you in that my hopes are slim for people and entities making those large-scale decisions in any kind of protective way, or based on any acknowledgment of the reality of other beings–I sometimes get infected with that feeling of, “It’s really important for me to know what I’m doing with my tiny little project immediately, and do it immediately.” In fact, if this is going to work toward any shift in people’s attitudes toward anyone or anything other than themselves, it’s not going to work that way, and I want to offer people concrete options for action as well, so another part of “moving forward in time” is figuring that out. Part of my commitment to the booth was offering people what they wanted, not just taking what I wanted from them, and one thing that people did say they want was a way to act to protect what they love–sometimes that thing was threatened by climate change, sometimes by other things, like exploitation of their labor, or having no safe place to stay, or their own fears about asking for help.
I have a question that’s maybe a little more pushy. To make this trip, you have to fly a bunch in between biking stints, right? How did you decide on your methods and routes for the trip and weigh the damage of your travel against the benefits of listening and sharing?
It’s hard to ask this question without making it sound like a call for purity of behavior, which I think is not even a good goal, so I hope you won’t think I’m accusing you of not having it! I’ve been grappling with the idea of complicity, what it describes and how we use it, recently. I feel like “involvement” better describes what I see around me. We are involved with each other and with nonhuman systems and human-made systems in many and various ways, some of which are destructive. As people working in what we hope will be an art of connection, how can we navigate those involvements?
DL: I think that talking to people and listening, just listening, is one of the greatest gifts that a human can give. This needs to happen more across borders of nation, and I have set myself the task of doing that kind of work. Yes, the 10.5 hour flight that I took to Nadi, Fiji from LAX was doing nothing good for the climate. I hope that the work that I am doing offsets this ecological toll. Misconceptions about climate change come from a lack of awareness about the impact that these issues have on people: real living, breathing, and specific humans with their own stories to share. I am out to make a platform for these voices, to listen and to share what folks around the world have to share about those issues (and yes, even those who don’t believe that they exist).
I am not asking people to stop taking flights, to change their behavior. I am on a quest to document stories about water and climate change, and this necessitates putting my body in motion. If I had an infinite amount of time to do this project (and if I didn’t have a deep-seated fear of the open ocean) then I would take some kind of seafaring vessel instead. But this project isn’t about being on the water, it is about listening to and talking with as many people as I can. In order to do that kind of work, I have to take a few flights.
Another tough question: what good could come from climate change? We’ve talked about anxiety, but do you see any positives to this kind of shift?
KS: About your “across borders of nations” point: a lot of the conversations I’ve been having lately, about my project and about how to sustain one another, have had to do with methods that are portable, replicable and adaptable. I’ve been talking with Amy Walsh of the Apeiron Institute, and thinking about what I’ve learned from looking at Voices UnBroken’s model of setting up those who learn with them to teach and advocate for each other. Maybe the next phase of my project could become something like this: not just one person (me) listening to the people around me and, with them, talking and thinking about how we’ve been living and how we might live, but also explicitly equipping them to listen to others. That would be a different interaction than the kind I’ve had so far, which hasn’t been demanding in that way, and didn’t require anything of people that they didn’t offer. I would have to give up the openness of the interactions I’ve been having in order to move in a particular, more explicitly sharing / spreading direction. The people speaking with me would probably lose something, or give something up, as well.
With all of that in mind: I don’t see any positives in climate change or its effects as such. I do think that groups of humans will have the potential to respond to it anywhere from horribly to pretty well, and that the “pretty well” could be mutually nourishing and sustaining in ways that are maybe less common / widespread now. I’d like to be part of that if I can, and I want to learn more and think more and work more toward what it might be–how we might arrange and build it, and what we might gain depending on what we’re willing to give up or what we might have to give up, might no longer have access to.
Ecological disruption and its effects are the conditions of our present lives. If we live, we live with that. One thing I think our projects have in common is that we’re asking people to consciously inhabit, to be present in mind, in that reality. For me, and for a lot of the people who spoke with me, that’s hard to do and it feels bad. But the ability to do it is a necessary condition of responding to this reality and to each other, I think.
Is there anything you’d like to leave people with, that you’d like people to keep in mind, about your project that isn’t necessarily explicit in the way you’re doing or describing it?
DL: I think one thing that I didn’t take into account about my project is how it is, in many ways, an endurance event. I have never been involved with one project for so long (one year). It is both freeing and constraining at the same time. Travel can be exhausting. I am constantly adjusting to new people and places and foods and ways of communicating, all the while doing my best to prioritize self-care. I recently got sick for the first time on the trip–it wasn’t anything serious, just a 24-hour flu–but it definitely reminded me that in order to finish this project, I need to stay on top of taking great care of myself. A Buddhist chaplain I met in the cancer ward of the Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco told me that I need to treat my own body as well as I would if I was caring for someone else. I’m doing my best to live by those words, but it’s not easy. When I travel alone, there is no filter between me and the world around me. It is the strength and weakness of this project, I think, all at once.
What about you–is there anything else you’d like to add? I feel like we’re pretty near finished!
KS: I do too! I cosign the recommendation to take care of yourself, which includes the whole bodymind.
For me, the thing I need to constantly keep track of is the ways my project is and isn’t “about” me. Anything that has an element of making to it (the booth itself, the write-ups, the poems) is always about the maker at least a bit; I’m the one who had the idea and did the thing, and I had this particular idea and did this particular thing because of the person I am in the world. But there’s a mental trap where it’s almost like, “You should care about climate change because climate change makes me feel bad,” or like, “This person has a problem I can make a recommendation about. My advice is so good!” or even like, “I am a vile person because I can’t put even the tiniest halt on a centuries-long habit of exploitation and disregard.” All of that is so wholly beside the point–maybe there isn’t a “point”, exactly, but if there is one, it isn’t any of that. If there is one, it has to do with enacting a mutual, constant, flexible acknowledgment of the reality and importance of other beings besides the self–and that’s what this particular self has to keep in mind, and what I hope others will keep in mind too.