Poison and Antidote


Endangered Species

She feels no line between her body and the landscape.


I went to the Poison and Antidote forum at Whitechapel Gallery in London last Saturday (29th March) to hear how the dancer and choreographer, Siobhan Davies, had responded to the Arctic. I also went to learn more about other artists tackling climate change.

Siobhan Davies went to the Arctic with the Cape Farewell project in 2005. Her video installation, Endangered Species, resulted from that voyage.

What did she experience?

She said she was terrified, at the outset, being in the position as a choreographer going up into the Arctic and unsure what dance had to do with the environment. She described her feeling after arriving as “rather beautifully terrified”.

Of most interest for me was to hear of her profoundly “visceral” connection with the landscape. She felt no line between her body and the environment. This validates my own response of Antarctica, and that of other artists who have been there.

The “vitality” of human movement she described as ” an engine”, and that her aim was to transfer that vitality into “a work that might give us an image about the effect of climate change.”

Reflecting on her dance training, she understood that she had separated her body from her mind. She did not see herself as “an integrated whole”, and that:

Although we intelligently know that that is not the case…I believe that each and every one of us still continues to do that… We divorce ourselves from our bodies…It has taken a period of time to think and really completely understand that the matter of my entire body is made up of the same kind of thing…My brain is not made up of dramatically different matter from the rest of my body, molecularly. I know that. But we are all made up of matter…At the moment that I understood that, that influenced my work. When I went up into the Arctic that the matter that I was is similar to the matter that the earth is made up of.

On accuracy:

So if I am going to really demonstrate something accurately, can I put across this idea that the body, the matter, the thought, the action that is me, is the same as in the life, the earth, the environment?
But in the main, they [artists] need their work to have the kind of accuracy that is recognizable.

On living an integrated life:

Living to have an integrated body, and integrated world, is one of the things we are simply going to have to deal with, uphold, celebrate, and work with. And that the more we put this idea into activities, small activities, each and every one of us, the more we are going to uphold the idea of living within our environment.

Bergit Arends, Curator for Contemporary Arts at the Natural History Museum, then spoke of Darwin, who helped us understand that:

nature is not there for us, not there for our gaze; it’s there for itself. And that is a culture shift that is really difficult for us to appreciate still.

One of our dilemmas as artists, Siobhan continued, is:

How to integrate this work onto the trunk of the rest of your work…How can we use our intelligent history in order to make the work that is pertinent to this particular necessary experience?

On Cornelia Paker:

She gave us time to observe. And that’s one of the things we’re all going to have to do – to observe what’s exactly in front of us. She gave us time to observe someone who thinks well, and therefore she gave us the time to think about thinking. That’s one hell of a way of using art.

On Tuesday February 12, 2008, Cornelia Parker appears in the Guardian:

Apocalypse later

I wasn’t sure the issue of climate change was even on Chomsky’s radar, but I sent him a letter: “I am an artist living in London writing to ask you a favour. I was wondering whether it would be at all possible for me to visit you at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in order to record a video conversation based on your thoughts about the unfolding environmental disaster now threatening our world. I have read with great interest and trepidation your observations on the probability of nuclear annihilation (apocalypse soon), and would greatly value a chance to discuss in more detail the threat of this other, slower, but equally devastating apocalypse. I would be very grateful to have your consideration on how we have come to this critical point in history. Why the powers of the world are so slow in acting to try to prevent this catastrophe and why the American government appears to be in denial about it.”

I didn’t expect him to say yes, but I was given an audience of 45 minutes, which turned into an hour. I felt I was struggling to fathom the most complex issues, but Chomsky spoke so clearly and compellingly, answering my questions with real insight.

In the resulting film, Chomskian Abstract, I have taken out my questions but left in the pauses where Chomsky listens, a silent space where people can ask their own questions. The piece is related to my series Abstracts, forensic forays into the minutiae of iconic thinkers: for example, Marks Made By Freud Subconsciously, a photograph of the creases made by Sigmund Freud on his leather seat; and Einstein’s Abstracts, images of the scientist’s equations on a blackboard, seen through a microscope.

I asked Siobhan:

I was really interested that you didn’t speak about your piece, which is particularly interesting to me. I’m an animator inspired by movement and dance and I’ve been to the Antarctic. Do artists lose their egos going to the poles?

Siobhan replies:

(laughing) No. It’s not the first word I’d use…I think it’s just trying to rev up an engine. I don’t really think we brought our egos so much there. I think we knew we were at the top of the world, and you’re very very small, and the landscape is gigantic. And it is a landscape none of us had experienced before. And it is cold to the point where you can die. And I think all of those things had an impact on each one of the artists. And they worked incredibly hard there. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. I walked. I think you experieince, and the experience gives you food and you take that food back to your normal circumstances where it is possible to work and then you set down and work until you can find something, if you can.

Further general questions and ideas:

Does a physical awareness of a landscape’s changing nature help us to connect with it on a visceral level?

If we can feel at one with our local landscapes, will our behaviour change?

Is abuse of our landscapes self abuse?

Artists find ways to reveal the slow, subtle, and mostly invisible changes happening in our landscapes.


Was it Siobhan’s awareness of the changes happening in the Arctic that helped her to connect with it on a visceral level?

Has her visceral level of connection with the Arctic heightened her belief in movement as a way to engage people with their own connections with the environment?

What scores for movement improvisation would she use, to physically connect people with the changes she experienced in the Arctic?


I met Robert Butler at the forum. He reviews P&P at Ashdenizen.
See also his review of the interactive opera And While London Burns