Olafur Eliasson’s “In Real Life”: On Modern Art and Climate Catastrophe

On September 27th, 2019, Canadians in over 85 cities participated in mass marches, or “Climate Strikes”, calling for government and corporate leaders to take bolder action on climate change. Speaking more specifically, the grassroots groups at the helm of the movement have spoken out against the federal government’s treatment of environmental issues, urging leaders to refuse new gas and oil enterprises and cut emissions down to 1/4th of what they were in the year 2005 by the year 2030.

From Olafur Eliasson’s In Real Life at the Tate Britain in October of 2019.

Canada is on the verge of a federal election. Environmental issues have taken a front seat in the debates. But climate strikes are now a global phenomenon, one which precedes and exceeds my home country.

The global movement originated with the school strike for climate campaign, inspired by Swedish climate activist (and, as we can only speculate, future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) Greta Thunberg — although it’s important to note that the movement has faced criticism on the basis of its exclusion and erasure of POC climate activists, including (but not limited to): Autumn Peltier, appointed chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation (nominated for the International Childrens Peace Prize 2019), Isra Hirsi, co-founder of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Earth Guardians Youth Director, Indigenous climate activist and hip-hop artist.

Thunberg arrived in Montréal, QC to participate in the strike on the 27th. The city’s mayor, Valérie Plante, gave her the keys to the city and waived all fees for public transit, allowing residents to easily get to and from the sites of action. Plante, herself a climate activist, has been vowing to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 55% by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050. She estimates that half a million people showed up in Montréal that day.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Liberal Party) who has, as of late, been the subject of much controversy, Elizabeth May (Green Party Leader), and Yves-François Blanchet (Bloc Québécois Party Leader) marched with the crowds in Montréal, meanwhile Jagmeet Singh (New Democrat Party Leader) participated in the Vancouver strike. Conservative Leader (Leader of the Official Opposition of Canada) Andrew Scheer did not march. Remember that, folks, as you go to the polls.

Over a million Canadians participated in these marches.

I was not one of them.

Days earlier, I had made my move across the Atlantic to West Hampstead, London, England. I was unable to march and sing and scream alongside all of my friends, peers, and political comrades. I didn’t realize how negatively affected I would be via my lack of involvement in the strikes until I saw all of the propaganda, signs, posts made by everyone back home. I felt helpless. I felt angry. September 27th was something like a beacon of light amidst all of the political ugliness that has surrounded the upcoming federal, amidst the alt-right rallies and fascist rhetoric.

And what was I doing instead of marching? Getting ready for twelve months of art school.

Now that’s self indulgence.

I was wrestling with the guilt of political helplessness. I began to feel sick when I thought of my artistry. I began thinking negatively of my chosen endeavour. Everything felt masturbatory, not in any way productive. Yes, my work (as of now) has been politically driven and motivated, but it hasn’t been enough. Not nearly.

I made a list of the affects of my work to date: queer visibility, debunking conservatism, following anti-capitalist and anti-fascist threads, contributing critically to conversations surrounding technology and feminism, technology and sexual violence, the #MeToo and post-#MeToo late feminist (some would say postfeminist) movements, preaching sexual liberation via confessional discourse, tackling rape culture, and then of course there was Adrik’s Story, which was a commissioned fundraising piece for Rainbow Railroad.

But what, really, are those affects? What does all of that mean, beyond the label/text? I am nothing. I felt slimy attempting to articulate, to justify, my chosen craft. We know how live theatre and performance work is. Work on such a micro scale is slow moving. The medium is transient. We are living in a world where everyone is an artist, curator, content creator. The art world is rapidly changing. We have not caught up with it. We are dying. We are dead.

And so, with all these threads in tow, I brought myself to crisis.

After a few good sleeps and morning walks through graveyards, I figured out what I needed. I was hungry to find new models of artists. Artist-activists, if you will, to learn from – to experience, to let fuel my work, to one day work alongside and be in critical conversation with. I called my entire body of work into question as I sat, quite morbidly might I add, in cemeteries. I thought of our world on fire. I’ve been chasing false idols.

It was in this state that I was referred to the Tate Modern by my American roommate, Maddie.

I’d been to the Tate once before but, this time, it was for a special exhibition – In Real Life by Olafur Eliasson. I’d never heard the name Olafur Eliasson before. I knew very little about what I was getting into, but I am now writing this article to chronicle my experience of going through the Eliasson exhibition in hopes that I may be able to offer new ways of thinking about the 21st century artist in relation to activist practice, using Eliasson as a starting point through which to productively engage with the mass guilt (or, on the other side of the spectrum, mass ignorance) of climate catastrophe.

Eliasson’s “In Real Life” brought together 40+ of his works made in or after the year 1990. The Danish-Icelandic artist’s diverse body of work includes photography, paintings, sculptures, and installations; the materials used range from fog, to light and reflective materials, to moss, to glacial melt-water. The Tate’s official exhibit descriptions cites three main interests from whence his work comes:

One. His concern with nature, honed through his time spent in Iceland.

Two. His research into geometry.

And three. His investigations into how we perceive, feel about, and shape the world around us.

Experience is at the centre of Eliasson’s work. The artist has both said and written, on many occasions, that he believes art can have a powerful impact on society outside of the walls of any museum (or otherwise institution), and that we as creators and patrons of the arts must be looking to essentially transform these quasi-elitist spaces into forums for community learning and engagement.

This is the creed that I’m looking to expand on today.

So, what is exactly is In Real Life?

A series of chambers with no set path between them. A cave of angular mirrors. A dark room with a flashing light. A fog-filled hallway. Water and dirt. A wall of moss. A series of geometric sculptures and designs.

Any attempt of mine to summarize the experience would miserably fail, especially because (as I previously stated) direct spatial and temporal experience itself was at the heart of the exhibition.

In this series of interconnected installations, you are essentially experiencing yourself experience while simultaneously experiencing others experience experience. (Come again?) Eliasson’s In Real Life is something of a masterclass for community building through gallery art. Eliasson calls [the spaces that he forms] “temporary communities”, in which you are brought together with others to form a heightened awareness of yourself, and of other people, to create an increased sense of responsibility. Through the process of experience, and of the experience of watching others experience experience, you are brought to a heightened awareness of your own being in the world and your own affect as a human body, mind, life.

The experience of awe is also, I would say, at the show’s core – the experience of submitting to something much greater than oneself. Let me delve into some specifics here.

The exhibition forcefully begins with Model room, a geometric exploration of space, object, and our shifting perceptions of these things. These threads define much of Eliasson’s early work, but here Model room achieves a greater purpose. At first, we observe these foreign objects through panes of glass, which is to say at a distance. Our perceptions of space and form are immediately challenged and provoked. Then we leave this space and are asked, by the following chambers, to participate with the “knowledge” or “expectation” of abstraction. We then watch ourselves shift and bend, we consider ourselves as art objects, we become part of the observed form.

As I went through the exhibit, I took note of a series of photographs depicting Icelandic landscapes: The glacier series (1999), The river-raft series (2000) and, finally, Melting ice on Gunnar’s land (2008), wedged between more experiments with colour, perception, and direction – specifically Suney (1995) and Adrift compass (2019). I understood that these were direct calls to rapidly changing (and deteriorating) climates, that Eliasson is calling for a shift in thought when it comes to these threats. There is something about the slowness of a series of photographs that I find compelling. I think to myself – is this due to my identity as a “Gen Z”, who has been raised in a chaotic flurry of transient digital images? Do these nonmoving entities allow me to experience slowness – that is the slowness of geologic time, of forces much greater than I/us?

I watched other people observe the landscape photographs and thought: what is Eliasson, what is the Tate, what is Eliasson in the Tate, trying to accomplish here?

The answer came to me in the form of How do we live together? (2019).

How do we live together? (2019).

A room with a mirror ceiling and a curved dividing line. People sitting, standing, watching, being. This, I thought, was truly a community space. A temporary community space, to reference Eliasson’s term. I watched participants watch other participants enter the room, observe, look at the ceiling, see themselves in an abstract manner, see others in the same manner, take a seat on the floor, and continue the cycle of watching.

I brought a very political interpretation to this work, noting the stark “divide” between the right and left-winged political communities in our global sphere. Coexistence is a dance. In my experience of experiencing contemporary gallery-and/or-installation work, I’d never seen people brought together in this way – everyone isolated and belonging to their own world of senses and perceptions, but contributing to the same spheres of being.

Having just seen the previously mentioned sets of environmentally-conscious images, and now after having participated in this installation, I understood the ways in which Eliasson was coming up against, challenging, and then reinventing the space of the Tate.

I had a similar experience with Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) (2010): a 39 metre long fog-filled journey through a narrow corridor.

Man and daughter in Din blinde passager.

In front of me, a man held his small daughter as she clung to the back of his shirt. A couple of friends were taking edgy selfies in the mood lighting. But no matter who you were with, who you were – the experience of going through passager was shared. I looked behind me, in front of me, saw my “temporary community” experiencing the same things I was – thinking, of course, of climate catastrophe (smogs, whiteouts, monsoons), blindness, ignorance, our shared sense of claustrophobia and helplessness and most of all endurance.

There were moments as you walked, disoriented, alone – completely segregated from those who entered the space in front of or behind you.

Your spiral view (2002) did much the same thing. Your physical image and perception(s) of that image shift, as do your perceptions of others and their apparent reason(s) for participating in the work.

I oftentimes find myself annoyed by museum goers shoving their cellphones to the front of any work, attempting to capture shots to make their instagram profiles more compelling, but personally I found the desire to capture bits and pieces of the installations interesting, apt, and important because these things simply can not be captured. Capturing your own experience was a part of the overall experience. Big Bang Fountain comes to mind here – one of my favourite works exhibited in the gallery space. I won’t spoil it, but it’s wicked. Posting alluring photographs from the exhibit is also a way to get others intrigued enough to purchase a ticket and experience the experience for themselves.

The installation ended with Eliasson’s more recent work, which delves into his activist practice alongside his creative endeavours — Green light (2016), Little Sun (2012), and The structural evolution project (2001). I implore you to read up on these practical advancements he has made, specifically in solar technology with Little Sun. Eliasson herein becomes artist-made-activist-made-artist in a practical, wide-scale sense.

We are made subject to recreations of the chaotic notes and writings on his studio walls, an “A-Z” manifesto for global change. It’s an ideal space to reflect after the intense sensory overstimulation. Once you leave the gallery, you’re led to an array of “Further Reading/Study” books available for purchase (and the consumerism took me in, Tate! You won!).

I almost never buy “companion” books or guides to special exhibitions, but I did that day. It was well worth the 20 quid. For this guide, Elaisson transcribes his talks with artists and creative workers from all walks of life and differing industries: dancers, chefs, musical artists, architects – who are all somehow in creative (and/or activist) conversation.

I have thought, and I think, to myself: Are these the new faces of our poets, our artists, of our sages and prophets, in the digital world?

I wonder if theatre and performance is my medium at all. After Objects, I’ve yearned to work more visually. But more on that later.

I went and read up on some of the critical reception to In Real Life online, and I can’t say that I agree with a lot of it. I personally don’t know how to critique something that I don’t know how to talk about. It feels like there are some critics out there who don’t actually know how to talk about the work, how to experience it, how to surrender their biasses about what gallery work should or shouldn’t be, what it should or shouldn’t do. And perhaps I’ve succeeded in talking about Eliasson’s experimental practice and its resonance in the contemporary art world, and in other ways I have failed. This is the nature of the form I have chosen to express my critical thoughts.

Still, this exhibition (and lots of other works by Eliasson, which are easy to Google and read about online) gives us a “new model” of 21st century artist/activist/environmentalist that I feel is incredibly compelling and crucial as we move forward in our individualistic practices of art making. This new model of artist conceives of a radical form of individual experience at the helm of the art, which leads to further self and community awareness and (eventually) activist practice.

I only hope that I can continue to converse with creative colleagues and peers on these matters, and that I keep experiencing experiences in this way as I move forward in my camiliad.

Thank you for reading. This one took me awhile to compile and write (turns out moving across the world takes a lot out of you.) More to come.

The Road to ‘We All Got Lost’: On Queer-Feminist Theatre, Identity Politics, Confession, Hometown Conservatism, and the Fringe Circuit

On June 22nd of this year, mere weeks before my play We All Got Lost opened at The Westdale in Hamilton, transgender activist Cedar Hopperton was arrested just outside of Gage Park’s annual Pride Festival for their involvement in a violent confrontation between religious anti-LBGTQ+ protesters and queer counter-protesters, one which made regional headlines and triggered several anti-hate demonstrations outside Hamilton City Hall.

In a statement issued to the public, the Hamilton Police Service attempted to justify the arrest by claiming that Hopperton violated their parole (the local resident pled guilty last November to their involvement in a Locke Street vandalism spree) by participating in a “public demonstration where peace was disrupted.” No anti-LBGTQ+ protesters (with hate signs) were arrested nor jailed.

This, of course, passionately enraged (there it is!) members and allies of the local 2SLGBTQIA+ community, especially given the Hamilton Police Service’s long and frightening history of violence against queer people. The HPS were originally not welcomed to participate in Pride for this reason.

Protesters who had witnessed the violence testified that Hopperton, a passionate LGBTQ+ advocate, was actually not responding to the hate in a violent manner and was, instead, attempting to intervene and defend their queer allies. When Hopperton came back at the police force with a heated anti-hate speech (that essentially expressed their distrust in the cops for not keeping queer people safe) at city hall, they were jailed.

It was in this sickening climate that We All Got Lost, our queer-feminist anti-conservative beast of a play, was getting ready for a run on the Fringe circuit.

We All Got Lost at The Westdale, starring Jessica Pellicciotta, Kaitlin Race, Evelyn Barber, Miranda Cooper, and Emily Meadows.

The show had already picked up a New Play Contest win (after placing as a finalist in the Winnipeg competition) and, on that note, was only the second instance in Hamilton Fringe history where a woman had won the contest – and the first time a young, local woman with a story about young women had won it.

To say that I felt the weight of this would be an understatement. It led me to a series of complex questions, one in particular that plagued me:

How and where do (or should?) my identity politics overlap with my artistry?

There’s a provocative essay written by Jeanette Winterson in her Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery collection in which she explores the paradox of being publicly labelled as a “lesbian” artist. This essay is entitled The Semiotics of Sex, and any attempt of mine to condense or summarize her musings would fail miserably – some of it I agree with, and some of I don’t (the published year is 1997 and the year, today, is 2019 – of course art and theory, and specifically queer art and theory, evolve) but here are some juicy, digestible bits that would fit this post well:

“In any discussion of art and the artist, heterosexuality is backgrounded, whilst homosexuality is foregrounded. What you fuck is much more important than how you write. This may be because reading takes more effort than sex. It may be because the word ‘sex’ is more exciting than the word ‘book’. Or is it? Surely that depends on what kind of sex and what kind of book? I can only assume that straight sex is so dull that even a book makes better reportage.” (Ah, Winterson – always cheeky!) 

And, only a few lines later:

“I am a writer who happens to love women. I am not a lesbian who happens to write.”

What is it about? Prurience? Stupidity? And as Descartes didn’t say, ‘I fuck therefore I am.’? The straight world is wilful in its pursuit of queers and it seems to me that to continually ask someone about their homosexuality, when the reason to talk is a book, a picture, a play, is harassment by the back door.”

The first time that I read this essay, it struck me as being relevant to a number of discussions I’d been having with queer friends and colleagues. A lot of my work, in theory, contributes (in one way or another) to conversations surrounding feminism and technology, queerness and capitalism.

In short, I like to keep “myself” out of my own playwriting work, not due to some crippling autobiographical anxiety (my folk music proves otherwise), but because I honestly feel that I don’t matter. Work precedes and exceeds me. That is my nature as a creative.

That being said, I also come from a place of social privilege. I am a cisgender white woman from a middle class family. I am femme and hetero passing and I have dated many men. My struggles have, for the most part, been visible in (albeit fetishized by) popular culture and media. I do not believe that placing my identity at the forefront of my work has an active, provocative, disrupting purpose.

But a lot of this changed when I went through the experience of curating Objects: London, Portrait of a City, which was my first solo installation/exhibition as a Resident Artist at the TAP Centre for Creativity.

Objects: London, Portrait of a City at the TAP Centre for Creativity in March of 2019. The exhibition is now available online at camilleintson.com/objects.

Objects was, among many other things, an experiment with (and lesson in) confessional discourse. The installation demanded I disclose some of my most personal and intimate experiences, some of which of a romantic or sexual nature, for viewers’ consumption and for the overall affect of what I was trying to achieve. The exhibit is now facing an online reprise on my personal website, where it is doing much the same thing.

It was through a post-performance “Unscripted” discussion that I realized the extent to which autobiography and confession were, in and of themselves, theorizing. Confession was the nature of the work. The work commented on confessional discourse by participating in it. I was in control of my own confessions and I was empowered in that art.

But performance art and live theatre are two entirely different mediums, although shaped by similar forces.

This brings me back to We All Got Lost.

Did I face condescension and juvenile treatment, in isolated instances, for the experience of being a young (22-year-old) woman leading a company of young women with a show about young women? Absolutely. Was I also welcomed with open arms by some very kind, sweet, and supportive members of the Hamilton theatre community? Also yes.

Before I go any further with this discussion of queerness and capital, I would like to give you some insight into the fabulous process of working and playing with my brilliant cast and creative team.

The Process

Eight months ago, during one of my worst insomniacal episodes, I was feeling strange about moving back to my hometown of Hamilton for a liminal six-month stretch (before hopping on a plane to the United Kingdom) and decided, on a total whim, to submit my only unproduced play to the Fringe New Play Contest circuit.

After making a splash with my last two Winnipeg Fringe sell-out hits, The Last 48 and The Stock, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to return to the Fringe. Nevertheless, I submitted.

Shortly after winning the Hamilton Fringe New Play contest, I learned that only one other woman had won it before me. This put me off, but it also lit a ginormous fire under my ass. This, I thought, was an opportunity for regional female (& queer!) voices and stories to flourish. This was a chance to grab my conservative hometown’s Fringe by the ass and make it listen.

I held self tape auditions. I met a bunch of (mostly) internet strangers at Churchill Park on one sunny afternoon in May. We took photos in mismatched Catholic uniforms that would soon be plastered all over the city of Hamilton. That day, as sweaty and strange as it was, was the start of something special.

We barely knew each other. We rehearsed every Monday in empty classrooms at McMaster University. We snuck into theatre spaces. We sourced props from forests and backyards and the back of our closets, brought them into rehearsal, and played with them for hours. We built worlds out of bedroom sheets and broken sticks. (I was experimenting with Viewpoints techniques, as well as “moment work” I learned from NYC-based writer Mina Samuels, to devise the physical landscape and aesthetic of the piece.) We barely had a budget. We were kind of scrappy. But we believed in the work that we were doing.

The rehearsal process was difficult. I could not have picked five more different women for this task. With everything happening in and around Hamilton, and with the intimate and very personal nature of the piece, things were hard at times. When Hopperton was arrested on that fateful day in June, I felt a sickness that I feared would accompany me all through the show’s run. I didn’t know how audiences would react to us. I thought we’d be swept under the rug until View Magazine shocked us with a cover feature.

View Magazine’s July 6th cover. Story by Brian Morton. This photograph was taken of me by Keith Tanner in London, Ontario in September of 2018.

In this article, I talk about many things. I talk about my influences and overall body of work. I do not talk about my labels. I do not talk about my political beliefs. (All of these things, by the way, I am very vocal about to anyone that knows and loves me. Or to anyone that has me on social media.)

So it starts to bother me when, as the Fringe goes on, I am approached by several local artists, journalists, theatre goers, and more whose first question, more often than not, was: What makes you qualified to tell this story?

To which I wanted to respond (rudely), “you’re asking me what makes me qualified to tell my own story?” But it isn’t, technically, my own story. This play is not autobiographical. It isn’t directly constructed from real-world experience, and the parts that I guess “are” aren’t privy to your nosiness. What are you really asking? Am I a feminist? Am I queer? Am I religious? Was I raised Catholic? Did I witness a murder? (Spoilers.) Are my answers to these questions more important than the work? Why do I need to justify myself to you? Would it make you happy if I screamed Yes-This-Company-Is-Made-Up-Of-Real-Feminist-Real-Queer-Real-Young-Women-And-Also-I’m-An-Artist-Which-Is-Perhaps-The-Most-Dangerous-Identifier-Of-All in your face?

Do you think “Telling Queer Young Women’s Stories” is all just a scam to make a quick buck off of the unsuspecting (and likely homophobic) small town Fringe audience? If that were the truth, that’d be an impressively bad business strategy.

Do you deserve answers to your questions? Is my reluctance to speak about myself, in relation to my work, selfish or internally misogynistic and/or homophobic? Is my reluctance to “out” my cast in every promo interview a product of the same forces? Is it a product of my own anxiety? So what? Do I really owe anyone anything? And does the work not speak for itself? If a woman or a queer person comes forward with a story, why is it our immediate reaction to question whether or not it’s rightfully theirs?

Are men asked all of these questions?

Of course I understand where some of these people are coming from. I’d be pissed if there was a band of hetero artists making waves by appropriating queer identities for capital gain, too. The complex conversation surrounding appropriation is crucial right now. There are many a folk out there who use diversity rosters and other similar measures to “perform” their own “liberalism” without actually practicing active allyship. This is a huge, gross problem. Stories of marginalized persons should be told by artists who identify as a part of that group. But this statement opens up an infinite number of portals, filled to the brim with more complex questions and queries – the nuance for which I don’t have the time and space for on this blog at this moment.

My point here is this question: Why are women (and especially young women) not always “trusted” to tell their own stories?

How are our post-feminist politics active in the post-#MeToo era? How can we ask “the right” questions while simultaneously respecting the private and intimate nature of these things?

You’re probably wondering how all of this ends. Well…

On the festival’s final night, we won Best of Fringe and Best of Venue (The Westdale). We were chosen as View Magazine’s Reviewer’s Pick. We were the highest attended and highest grossing show in the festival. Our sales and attendance surpassed that of two bigger-budget commercial musicals, two commercial darlings (F**kboys The Musical and You Want it What Way: A Boy Band Tale – cue the screaming heteros!).

Somehow, against all odds, people showed up. And kept showing up. And kept showing up. Critics started raving about it. Audiences started talking about it, started showing up more than once. People started believing, and I mean really believing, in the work that we did.

What’s more, we were approached by so many young women (and especially young, queer women) who were so happy to finally see themselves represented onstage. Talking to some of these women was the best reward of all.

I’m still trying to fully comprehend the experience of We All Got Lost and dissect its many, complex affects, but hopefully with this post I have shed some light on some of the issues effecting my hometown’s creative spheres.

I also hope that I have, in some way, opened up a dialogue through which some of these things can be more fully fleshed out.

Food for thought. I might come back to this later. But for now, I’m hopping on a plane.