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Climate Conversation with Ben Skinner

Introducing: Ben Skinner

Born and raised in the village of Ovingdean on the outskirts of Brighton, Ben studied anthropology at Durham University and trained as a dancer at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. He is currently working towards a practice research PhD with the University of Leeds investigating the importance of touch to our perception of environment. His interdisciplinary practice proposes a conceptual distillation from the position of being in making, which enables the doer to frame an idea whilst simultaneously allowing space for it to evolve within a kinetic field. As a felt sense this unfolding trajectory encourages the maker to shift conceptual boundaries in order to explore the archive of the thinking-body, intertwining the threads of practice-based research.

As part of Climate Conversations, Ben has created a short essay where he examines his creative practice in relation to environmentalism and the effects of COVID-19.



Ben Skinner- Environmental Matters. 

As an artist and researcher my focus over the last twelve months has been to respond to the logistics and practicalities of facilitating creative practice within the parameters of Covid-19. This writing reflects upon the complexity of encouraging environmental-thinking within a period of constantly shifting societal norms.

A relationality has been lost between environment and a sense of human belonging. Different geo-political-social narratives might source the roots and maintenance of this loss in different ways but for myself, I notice the consumerist aspect of our dominant culture diverting my focus away from attending to the complexity of place. In order to address this misperception, it is my belief that art-making should be ingrained into everyday life, nurtured in the most unconventional of spaces- the art of the everyday. As an arts-based teacher my primary goal is to cultivate opportunities for participants to consider their relationship to the ecology that sustains them. The interdisciplinary nature of my background as an anthropologist and professional dancer has cultivated an attunement to the sensory capability of the human body. Creative practice is a significant way to rediscover this dormant capacity and my primary role as facilitator is to encourage people to explore ways in which the physical body reads’ the space around it. To do this I utilise a variety of materials such as charcoal and clay to demonstrate our ability to affect matter. By drawing attention to our physical boundary, namely our skin, my objective is to nurture what is felt in proximity to material environments through the body, as opposed to what we experience mediated through other means i.e. technology etc. 

In this Covid induced climate of isolation and anxiety we have been challenged to maintain a specified distance from one another. To touch another person is to contradict state imposed sanctions that have been designed to keep us safe. This negotiation between people, and potentially contaminated surfaces, has had a detrimental impact on our ability to interact within the context of everyday encounters. It is imperative that we now invest in creative and interdisciplinary ways of helping people explore the complexity of their environment and inspire them to reflect upon how they express interpersonal empathy. 

In the past I have been commissioned to paint, draw, dance and teach but my curiosity lies in blending these creative disciplines together in order to investigate what environmental perception means to people. My process involves spending a lot of time outdoors, exploring and recording how a sense of presence shifts and adapts depending on the weather, time of day and my perception of other people etc.  This praxis helps me create scores, tasks and activities that suggest different ways of reflecting upon our environmental and social habitats. My work manifests through a state of vulnerability; not altogether comfortable but essential in order to identify the incremental shifts that feed our perception of self, and how that self is interconnected with its surroundings. 

Currently, the work I create frames the everyday encounter with litter and found objects as an opportunity to explore the similarities and differences we share as matter- from the molecular to the aesthetic. To explore this concept, I have created a series of guidebooks that encourage members of the public to pick up litter and engage in creative tasks exploring a variety of different materials. 

I draw inspiration from artistic and environmental facilitators that have explored ecological and social vulnerability within their work. In 2018 Jem Bendell wrote his paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy and established the Deep Adaptation Forum to support and facilitate spaces for people to acknowledge ecological loss in all its forms. Contemplating this global ecological tragedy inspires complex emotions that are difficult to deal with as part of everyday life. Jem Bendell has been strongly influenced by The Work That Reconnects founder activist Joanna Macy. 

Joanna Macy describes her work as a way of helping people feel the psychological and moral discomfort this form of environmental awareness can bring. The Work That Reconnects teaches ways in which participants can face up to the grief they feel for our planet in order to collectively cultivate resilience and resolution. What I find most striking about Macy is her insistence that environmental rejuvenation cannot come about by laying blame at the feet of others. This is an idea I struggle to put into practice as aggravation in the face of others’ perceived lack of care has become ingrained within my own experience of the public.  The ethos of The Work that Reconnects has given me much to consider regarding how, as a facilitator, I talk about peoples’ felt sense of responsibility and how my negative attitude towards others contributes to the disorientated state we are currently all living within. Macy states that active hope, defined as choosing to act in the face of adversity, must be experienced daily. This hands-on way of investigating the fluid composition of the world around us can be fostered deeply with the interdisciplinary nature of a creative Arts practice.

Even though much of society’s day-to-day activities ground to a halt as the pandemic struck, I was determined to not lose momentum in relation to my artistic practice for this very reason. I felt anchored by my connection to the environment on which my exploratory work was based, therefore, why should I slow down? Lockdown became another aspect of life to negotiate and provided a rich experiential resource from which to write about interpersonal communication and our sentient relationship to touch. 

I felt a vast disparity between a desire to keep busy and that of pausing to take stock of what was fracturing around me. By preserving a daily rhythm, I found myself wound tightly within a straitjacket of self-imposed pseudo-normality. 

As lockdown continued and dance work dried up, I found part-time employment in a local fruit and vegetable shop. As an arts-based researcher with one foot now in the world of commerce and food distribution, I became increasingly aware of the degree of complicity we live within as part of a carbon dependent food production and distribution network. I was also mindful of a conflict within my sense of identity- the responsibility of an employee agitated by that of an environmental researcher. As I asked more questions about food productivity, I learnt more about the produce deemed unsuitable for sale by supermarkets, and how businesses (such as my employer) ensure that at least a percentage of it is not wasted. Beyond the immediacy our felt vulnerability lies a global integrated network that speaks volumes of our distorted priorities regarding resource sustainability.

Recently I have become aware of a sense of déjà vu in conversations with customers as they express their boredom in light of the continuing restrictions. People often list what they will do ‘when all this is over’ and emphatically state that they have categorically had enough of Covid-19.  As I nod in agreement, I think about the network of factors that connect our shopping habits, the origins of our food and a pandemic that originated from the other side of the world; but I hold my tongue in order to avoid the possibility of an awkward conversation. I feel myself mentally backing away from proffering a point of view that some might not want to engage with. 

My perception, albeit based on a small number of informal conversations, is that there is a disconnect between peoples’ concerns of Covid-19’s impact and an understanding of how a perception of selfhood, shaped by and in relationship to/with environment, got us into this predicament in the first place. This mindset is not something we can just engineer our way out of, nor is it something that will shift when presented with quantitative and qualitative evidence to support it. Ecological awareness must be felt through the body. These changes in perception might be incremental, but it is through the layering of experiences, the touching, making, watching, listening, moving that we cultivate an understanding of self embedded within environment.

But we can’t do this alone, as a coregulating species we depend on others to help us orientate our lives. My intention as an artist is to continue grappling with these difficult dialogues and to cultivate spaces in which uncertainty about the future can be imagined through the hands-on exploration of materials and the materiality of the body in the present. The job of the artist is to show the composition of the world we all share. Art (in all its forms) has never been more essential than it is now. 

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