Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Vijay Mathew: What live streaming was able to do is immediately amplify a local event and make it global, and that’s an amazing thing, because it provides access while, at the same time, reducing peoples’ need to travel.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Vijay Mathew. He is a Cultural Strategist and Co-founder of HowlRound Theater Commons. Welcome to the program.
Vijay Mathew: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Anita Walker: I am so eager to get into this conversation, because it’s something I know absolutely nothing about, and I cannot wait to learn. What is post-carbon arts?
Vijay Mathew: Post-carbon arts is our arts field, all the institutions in it, the cultural workers, the artists, the audiences, all living within the field and being served by a field, that does not depend on fossil fuels, so it’s a future place.
Anita Walker: So you’ve been thinking a lot about this, and obviously our whole planet needs to address this issue. Talk specifically about the cultural sector and the unique and special challenges that we have. I mean, I’m thinking now, when you put it that way, like, it’s everything from how audiences arrive at the theater to what powers the lights in the theater space, to the air conditioning, to– I mean, I don’t know. I’m probably just on the very top, top, top most obvious.
Vijay Mathew: Yeah. So it seems like there’s a lot to do now, that the cultural field needs to do before we even get to this post-carbon place. And, I mean, first of all, is acknowledging that we’re actually in an emergency, and to ramp up our efforts to just, first of all, get out of our kind of half denial that climate change is actually a real emergency, and also, you know, convince our local governments that this is actually an emergency. For example, I mean, some of the promising things is that there’s more than three hundred municipalities around the world that have actually declared that we’re in a state of emergency, and then very recently just the United Kingdom’s parliament, as well as Ireland, these are the first nations that have actually declared it as an emergency. So that’s a symbolic thing. No policy has been written from that, but it’s an opening to actually say that we have to stop acting as though things will be progressing as they have been.
Anita Walker: You know, one of the things that I’ve noticed in my years working in the cultural sector, is that we are often on the leading edge of change. In Boston, the first platinum LEED certified building was a cultural organization, Artists for Humanity. When Provincetown Art Association did an expansion on their building, they became a LEED certified building. And I often think, you know, cultural organizations are certainly strapped in terms of money for investment and major facilities redesign, but my favorite thing that Provincetown Art Association Museum did is in their restroom they had a sign that said, “If you will shake your hands twelve times after you wash it, you will only need to use one paper towel.”
Vijay Mathew: Yeah. Yeah. Those things that are helpful, but I think what is difficult now, and I’m in a, you know, very much a place, a personal place, of asking myself, as many, many, many people are right now, is what do we actually do now, knowing that, for example, there is climate change, or a greenhouse gas that’s trapped in the atmosphere that we’re not even feeling the effects of yet, and so there’s warming baked in, even if we were to stop all emissions right now. What that means locally here is that by the end of this century, there will be flooding and water where we are right now. And so what does that mean for arts and culture, and I’m just talking about small, little field that I think we’re at a important point where we need to actually stop business as usual and come together to actually face and just start with conversation of what do we actually need to do, because it’s very easy to get in a space of these very small, incremental kinds of, I would call, controversially greenwashing of our behaviors that really don’t have much effect, and we have to actually come to grips with the fact that some of our life support systems in the very near term maybe may collapse, like, for example, our food. Where do we get our food, our grocery store, the availability of all that, and the amount of electricity that we’re consuming is probably going to be reduced greatly if we depend only on renewable resources. So what does that mean for how do we operate as an arts field? Can we actually use our computers all the time? Right now we have unlimited internet. That may have to be metered internet, like it was in the 1990s, where you pay for a few hours per month, as opposed to it always on, and kind of break out mentally the paradigm of things being unlimited, because that’s kind of a fiction that at some point will end.
Anita Walker: So how do you see the cultural sector taking a leading role in this? What are the questions cultural organizations could and should be asking themselves right now?
Vijay Mathew: Yeah. So some very practical things like whenever we hold a conference, do we actually need to fly people in, and can we use video technology instead as a replacement? It’s more of a symbolic, again, because, of course, it’s less use of the current economic infrastructure that’s there to, instead of buying tickets, we’re choosing not to, so it’s more of a symbolic boycott. But I think it’s an important thing, as cultural makers, to create this awareness in all of the people that we serve and touch, and audiences that we are in contact with, that we need to start to develop this consciousness around these issues. So that’s one thing. Conferences shouldn’t be gathered with so much flights. We should really figure out how to use public transportation, or land transport, instead, and then use these video technologies, which is also very much a transitional technology, because we can’t depend on unlimited server growth, computer server growth, over the next decade, or two decades, that are going to be able to host all this kind of video and bandwidth that we need. We can. Actually we can depend on it, but if we do, there will be huge consequences in terms of the magnitude of human suffering that will happen very soon.
Anita Walker: One thing I think a lot about is sort of the use of space, and how many more spaces do we need, and are we having the highest, best use of the spaces? So are there artistic spaces that are only used in the evening, and then we just keep building a whole bunch more spaces that are only used in the evening. I mean, do you think one of the strategies around, you know, the use of space more comprehensively would be one strategy?
Vijay Mathew: Yeah. That’s a good point about really trying to rethink everything that we do, including programming, and programming space. For example, that’s a great example of where we can start to think of our existing assets instead of creating and building new things. See what we have, and then see what we can share as a community, as an arts community, and ease away from this idea of proprietary ownership over certain things, and if there is a resource that’s not being used, like space, to see how that can serve everybody.
Anita Walker: Are there some examples that you encountered as you are doing this work and thinking about it, where you think this is an organization that gets it and has really taken the kind of steps we all should be taking?
Vijay Mathew: Yeah. In the arts, yeah, there’s a fantastic series of essays, journal blog posts, on howlround.com, and we posted it for the past five years. It’s called, “Theater in the Age of Climate Change.” And in that there are dozens of examples of arts organizations around the world, not just in theater, but arts, in general, who are really grappling with these issue, and none of them, of course, claiming to have the answers, but are in that space of trying to figure things out. One kind of practical thing that we have found in our work with HowlRound Theater Commons is live streaming, live streaming conversations, and the way that that’s able to– and I’ll back up here– where the live streaming, where we think of it as a shared channel, shared channel for the entire arts field to use, and what our role is as facilitators and administrators of this channel, so that arts organizations can use to live stream local events that they already producing, and we provide the technology, support, training. It’s free to use, and what that does is when it’s a shared channel that many organizations use, there is an immediate efficiency of the management of that channel, and it’s a kind of sharing that is able to pool everybody’s constituencies and focus their attention into this one space. And what live streaming is able to do is immediately amplify a local event and make it global, and that’s an amazing thing, because it provides access, while at the same time reducing peoples need to travel.
Anita Walker: One of the things that occurs to me as I think about any movement or any, you know, transformational change that’s necessary, as clearly you are facing with climate change, is sort of, you know, first you have to create the imperative, and you’re using words like “it’s an emergency,” and “in the next ten years.” I mean, those start to create an imperative. But really putting real conversations and real plans behind what has now been seen as an imperative is, I think, something our cultural organizations can do, but to be very honest with you, they are thinking about financial stability. They are thinking about audience development. They are thinking about, you know, programming issues. What if every cultural organization put a pro post-carbon agenda sort of as the underpinning, the same way we do with diversity equity and inclusion, the same way we do with accessibility. What if this vocabulary became just expected and accepted as part of every strategic plan of every cultural organization?
Vijay Mathew: Yeah. I think that is very necessary, and I think how that can actually happen is if funders actually take a leading role here, because funders have, many of them are very pro social, and do actually have an agenda to support climate change, to support programs for climate change, to combat or mitigate the effects of climate change, and if that kind of initiative can combine with their funding for the arts, if these things aren’t in silos, and if it’s in a way a requirement for arts organizations to have some kind of reaction or response to climate change, then that’s going to be the motivation. We’re very influenced by who’s funding us, and a lot of our program unintentionally sometimes gets shaped by what the funding is out there, so that, I think, is the quick and easiest lever to pull.
Anita Walker: To borrow off the theater element of the HowlRound Theater Commons, we all have a role to play. Right? We don’t have to wait to be cast. We need to step up and take our part in really, probably, one of the most serious issue facing the planet right now. Vijay Mathew, Cultural Strategist and Co-founder of HowlRound Theater Commons, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Vijay Mathew: Thank you.
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