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Earth Day Eco-Artist Talk with Miwa Mayatrek

Even though our public programs celebrating Earth Day are not all happening as planned, we wanted to share an inside look into the work of artist Miwa Matreyek.  From her studio in Los Angeles, Miwa has sent us an abbreviated artist talk that peels back some layers of her process and creative trajectory with a sneak peak into her piece Infinitely Yours, which will hopefully grace the stage of the Historic Asolo Theater soon. Read responses to Miwa's talk from two ecology experts at the end of this post.

Earth Day is celebrated internationally on April 22nd as a gesture of global appreciation for the life supporting systems of planet Earth and as a flag post that draws attention to urgent environmental and climate issues.  It punctuates the dynamic and responsive year-round work of activists, scholars, tribal and indigenous communities, industry leaders and government entities, among others, whose efforts and thought are dedicated to creating and preserving sustainable ecological, social and economic systems for our planet.   

Historically, artists have been an important part of the environmental movement, and the overlapping climate movement has inspired a new wave of socially engaged performance across a spectrum of disciplines.  As part of the 2019-2020 Art of Performance season, The Ringling proudly programmed a series of events and activities that focused on artists, ecology, and climate change: 

  • The three-day Arts and Ecology Incubator led by playwright Chantal Bilodeau in November 2019 immersed participants in a workshop environment to explore creative responses to environmental concerns in dialogue with local experts. 
  • On April 10 & 11, Miwa Matreyek was to have presented two of her emotionally provocative and visually mesmerizing shadow puppet and animation works live in the Historic Asolo Theater.  The two companion pieces, This World Made Itself and Infinitely Yours create mythical worlds of beauty and catastrophe in response to relationships between the human and non-human.
  • For Earth Day 2020, we had planned to present the gorgeous and resilient Artichoke Dance in the museum Courtyard, provide environmental education activities for students, and host a panel with Artichoke’s Artistic Director Lynn Neuman and local experts on ecology and climate. 

These events and artistic voices invite audiences and participants to engage with issues of complex science, environmental justice, public policy and personal decision making in ways that allow for sharing, authentic expression and emotional connection.  They also have refreshing, playful and courageous perspectives on using art as a platform for awakening perception around often slow moving or invisible problems.  This kind of artistic programming also shines light on The Ringling’s grounds and gardens programs, which have a deep commitment to environmental stewardship and the unique landscape—both built and natural—that the museum occupies.

The nonfiction work Silent Spring by eco-feminist icon Rachel Carson is often credited for galvanizing energy behind the environmental movement, which gave way in 1970 to the naming of this commemorative day in the United States.  This year, Earth Day turns 50 in a global pandemic moment when implications of unseen environmental health concerns are on everybody’s mind.  We are experiencing a different kind of silent spring in 2020:  weirdly suspended in a forced pause and protracted anxiousness about what’s next, most of us gaze, perplexed, at a still world outside our homes.  In contrast to Carson’s foreboding silence of 1962, which felt eerily deadened for lack of birdsong, ours is a quieting of human noise.  The urban hum, traffic jig saws, construction grind and jet engines have largely halted.  Birds—in Sarasota at least—seem to be emboldened, instead, as woodpecker, heron, peacock, cardinals and jays dominate flight patterns across town, giving us high-spirited rush hour chatter. 

Because we couldn’t hold our panel discussion on Earth Day as planned, we decided to send Miwa’s Artist Talk to local ecology experts who were scheduled to join us to discuss plastics, climate change and artistic responses to environment on April 22, 2020.  

Miwa’s genius has alighted on our virtual windows.  I hope you have a minute to consider her delicate and powerful voice in recognition of Earth Day.

Panelist Responses

Because we couldn’t hold our panel discussion on Earth Day as planned, we decided to send Miwa’s Artist Talk to local ecology experts who were scheduled to join us to discuss plastics, climate change and artistic responses to environment on April 22, 2020.  Below, Tim Rumage and Kevin Greene share their thoughts after viewing Miwa’s video.

Kevin Greene - Assistant Director Grounds & Gardents at The Ringling

Kevin Greene

“I found Miwa Matreyek’s talk to be very enlightening.  In it she discusses the knowledge we have about the environmental impact that we cause through our daily choices.  For me, this video draws attention to the crossroads where we find ourselves currently.  By that, I mean Miwa highlights our ability to acknowledge our impact on the planet with our use of plastics.  She then emphasizes how we have choices in our daily lives that are related to that impact.  I really liked how Miwa connected the journey of plastics from the oceans to the landfills back to the choices we make in our daily lives.  She helped me better understand our personal role by presenting a different perspective. which is that, individually, we still act as part of a community.”

Tim Rumage - Professor of Environmental Studies, Ringling College of Art and Design

Tim Rumage

“Miwa’s art and interview is both powerful and poignant because it helps us grasp the duality of Earth Day: our disconnect and our dependence.  The disconnect comes because most of us have no idea of where the things we use come from, how they get to us or where they go and what they do when we discard them.   

What are all the steps involved in the simple, routine, mindless act of turning a switch so a light comes on?  What was the “original” fuel – coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear material, burning waste, a hydroelectric dam, a wind turbine, a solar panel or a solar farm?  If it was thermoelectric (coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear material, burning waste) how much water was also needed in the process?  Where did the metal come from to make the transmission line and how many miles of wire were needed to connect the power plant to the light on my desk?  And what were all the by-products of making that electricity, much less the lamp and the bulb?  Do I know? Do I care? Should I know? Should I care?

We operate in a world of products, but are ultimately dependent upon natural resources to support our lives.  We assume things and consume things.  NOW may be WHEN we live, but Earth is WHERE we live.  And Earth is the only place in the known universe where we can live as ourselves.  We may be able to travel through outer space – but you can’t just open the door and step outside.  Our native planet is the only place where we have an opportunity to do that.

We see ourselves as witnesses to events that are causing harm to the environment but do not recognize ourselves as participants in the acts.  Air pollution is not a single event or natural act. It takes all of us doing our part to create a truly worthy layer of urban smog.  Any doubts on that subject were quickly quelled when Covid-19 made us stay home and the sky turned blue and scenic vistas returned.

For most of human existence, we did not need a planetary frame of reference.  Nor did we really have to think too much about the ecological consequences of our actions.  There were just too few of us.  The Earth, the ecosystem, could absorb and recover from most of our ill-informed and/or unintended acts.  Nature would remember – there would be fire scars in tree rings – but nature would recover.

But these are not those times.  This time is what many refer to as the Anthropocene.  Our numbers, our population, our technology, our consumption of resources, our generation of trash and pollution, and our capacity to alter the surface of the earth has put us – humans – in charge of the biological make-up of the planet.  Now we need a planetary perspective.  Now we need to think about environmental consequences in advance of our actions. Now we need to acknowledge ourselves as participants – in both the good and the bad.

We are not trying to save the earth.  The earth will be fine.  What we are really trying to do is save ourselves from ourselves.   We need to be, or become, our better angels. 

Changing our consciousness will require Art, not Science.  Science can give us numbers, but it has been shown to be insufficient at changing our minds.  But Art can give us stories and vision; it can trigger feelings that help us reflect and reconsider.  Art can give us the emotional connection that will support our commitment to a new way, a better way, of doing and being.   Science and Technology will be invaluable in implementing or new or renewed cognitive relationship with our only home planet.  But the inspiration, vision and understanding will come from the Arts and Design.

Earth Day is about a simple proposition.  Do you like the ways things are going on the only planet on which you can live?  If you like or support the path that humanity is creating for the future – if you think we should have more air pollution, water pollution, chemical pollution, plastic trash, species loss, habitat loss and trash generation – then great.  You are on your way to “success.”  Should you think that the road that is currently less taken offers a better future – will you take it?  Not could you or can you take it, but WILL you take it?

The environment responds to what we do.  This is the Anthropocene.  We are in charge.  Will we accept the responsibility we have now given ourselves?  The lives and quality of life of our grandchildren and every other species on the planet are dependent upon our answer.”

Elizabeth Doud is the Currie-Kohlman Curator of Performance at The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art