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Eco-Performance: Brazil

A welcome mat lying on the ground amongst bits of paper.

A Welcome Mat in Portuguese.

Welcome senhorxs, flora, pinnipeds, marsupials, ethereal bodies, mollusks, fungi, the beaked, the finned, and all species large and microscopic to HowlRound’s Climate Emergency series/Uma Serie de Urgência Climática. I am transmitting from the Gulf Coast of la Florida, in the watershed of the Manatee River, which is part of the Everglades bio-region on a peninsula that developés like a bare leg into the Florida straits with rippling sediment and bloodlines to and from the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Those ripples eddy through el caribe to the south Atlantic and back. From where I’m sitting on the edge of the Sarasota Bay, I acknowledge the Indigenous elders past, present, and future who have stewarded these lands and waters over the centuries, including the Seminole Tribe of Indians, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, the Calusa and Tocobaga, and the Angola settlement of freedom-seeking people known as the Black Seminoles.

Most of you won’t accuse me of hyperbole in the characterization of this current moment as an all-out climate emergency. But what is one to do when the powerful elite of the world refuse to act like it’s a true emergency? How many fires, extinctions, and desertifications of watersheds will it take to register the truth of this emergency? How many protests, theatre works, and site-specific performances will it take to wake us up? How do performing artists and cultural agents create, disseminate, and defend emergent, responsive expressions that expand and populate our individual and collective imaginations so we can cope with the biggest collective problem the planet has ever seen?

I know artivists—or arts practitioners who see art-making as an activation of social, political, and/or environmental change—around the globe are working non-stop in response to this emergency, and I’m taking this opportunity to pass the mic to our friends na brasa: in Brazil. Why Brazil? Well, folks I’ve met in and from this place named after the magnificent brazilwood tree (pau-brasil in Portuguese) have a special brand of creative response in the face of adversity. They sometimes call it jogo de cintura (hip slalom or adaptation) or jeito (the way around it), and we could use some of this right now. I also have a profound conviction that we need to see the unveiled significance and complexity of Brazil’s ecology and cultural legacy to have a robust and holistic response to climate injustice in the Americas. Over the next week, you’ll hear from three distinct Brazilian contributors that amplify other voices and reflect on these ideas. In advance, we appreciate your willingness to read and hear words in Brazilian Portuguese, try them out in your mouth, and learn about new artists, thinkers, and projects from and about Brazil.

A map of South America.

A map of South America.

This collection of essays picks up where the long-running HowlRound series Theatre in the Age of Climate Change, curated by the mighty Chantal Bilodeau, left off. It aims to discuss how artists, activists, and cultural managers are creating discourse that confronts the crises that generate and are generated by climate change. As your guest curator, I invited contributors to define eco-performance and employ its attributes to further radicalize artistic and cultural work–in particular performance and artivism. These perspectives promote the decoloniality of thinking, acting, and doing that values creation over extraction, and they emphasize inter-reliant intelligence and ​​cooperative economic practices that work in favor of the commons and for the common good, advancing epistemologies based on the premises of buen vivir. Evidenced in these writings is a recognition that without emotional, spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic well-being for humanoids and all other species that make up this immense provider ecosystem, no plan, political promise, or carbon-zero goal will matter.

I also have a profound conviction that we need to see the unveiled significance and complexity of Brazil’s ecology and cultural legacy to have a robust and holistic response to climate injustice in the Americas.

Eco-Performance: The Art of Breaking Bad News

Over the last fifteen years, my own artistic practice and cultural advocacy has facilitated public access to performing arts that increase awareness about climate change. Using concepts of eco-theatre and site-specific performance, my work contemplates the power of artists to contribute to and lead a creative movement around the current impacts of human activity on the environment. This practice inevitably interrelates the inherent problems of poverty and injustice among humans, other species, and environmental issues in pursuit of climate justice. I believe that what many in the field have been describing with terms such as eco-theatre, green theatre, eco-arts, greenturgy, or eco-performance will eventually be known as just theatre. There will be no story untouched by the impacts of this climate emergency.

In 2018, I was part of a group of artists and climate arts practitioners working at the intersection of performance and environmental justice who gathered in Boston at the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change Convening produced by HowlRound. Since then, lots of thought has gone into breaking bad news poetically. The results have been better than we imagined, considering the breadth of productions, plays, projects, and partnerships rolled out globally to express fear, loss, hopeful futures, and the end of the world as we know it.

One shift since then is that notions of climate justice in art and culture are becoming embedded in how we talk and think about taking action. Concerns about decolonization and “just transitions” as guide approaches to planning, inclusion, leadership, and execution. Don’t get me wrong, we have a long way to go, but some blood is being pumped into this muscle, finally, and the hope is that it will get stronger. There is a greater understanding that climate justice is racial justice, which is gender justice, which is economic justice, which is ecological justice, which is epistemic justice. This opens possibilities for coalitions, which are our best chance for building the future we say we all want. It falls on us to act on it in the arts.

Now that news of climate change is no longer new, the role of eco-performance is less about raising awareness and more about emotional and psychological triage for humanity so that we can be strong for the reparative process to come. Artists—in extinction-level crisis as ever—forecast the calamity, sound the alarm, and clean up the existential and physical mess—or at least build poetic hospice care. The eco-performances we create individually and institutionally will need to process the emotions of individuals and groups experiencing a wide variety of climate emergency impacts and then backflip that into provocative, sustainable, biodiverse visions of a fair, courageous and joyful future. Using theatre and performance as a healing space for the traumatized psyche of our species so we can care for other humans and non-humans is a critical lifesaving skill set and cultural system. What does it mean to heal climate trauma with and through theatre? Why is Brazil’s ecology, traditional knowledge, resistance practices and artist citizenry so important for the world?

Now that news of climate change is no longer new, the role of eco-performance is less about raising awareness and more about emotional and psychological triage for humanity so that we can be strong for the reparative process to come.

Multi-Species Eco-Justice en las Américas: A Samba in Three Parts

One of my specializations as a cultural organizer—besides performing arts, ecology, and climate change—has been artistic mobility between Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States of America, with a critical and plural perspective on transnational cultural, linguistic, and biological exchange in the Americas. Since 1995, I have lived physically, psychologically, politically, and culturally in both Florida and Brazil, exploring culture and ecology. It is because of my deep inter-reliance on Brazilian thought, people, land, and energy that I open space here for Brazilian voices who can speak of essential places of decolonial resistance, eco-reconnection, plurality, and traditional and futuristic indigeneity.

To situate writing about eco-performance in Brazil, it may be useful to remind readers that Brazil is geographically larger than the continental United States. It holds within its boundaries much of the largest tropical rainforest on the planet and arguably the largest pool of planetary biodiversity. In terms of performance practice, anyone feeling like it’s a good time to apply the principles of Theatre of the Oppressed to their artistic or organizing work owes Brazil a debt of gratitude. Augusto Boal developed this work in Brazil and with Brazilian collaborators, participants and audiences. It required the specific social conditions of Brazil for Boal’s work to be potent, meaningful, and relevant to our needs today. One of the most important pedagogues of the twentieth century, Paulo Freire, is from Brazil, and is considered one of the godfathers of today’s social justice movements. Indigenous leaders such as Ailton Krenak, ecofeminist Ivone Gebara, radical geographer Milton Santos, and philosophers, artists, and cultural strategists Djamila Ribeiro and Márcia Tiburi are just a few examples of the Brazilian thinkers who advance what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls “justice against epistemicide.” Their cultural models must be taken seriously if we presume to use arts and culture towards future climate justice.

There is a long history of performance and environmental activism that is integral to Brazilian identity. In a country that has taken carnival arts to epic levels and suffered brutal repression of its artist class under a fairly recent military dictatorship, street theatre and protest parades are not idle pursuits with inconsequential impacts. Many performances in Brazil related to concerns of ecological sustainability and industrial degradation of Brazil’s lands predated the 2012 Rio+20 conference, where Amazonian Indigenous sovereignty and protections against mining and exploitation of natural resources were recognized in a global forum. Equally important is how prominent Brazilian activists and cultural leaders have been in the international environmental justice movement, (Chico Mendes, anyone?) and they are still risking life, limb, and habitat to make sure the rest of our planet can have water and breathe.

I raise a toast to every masked, caped, poem-sign-wielding, samba-heeled, hip shaking, fake- and real-blood-soaked artivist out in those streets. I salute your impoliteness, your courage, your metaphoric judo, your nakedness, your long walk in the hot sun, your honesty, and and your willingness to get arrested or worse. In the year 2021—when the murder rate of environmental activists (most of whom identify as Indigenous) exploded in places like Brazil, Southeast Asia and across the African continent—protest was not only funny and crass but deadly and serious.

The three voices I have invited from Brazil to reflect on eco-performance in a time of climate emergency are Martin Domecq, Onisajé (Fernanda Julia), and Adilson Siqueira. This series honors the work of these three eco-performance practitioners, educators, and writers who are creating shared experiences and discourse that is shifting the conversation about climate justice, anti-racist cultural organizing, eco-performance, and culture’s role in radical change across these Americas.

There is a long history of performance and environmental activism that is integral to Brazilian identity.

Educator, theatre director, and playwright Martin Domecq has produced works in what he calls interzonas—or spaces that bridge and energize environments with eco-performance—in communities across the state of Bahia. In his essay, he shines light on the work of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists from across Brazil who are creating works in these spaces. The works he shares speak to historical realities in Brazil, including concepts of urbanity and regenerative decolonization. As an educator at one of the leading universities in northeastern Brazil, his focus is creating access points for students between performance and ecology.

I first met Onisajé in 2014 after seeing her work Exu: A Boco do Universo (Exu: Mouth of the Universe) at Sesc-Senac Pelourinho Theatre in Salvador, Bahia. It was an irreverent performance that mixed the sacred, the profane, pop culture, and political scandal to make a case for cosmic healing through respect for ancestral knowledge of nature and natural systems. Performed outdoors in the round, the work challenged audiences with a dynamic, artistic application of Candomblé’s values and energy. The cast and director expertly stripped away any possibility of romantic or infantilized folklore without diluting or disrespecting the sacred authority it draws from. That night, I became an instant fan of Onisajé company, Teatro Preto do Candomblé, and I hope you will enjoy reading about her experience and approaches to eco-reconnection through her company’s work.

Adilson Siqueira is a researcher, artist, and organizer who has been fundamental in generating and disseminating eco-poetic activities, protests, academic projects, and sit-ins in Minas Gerais before others in the academic sphere in Brazil were making the connection between the arts and environmental justice. For this series, Adilson organized a conversation with his collaborators on the concepts and community engagement practice of the “Corpo Quebrada” or “Bent Body” as it relates to community engagement and eco-poetics in under-resourced communities in Minas Gerais. Follow their journey into the “peripheral communities” or slums of Minas Gerais where they redefine embodiment for a new age of community arts encounters. We are presenting the abridged text of their conversation in Portuguese and English, and those who would like to listen to the full conversation in Portuguese may do so on my website.

A woman in a dress holding a fake bird's head.

Performance art by Elizabeth Doud.

I invite you to get to know the names in the contributions this week. Put the book of a Brazilian author on your shelf (English version of Ideias para Adiar o Fim do Mundo or Como Conversar com um Fascista (How to have a conversation with a fascist) by Márcia Tiburi); listen to some Brazilian music (Bia Ferreira or Chico Science & Nação Zumbi); or follow a Brazilian artist on social media (Novissimo Edgar or Ziel Karapató). Take a look at a map of Brazil. Think about the Amazon and how bad we need that lung. Think about canceling your Amazon Prime account; enough of Jeff Bezos making money off that name. Let’s think creatively how we might equitably support a Brazilian artist and/or Indigenous person in Brazilian territory, and then do it.

Thoughts from the curator

There is a long history of performance entwining with environmental activism in Brazil. This series builds upon the HowlRound series and convening, Theatre in the Age of Climate Change, to highlight some of these Brazillan performances, research, and training initiatives. These works of eco-performance and ecopoetic theatre model creative paths forward for the reparative processes necessary to face climate change.

Climate Emergency

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