New Rituals for a Warming Planet

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Artist-crafted events offer embodied ways to meet the climate crisis, one small act at a time.

by Geneva Foster Gluck

This story was reported and written as part of BorderLore’s Culture and Climate in Community program, with funding from the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation.

A person with a strapless gold dress, white skin, dark hair, and their face covered is sitting on their knees holding a metallic silver blanket over their head.
Making a clay battery, from The Magnetic Chamber, a performance installation by G.F Gluck

We begin in a circle facing one another.
We raise our hands and start to rub them together.
The soft sound of movement and the warmth of friction between our palms.
Together we repeat:
I believe in lighting bugs, phosphorescents, electric eels, ultraviolet scorpions,
below the dirt pink-spore communication.
We are sun and moon bodied batteries,
our hearts are electromagnetic chambers.
Taking one another’s hands, we complete the circuit
And we are ready to begin.

– Audience interaction from The Magnetic Chamber

The ClimateLore logo, featuring a yellow sun with the words "ClimateLore" in yellow.

Over the last few years, I have been making small rituals as a way to communicate ideas around energy sustainability. Among these rituals I include performances, installations, and the creation of handmade batteries—performance props that power small electrical effects through basic chemical reactions. Making and experiencing these events and objects has helped me and my audiences perceive energy differently.

In modern life, we tend to think of energy as the force that drives our utilitarian needs—a force that comes in the form of oil, gas, and electricity. Yet, energy comes in so many forms. It is food to fuel bodies, sunlight to grow plants, the oxygen plants produce, currents of air and ocean, heat stored at the center of the Earth. It is the potential of metals and minerals stored in wood, rock, and fossilized light (fossil fuels). Energy is also the force behind human actions physically, inspirationally, and communally.

By creating visual, immersive, and ritualized experiences with and about energy, my work aims to help us diversify our perceptions of energy and connect our daily actions with the natural world, and the systems of power that drive our climate crisis.

For me, ritual and ritualized actions offer ways to access the overwhelming scale of our climate crisis. They help me manage the sadness I feel when I see where we are likely headed, and they also help me find hope and resistance that we will not dive headlong into irreversible catastrophe.

While environmental activists and climate scientists call for “change,” such change requires deep looking and commitment. Might ritual help us tend to the often-hidden relationships that drive our climate crisis? Might new rituals help us transform social practices, alter our behaviors, and create space for new cultural values to emerge?

As a performance-maker, I define rituals as the actions and intentions that make the unseen sensible. They are a way to frame our daily activities with greater significance. Importantly, rituals help blur the lines between the utilitarian, the political and the economic, helping us integrate the many worlds or our lived experience.

Other features of ritual might be an embodied experience that connects us to the unseen world through a kinesthetic imagination and intention. For example, when we kneel to pray or hold the palms of our hands facing one another or flat on the earth; or when we burn sacred plants or dress in a symbolic color or material.

Ritual exists already in the daily activities that build meaning, connection, comfort, and pleasure into our lives. We make pilgrimages or journeys, for instance, that allow us to meditate across space and show reverence to historically powerful, religious, or spiritual sites. We attend or host collective ceremonies—concerts, a holidays, sports events—that  strengthen our shared values and acknowledge a greater, connective force.

We use objects in ritual, too. From the items that make up altars to a lucky coin, stone, or token we take with us when we are in need of extra strength and protection. Objects have symbolic and material significance that connect us to a higher or other powers.

Such elements of everyday ritual share much in common with artist-crafted events and performances. By reimaging the embodied actions, spatial relationships, and symbolic significance of objects, assemblages, and systems of power, these works can not only reveal what is hidden, but also provide pathways for response, inspiring emotional or behavioral transformation in ways that science alone cannot. My work draws on these ideas and practices of ritual to explore energy systems and provoke new ways of thinking about energy.

I’m also interested in other artists’ work set in and around monuments to industry, utility, and waste: oil fields, train tracks, border walls, abandoned mines, and electricity grids. Like theatre-sets, these settings represent a certain type of “performance,” a way of being in the world. Artists making works in these places help us recognize the social and environmental impacts of globalization, capital control, and the commodification of nature while also pointing to powerful alternatives.

I’ve chosen three examples of artwork in this vein to share here. For me, these works exemplify new rituals: invitations to view, experience, and make sense of landscapes, mindsets, practices, and social dynamics harmed by the climate crisis and the behaviors that perpetuate it.

The Illusion of Modernity or Making and Tracing Connections

A futuristic looking car near a mine.
SEFT-1 in Yohualixqui volcano mine. Used with the permission of the artists.

In 2006, the Mexican artist-brother team of Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene began a five-year project to document the abandoned passenger railways of Mexico and Ecuador. In SEFT-1—Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada or Manned Railway Exploration Probe—the artists drove a futuristic vehicle along the abandoned and oftentimes disassembled train tracks, as if on a pilgrimage along a sacred path. From their nomadic probe, the artists collected artifacts and stories from people and places they encountered, recording the rise and fall of the railway, a once iconic emblem of modern progress.

Through photographs, a digital real-time platform, community engagement, and ephemera, the work tells the story of displacement. Traditional agrarian and self-sufficient communities were promised wealth and social mobility in the form of a modern train system. But when that rail system failed, the communities were left with what the artists call, “modern ruins”— abandoned tracks, derelict bridges, and obsolete rail technologies. This “archeology of waste,” the artists say, differs from ancient archeological ruins, which recorded civilizations through monuments and artifacts that remained long after the disappearance of those who made them. In contrast, modern ruins represent a time span without endurance, an almost-immediate state of decay, abandonment, and obsolete-ness.

SEFT-1 also acknowledges narratives of systemic failure. In Mexico, the passenger rail system collapsed because of privatization, global economics, and financing, not because it was underused by the general public. The artists spoke to people living in nearby communities who expressed deep sadness that the train no longer connects them. Instead of a thriving network, they’ve been left with a landscape of waste, a scarcely functioning train, “La Bestia,” that transports produce, manufactured goods, and desperate migrants heading north.  

Through nomadic journey and a futuristic aesthetic SEFT-1 exposes the flimsy promises of “progress” and “modernity.” I’m reminded of Argentinian scholar Walter Mignolo’s notion that modernity and coloniality are two sides of the same coin. While modernity is often perceived as an inevitable process beneficial for all, it is largely based on a colonial legacy of exploitation, dominance, and unequal distribution of resources. And we need not accept that coin. As American-Guatemalan scholar Kency Cornejo argues, once we recognize that Western paths of progress and modernity offer just one way of perceiving space and time, we can create space for new and other ways of being in the world. What then would rituals for sensing the connection between modernity, colonialism, and our environmental crisis look like? How might such rituals help us recognize our own participation in colonial technologies disguised as “modern” inevitabilities?

SEFT-1 offers one possibility. Its discoveries give audiences opportunities to more fully sense alternative ways of being and believing. It shows us that place-based knowledge can challenge and contradict notions of modernity and progress that have been detrimental to human-nature relationships. Modernity, like coloniality, views nature as a resource for humans to use, something that gains value only after its raw material has been made into a commodity to be bought and sold. SEFT-1 challenges this by recording the train’s fleeting presence and its false promise of universal prosperity. The work makes visible both that which endures—the plants, animals, peoples, and communities present before and after the train—and that which does not endure—the illusion of modernity as a progressive state of being beneficial to all. SEFT-1 offers us a model of a ritualized journey, one that reevaluates and reinvents a future open to other possibilities for Mexico, its people, and all of us living amongst modern ruins.

What are other ways we might collectively look for the evidence of modern ruins around us? What can we document and by what means to help us better recognize what is not yet in ruins, but eminently outdated, rapidly contributing to an archeology of waste? In what ways are we each upholding or building archaeologies of waste?

By questioning our own participation in outdated ideas of modernity and progress as inevitable futures, and by enacting our own pilgrimages to sites of “modern ruins,” might we too open possibilities for new behaviors and daily practices?

Collaboration as Ritual

Many yellow balloons with bullseyes on them hang above the desert along the US-Mexico border wall.
Postcommodity’s Repellent Fence / Valla Repelente, 2015. Photo by MichaelLundgren. Used with permission of the artists

In 2015, the indigenous and interdisciplinary artist collective Postcommodity realized Repellent Fence, a site-specific event/installation, in which a line of 26 large balloons resembling eyes created a conceptual fence. Rather than demarcate the existing border, the “fence” intersected it, passing through private, tribal, and national borders.

The artists describe the work as a “suture that stitches the people of the Americas together.” Created over eight years, Repellent Fence brought together communities from different political, social, and governmental affiliations—Indigenous, U.S., and Mexican—to collaborate and create dialogue. In so doing, it applied transborder knowledge to disrupt an oversimplified border rhetoric and inspire a more just border environment.

I view Postcommodity’s Repellent Fence as a collective ritual of finding connection. While it created a powerful visual statement—large symbolic forms hovering in the sky—for me of equal importance was the labor of bringing differing perspectives together that made that ultimate spectacle possible. By framing socially engaged labor as a form of ritual, this work acknowledges and brings value to the prefigurative magic of actions that anticipate, create, and diversify future realties.

Indigenous knowledge and practices are often deeply tied to place, environment, and a consideration of future generations. We all hold within us a history that originates in deep relationships with nature, place, and stewardship. When Indigenous artists create and share work and methodologies, they invite those of us who have been historically and spatially removed from our own histories to reconnect to and relearn from our own past, but without culturally appropriating what isn’t ours. For communities that have maintained their Indigenous ways as resilient practices that contest colonial imaginations, Repellent Fence affirms the power and rightful place of Indigenous knowledge within the discourse and legislation of political policy.

Rather than enforcing barriers, Repellent Fence blurs them. Its hovering balloons or “eyes” look over and across the borderlands, animating the shared oxygen we all breathe. By expanding the “territory” of the border into the atmosphere, the work provokes questions about how bordered the border really is. Repellent Fence challenges the notion of terrestrial topography as what solely defines a place. Balloons, like atmospheric sensors, respond to the flow of air, gases, sound-frequencies, and weather patterns, none of which are halted by human-made walls. This “flow” extends to subterranean aquafers and waterways, as well as droughts and toxins.

In this way, Repellent Fence also reminds us that the climate crisis does not, and will not, abide by national laws or borders. As a ritual that encourages collaboration and knowledge accounting of the environmental flow of people, animals and atmospheric phenomena, Repellent Fence etches a path for how we might work through the perceived boundaries and borders that attempt to separate our daily, political and spiritual lives.

Rituals of Care

An oil rig.
Total Field, Video Still. Used with permission of the artist.

Alana Bartol is a white Canadian artist who comes from a long line of water witches. Her witch’s wand is a dousing rod, which appears in many of her performance events, videos, and archival documentation. Dousing is a folk technology in which a rod becomes a sensing tool used to locate objects or elements. Bartol uses hers not for finding water but for sensing the environmental and ecological impact of oil drilling in Alberta, Canada. Her embodied, intuitive practice considers what exists below the surface of the ground, beyond what can be seen.

Oilfields share similar spatial features as train tracks and border walls. They are distinct places that reoccur as points of power, connecting natural elements to their roles as global and industrial resources. Oil fields also call into question the ways that power functions as assemblages and systems that create dependency and make us, the users, subjects to their power. As Jane Bennett writes in Vibrant Matter, “Perhaps the ethical responsibility of any individual human now resides on one’s response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating” (2010, 37).

In performance work, the idea of “assemblages” refers to a collection of parts, often from very different origins that come together to make something new. But the term also acknowledges that the parts are not just materials, but representative and interconnected with the systems by which they came into being. For example, electricity is a natural phenomenon, yet the assemblage which allows the lights to come on in our homes comes from the burning of coal or from solar powered systems. One assemblage depends on aggressive extraction and burning of fossil fuels, while another assemblage uses the sun’s energy as a renewable resource with no C02 emissions.

This play between the material, the assemblage, and its significance is fundamental to the stage works of experimental theatre makers as well as to diverse cultural rituals that acknowledge and make present complex systems of beliefs, cosmologies, and meaningful material partnerships. Yet our ability to recognize how our daily actions are connected to industrial oil drilling and global networks of exchange is difficult precisely because it is unclear where the assemblage begins and ends. We can neither see below the ground nor easily trace the processes that render that oil into gasoline for transportation or petroleum into plastics we use every day. So, how do we give this unseen process its full political, social, and ecological power?

Bartol’s work uses witchery as a way to help us see and understand the hidden processes of oil drilling more clearly. With a wooden dousing rod, a folk technology, she inscribes old and othered forms of knowledge into the space, creating new rituals of sensing water. Her work inherently challenges fossil fuel extraction and dependency and repositions capital value for survival value. Here, magic reminds us of things we are in danger of losing.

In Total Field (2017), a video, we see strange events happening within desolate oil fields. A case magically opens to reveal a dowsing rod and other tools. A hand reaches in to collect the tools. Strange black and shiny “creatures” scuttle along the ground. Bartol appears in an industrial work suite, her eyes covered by protective spheres. She follows the dousing rod, which moves of its own accord. Bartol’s sensing tools point to what is below the surface. What we cannot see becomes both a scenographic element, and, along with sound and symbolic creatures, a kind of character, a thing to contend with.

Dousing, Bartol believes, is a tool for “deeper sensing and remediation.” In September 2017, she established the Orphan Well Adoption Agency (OWAA). The Agency is both platform for adopting abandoned oil wells across Canada and a gallery space where Bartol exhibits videos, photographs, and ephemera collected from her time at the oil well sites.

Bartol’s work draws upon folk and ancient technologies to center embodied emotional engagement. For Bartol, to care for is to shift away from what might be considered “right,”—as in politically correct, ethical, just, or moral—toward a fundamental state of relating. To care is to be in relationship. To be in relationship is to not hide or cover one’s eyes from what is happening. This, along with a consideration of the agency of objects, tools, and utility, draws new lines of power into being. 

Returning

If ritual is an act of recognizing the unseeable, relating to the abstract, valuing the intangible, and cultivating connection with the unknown, might new rituals be a way to transform cultural behaviors and social practices that help us avoid climate catastrophe?

Seft-1, Repellent Fence, and Total Field illustrate how visual, immersive, and embodied artist-crafted experiences can communicate critical knowledge in ways that bypass language and data, offering rituals for new social behaviors.

Current constructs of modernity, international politics, and extractive industries demonstrate our difficult and greedy relationships with the planet. Nowhere is this more evident than in the climate crisis we now face. Rituals, especially those crafted by artists, are a way to imagine and enact intimate, evocative, and magical relationships with utility, industry, and policy–and their implications on mitigating climate catastrophe. Through their intention and action, such rituals model what might be possible.

In my own work around energy and the climate crisis, I explore the connections between perception, behavior, and the disconnect between our spiritual and utilitarian lives. For me, energy is a way to visualize and connect beliefs and actions that perpetuate certain power systems, to the detriment of the planet and people, while also bringing value to the labor and decisions that align our daily lives with more equitable and desirable futures.

Transportation systems, border walls, petroleum industries, power grids, and power systems are complex systems and sites, and our participation within them often feels “invisible” or so everyday that we no longer notice. Many of us conveniently look away from cause and effect. We pretend to not be in relationship. We step out of reality to justify our participation in the systems and relationships that steer us towards climate disaster.

But there are other ways to participate and relate. There are other possibilities. To change our perceptions and interactions with these systems and sites on meaningful scales, we must recognize the unseen, commune with the immensity of the situation, and dedicate ourselves to change with a commitment that is not otherworldly but deeply of this (planetary) world.

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Geneva Foster Gluck was a member of BorderLore’s 2023 Culture & Climate in Community cohort. Her work considers the overlapping features of performance, creative research, and material storytelling to explore a range of topics and experiences often grounded in decolonizing, feminist, and ecological approaches. She makes objects that are somewhere between theatrical props and tools for knowledge sharing, which appear in her work alongside live performances, installations, and videos. She grew up in Northern Arizona, and currently lives in Tucson where she is the co-founder of Snakebite Creation Space.

References

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2010

Cornejo, Kency. “Decolonial Futurisms: Ancestral Border Crossers, Time Machines, and Space Travel in Salvadoran Art.” Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas (2017): 20-31.

Puig, Ivan, and Andrés Padilla Domene. SEFT-1. México, D.F.: Publicaciones del Consejo Nacional para le Cultura y las Artes, 2011.

Walter Mignolo – Mignolo, Walter D. The Idea of Latin America. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

http://alanabartol.com/home.html, last visited 8/2/2023.  

https://postcommodity.com/Repellent_Fence_English.html, last visited 8/2/2023.

https://seft1.net/seft1/proyecto/, last visited 8/2/2023.

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