The unextinction machine

24 07 2011
12 pictures for youcreatures 1creatures 2creatures 3creatures 4creatures 7
creatures 6creatures 8creatures 9creatures 10creatures 11the unextinction machine

unextinction machine, a set on Flickr.

My daughter Megan (aged 11) and husband Brian have created this amazing mural together. Megan had the idea of a machine that could accelerate evolution and combat extinction, through the power of creativity. The machine spews out new creatures at a rapid rate, as fast as species are going extinct. These new creatures can adapt better to a changing environment. Megan and Brian collaborated together to invent the new creatures, by drawing parts and then completing each others’ drawings. It can be seen from 24 July – 4 September, at the Hill Station, a cafe and cultural centre that is run by and for the community, in Kitto Road, Telegraph Hill, London. The Hill Station is open 7 days a week (excluding evenings).

You can follow updates on Twitter from @unextinctionmac – but please note they might be rather slow, as the machine will be rather busy. Over time, the more vocal and intelligent creatures may be able to start tweeting for it.

Look on the project website for more information. You’ll find out more about how you can get involved in two main ways:

1) You can name our creatures – we will be posting pictures on Flickr of each creature and in the comments you can suggest names for them, and maybe habitats, habits and so on, so that we can care for the creatures. The ones that get named will start tweeting.

2) You can create your own creature. Post a photo of your collaborative drawing or sculpture on the Unextinction Machine group on Flickr








The Happy Museum is Go

8 04 2011

The Happy Museum project was launched last week at the October Gallery, launching a ¬£60,000 open commission fund for small projects which explore wellbeing and sustainability in museum communities. It’s funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Breakthrough Fund, is the brainchild of Tony Butler and is being developed by Hilary Jennings and Lucy Neal. I was one of the contributors to the provocation paper and especially focused my attention on the manifesto, the headlines for which are below (read the paper for more):

  1. Make people happy
  2. Pursue mutual relationships
  3. Value the environment, the past, the present and the future
  4. Measure what matters
  5. Lead on innovation towards transition
  6. Think global and be networked
  7. Support learning for resilience
  8. Find your niche

This project is so welcome, arriving in a year which is blighted by cultural funding cuts in a bigger context of environmental and economic crisis. It’s really important for cultural organisations to remain positive and to focus on what really matters, the wellbeing of biodiverse communities that they depend upon and can contribute to. That said, I have struggled very slightly with this project’s title as I fear that it may be perceived too narrowly as being about mental health, rather than more broadly about transition towards the systemic wellbeing of the commons (commons being human and all life).

Paul Hamlyn has also funded a similar project called (Re)think, led by Mission Models Money. This is a new action-research platform dedicated to understanding the role that cultural and creative practice has in finding solutions and responding to the current challenges, which are identified to be largely environmental. Like the Happy Museum, this also ‘docks’ with the New Economic Foundation’s Great Transition work. Apparently, Paul Hamlyn doesn’t see a connection between (Re)think and the Happy Museum. However, both projects have inclusive definitions of museums, culture and creativity. So, I wonder how these two projects might make most efficient use of their proximity in terms of scheduling, mission and network.

There are also other initiatives in similar ground, including A Case for Optimism supported by the Clore Leadership Programme, also kicking off at the moment. I’m also about to launch a training toolkit called Museums for the Future, commissioned by Renaissance South East, enabling museums to become centres for sustainable communities. Watch this space. Also Common Cause is launching an Arts and Creativity working group. On a practical level for those of us going to all these seminars, launches and online networks, it can be time-consuming and sometimes repetitive. Emotionally, on the other hand, this feels like the zeitgeist I’ve been waiting to happen. I started this blog over two years ago, hoping that it would be become a big co-authored blog and network, continually asking people to write for it and raise awareness in CACH weeks each year. That didn’t happen. I think I went about that in the wrong way. Others probably saw this as my personal sounding board and didn’t want to piggyback on it. In that time, only a handful of people have actually read the Framework for Climate Action, the centrepiece of this blog, and nobody has responded to it. (On the other hand, many of my posts have received some really interesting and valuable comments, for which thank you.) So, I’m considering merging the posts into my personal blog and letting all these other funded projects carry the weight of the networking challenge.

The Happy Museum is Go, which means others are taking their own reins on the issues that I am really passionate about, and that makes me happy.

Cultural agents for the Great Transition

28 10 2010

I went to a very stimulating event last night at the South Bank Centre, organised by the New Economics Foundation. It’s just a straight account. I don’t have time for analysis because, well, I’m off to the seaside with my daughter. If in that there is an analysis, it is to act out a lesson of the event – that you have to focus on wellbeing, and that means for me going down to the shore and spending time with my loved ones.

The event was compered by Andrew Simms, who reminded us of the big triple crunch, our ecological debt and the urgency of climate action. He introduced the first panel, Ann Pettifor, author of books on international finance, Professor Tim Jackson, who is interested in cultural solutions to climate action, Vivienne Westwood, who has put out a manifesto calling for people to overcome consumerist distraction through cultural engagement, and Rosie Boycott, who is helping generate a local food movement in London.

Anne Pettifor, when asked: ‘Where is our money?’ gave the simple answer, ‘The banks have it. They are hoarding it from the quantitative easing payments (or queasing as we call it at NEF).’ Her basic point is that banks are a public good not private and that we need capital controls.

Tim Jackson was rather more wordy. He said that there’s a false belief that growth means prosperity. But it’s only generating ‘thin value’ e.g. money, not a sense of meaning. Prosperity actually means hope. We have a huge task to collectively understand what an economy can be that is not predicated on growth. He asked: Is this really us? Is it really human to want things so much? True human qualities are altruism, playfulness etc. But we have all cast ourselves as villains. We have to let that go then construct institutions that really engage with who we are as humans. He’s appalled by the idea that we’re manipulating and dehumanising our children, making it much harder to instil the values of humanity that we are endowed with.

Vivienne Westwood was a breath of fresh air because she expressed her feelings, her distress and passion. She said ‘I was so upset [to read about the likely mass human die-offs] and worried and I still am’. We need to say and hear those feelings in public, I believe. And I liked her because, although it wasn’t articulated powerfully, she believes in cultural engagement as a key antidote to our addiction to things. She said: “My idea is that culture is the antidote to consumerist propaganda, so you should go to art galleries. I truly believe we are an endangered species…We will be killed by habit.” When asked what she does in terms of sustainable fashion, she said “I tell people to stop buying clothes for 6 months. Wear your husbands boxers and lovely things from your grandmother, buy only things that will last.”

Just as Westwood realises that (lots of) clothes don’t sustain us, Rosie Boycott knows that food will. Her radical view is that the food system is about to fall apart like the money system has, and that this is good news. Food regulation remains untouched by any governments. It’s not in the common good. It has always been left to trade. Our system produces one calorie of food from ten calories of oil. Collapse should come quickly so people realise how central it is to the crises we face and so that a revolutionary change comes about. This change is happening at grassroots. All over London and other cities people are reclaiming space that otherwise would be full of needles and trash. They are triumphant in their contests to grow food in the oddest kinds of containers.
Alice Walters has done research that proves primary kids who grow veg do eat more healthily and have better health overall. Farmers are a dying breed in the UK. The average age for a farmer is 58 because there is not enough training and support for the next generation. Don’t be fooled by the argument that you mustn’t buy local because it might deprive developing countries of income. They are subject to a modern form of slavery and our demands are reducing their lands to monoculture. Grenadans now eat Canadian wheat, not cassava and breadfruit, though it is one of the most fertile countries on the planet.

Caroline Lucas was after the break, along with Professor Jayati Ghosh. Both brilliant, insightful women.

Caroline said that what keeps her awake at night is the timescale needed to tackle the climate crisis, compared to the anachronistic timeworld of the Houses of Parliament. She doesn’t want humans to go down in universal history as the only species that monitored its downfall and role in environmental collapse, that knew what was happening but did nothing.

She asked, what if the Coalition convinced us that climate action, not deficit cuts, are absolutely necessary? They have no mandate as a Government, they didn’t tell us that they were going to exact those cuts, and they haven’t convinced us they are necessary or even helpful. We realised Hitler was a threat but realistion about climate change is dispersed. It’s like the slowly boiling frog.

Jayati Ghosh then talked about global trade. She followed on from Caroline Lucas, who had finished by saying that trade, not aid, is a dangerous strategy. The poorest people are most likely to suffer when we develop trade. She explained that although we hear constantly that India and China are ‘taking over’ and so much better off, several indicators show that that both the quality for life and the economy are actually worse. It’s not decent work, it’s slavery. Farmers are at the brink of survival, shifting to cash crops for survival, making farming inviable. Those problems stem from export led growth, which is the development aid model. This then leads to forced economic migration. The south has been providing net financial flows to north, not the other way round: “We’ve been paying for the Iraq war and for the fact you have to change your sofa sets every year.” She told the story of Malawi, which decided to defy the World Bank by developing their food system in a way that is now enabling them to thrive. Localism is not a retreat from the world but is actually more internationalist in its outlook, as it encourages knowledge sharing between localities about survival.

10/10/10 work party on climate action in culture and heritage?

10 10 2010

Today is the Global Work Party for people the world over to implement solutions to climate change. I believe that the cultural sector (arts organisations, museums, libraries, heritage sites, creative people, broadcasters etc) has an extraordinarily important role to play in this. Just as we have to step up CO2 reduction 40 fold, I think that the cultural sector needs to up its game to that extent. I’d love it if people can join me today (and for the rest of October) in blogging, commenting, tweeting, however you like to do it, on this topic. You can write an article for a guest post on this blog – send it to me at and I’ll post it for you. You can comment on any of the posts here. You can tweet using the hashtag #cach. You can get a discussion going on any professional forum or network and let me know about it by email or on twitter.

A month of climate action in arts and heritage

3 10 2010

October is a month of climate action because of 10/10/10, the global day of doing organised between Bill McKibben’s and Franny Armstrong’s 10:10. I’m going to be doing two things on the 10th October:

One is opening an exhibition of photography about my project The Leysdown Tragedy: A Memorial Walk, reflecting on childhood and preparation for the climate-changed future. This will be at the Hill Station, a cafe we’ve built in Telegraph Hill as part of a Bold Vision for a sustainable community.

The other thing is that I will be blogging and connecting with people online. This will be a call to anyone involved in or interested in arts, culture and heritage to take ‘climate action’. I hope I won’t be alone. I’d love to see others blogging (or any other kind of amplifying) on the same themes throughout October.

Throughout October and early November there will be plenty of events during which arts and heritage people are gathering to discuss the climate and ecology challenges.

It starts tomorrow. First up is the Museums Association conference. A couple of sessions are relevant: one about green exhibitions, another about how your museum might thrive in 20-40 years. I can’t make the conference this year. Last year, sustainability was a much more central theme but I hope it may be on a few delegates’ minds again.

The other event tomorrow, one I’ll be attending, is MMM’s Internationalism in an Ecologically Conscious Age. It will coincide with the launch of Sustainable Ability, a great web resource for the arts community to drive forward transformative responses to climate change and resource scarcity.

There are more events coming up, including:

Me leading a session on ecological innovation at a Renaissance SE event on income generation and innovation on 19 October at Brooklands Museum.

Also, on October 21st, on the Our Place Network, I’ll be part of an online discussion about Greening Up Your Projects, ways of engaging audiences in the sustainability work of heritage organisations and museums.

The engage International Conference on the Art of Influencing Change, on 3-5 November. It will be full of discussions about the 21st century challenges, in particular the environmental crisis and globalisation, and will look at how engaged visual arts practice and gallery education can respond.

Plus, there is much more, with quite a few relevant publications and provocations coming out.

If anybody else finds themselves at a relevant event or meeting, or just discussing these issues, please do share them online. The best way to get your blogposts or updates picked up here is to tweet and use the hashtag #cach.

Cultured Uncivilisation

1 06 2010

I’ve just returned from the Uncivilisation Festival in Llangollen. This was a gathering responding to the Dark Mountain manifesto by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, about collapse, climate disruption and the role of culture. There’s too much to do a swift review of it now. The experience was quite profound for me.

I’m reflecting a lot on one particular session, with George Monbiot in conversation with Dougald. Monbiot has been very critical of Dark Mountain and some of his criticisms (if they are accurate) I can agree with. For example, I agree with him that we must promote green energy solutions and not be negative about geoengineering. Nor should we underestimate the determination of industrial capitalism to exploit every last scrap of fossil fuel riddling the planet. However, I was surprised that in painting this future picture of unarrestable growth he didn’t admit, or even mention, the tipping point and the effect that a rise to 4C will have on the infrastructure of our so called civilisation. This weekend I heard that the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, seen as the most conservative and cautious of climate centres, has recently issued a model predicting that 4C will be reached by 2050 due to the feedback effects we are now seeing. Others will articulate their challenges to these points better than me. The issue I can best address is Monbiot’s dismissal of the role of culture and creativity. He characterised Dark Mountain as romanticising ‘a feral possessive individualism’, that we must focus on working collectively and politically not artistically, that the manifesto promotes ‘going off alone to write your own poetry’. This is a misunderstanding of Dark Mountain and also of the role of art. I wouldn’t have had courage to put my challenge out to the room but I can write it here, pompous as it sounds:

I’m Bridget McKenzie. I tell you my name because I’m an individual, who believes in individual agency, but I’m also one who works in collectives with others. I think it’s not just possible but desirable for individual expressiveness and collective action to coexist. My name is the first on the list of pledgers of support for Dark Mountain. I wouldn’t have voiced the manifesto as such but I put my name to it because I believe that culture and creativity are vital. We can’t become the extraordinary creative problem solvers we all need to be without a balance of imagination and skill, or poiesis and techne. I do creative work not to escape from the world and others but to make connections with them. Culture is an entanglement. It helps us carry and share real and useful knowledge across boundaries. It is a way to be political, a way to act, a way to teach, a way to thrive, a way to cope. As Louise Bourgeois (who has just died this weekend) said, ‘Art is a guarantee of sanity’. The environmental crisis means that culture and creativity have to be understood differently. They have to be integrated into everything we do and also seen as integral with nature. Transcendence has always been seen as lifting us out of the mire of animality, helping us reach for the stars. Our capacity to make art was what defined us as humans, to be distinct from animals. Art is artifice. Now, we have to radically reassign the notion of transcendence to mean an ascent, to make us see the polluted mire of our own making, to take the long view, to fully become stewards so that we can restore the health of the biosphere.


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