“The ocean contains the switch of life. Not the land, not the atmosphere – the ocean. And that switch can be turned off.” ~ Alanna Mitchell, Sea Sick
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In May 2014, I wrote a piece for this very publication called Why the Canadian Arts Coalition doesn’t speak for me. The CAC at that time had recently come out in support of the Harper Government’s 2014 budget, for “renewing key programs”. This essentially boils down to a big thanks-for-not-cutting-arts-funding, while avoiding mention of any other aspect of the government’s agenda.
In my article I argued that it was irresponsible for me – for our community – to support arts funding policies while ignoring so many other issues we examine/question/challenge as artists: the corrosion of civil liberties, draconian “tough on crime” policies, the treatment of our indigenous population, the list goes on. Among several other Harper-related issues I could not ignore, was the muzzling of scientists, and the blatant disregard for anything resembling environmental policies related to climate change.
“My priorities as a citizen outweigh my priorities as a cultural worker”, I wrote.
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This May, I spent much of the month touring a show for The Theatre Centre that examines how the global ocean has come to be “warm, breathless, and sour”. Alanna Mitchell’s Sea Sick opened The Theatre Centre’s new home in March last year, and has been touring the country ever since, with stops in Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary, as well as a successful remount in Toronto. Last year it was nominated for a Dora Award for Outstanding New Play. This play was getting around.
And so in May of 2015 – one year after writing about the Canadian Arts Coalition – I found myself taking Alanna and the show to the Uno Festival in Victoria. Prior to UnoFest, however, some of The Theatre Centre team, including Artistic Director Franco Boni, our Manager of Artist & Community Activation Tiana Roebuck, and myself, all made our way with Alanna to Ottawa to be a part of NAC’s Ontario Scene.
Not only did we have the opportunity to present the work three times to the fantastic audiences of Ottawa, we also had the chance to introduce Alanna and her stories and research on Parliament Hill. The World Wildlife Fund had caught wind of the fact that Sea Sick would be in Ottawa, and got in touch with Alanna and The Theatre Centre to help arrange a lunch meeting with the government’s “All-Party Oceans Caucus”. So we all marched over to the hill, where Alanna took the opportunity to teach the caucus the definition of PH, and Ocean acidification.
We even conducted a little experiment in which Alanna demonstrated (with chalk and vinegar) how hydrogen ions in vinegar “steal” the calcium carbonate out of chalk – the same process that is happening in our oceans. As ocean water becomes ever more acidic, hydrogen ions are grabbing on to calcium carbonate – the same stuff that makes up bones, and teeth… and the skeletal structures of phytoplankton. And phytoplankton supplies this planet with 50% of its oxygen. The ocean, after all, contains the switch of life.
And how is the ocean becoming more acidic? We’re all pretty familiar with how an excess of carbon dioxide is affecting our air and our atmosphere, but I think we’re less familiar with the fact that approximately a third of human-created CO2 finds its way into the ocean. As the CO2 dissolves into the ocean, carbonic acid is formed, leading to higher acidity. Alanna pointed out to the room that over-fishing may not be our biggest problem in the ocean anymore, given that we’re actually facing a situation in which the oceans’ organisms are finding it more and more difficult to survive in ocean waters at all.
Whenever Alanna performs the vinegar experiment in the show, there are always audible murmurs throughout the audience as they come to realize the relationship of chalk and vinegar to bones and carbonic acid. But the loudest gasps can always be heard as she spells out the timeline for all this acidification: it all dates back to just a few hundred years – to the beginning of the industrial revolution when we started burning fossil fuels.
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After the closing performance of Sea Sick at Ontario Scene (which was attended by some of the MPs we’d had lunch with – including MP, and leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May), our team returned to festival hotel. As we passed by the festival’s welcome table, we realized we’d forgotten to pick up our Ontario Scene t-shirts. I’m not usually one for event t-shirts, but these ones came in women’s sizes, which is too rare to pass up.
Here’s the back of the shirt:
I had a moment when I saw the logos of the festival’s major sponsors. It reminded me of a moment I’d had several months earlier while attending the premiere of my husband’s play Butcher at Alberta Theatre Projects. A group of us were attending a Q&A session with Butcher’s director and playwright. Upon arrival, attendees were given welcome bags, and lanyards to wear.
Halfway through the Q&A, while sipping a coffee, I looked down and finally noticed I was wearing advertising for Enbridge around my neck. It was an Enbridge-branded lanyard. But of course the event was sponsored by Enbridge… we were in Alberta after all. The ATP new play program, of which Butcher was a part, is called Enbridge New Canadian Plays.
The ethics of arts funding is an issue I (and many others long before me) have considered and questioned for some time. So many of us in Ontario make our art through funding that comes straight out of gambling proceeds – you’ll note the OLG logo right next to Enbridge’s on the t-shirt.
Within the last few decades, new federal legislation was enacted, eventually banning all tobacco sponsorships of art and sporting events, forever changing the landscape of arts funding in this country.
In the end, despite the huge impact that tobacco sponsorships were having on arts and culture in this country, it was decided personal and public health outweighed these artistic benefits. And it was argued that the arts would go on to survive without this funding. It was more important that we make strides in ridding society of these addictive and unhealthy products: “By ending the export of tobacco advertising, Canada will be a more responsible global citizen”.
But don’t we, as a society, have an unhealthy reliance on oil? Aren’t we being told, internationally, that we need to rid ourselves of our dependence on fossil fuels? That our current activities are unsustainable, that we’re destroying the planet, that it’s the world’s most vulnerable populations that will be the hardest hit by oncoming impacts of climate change?
The Canadian Government may not be able – or willing – to acknowledge it, but hell, even the President of the United States is calling climate change deniers “stupid, short sighted, irresponsible…” The science is clear, he says. What about our children, he asks.
But these questions are always asked (and I ask them myself): what if the art can’t be made without the funding? If oil is going to continue to be a major part of our national and world economy, shouldn’t we take advantage and benefit from these activities? Shouldn’t we make these corporations pay in some way for some good in this country? Can’t we do good things with this money? Educate our audiences? Make change from within?
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Alanna’s Sea Sick doesn’t offer solutions – those are up to us. Sea Sick tells us the story of how we came to be in our current situation… and about Alanna’s own personal journey of uncovering this story, the fear of telling it, and the strength to forgive and move on. We learn that the way forward may come down to each of us recognizing what we personally have to give to the world, and offering that.
In some cases, that’s going to mean writing a play about the ocean becoming warm, breathless, and sour, and touring it around the country. The world, perhaps.
I didn’t ask Alanna what she thought of the t-shirts at Ontario Scene. And I find it difficult to talk to my friends at ATP about the lanyard I found hanging around my neck. But it’s a conversation I think we need to start having. Openly and honestly… knowing that there may be no good and right and obvious answers.
But in the end, I have to wonder about those values of mine: do my priorities as a global citizen truly outweigh my priorities as a cultural worker?