Skip to content
  • Video
  • 15 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

The age of sustainability

Updated Friday 11th December 2009

Speaking from the Art & Climate Change event hosted by TippingPoint, Ian Ritchie, Festival Director for the City of London Festival, exemplifies the benefits from a partnership between the arts and science.



How does your work relate to climate change?

Well I think it’s very important that artists should be given as much opportunity as possible to do what they’re best at, which is to reflect on the world and to communicate and to express their findings to our public. If that sounds a little bit sort of scientific, I believe so strongly in the power of the arts, not just the visual arts, not just the written word but also music, to reflect the world as it is and to communicate it in the most truthful and honest way. So there’s a very simple answer in the sense that if we are to reflect honestly what we find in the world around us, and if we are as we are a creative festival that encourages new work, it’s seems absolutely the right thing to invite our artists to be responsive and particularly responsive to themes.

For example, in 2009, we decided for the 2009 festival not only to have a geographic theme, as we have done for a number of years, in this case the important maritime cities on or close to the 60 degree north latitude, and in that way by taking that theme we were able to take Kirkwall, the lovely city of Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, and Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn and St Petersburg, taking these six cities, which share extraordinary histories between them, different histories but also some similar ones, and to take that as a sort of starting point for a whole artistic exploration.

It then seemed the logical thing to see what it was about these places that really mattered and they had in common, of course what they have in common is a sort of frontline position in relation to the impact of global warming and the rising sea levels. In Orkney, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, a composer whom I’ve been working with for the best part of twenty-five years and more, I mean he lives in Orkney in a place which is incredibly beautiful but also vulnerable. I mean he lives on an island called Sanday, which frankly if there were to be a four or five degree rise in global temperature would end up under water. And I think it was quite interesting to find in places like Orkney, artists like Peter Maxwell Davies, him in particular, were particularly responsive and creative in response to this particular theme.

So in the 2009 festival Peter Maxwell Davies wrote a piece which was a setting of a magnificent poem by Andrew Motion, the poem was called Lamentations, a poem which he wrote very much from the point of view of looking out of his home in London and gazing upon an imaginary landscape that had been completely devastated by flooding as a result of global warming. That was the poem, and Peter Maxwell Davies responded to that poem with a work that we were able to feature in the festival; we gave the first London performance of that.

And then we were also able to commission a composer called Nigel Osborne to write a work connecting the six cities on the 60 degree north latitude with the City of London itself and to write about the impact again of climate change but through the perspective of a number of different writers. And he found texts dating back to the ancient Nordic sagas. He found Swedenborg writing in Latin, he found wonderful old text from Estonia and from St Petersburg, and Anglo Saxon text from London, all of which made different, interesting, perceptive references to the impact of climate change in one way or another. And the piece was called Seven Words, Seven Icons, Seven Cities. And we were able to get an artist like Nigel Osborne to respond to an idea within the festival that was exploring these places.

So it’s a slightly lengthy response but actually it was just a really important thing to take a theme and to explore it and in the way that artists can and nobody else can. I was going to say the other important aspect of this is the City of London Festival is actually, as the name suggests, is actually based in the ‘square mile’ of the City of London. But I had an overall theme running through the festival looking at sustainability, the wider question beyond purely climate change, in ecological terms, this was climate change also in economic terms, and beginning a dialogue with the City about very important subjects, about the real longer term future of the City as a place of work, and the role that artists can play in that, and so we set up seminars and sessions, lectures, where artists and experts came together and shared their experience.

In one case doing a joint lecture between a performer and a professor of commerce where they literally exchanged between music and text in a rather unusual lecture. And the festival can do that, I think festivals are in a way bound to do that in a way that others perhaps can’t because we’ve got the opportunity to play, to play with artists and to engage the audience in new ways, and that’s what we do.

How do you see the next 10 years rolling out?

In 2010 naturally if we are going to be serious about our focus on sustainability as a festival it would be completely wrong to abandon the theme after one year. Then we haven’t, we’ve been totally unsustainable in our artistic thinking. So we continue the exploration but in perhaps different ways and different themes each year. In 2010 the geographic theme is going to be the Portuguese speaking world, which gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore not just Portugal but also Brazil and the African countries like Angola and Mozambique and Cape Verde, and also Goa, and right to Timor and so on. So we’ve actually got a wonderful opportunity to explore different parts of the world through the arts of those different places and through our responses to meeting artists from those places.

And in looking at those parts of the world there are so many environmental themes that we can pick up. I mean the very obvious one’s around forests. But actually what we decided also to do is to take the idea of the honeybee as a wonderful metaphor for the city worker, but also a metaphor for much else. I mean the making of honey and the making of money, the idea of, sadly, of the sort of collapse of bee colonies relating to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the other banks. I mean it’s fairly obvious that the idea of these amazing beehives that are these high rise city office buildings actually being depicted in an amusing way, I hope, but also I think in a very, I hope, effective and revealing way through an artistic response through the idea of bees and honey. So we’re actually going to be working with an artist who’s going to help us to place beehives around the City, and then we’ll have ceremonies of collecting the honey. The honey will have different flavours depending on which part of the City it will have been.

Okay, these concrete places but with wonderful biodiversity that we want to prove working with the open spaces department of the City of London, finding flowers, finding different growth and actually getting different honey in different parts of the square mile, responding with poems about the honey, responding with music. We’ve commissioned a new piece of piano music for between one and twenty-one pianists. The idea is to, I mean it may be a rather simplistic one, but it is to give the sense of both the swarm but also playing together and playing individually. Now that’s an important aspect of the bee of course. The bee is the individual but the bee also as part of a very interdependent community. A bee that also needs to work with the plant world, and a plant world that depends on the bee, isn’t that a wonderful model for a society that we perhaps should try and recreate. So there’s a serious purpose behind the fun and the humour.

Where does the passion come from?

My engagement with this topic I have to say has kind of grown over time. But I suppose if I cast my mind back to the mid to late Sixties, when I was very lucky, as I now look back and can reflect upon this, I was very lucky to have been at a school where I spent five years in the most extraordinary grounds that have been designed by Capability Brown, filled with temples and other architecture and artefacts and actually also palpable memories of a period of enlightenment, particularly from the late 18th Century; a period in which Isaac Newton would not have even known that he was a scientist and wouldn’t have been called a scientist, a natural philosopher.

But these particular grounds, this particular place where I was at school, was a massive inspiration. In the grounds there was a temple to a number of British worthies, one of whom was Isaac Newton. And his friend Alexander Pope, the writer, but much more than a writer, the writer and polymath, inscribed the most beautiful either epitaph or epithet I’m not quite sure of the term but he wrote this of Isaac Newton, as far as I can remember, ‘Whom the God of nature made to comprehend his work’.

Now I have been studying physics at school to A-level, and we were taught at that stage Newtonian physics, the very simple but beautiful and extraordinary proofs that Newton was finding that explained all sorts of things about nature, how light worked, how gravity worked and how mass related to speed and volume and so on. And it was a very very wonderful experience actually having that simple science that we could learn, and then late during that course of work we were then told about all the developments of Einstein around relativity and so on, so kind of debunking Newton.

But somehow I still felt and always felt that Newton was incredibly important, and for somebody to say of Newton that, whom the God of nature made to comprehend his work, to me started the process of understanding actually something about art and science and nature being all as one, and perhaps that was what the Enlightenment, period of Enlightenment was all about. After all 250 years before that you had the period of Renaissance, and what was the difference between the Renaissance and the Dark Ages that preceded them, or the Middle Ages, that was full of fine art, indeed it was, but art very often without perspective, cloistered art without long-term views and without three dimensions. And then you have the Renaissance Period, where landscapes would start to roll into the distant future, where there were sort of, there was a big perspective that people looked forward and at a distance, but a time when people in their education would learn about many things, about astronomy, about music, about mathematics, architecture, all as one, all as one set of disciplines that all belong together in human kind.

So it was 250 years later I think during the period of Enlightenment. And then what happened? You had the Industrial Revolution setting in, and then specialism in all these disciplines started to become necessary, and as people also needed perhaps to be corralled and controlled into specialised jobs and so an education system emerged and one which I then grew into during the same period from the late 60s onwards. And certainly I was not the first generation, there were many generations then of people who were learning to become specialists in science or in the arts or in whatever, and we were in a way being intellectually deprived of the connections with the other.

So you had 250 years ago that period of Enlightenment, 250 years on maybe we need to be finding the new period, and what should that be in? I think that when people talk about a new age of sustainability, and people are talking about the age of sustainability, we need to decide what that is. And I’m certain that what it is, is a period when we are at one with nature once more but rooted in good science and witnessed by artists, and that’s a relationship between art and science and nature that I think’s so important again now. And without that I don’t think we will have our age of sustainability, and I think actually the whole business of trying to deal with climate change purely scientifically or purely artistically, that’s not going to work. It’s about coming together and really working effectively. And so, as I am finding out more about this, through the practice of making festivals and through talking with artists and talking with colleagues, it becomes increasingly important and increasingly obvious actually that we should be engaging the artists in what they do best, which is to reflect on the world and to communicate and to work alongside scientists to do the same.

Optimism or pessimism?

I think there’s, if it isn’t hedging my bets, I think there’s potential to be optimistic. But this depends so much upon our being able to help to change public opinion and through that the leading political opinion to go with this. I think there’s a long way to go. We do have to make sure that our education systems broaden and change and remove this sort of obsession with the early specialisms and to allow, with courage allow the breadth of learning, and if we can encourage not just our nursery children and our primary children, who do start with a whole breadth of learning, admittedly, at a very early and junior level, if we can carry that spirit through, through secondary, into tertiary and on into our professional lives then I think we do stand a real chance of having that sort of development from information through knowledge to wisdom that will enable our mission to have a really good and effective planet actually to work. But it will require that, it requires a major political and public will and an education programme that really does support that will.

Explore climate change


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?