350.org as Localized, Trans-Global Performance

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Standing, Sarah Ann. “350.org as Localized, Trans-Global Performance.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 2018, https://doi.org/10.33303/gpsv1n2a6

Sarah Ann Standing

New York City College of Technology (CUNY)

The modern environmental movement, it can be argued, launched in popular imagination when stunning photos of the “earthrise” — sent back from Apollo 8 on December 22, 1968 — revealed for the first time our fragile “island home” floating in the great sea of space. Not long after, in 1970, the first international “Earth Day” was inaugurated. A concomitant rise in eco-criticism in general (Glotfelty, Kolodny, and Howarth), and eco-performance criticism in particular (Arons, May, Chaudhuri, Fuchs, Kershaw, and Cless), theorized the relationships of the humanities to ecology, and of theatre and performance to ecology. Additionally, environmental activism has coalesced into a movement, and current work builds on that of earlier pioneers — among them, Greenpeace, Earth First!, ELF, and PETA — and can involve direct and indirect actions. Current organizations are likely to utilize public spaces, flash performance/actions, as well as countless other traditional-style marches and protests.

This paper seeks to position eco-activist group 350.org’s work as eco-performance. I examine the particular strengths and challenges of 350.org as performance, specifically — distinct from the larger, murkier category of “art.” Moreover, the tools of performance can be utilized to unpack the significance of 350’s protest performance. 350.org organizes exciting en-actions at the intersections of performance and eco-activism — performing what I term “eco-enactivism.” Borrowing the term “enactivism” from philosophy of mind, where mind and body are always co-creating themselves in conjunction with their environment, I add the idea that eco-activism — exemplified by the profiled actions of 350.org — can be seen as an embodied co-creating of reality and resistance, here particularly utilizing the g/local. Thus, eco-enactivism changes (through this co-creation), the environment, the spectator, and the performer. Demonstrating large-scale cooperation and creativity in addressing seemingly insurmountable problems, these performance “actions” serve as poignant disrupters, as performance so often does. As Diana Taylor writes, “[T]he power of performance [is] to enable individuals and collectives to reimagine and restate the social rules, codes, and conventions that prove most oppressive and damaging” (xiv). The eco-enactivism of 350.org seeks to disrupt the isolation of the local and particularization of the national, the status quo of global warming, and the domination and silence of marginalized groups in the global conversation.

In this paper, I examine two specific “actions:” the 2009 “Global Day of Climate Action” (on October 24, 2009, over 5,000 performance artworks occurred around the globe in one day), and the 2010 “Earth Art” project (consisting of sixteen enormous performance artworks designed to be seen best from space). Using these two projects as examples of performance, I seek to develop three overarching (and connected) points, to support the idea of eco-enactivism: 1) 350.org’s activism can be considered “artivism,” (i.e., a conjunction of art and activism). Further, I argue, this kind of work is not only art but actually embodied “performance,” and should be seen as a genre of eco-performance. 2) These actions are compelling. They use aspects of theatre and performance: ephemerality, mediality, scale, performativity, and spectacle to precisely target human emotion, engagement, and awe. 3) 350’s work disrupts many frames that are frequently taken for granted in performance: the local/trans-national divide, the inevitability of current dominant power structures to continue, and the seeming futility of combatting global climate destabilization. Because 350 wants their logo in each performance piece, the issue of branding (both medium and message) versus the freedom that art supposedly necessitates will also be examined: in particular, can this tell us something new about the relationship of activism and performance? I argue that better understanding the themes and performance tactics (as well as some of the concomitant problems/challenges) of 350.org ultimately assists in developing a vocabulary and repertoire of eco-activism as performance, and specifically what might be termed “eco-enactivism.”

350.org Overview

The eco-activist group “350.org” is an organization whose name is also their website address. Thus, their name is the channel to contact them from any point in the world, and their website and organizational structure are set up to encourage globalized conversation — often visual conversation. Although this globalized conversation pinpoints to a “location” in cyberspace, the work manifests locally, so that the conversation (both mediated and materialized) is always already a confluence and flexation of the global and the local — a useful rendition of the “glocal.” 350.org both demonstrates the local (through specific “actions”) and articulates trans-global issues, awareness, and conversation. It is at once trans-national and trans-local.

In addition to being a name and web address, “350.org” also encapsulates the primary issue around which the organization activates. 350 refers to the optimum upper level of parts-per-million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. This figure derives from NASA-based scientist Dr. James Hansen’s work on carbon and atmospheric change. In other words, global warming. There is debate over the exact “tipping point” beyond which Earth’s ecosystems cannot effectively adapt to rapid climate changes.[1] However, what is known, beyond scientific doubt, is that we are currently over 400 ppm.

Middlebury College professor Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature (1989) (arguably the first best-selling book about climate change), has been instrumental in starting 350.org. McKibben advocates that, based on climate science, we must find a way back to 350 ppm. Hence, for 350.org, the message is simple. It is also, as Marshall McLuhan might say, the medium itself — and, with both the 2009 and 2010 actions profiled in this paper, the “branding” of the 350 logo into each single piece of performance represents the challenge of conformity to radical eco-activism.

350.org’s actions can easily be considered eco-activist, but they also fall into the “artivist” rubric. M. K. Asante in It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop writes, “The artivist uses her artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression — by any medium necessary. The artivist merges commitment to freedom and justice with the pen, the lens, the brush, the voice, the body, and the imagination. The artivist knows that to make an observation is to have an obligation” (203). In 2011, Eve Ensler wrote in The New York Times that artivism is “not violating but disrupting. This passion has all the ingredients of activism, but is charged with the wild creations of art” (Ensler). This confluence of art and activism is a useful model for contemporary protest. Moreover, I seek here to investigate some of the permutations of the confluence of performance and activism — hoping to shed light on affect and therefore, efficacy. Marcela A. Fuentes, in “Zooming In and Out: Tactical Media Performance in Transnational Contexts,” states, “In artivist projects, the main goal is to trigger responses and not merely represent a state of affairs. ‘Interruption’, ‘disturbance’, ‘dislocation’, and ‘reappropriation’ are some of the terms employed to account for the ways in which artivist practices engage different spheres of action and discursive formations — social, artistic, scientific — as ‘ready-mades’ that are intervened to question the status quo” (33). Thus, the tension between 350’s “branding” and the desire for disturbance and not “merely represent[ing] a state of affairs” shows the difficulty of coordinating and coalescing a mass movement, as the larger and more diverse the population, perhaps the greater the need for reductive symbols. Indeed, 350.org[2] uses “distributed action,” which Phil Aroneanu defines as: “[D]emonstrat[ing] the breadth, diversity and power of a movement; to swarm a large target in diverse locations” (36). As Aroneanu states, “At its best, a distributed action projects the power of the movement and gives activists a sense of being part of a greater whole. This is a particularly useful tactic when a movement is young, dispersed, and minimally networked” (36). Perhaps the work also depicts 350’s desire to “reappropriat[e]” the notion of branding.

350.org’s actions are compelling as spectacle, and scale lends further affect to the work. These performances are also arresting in part because they disrupt and challenge our assumptions about time in performance. Although these three themes interweave, I seek to pull them apart and articulate the significance of each in order to position 350’s distinct type of eco-activism within the context of performance.

Current Work

One current of 350’s[3] current initiatives is the Global Divestment Mobilization. This movement calls for divestment from fossil fuels and, according to their website, to date, five trillion dollars have been divested by major investors: colleges and universities, cities, and the like. The website also suggests ways to act on the divestment issue, including teach-ins, “brandalism” of corporate logos, posting large photos of those impacted by climate change, and using impacted materials to create powerful art and images. Other current actions include the DAPL and the KXL pipeline protests,[4] and the People’s Climate Mobilization, which marched on Washington D.C. (as well as other cities) on the 100th day of the Trump administration, April 29th, 2017. This march was built upon the People’s Climate March of 2014 (as well as those of 2015 and 2016). As a hallmark of 350.org’s work, these marches are worldwide actions embodied at many specific locations. The use of the singular “march” in the title may be intentional — signifying the global unity of the actions. In 2014, two days before President Obama and other world leaders met at the UN for the Climate Summit, the People’s Climate March became the largest climate action march in history with 2,646 rallies in 162 countries. The People’s Climate March of 2014 can also be read as “artivist” performance — especially as a wave of silence built, then broke, down Central Park West as cheering crowds of 3-400,000[5] participants were sequentially silent, then roared ever louder. As McKibben wrote to me, “I think it was Jamie Henn and I that came up with it, after a somewhat depressing meeting with the mayor’s people at city hall in NY. We were […] trying to think about how to add some element that would stick in people’s memory. The idea was to have a moment of silence for those already affected by climate change, and then to ‘sound the alarm.’ [S]ent chills down my spine when it happened.”[6] Real solidarity in actual time and space, coupled with cultural symbolism — made it both real-life and symbolic performance. It is the interaction of these two, I contend, that comprises much of the power of this kind of eco-activism.

Foundations of the 2009 “Global Day of Climate Action”

One notable inspiration for the 2009 action (and indication of the expressive disruption of conventional performance time) was a powerful Earth Day 2005 event in which more than a thousand Inuit in traditional dress stood together to form the image of an Inuit drum dancer on the sea ice of Frobisher Bay off Baffin Island, Canada. This performance was meant to raise awareness of the effects of global warming on Arctic ice and the people who depend on it. The image was accompanied by the phrase, “Arctic Warning,” and, in Inuit, the word: “listen.” It was a huge image meant to be seen — and photographed best — from the air, perhaps referencing the 1968 “earthrise.” Unfortunately, it took the involvement of Hollywood notables Salma Hayek and Jake Gyllenhaal to bring the attention of the press. However, in this stirring action, Inuit elders issued a warning to humanity from a Canadian ice floe about the urgent danger of global warming. This performance, part of Iqaluit’s Spring festival Toonik Tyme, expressed localized concerns about global warming from a specifically impacted location, and utilized the concomitant voices, language, and culture of specific people. Additionally, the tie-in between the local festival and the globalized Earth Day represented a clear forerunner to 350.org’s strategy of having local people express their individual contributions to a larger movement.

In 2006, McKibben started a five-day walk across Vermont with a group of about 100 people, and ending in Burlington with about one thousand. As McKibben has written about that time in “Walk of Ages”:

I’d recently come back from Bangladesh, which was then suffering its first acute siege from dengue fever. I’d spent enough time in the slums to be bitten by the wrong mosquito myself. But, though I got as sick as I ever wish to get, I was healthy and well-fed going in, and so I survived.

It was emotionally overpowering to see people who were dying from the effects of climate change, as the warm, wet world we were creating spread the Aedes aegypti mosquito to new climes. And the people who were dying had done nothing to cause the problem. Virtually no one in Bangladesh had a car. Most of them didn’t have a light bulb. (“Walk of Ages”)

The next year, in 2007, the “Step it Up” campaign was launched, including a response to the 2005 piece off Baffin Island. In January 2007, schoolchildren in Park City, Utah called on leaders to “Step it Up,” with an image of two bear paws in a circle in the snow with the words, “We Hear You,” in Inuktitut. This response to the 2005 action provided a “dialogue” between the images. It signaled a performance between the years and geographies that related the individual performances to one another and also to a larger, emerging, conversation. This is a furthering of Cohen-Cruz’s definition of the “‘call-and-response’ dynamic of engaged art” (2). Cohen-Cruz’s “call-and-response” describes an artistic response to a social issue; here, we have that call and response, and an echoing of responses (and building of voices) down through the years and actions over time as understanding and perspective of the issue changes.

The “Step it Up” campaign encompassed 1400 marches throughout the year, throughout all fifty states, and established the website “stepitup2007.org.” As The Middlebury Campus reported: “Particularly poignant demonstrations took place on top of the once-broken levees in New Orleans, as well as on top of the melting glaciers at Mt. Rainier and underwater near endangered Key West coral reefs” (Schlickeisen). The Step it Up campaign was a clear precursor to 350.org. Using the Internet and social media, 350.org was launched internationally in 2009. 350.org contains several elements adapted from Step it Up: using the organization name as the website address, putting the movement name into the work itself, and having a central point of contact and inspiration which encouraged creativity and autonomy while “branding” actions with the organization’s name.

Furthermore, I contend, the ice (and its implied disappearance) is an actual, life-sustaining material object that is associated with the reality of climate change — as it changes before our eyes, in real time. However, as part of an artwork or performance, it also symbolizes the culture of the Inuit, which is built on a relationship to their environment. Thus, it is a confluence of the real and symbolic that is, I argue a hallmark of eco-activist performance. Additionally, the involvement of the local “real” in conversation with the trans-global issue of climate change implicates the specified and particular locale, as well as the trans-local.

“Global Day of Climate Action”

On October 24, 2009, 350.org’s “Global Day of Climate Action” consisted of 5,245 separate, yet related, performance works involving 180 countries around the world. All performances included the numbers “350” (most, in 350’s distinctive logo) and, with a scant few exceptions, all took place on the same day. Some performances were very simple, such as people displaying the “350” logo crafted from simple upturned bucketfuls of sand. In this image, the arrow coming out of the three makes the distinctive 350 logo out of the numbers.


Here one might claim that these are artworks, but not performances. We see objects (simple sandcastles) in formation. However, I argue that the presence and demonstration of time in the piece — felt acutely as the positionality of the tidal ocean — in conjunction with the enactment of actions in space, make these performances rather than static constructions. As is so often the case, given the ephemerality of performance, the only evidence remaining of these actions is an object: here, a photograph. People are encouraged to upload these photos to the site 350.org. As such, these images are both records in and of the performances as well as being artifacts in and of themselves — the photographs are closer to being works of art in their “objectness,” but the original is a performance. Additionally, there is a performance component to uploading the images themselves to Flickr, just as in curating one’s social media feed.

Although it is unclear if there are spectators to this particular performance at the time made, I argue that the simultaneous enactment of 5,245 performances on the same day created an awareness of participation in a global event. This awareness of participation with others makes the concept of “performing” relevant in that people are aware of spectators — even the imagination of those spectators — and aware that they will be spectators (through media) to others’ simultaneous performances. To some degree this can be seen as an embodiment of the Performative Turn. As Erika Fischer-Lichte writes, “Because performances develop through the interplay of everyone involved, they enable the participants to experience themselves as subjects acting and affecting others as well as reacting to and being affected by others. As subjects they are neither fully autonomous nor entirely determined, partaking in and partially responsible for the situation in which they are engaged” (21). This notion of “partaking in and [being] partially responsible for the situation in which they are engaged” is exactly, I argue, that of the performers in these pieces. They partake in an immediate global performance, and are responsible for their local piece of the global movement. Moreover, if we think of global warming and the situation we all find ourselves in, currently both “partaking and partially responsible,” we can see an artivist performance embodying the very thing it is talking about.

It is worth noting that the “style guide” on 350.org’s website requests that the documentation of the performances contain people, adding an additional performance — or even theatre — component to the pieces. 350’s eco-philosophy does not ally with the idea that ecology is a movement without people, or that 350.org seeks to return the world to a pristine wilderness devoid of the human. The eco-philosophy of 350.org, as with McKibben’s writing and philosophy, advocates “environmental justice.” It seeks a more equitable world for all people.

Additionally, the style guide recommends that the color blue be used for the logo “350” — not a deep navy, but a bright sky blue. The style guide suggests that photos feature happy and enthusiastic people. There is (clearly stated, several times) to be no shading or complexity added to the logo. The logo is clear, direct, and simple, like the message it carries. Thus, there is a tension here between what Boal might term the “spect-actors” and the “branding” of 350. The branding is “necessary” in order to create a recognizable mass-movement, 350 would perhaps argue. And the spect-actors see themselves as participants via mediatized connection, but also have a great deal of agency in terms of the images they create. However, there is also, ultimately, a willingness to be part of the brand in order to have a place at the table. A common type of embodying 350 is the following example of people as en-actors from Médanos de Coro, Venezuela:

Médanos de Coro, Venezuela. 350.org

Another performance from the “Global Day of Climate Action” takes place in Borth, Wales, UK, in an ordinary ‘living room while watching telly,’ with participants’ feet lapped by the incoming ocean.

Borth, Wales, UK. 350.org

This action is powerful and engaging on several fronts. One, because it suggests that we are all just amusing ourselves to death while the real threat nips at our ankles, and two because it “feels like” a piece of theatre: it presents a narrative story that is articulated via its context, with recognizable “characters,” “setting,” and “action.” The tidal ocean provides one time-context, the threat of global warming provides another, and the actors’ refusal to acknowledge the situation in which they find themselves provides a third resonant context, which embodies both the message of the piece and the position in which we find ourselves.

San Francisco, California, U.S.A. 350.org

All the performances that I have seen in this series take place outdoors. It can be argued that “place” — both natural and human-constructed — is yet another character in the depicted drama. It is place that interfaces with the forces of global warming, and these performances embody, deliberately, humans’ localized relationship to their place. Some performances announce their location with iconic human-built landmarks that become a recognizable character in the performance, like this fleet of kayakers inside of the Golden Gate in the San Francisco Bay.

Another particularly evocative piece, created in conjunction with Oxfam, is from the Pacific Islands, and shows clothing hung out, as though to dry, over the ocean. Fluttering in the breeze, multicolored shirts seem fragile and temporary compared to the vast strength of the ocean. This is a performance of implication. Written on the shirts are references to the many hundreds of regional islands susceptible to drowning. The piece implies and embodies the fragility of these islands.

Oxfam / 350.org
Oxfam / 350.org

Although 350, and the Western environmental movement in general, is often criticized for a lack of diversity, there are many examples in the “Global Day of Climate Action” of voices that are not often heard globally in the climate debate. We can see here that the branding logo is clear, but also there are other words in Arabic and this suggests at least an attempt at an inclusive policy. All these images show a clear sense of furthering the particularization with a located pride of place, and a concomitant concern for the particular effects of climate change on intimately-known locales, as can be seen in an action from Paghman Mountain, Afghanistan, on the slopes of the mountains where the Kabul River originates:

Paghman Mountain, Afghanistan. 350.org

Another of the most evocative performances from the “Global Day of Climate Action” is the “Lantern Walkers” (Sydney, Australia). At night, people holding lanterns walked quickly in a formation that spelled out “350.”

“Lantern Walkers” by Peter Solness.

In Peter Solness’s photo of “Lantern Walkers,” the exposure is slow enough that we don’t see the people holding the lanterns but only rivers of red, orange, yellow, and white lights and the movement implied by people walking. This can be seen to reference the burning of the planet — something Australia felt keenly, especially in 2009. February 7th of that year is called “Black Saturday” because 173 people lost their lives in raging bushfires that day. The fire in the photo is at once in control and slightly out of control as fire is always potentially suddenly overreaching its limits. As with global warming, we can think we have the situation somewhat managed until suddenly, and dangerously, it isn’t. The Greek myth about Prometheus comes to mind here as we have indeed shown we don’t know how to respect and employ (or even control) our gifts in a sustainable way. While Greek mythology is not the backbone of everyone’s culture, there is room for the idea that we have relinquished, squandered, abused the protections we were given, or been abused by a culture that abuses them.

Unlike most of the photos from the “Global Day of Climate Action,” where the photographer is not mentioned, Peter Solness is a professional photographer who specializes in “light painting” in his photography. Thus, when the people in Solness’ photo seem posed and somewhat artificial — some spectators and even people in the middle of the “zero,” and three women under artificial light in the foreground breaking the frame and looking directly out toward the viewer, not at “350” behind them — we can see familiar tropes of breaking the visual plane from art history, starting with Manet. Importantly, this prefigures the work in the 2010 piece the “Earth Art” project, where about sixteen well-known artists each head an expansive and dramatic performance / art piece.

Another captivating and extremely performative action from the “Global Day of Climate Action” was the Underwater Declaration for 350 in Girifushi, Maldives. Here, participating Ministers of the Cabinet trained for two months, donned wetsuits and scuba gear, sat (swam) behind desks with nameplates, and used hand signals to conduct an official signing of the 350.org declaration during the underwater cabinet meeting on October 17, 2009. This is perhaps the most performative of all the works from the 2009 “Global Day of Climate Action,” in that they performed an actual signing, and yet it was also a performance with actors and spectators, using a distinctive locale, and elements of spectacle, scale, and time.

“Underwater Declaration for 350 in Girifushi, Maldives.” 350.org

This island nation suffers an acute threat of sea level rise putting their “normal” lives underwater, and this piece dramatizes or performs that possibility. Its citizens may even have to relocate as the Maldives are only a few feet above sea level. At the end of the meeting, one of the Ministers held up a sign from underwater that read, “Maldives for 350.” Thus, this compelling piece works on many levels: the performative, the cautionary tale depicted, and its use of humor. It also takes the character of the ocean out of the backdrop to the human conversation, and places it, unquestionably, center stage.

Girifushi, Maldives. 350.org

From these and other 350 “artivist” actions, we can see the threaded trans-national performance — and with the Maldives the actual performative act of signing the declaration. The impact of the “Global Day of Climate Action” is partially due to the scale of the work (over 5,000 pieces on the same day) compellingly articulated in terms of place, locale, and the specific concerns of the individuals who live there. The politicians gathered for the Maldives action are actually engaged in a performative official signing of the 350 climate treaty. From these actions — linked, as I have shown, to the 2005 Earth Day piece off Baffin Island — we can see also see a disruption of assumptions about the normalcy of climate change, as well as a furthering of the concept of performance and of the uses of time in performance. In this action time is linked between 2005 and 2009, yet also truncated into an action on a specific day: October 24, 2009. This interesting use of time signifies an elongation of the scale of time usually associated with performance, as well as a change in the sense of space or locale usually associated with performance. It is the g/local utilized in performance.

One could perform a 350-inspired action privately or for a small community, but its reach would be limited. Technology and the Internet are what make the large public spectacles of 350 actions possible; in this way, global/local actions convey trans-national concerns about global warming. The low tech versus high tech juxtaposition of the work is a point of tension in the piece(s), as is their openness to creativity versus the stipulated requirements to be part of the project (branding logo, happy people, and specified colors). Each 350 piece is interesting in and of itself, but its connection to the larger whole lends enormous impact to each piece through the scale of the action. These factors combine to prove that, Cohen-Cruz has written, “art can be committed socially without being dull and programmatic” (13).

“Earth Art”

The compelling “Global Day of Climate Action” from 2009 was followed the next year by a “Global Work Party” on 10-10-10 and then, later in October that same year, by sixteen immense art projects, “Earth Art,” designed to call attention to the Cancun Climate Change Summit. “Earth Art” is also written variously as “EARTH” or “eARTh.” These projects, though global, were each spearheaded by a well-known contemporary artist of the region.

The scale, and some of the line drawings, of these projects reference the mystery of prehistoric art: in particular the massive glyphs from around the world that historians still don’t fully understand, and may never. Most of us have seen these works (whether in person or through images) and share in their great mystery. And now our planetary community faces another mystery as we implement large-scale environmental degradation to an almost unfathomable degree. On the 350.org website, these works are called “the largest art project ever made.” Scale seems of profound importance in environmental theatre projects generally[7] and particularly so in those regarding climate change. While the 2009 action involved over 180 countries around the world — certainly an impressive scale, like the simultaneous release of a Hollywood blockbuster in all its major markets — “EARTH” uses scale of a different kind in that each of the sixteen or so artworks in this series are gigantic and designed to be seen most effectively from the air. This theme, of artwork that can be seen from space, is deliberate. It recalls the Earth Day, 2005 event depicting “Arctic Warning,” but also harkens back even further, to those first “earthrise” photos from Apollo 8.

“eARTh” was designed to be photographed by satellite. Each piece of art had to be coordinated for a satellite flyover of just a couple of minutes — adding another dimension of time and space to the performance. The satellites were flying 400 miles above the earth so timing, and awareness of another perspective, became crucial.

No one needs to be convinced of the artistic value of these projects, initiated by renowned artists or arts institutions. Many are the same kind of line drawings of massive scale as the prehistoric artworks, but they reference their purpose (and the current moment) by using the 350.org logo. Although some, like Fowler’s Gap, Australia, are closer to artworks,

“350 eARTh Australia” by Keith Chidzey. Fowler’s Gap, Australia. Photo: Peter Solness, DigitalGlobe

most are forms of performance, such as Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada’s work from Delta del Ebro, Spain:

“Gal-la” by Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada. Photo: Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, DigitalGlobe

This girl’s face is created by people holding strips of plastic — cars can be seen in the distance for scale. 350.org says the girl “wishes to see the Delta survive the threat of climate change.”

Another way to look at the confluence of the local and the trans-national in the 350.org actions is through their varied use of time: juxtaposing the long view and the current crisis. They all allude to the past, the present, and the future simultaneously. They reference the past — though simple chairs, allusions to Picasso, wildfires (or fire in general), or giant glyphs — a world without anthropogenic climate change. They reference the present with the 350.org logo. And they reference the dreaded, post-climate-disaster future, as in the parliament under water, the dried riverbed. There is a clear trajectory of past, current, and future in each of the pieces. This evocation brings them into the realm of art. The fact that they happen in time makes them performance. The political context makes them activism.

Another interesting example of “eARTh” is the “Climate Elephant” by Daniel Dancer (New Delhi, India). Here, 3,000 young people from the Ryan International School and the Indian Youth Climate Network formed a giant elephant, with the water rising around it. As the performance continues, the water rises up.

“Climate Elephant” by Daniel Dancer. Photo: Daniel Dancer, artforthesky.com

The idea is to call attention to climate change — which is the “elephant in the room” that people are ignoring.

Another piece, “Solar Eagle,” by John Quigley (Los Angeles, USA), photo by SpectralQ, can actually be read as a third performance in the conversation that began in 2005 off Baffin Island, Canada. The word depicted means “well-being” in Inuktitut.

“Solar Eagle” by John Quigley. 350 eARTh @ Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. Photo: SpectralQ

The “Solar Scarab” by Sarah Rifaat, Cairo, Egypt, utilized hundreds of young people to form the traditional Egyptian symbol of the Scarab beetle pushing the sun ahead. The beetle is a symbol of rebirth and as the website states: “Using the scarab and the sun in this art piece is both a reminder of the integral part the sun has always played in Egyptian history, and a call for re-examining our modern relationship to this most abundant source of clean energy.”

“Solar Scarab” by Sarah Rifaat. 350 eARTh @ Cairo, Egypt. Photo: Ahmed Hayman, DigitalGlobe

And a close-up photo of the performers:

“Solar Scarab” by Sarah Rifaat. 350 eARTh @ Cairo, Egypt. Photo: Ahmed Hayman, DigitalGlobe

The “Red Polar Bear” by Bjargey Ólafsdóttir, Langjökull Glacier, Iceland, also perhaps references the 2005 piece. It is emphasized that environmentally-safe red dye has been used, and the importance of scale is clear as the size is fifty by ninety meters.

“Red Polar Bear” by Bjargey Ólafsdóttir. 350 eARTh @ Langjökull Glacier, Iceland. Photo: Christopher Lund, DigitalGlobe

Another image, from Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic, is a piece in action. In the beginning, we see a person on a roof as floodwaters rise up the front of a house,

350 eARTh @ Dominican Republic. DigitalGlobe

then, as the floodwaters engulf the house, the person on the roof splits apart.

350 eARTh @ Dominican Republic. Photo: Marvin Del Cid, DigitalGlobe

From the ground, we know it is people holding white umbrellas who form the figure on the roof, torn apart by the rising waters.

350 eARTh @ Dominican Republic. Photo: Marvin Del Cid, DigitalGlobe

Surely, this is performance. The massive spectacle is affective, transforming, and happens in time. The connection between the local and trans-national disrupts assumptions about the insurmountable current political climate, and the inevitability of unmitigated climate change. These projects demonstrate peoples’ fabulous potential for thinking, creating and collaborating, and argue that we CAN work together to solve the problem of climate change. The 350.org actions function as generators of affect and disrupters on many levels. Surely we can usefully call this kind of performance eco-enactivism.


By looking back to these dynamic actions of 2009 and 2010, I believe we can accomplish several things. First, we can begin to establish a trajectory to this particular arc of the general environmental justice movement. Through its response to the Inuit call to action, 350.org has managed to establish a trans-national mass movement of “distributed action.” This differs from armchair activism — in which participants’ send money and watch the rising and falling fortunes of their group from a distance, on television or the web — by bringing people together with others in their community to get creative. They perform and document their action, and upload it to share their voice in the larger conversation. In this way, they participate in the positive articulation of something greater than just themselves and their private worries. 350.org is an activist movement but also, as I’ve demonstrated, contributes to the performance movement of eco-activism, which (as I’ve argued before, Standing 2012) can and should be seen as a genre in its own right. It’s important to see this as an art movement and not solely an activist movement so that we can notice what actually moves people — as the science alone frequently leaves people without direction or connection. As Ensler writes, “Methods of passion involve a deeper, more transformational process [than violent revolution]: inviting commitment, vision and long-term struggle. All these can bring about lasting change both in the individual and the community. Methods of passion model the world we want to create” (Ensler). Thus, we can look at eco-activism as an art and performance movement, an embodied activist movement, and as a means to inspire needed change (for example, spurring political and personal changes that will help the planet reduce carbon dioxide from 400 to 350 ppm).

Through seeing this as an artistic and performance movement, we can begin to codify, document, and historicize what might otherwise be seen as fleeting political expressions. Every age needs a new art and theatre form — perhaps more than one — because it faces new challenges. Eco-activism is an art form for our time, precisely because of the challenges we now face.[8]

In contrast to many other environmental activist movements, 350.org is a localized/globalized movement that orchestrates and embodies the importance of the “glocal” — the globalized local. The glocal is in fact perfectly situated as a construct to engage climate change because climate destabilization affects everyone, although the specific effects are particularized and localized — and most keenly felt by the most disenfranchised. In other work, 350 has used the moniker “Co2lonialism,” articulating the intersections of colonialism and carbon. On the website, McKibben says 350.org specifically focused on the “poor, black, brown, Asian, young” which — as he points out — constitute most of the world. 350.org is an organization started and still based in the US and, as a trans-national movement, it also unintentionally embodies an often-problematic paradox of the glocal: the climate conversation contains the seeds of the dominant hegemony — even as it struggles so diligently to empower others. As McKibben writes, “It’s still a big divide [between rich and poor nations]. We cause it and they suffer from it first and foremost. We’ve done our best to get everyone engaged in the fight together.”[9] McKibben has insisted, “We didn’t ‘organize’ all those protests. It was more like a potluck supper, with everyone bringing what they had” (“Walk of Ages”). Jamie Henn confirmed this, saying that “the climate movement has been ‘leaderless’ in many ways.”[10] Thus, 350.org is a performance of the local through specifically located “actions” — an annunciation of the trans-local that also articulates trans-global issues, awareness, and overt and implicit communications — mirroring the fact that climate change is a global issue that impacts locally.

Although we can easily problematize the narrative of 350.org (with U.S. academic McKibben at its “helm” and the “branding” of 350), in other ways, the hegemonic power of the media and these campaigns serves as a protector and deterrent from harassment. According to Nurith Aizenman, on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday, “People like subsistence farmers and tribal leaders in the poorest countries are standing up to some of the world’s most powerful industries. And a growing number of them have been attacked — and sometimes murdered — for trying to protect the environment” (“#EarthDay…”). According to Global Witness in 2014, 116 people were killed for trying to protect their environment. Robert Nixon even uses the term “Environmental Martyrdom.”[11] Isolated local activists are vulnerable when operating in direct confrontation with neoliberalist corporations, and others who seek to exploit local resources. However, in the pieces profiled here, 350.org does not practice direct action or (deliberately) direct confrontation. It seeks to transform through communication. It has distilled the core issue into a simple sign that transcends language barriers, using the media to spread the message. As Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin write in “Sending the Protest Message”:

The media play a key role in winning over third parties. […] Workers in the mass media, including journalists and editors, are themselves third parties as well as serving as a channel to other third parties. However, sometimes coverage declines over time as protest becomes routine and is treated as “old news.” Protesters, to attract continuing media interest, may escalate their actions, attracting attention through novelty, disruption and violence, sometimes leading to more negative coverage and at the expense of participation and solidarity. This is a common dilemma when activists perform for the mass media. (509)

Later in the same piece, they write: “To reach a third party through media is not easy. Many actions are either so spectacular that the media focus only on the amazing aspects or so boring that they don’t care to cover it at all” (510). 350 has constantly tried to change tactics, while keeping its logo and focus on mass participation.

The spirit of creativity and widespread enactment of creative solutions are what draw everyone’s attention to artivist performance works, such as 350.org’s, and are evocative performances of what I have termed eco-enactivism: embodied co-creations between actors and spectators, between the human and the more-than-human, between long time differences and short, over vast distances or up close, and in service of understanding an imagined reality so devastating it is nearly debilitating. The media respond to the compelling performances of eco-enactivism, carrying the message, and conveying the myriad of ways in which we’re all connected — both through the web, and through climate destabilization. This might be performance at its most productive: in service of the trans-local and this planet — our island home.

Works Cited


Aizenman, Nurith. “#EarthDay: The High Cost of Eco-Activism.” National Public Radio: Weekend Edition Sunday. 22 April 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/04/22/475154013/-earthday-defending-the-planet-and-paying-with-their-lives . Accessed 21 December 2017.

Aroneanu, Phil. “Tactic: Distributed Action.” Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd. O/R Books, 2012, 36-39.

Arons, Wendy and Theresa May. Readings in Performance and Ecology. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Asante, M.K., Jr., It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post Hip Hop Generation. St. Martin’s Press, 2009.

Chaudhuri, Una. “‘There Must be a Lot of Fish in That Lake’: Toward an Ecological Theatre.” Theatre. 25:1 (1994), 23-31

Cless, Downing. “Eco-Theatre, USA: The Grassroots Is Greener.” TDR: The Drama Review. 40:2 (1996), 79-102

Cohen-Cruz, Jan. Engaging Performance: Theatre as Call and Response. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Deluca, Kevin Michael. Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism. The Guilford Press, 1999.

Ensler, Eve. “Politics, Power and Passion[Page 5 of 7]” New York Times: The Opinion Pages. 2 December 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/12/02/opinion/magazine-global-agenda-big-question.html. Accessed 21 December 2017.

Fuchs, Elinor and Una Chaudhuri. Land/Scape/Theatre. University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Fuentes, Marcella A. “Zooming In and Out: Tactical Media Performance in Transnational Contexts.” Performance, Politics and Activism. Edited by Peter Lichtenfels and John Rouse, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Glotfelty, Cheryll. “Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis.” The Ecocriticism Reader. Edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Howarth, William. “Some Principles of Ecocritism.” The Ecocriticism Reader. University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Johansen, Jørgen and Brian Martin. “Sending the Protest Message.” Gandhi Marg. 29:4 (2008), 503-519

Kershaw, Baz. “Ecoactivist Performance: The Environment as Partner in Protest.” TDR: The Drama Review. 46:1 (2002), 118-130

–. Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance Events. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Kolodny, Annette. “Unearthing History: An Introduction.” The Ecocriticism Reader. University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Martin, Carol. Theatre of the Real. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

May, Theresa. “Greening the Theatre: Taking Ecocriticism from Page to Stage.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies. 7:1 (2005), 84-103

McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. Random House, 1989.

–. “Walk of Ages: How a Vermont March Helped Launch a Climate Movement.” Seven Days. 31 August 2016. https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/walk-of-ages-how-a-vermont-march-helped-launch-a-climate-movement/Content?oid=3633748. Accessed 21 December 2017.

Nixon, Robert. “Environmental Martyrdom and Defenders of the Forest.” Princeton Environmental Institute Faculty Seminar Series. http://youtube.com/watch?v=fi59sdd8T8s. Accessed 21 December 2017.

Parameswaran, Ameet. “Performance, Protest, and the Intimate-Public.” TDR: The Drama Review. 60:2 (2016), 2-3

Schlickeisen, Derek. “Step It Up Campaign Leads National Demonstration.” The Middlebury Campus. April 17 (2007). https://middleburycampus.com/6084/news/step-it-up-campaign-leads-national-demonstration. Accessed 21 December 2017.

Solness, Peter. “The Illuminated Landscape” personal website http://www.illuminated-landscape.com/about/ Accessed 21 December 2017.

Standing, Sarah Ann. “Earth First!’s ‘Crack the Dam’ and the Aesthetics of Ecoactivist Performance.” Readings in Performance and Ecology, Edited by Wendy Arons and Theresa May, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 147-155.

Taylor, Diana. Performance. Duke University Press, 2016.

[1] When I saw Dr. Hansen speak at The New School in 2011, he demonstrated the tipping point by sliding a pitcher of water toward the edge of the table. He said, “This is the tipping point — when the pitcher goes over the edge.”

[2] 350.org.

[3] Sometimes, especially as 350.org has become better known, people will just refer to the organization as “350.”

[4] Including large numbers arrested in an act of civil disobedience to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.

[5] Some sources estimate the number of participants at over 300,000 while others say over 400,000.

[6] Personal email correspondence with Bill McKibben, 14 March 2017. McKibben writes, “I think it was Jamie Henn and I that came up with it, after a somewhat depressing meeting with the mayor’s people at city hall in NY. We were in the small park outside, and trying to think about how to add some element that would stick in people’s memory. The idea was to have a moment of silence for those already affected by climate change, and then to ‘sound the alarm.’ Sent chills down my spine when it happened.” Quoted with the author’s permission. Capital letters added.

[7] See Downing Cless’ “Eco-Theatre, USA: The Grassroots Is Greener” for a discussion of scale and Bread and Puppet Theatre.

[8] Standing, 2012.

[9] Personal email correspondence with Bill McKibben, 14 March 2017. Quoted with the author’s permission.

[10] Personal correspondence with Jamie Henn, 14 December 2017. Quoted with author’s permission.