Last week I went to a tattoo parlour in the suburb of a northern English city and, amid the porn photos printed off from the internet and the wall decorations of transfers of skulls and snakes and Nazi insignia, to a metalcore soundtrack by Parkway Drive, I had the number 326< tattooed on the back of my leg. I was born in 1971, the year that the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 326.
In October 2013 I took part in the Liberate Tate performance Parts Per Million, in which a group of performers walked through Tate Britain’s new chronological gallery exhibition, BP Walk Through British Art. In each room the performers arranged themselves around and among the artworks and in unison chanted together the rising numbers of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the time period covered by that gallery. Then we moved slowly to the next, and chanted up the numbers for the next gallery’s period, and so on.
From the outside, the piece made visible a hidden truth that is easy to forget, or deny. I took part because this feels to me like important work: the numbers and acronyms – ppm, CO2 – are too abstract to connect to, they don’t seem relevant or real, and they’re so easy to forget or deny.
As a performer I felt in my body how the shuffling, chanting human nature of the performance not only made the truth hidden in the esoteric letters and figures visible, it also made them flesh.
As we moved into the gallery 1970-1980 the group spread itself outwards – the map of the choreography of the performance shows a kind of starburst in that room, performers directed to spread outwards from the entrance to arrange themselves around the furthest edges along the walls of the long gallery. It was in that decade that the ppm of CO2 bust through the planet’s ‘safe limit’ of 351. This was my first decade of life. In our slow, dignified way, we ‘exploded’ into the room and started chanting up the numbers. As we chanted up from the year of my birth (1971: 326ppm), towards – and then past – 351ppm, I felt the the numbers move inside me through my breath, vibrating my vocal chords, resonating in my skull, drowning out the low grade tinnitus that usually fills my ears. I felt the numbers become real. I noticed the hope that naturally rose in me with each in-breath – and felt the disappointment as each of my outbreaths chanted another number in the rising sequence. I noticed how the tightening of my belly in the contracting of muscles that occurs in exhaling mirrored the tightening of the belly that comes with anxiety – and I felt anxiety mount in me as our numbers rose towards and inexorably past 351ppm.
The experience of that performance has stayed with me ever since. I’ve found that with other ‘ephemeral’ artworks. Sometimes I forget that it’s only the form of ephemeral art that is transitory – the real art is the ongoing, permanent changing that takes place as a result of the experience of the work.
I was changed by the performance. The earth connection I had long known to be integral to being human – the truth that we are each and all earth beings with stars and mud in our blood – now bore a dark shadow.
Since that day, I have carried everywhere with me the awareness of how we, humans, have marked the body of the earth, irrevocably, permanently. How we have scarred the flesh of the earth and poisoned the air and the waters. How we have enacted violence on the greater body of which we are all part. My joy at being a part of the earth, a limb of the greater being, a leaf on the huge tree of life, will now always include this understanding. This is not a transitory experience. This is permanent.
We are not working with nature, so much as we are nature, working. We are not defending nature, we are nature defending itself. We are not only scarring the beautiful earth, we are scarring ourselves.
“In many social transactions, marks of connection are only given to the ‘owned’. It is time for a new ritual which marks the ‘owner’, one by which they are reminded of their power and their responsibility.” – Billy Frugal
So: to mark my own body permanently, to go to a place of violence and inflict an act of violence on my skin, is my way of acknowledging the truth of the doing that we human beings have enacted, and taking my share of responsibility for that. It is an act of violence even to understand humans to be ‘owners’ of the earth. Surrounded by the symbolic violence of the tattoo parlour, I closed my eyes and in my mind revisited times and places when I have felt the joyful truth of being a part of the earth’s body. On a mountainside in the Pyrenees hearing the wind through the poplars as breath. At dusk at a confluence of waters in Oxford hearing the chuckling of a little stream as it rushed to merge with the mighty Thames. On a dusty, noisy city street being briefly transported by the spicy scent of a thicket of mugwort discovered at the roadside one autumn afternoon. Bathing at night in warm sea on my 30th birthday as the skies turned heavy with the approaching monsoon.
“In order to bring about a nonviolent world, activists go to the heart of the place of violence and undertake an act of transformation.” – Tomas Remiarz
Art transforms. When we take our art to the heart of the violence, we have the opportunity to make a kind of peace with the violent system, symbolically as much as materially; in doing so we carry out an act of transformation. With this act, with this scar, I make a kind of peace through acknowledging the violence of our human doings, and seal my commitment to live nonviolently in my relationship with earth.
All photos by Tomas Remiarz.