July 2019

The Ledger

‘When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty’, wrote the Scottish naturalist John Muir. A beautiful storm that looks to be more and more finite these days, the more we learn about climate change. This month, we are pleased to highlight the work of some of the brave souls who refuse to respond with drowsy apathy or paralysing despair. People like Ravi Agarwal, who left the cushy pay cheques of a career in management consulting to take photographs of bodies of water in India, and started an NGO dedicated to environmental protection. Also in India, Manoj Pandey and Nidhin Kundathil launched a slyly delightful campaign to communicate the joy of literature, empowering anyone and everyone to participate in their grassroots mission. The Thai landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom is using porosity—in the form of retention ponds, artificial wetlands and hilly parks—to soak up excess water in flood-prone Bangkok. Favio Chávez is teaching music to Paraguayan children with instruments ingeniously constructed out of found materials that would otherwise languish in a landfill. Their example—as well as writing by the botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer and the essayist Katy Kelleher—banishes any impulse to put one’s head in the sand. Better to see the great dewdrop of the globe—will we sit back and watch it evaporate?



Detritus Hymnal

Cateura, a socioeconomically deprived neighbourhood adjacent to the Paraguayan capital of Asunción, is home to tens of thousands of people living atop a landfill. It is a community full of music, often blaring tinnily from cheap radios, but until Favio Chávez’s brainchild, the Recycled Orchestra, took shape in 2006, it was not a place of much live musical performance; most residents were far too poor to afford instruments. Chávez, an environmental consultant and music teacher, wondered whether instruments could be built from materials scavenged from the trash. With the help of Nicolás ‘Cola’ Gómez, a rubbish picker, Chávez created a workshop of startling ingenuity. A fork was transformed into the tailpiece for a violin, and an oil drum became the body of a cello. Local children received lessons on these makeshift instruments, and an ensemble was born. ‘People in Cateura use trash as a resource’, Chávez told the Guardian. ‘A [traditional] violin is worth more than a house here. A violin made out of trash is worth nothing, so it will not be sold or stolen.’ Maria de Jesús Ríos, a woman in her twenties, is one of the Recycled Orchestra’s virtuosi, having played in her teens alongside Metallica on one of their South American tours and given performances in music halls across Europe. She has paid forward her good fortune by giving lessons to children in Cateura. Her scrap-metal violin requires a skill set all its own. ‘It is very challenging to play a recycled violin’, she explains. ‘The weather changes the sound. When it is hot, it’s hard to hear. But my violin is my friend.’ Landfill Harmonic, a 2015 documentary directed by Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley, offers an in-depth, moving portrait of Chávez and his musically gifted charges, and shows the considerable challenges they face in their day-to-day lives. The Recycled Orchestra has proved to be a recyclable idea, and Chávez’s group is now connected with similar projects around the world. Inspired by this Paraguayan story of resilience and extreme creativity, orchestras of ad hoc instruments have formed in Brazil, Burundi, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama and Spain.



The verdant spaces keeping a city afloat

Kotchakorn Voraakhom was one of the designers of the 2015 Thailand Pavilion at the Milan Expo, and is the brains—and green thumb—behind the Bangkok firm Landprocess. She is a passionate advocate for public green space, and many of her projects are devoted to finding ways to increase it in dense, smog-choked cityscapes. Voraakhom is attuned to the particular challenges climate change poses for cities when rapid urbanisation has stretched water systems the world over. In Bangkok, seasonal flooding and monsoon rain were once absorbed by spongy land, but overdevelopment has sealed off this formerly permeable layer. The city, in a low-lying river delta, sits just one and a half metres above sea level. If Bangkok is at risk of drowning, Voraakhom’s Centennial Park project functions a little like a life-saving flotation device. Spanning 11 acres on the campus of Chulalongkorn University in the city centre, it is built on an incline, and the slope funnels rainwater into gardens and artificial wetlands. In turn, the wetlands connect to a retention pond with a capacity of 480,000 gallons. (The grounds also boast exercise bikes, fountains and a playground.) Landprocess is constructing a larger park on a similar model at Thammasat University, in a flood-prone area north of Bangkok. These projects are part of what Voraakhom terms the Porous City Network: large and small parks, urban farms, green roofs and new canal systems all increase porosity and engage city dwellers in the task of tackling climate change in ways both manageable and life-enhancing.


Towards a symbiotic relationship with nature

The botanist and nature writer Robin Wall Kimmerer is a professor of environmental biology in upstate New York and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In Braiding Sweetgrass, a graceful and evocative collection of essays published in 2014, Kimmerer makes the case that human interaction with the natural world needn’t be destructive; it can instead be contemplative and mutually enhancing. According to indigenous legend, sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) was some of the earliest vegetation to carpet the earth. The plant functions, throughout Kimmerer’s book, as a motif to convey the interdependent complexity of a life cycle, from seeding and tending to plucking, plaiting and burning. She also touches on a variety of other species (water lilies, masting nut trees, wild strawberries) and their environs (a highly degraded ‘Superfund’ site designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a mountain range in Kentucky, a pond thick with weeds) to make a broader point about sustainability and reciprocity. Give more than you take is the idea. For Kimmerer, generosity can be found in a riot of new growth in springtime, in the crash of a waterfall, and in ‘books, paintings, poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools.’ Gratitude is good but not if it means passivity—she encourages us all to contribute, to participate, to act in ways that turn gratitude into a currency for good. As an adult, she decided to learn the Potawatomi language. In the chapter ‘Learning the Grammar of Animacy’, Kimmerer describes Potawatomi’s vivid use of verbs for states and phenomena the English language gives flat, static nouns. Days of the week, or bodies of water, become living, breathing entities. ‘“To be a bay”’, she writes, ‘holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too.’


Literature writ small for readers at large

In India, textbooks are best-sellers and STEM studies rule the schools. This means literature often gets short shrift, an oversight that Manoj Pandey, a writer and a co-founder (with Nidhin Kundathil, a graphic artist) of StickLit, is working to correct. StickLit aims to democratise the notion of reading, particularly that of reading for fun. According to Pandey, India’s stark disparities—in wealth as well as educational opportunity—and the hustle and crush of its cities have conspired to deprive its citizens of this pleasure. The project entices timid readers by plucking some of the best lines of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Riyazat Ullah Khan and up-and-comers such as Nishita Gill and Nikhil Mhaisne, and putting them on brightly coloured stickers, murals and posters, depending on the length of the quote and the length of the queue (poems can be found in railway stations, where people spend more idle time; short quotes go on small stickers affixed to food stalls, where hurrying pedestrians might still notice a few good words). Language is place-specific: Hindi quotes in Delhi, Kannada in Bengaluru, English sprinkled throughout. The first snippets went up in 2017, and the project soon spread to Kolkata, Mumbai and Darjeeling. Downloadable stickers on StickLit’s website can be printed and placed wherever a literary graffiti artist thinks best. Twitter and Instagram have turned Pandey and Kundathil’s experiment into a global endeavour, with stickers and posters cropping up in London, Amsterdam, Philadelphia and Kathmandu. Pandey calls the project ‘the largest repository of good literature in public spaces: a library that’s free for all’. Salman Rushdie, often featured in this material, has lent his support. Pandey appreciates the way StickLit is a crowd-sourced exercise in optimism. ‘People, especially the young … still believe that a pen can change the world.’


The art of activism

The artist, writer, photographer, curator and environmental activist Ravi Agarwal trained as an engineer and worked in management consulting in India before quitting the corporate world in 1993 for a riskier, more ‘value-based’ path. He established the environmental NGO Toxics Link and began photographing bodies of water that captivated him as much for their potent symbolism as for their waning centrality to urbanised life. His major projects, which take him years to produce and often involve a diaristic component, have shown at the Yinchuan and Kochi-Muziris biennales and documenta11. Toxics Link channels his activism; he is a member of numerous policy and regulatory committees and writes about sustainability academically and for the mainstream press, and in 2008 he was awarded the World Health Organization's Special Recognition Award for Chemical Safety. His photographs are powerful and prismatic. ‘Rhizome’ shows a beach near Puducherry, the sand studded with placards reading (among other things) ‘engine’, ‘cyclone’, ‘money’, ‘crab’ and ‘trawlers’: Agarwal had asked local fishermen which words came to mind when he said the word ‘sea’. ‘Ambient Seas’ revolves around a series of conversations he had with a fisherman named Selvam while they paddled in the latter’s small catamaran. ‘I felt very vulnerable’, Agarwal says. ‘My “ground” shifted. I was no longer in control—the sea was.’ The piece contains a filmed segment showing Selvam constructing a new catamaran and making fishing nets. Selvam hasn’t passed these skills on to his sons; he doesn’t want them to continue in his line of work. Agarwal’s photographs put one in an oceanic frame of mind. If they had a soundtrack, it might be John Luther Adams’s gorgeous orchestral work Become Ocean.


On the wonder of species

Katy Kelleher is the author of Handcrafted Maine, an engaging collection of profiles of the state’s artists, artisans and craftspeople—including weavers, potters, bakers, lobstermen, a painter, an architect, a boatbuilder, a leatherworker and others. In The Paris Review Daily, Kelleher turns her attention to a component of the natural world that lives in the Gulf of Maine and on ocean floors across the globe, though for how much longer is anyone’s guess. In an essay titled ‘Living Coral, the Brutal Hue of Climate Change and Brand New iPhones’, Kelleher presents a vibrant, beautifully written capsule history of a remarkable animal. She dips into Greek mythology, particularly Perseus’s defeat of Medusa—when he cut off the monster’s head, he made a trophy of it, laying it on a bed of seaweed. According to Ovid, ‘the fresh plants, still living inside, and absorbent, respond to the influence of the Gorgon’s head, and harden at its touch, acquiring a new rigidity in branches and fronds.’ This was the ancient Greeks’ explanation for the crusty reefs they perceived beneath the waves; to them, Kelleher writes, ‘coral was as dead as stone, lifeless as a ruby or a dirty fistful of gold. Coral was bloody, coral was petrified. Coral was the beautiful remains of a violent victory.’ In the early eleventh century, the Persian scholar Al-Biruni noticed that coral responded to touch. In the eighteenth century, William Herschel looked at coral cells under a microscope and identified them as belonging to the animal kingdom. The warm pink-orange hue most associated with coral, such that many languages simply call this colour ‘coral’, is that of the species Corallium rubrum, found principally along the Italian and Portuguese coasts. Hindu astrologers have it that coral jewellery confers courage; Pliny the Elder thought that coral could immunise men from succumbing to the dangerous siren song of a temptress; Christianity has used coral as a symbol for the blood of Christ; and the New Age set who congregate in places like Sedona, Arizona, tell us that coral can boost fertility and cleanse the blood. Kelleher is alarmed by the retreat and withering of coral reefs, caused by overharvesting and climate change. The warming and acidification of the oceans have conspired to ‘bleach’ them—the former by dislodging the symbiotic algae which provide most coral with its colour and its food source, the latter by inhibiting the growth of new coral. Over half of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is now dead, though Kelleher sees a ray of hope in the form of a project that has been described as IVF for the landmark: scientists are gathering coral spawn, which resemble ‘pearly versions of corn on the cob’, and hoping these seeds begin the process of regeneration.


A museum of-and for-modern times

The Klimahaus Bremerhaven 8° Ost celebrated its tenth anniversary last month. A sustainably built architectural marvel perched on the edge of Bremerhaven’s harbour, the museum is dedicated entirely to issues of climate change. The Alfred Wegener Institute, the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and Germany's National Meteorological Service are among its partners. The Klimahaus hosts a robust educational programme of conferences and lectures, but the museum’s main attraction is an interactive exhibition that lets visitors viscerally experience the impact of climate change by ushering them through a number of climate zones along the eighth meridian east (the meridian 8º east of Greenwich). Beginning in temperate Bremerhaven, visitors ‘move’ through Switzerland, Sardinia, Niger, Cameroon, Antarctica, Samoa and Alaska. It’s ingenious artifice on the part of the museum’s curators, in which the drama of extreme weather is very literally brought to bear. The building’s nearly invisible carbon footprint is especially impressive in the context of an exhibition that requires a great deal of energy to operate and maintain. The architect Thomas Klumpp figured out how to accommodate high and low temperatures, as well as sophisticated audiovisual installations, in a sustainable structure that makes use of frames and stringers (more commonly deployed in shipbuilding) and emits less than 0.3kg of CO2 per visitor. The building’s unusual shape reminds some visitors of the silhouette of a ship; others think it looks like a cloud.


Gestures, symbols, shapes, limbs

William Forsythe is most famous for his choreography, which spans four decades and is transfixing for the radical liberties he has consistently taken with the language of ballet. Beyond his creations for the stage, Forsythe has honed an adjacent body of work, more art installation than performance. He has termed its sculptures and films Choreographic Objects. A roving exhibition via Gagosian Gallery, it recently touched down at SESC Pompeia, in São Paulo, where it continues through 28 July. ‘However diverse the scale and nature of these projects have been, they all strive to give the viewer an unadorned sense of their own physical self-image’, Forsythe told an interviewer. ‘Most of the Choreographic Objects serve as surrogates for real-life interactions with the human environment: stepping off the curb, running to catch a bus, avoiding a swinging door … not tipping a chair, avoiding stubbing one’s toe. What I frequently attempt to do is isolate phenomena that are so fully integrated into our unconscious physical selves they're invisible to us.’ In Black Flags, robots carry massive banner-like flags that sometimes wave in unison, as if synchronised, and sometimes come to a standstill—‘a state’, notes Forsythe, ‘that is utterly impossible for a human being to effect.’ Alignigung 2 is a video installation culled from live performances; its theme is entanglement. The viewer can tell that there are two bodies in dialogue—belonging to Rauf Yasit, a breakdancer, and Riley Watts, who used to dance with the Forsythe Company—, but a sinuous braiding of limbs makes it difficult to see where one starts and the other ends. The show also features large-scale architectural installations. The artist posts instructions on a wall next to the works, and attendees are encouraged to inhabit the space in a choreographic mindset and to move creatively through it. Unsustainables, São Paulo (2019) is a new work he created for the São Paulo space.

Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber

‘O lands! O all so dear to me—what you are (whatever it is), I become a part of that, whatever it is.’

Walt Whitman