Science & metaphor in Gaia’s Global Circus

Ed. Katharine Sherratt

The segregation between science and emotion is at its most obvious and dangerous in the political world of climate change. Exploring this, UCL Centre for Anthropology of Sustainability presented “Gaia: Global Circus”, a play designed by French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist Bruno Latour and performed for the first time in the UK. Through a series of comi-tragic vignettes, the play captured how science, politics, and the media represent climate, “when the questions are too ‘big'”.

Bruno Latour is perhaps best known by geographers for his work in “actor-network theory”, focusing on the constantly shifting interactions between objects and ideas. Having long worked on the politics of science, Latour has taken this standpoint to the climate change arena, and found it echoing with James Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis”. Formulated in the 1960s and ’70s, Lovelock suggested the interaction of bio-chemical processes creates self-regulating planetary conditions for life.

A low-tech production featured only four actors; hundreds of plastic bottles; an overhead projector, and a silk parachute canvas. The performance was followed by an onstage Q&A with Bruno Latour, co-directors, and actors. Two third-year geography students offer their views.

Marko Ristić-Smith BA.

Pseudo-spirituality… negates much of Lovelock’s research

Expectations were high, perhaps too high. Described as an exploration of human attitudes surrounding climate change, ‘Gaia: Global Circus’ represents an attempt to combine science, anthropology, philosophy and art. What a shame it is that the play failed to deliver much in the way of insightful discussion, on what is undeniably one of the most serious threats facing humanity.

While memorable episodes persistently hint at something, they never amount to anything substantial. A modern-day Noah applies for a bank loan to fund his ark; on rejection, he turns to crowdfunding. A conference degenerates into heated argument between a determined climate scientist and her skeptic. A runaway teenage girl’s protracted monologue about a Beatles song left one feeling cheated; what is the point? So the play crept along, inconsequentially, before reaching a histrionic finale. Shrill wind effects accompanied the suspended canopy as it moved over the audience, while a character’s final speech littered obtuse references to Cassandra, Clytemnestra and other figures from classical tragedy.

Latour later informed the audience that the project received extensive input from climate scientists. Excepting a few statistics thrown in here and there, this input seems limited. In fact, the play invokes pseudo-spirituality and teleology, with its divine symbolism and personifications of ‘Gaia’. Both criticisms applied to Lovelock’s initial Gaia hypothesis, and were made thirty years ago by Ford Doolittle, Richard Dawkins and others. Worse, Latour’s project negates much of Lovelock’s rigourous research to dispel those criticisms. We might excuse the play for artistic license. But when your subject matter is so explicitly scientific, there seems little room for fictional embellishments.

Pertinently, one audience member asked Latour: what happens now? What have we gained and how do we go forth? Latour replied that offering answers is not the aim – and here indicated everything that is wrong with the project. While his reply is true of art as a whole, the creator’s refusal to make any points at all leaves the play cripplingly inconclusive.

Was this science? No. Was it art? Maybe, maybe not. The only word that comes to mind to describe it is ‘experiment’. And not all experiments yield desirable outcomes.

Alistair Nay BSc.

Climate change is a real issue… and this play arrogantly treats it as an intellectual plaything

As a student working with climate change from a physical science perspective, ‘Global Circus’ was a terse, often confusing, and generally disappointing experience; a directionless romp but an attempt to appear insightful and artsy. I realise I sound like a cold quantitative scientist, hardened by calculators and computers, but there was simply nothing of any substance contained within the ninety minutes.

A set of large black and white balloons attached to a sheet acts as the backdrop and focal point for the majority of the play, the actors often manipulating the structure. We are informed at the beginning that this canopy reflects the fragility of the earth’s atmosphere, as well as climate models. However, we are not informed what it is about this structure that represents these two things. This sets the course for what follows – a mostly disconnected set of sketches that generally provided me with more confusion than intrigue. There is a consistent assumption that the audience understands the metaphor or concept that is being presented, which gave proceedings an air of intellectual elitism. At times, it feels like background knowledge of philosophical and sociological issues is required to understand the concept being conveyed.

‘Global Circus’ is not without its positive moments, however. When the intellectual elitism stops, and concepts are presented in simple dialogue, things start to become interesting. A scene in which a stereotypical capitalist banker makes a mockery of the ‘eco-friendly’ middle classes: those who sort their domestic rubbish and have a compost heap, but are also complicit in flying cheaply on budget airlines, and eating air-freighted fruit. There is clearly a strong structure of thoughts and concepts underlying the play, and in the moments where these are presented in a clear way, the play is engaging and interesting. Sadly, these moments are rare.

‘Gaia: Global Circus’ adds nothing to the quagmire of research and discourse that is ‘climate change’, rather representing the worst qualities of stuffy academia – it is confusing, it deliberately refuses to provide enough clues as to what is going on (a form of elitism), and exists purely for the sake of existing. Climate change is a real issue that will affect all aspects of our planet, and this play arrogantly treats it as an intellectual plaything. However, perhaps its biggest failure is that my attitude to climate change remains the same. Having been billed as a play meant to challenge my understanding, I now feel more entrenched in my opinions than ever before.

“Gaia: Global Circus”, performed at the Bloomsbury Theatre, 15th February 2015. Conceived by Bruno Latour. Written by Pierre Daubigny and directed by Frédérique Aït-Touati and Chloé Latour. Cast included Claire Astruc, Luigi Cerri, Jade Collinet, and Matthieu Protin. Produced by Compagnie AccenT and Soif Compagnie.

Bruno Latour is currently professor at Sciences Po Paris, directing its new graduate programme Experimentation in Arts and Politics.

Marko Ristić-Smith combined both environmental and social geography in his BA, whose geopolitics dissertation researched Serbian epic poetry. He now studies MSc Environmental Technology at Imperial College.

Alistair Nay focussed on physical geography and hydrological modelling, whose dissertation modelled the effects of climate change on a major UK river. He now studies MSc Hydrology at Imperial College.

Read more:

UCL presents Gaia: Global Circus

Bruno Latour: Waiting for Gaia (Video, 5:11m)

UCL Centre for Anthropology of Sustainability

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