As the first of our featured artists, the spotlight is on Emma Critchley, an artist who uses a combination of film, photography, sound and installation to continually explore the human relationship with the underwater environment as a political, philosophical and environmental space.
In response to the ongoing environmental crisis, we asked Emma how her own practice and experiences have been affected by the issue, and the wider impact on the arts sector.
Common Heritage, film still.
How do you feel your artistic practice has been influenced by the environmental crisis?
I’ve been interested in the environment and ecology for a long time, I first got into underwater photography through doing a marine conservation project in Indonesia in 2001; whilst carrying out Reef Check surveys we were starting to see coral bleaching and could hear home-made fishing bombs going off around us when we dived, so it was part of my experience of the underwater world from early on. In a way, it has always been at the core of my work through my long-standing enquiry into the human relationship with the underwater environment. During my MA I started working with the breath and thinking about the interdependent, reciprocal relationship we have with the spaces we inhabit.
I only started really engaging with the crisis however through a project I did with human geographer Dr. Catherine Butler from Exeter University about the 2013/14 Somerset Levels floods. The work I made responded to Catherine’s longitudinal interviews with people whose homes had been flooded for months on end. This was my first time working closely with an academic, which I thoroughly enjoyed, both exploring the synergies in our work, but also the direct connection the project had with the people experiencing the fall out of the floods and policy change. This set me off on a path where I’ve worked a lot with researchers from a range of disciplines on subjects like underwater sound pollution, earthquakes, ice-cores and deep-sea mining. Projects often evolve from focused research and dialogue both with the public and with academics, whose research I combine with my own artistic, philosophical approach. The more I do, the more urgency I feel to make work that engages with the many issues at stake in this climate crisis; I don’t think we can underestimate the challenges we face.
What do you think is the role of artists to respond to the environmental crisis?
The environmental crisis is complex and multi-faceted, full of tensions and contradictions. Artists are very good at seeing and thinking across disciplines and bringing together diverse views. I think one of the roles artists have, is in fostering inter-disciplinary thinking, which I think is a critical component we need to comprehensively deal with current and future climate change landscapes.
Art can be a point of encounter in which to engage with the nuances, complexities and intersectionalities of the climate crisis and has the potential to create space for reflection. As a nation we have become so polarised and I think artists are able to provide opportunities for people to come together and have conversations around the subjects they’re engaging with in their work, where everyone feels their voices can be heard.
I also think some of the key shifts we have to make as humans are re-thinking the value we place in nature, being more sensitive to our environment and having the ability to listen, really listen. All of these are qualities that artists tend to be good at and can play a lead role in helping us adapt as a species.
Sirens, film still.
What project are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a multi-iteration project about the imminent gold rush of deep-sea mining for rare-earth minerals. This kind of mining hasn’t yet started and until recently has fallen under the radar of the public eye. The project, Soundings explores the ecological, geopolitical, cultural and economic concerns at stake and encompasses multiple research methods including film-making, choreography and a series of public engagement events about deep-sea mining and our relationship to the deep-ocean. It is an investigative project that questions the notion of the remote and mobilises the potential of moving image, sound and dance to help us experience the meaningful connection needed to inspire care for the deep ocean and its ecosystems, from an embodied position.
I’m just coming to the end of a 6-month research and development stage which will then lead into developing the main project through this year and 2024. During this time, I collaborated with Fiona Middleton and Mekhala Dave from TBA21-Academy to work with communities nationally and internationally to collectively explore the subject of deep-sea mining and our own relationship with the deep ocean, through hybrid in-person and online public research events hosted with TBA21-Academy, John Hansard Gallery and Quay Arts. These gatherings brought together legal experts, deep-sea scientists and indigenous activists to discuss some of the key issues at stake and ended with a workshop where people explored their own relationship with the deep ocean. These events will continue through the development of Soundings and the material gathered will feed into the installation itself.
I also created a film triptych called Sirens, which explore an encounter between a dancer and three creatures from the deep-sea. This was supported by The Dance Space Brighton, where I worked in collaboration with a dancer called Maya Carroll and choreographer Siobhan Davies. I’m now looking to develop as a live piece with the films in the next stage. The Sirens film triptych is being screened as part of Our City Dances festival at South East Dance on 1st July.
How did you end up doing what you are doing now?
I’ve been working with the subject of deep-sea mining since 2016, during a research residency called Culture & Climate Change: Future Scenarios. After this year I began making a film called Common Heritage, which draws on science fiction tropes to highlight fantasies we construct around exploration and draws into focus how these romanticised stages are in fact borders of conquest, annexed for geopolitical territory appropriation and mineral resources. The provocation for the film is an incredible speech, which the Maltese Ambassador Arvid Pardo, gave to the UN in 1967 that instigated the Common Heritage of (hu)Mankind principle, which today is still the only treaty in place to govern the high seas – two-thirds of the ocean.
I finished Common Heritage in 2019 and then in July 2021 a Canadian-owned company together with the government of Nauru triggered a loophole in the Law of the Sea which states that in 2 years deep sea mining can go ahead whether or not regulations are in place. Since then, there has been a hive of activity to try and come up with what is known as the ‘mining code’, which describes the entire body of rules, regulations and procedures that will regulate prospecting, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in international waters. There has also been a lot of campaigning against deep sea mining activities starting in the first place. In light of all of this I felt the need to start working with the subject again to engage people with the subject and develop work that’s focuses on the different narratives at play and invites people to find their voice and take ownership of the deep ocean, fostering stewardship.
What have you learned in your practice in the last three years? Any unexpected discoveries?
So much … that every second breath comes from the ocean … fish live by the lunar cycle … whale song has different dialects … fish listen to the sound of the reef to navigate … when a glacier no longer accumulates enough snow mass to move down the mountain they are declared dead: most glaciers in the world are now dead…deep-sea mining is the blind spot of the green revolution … humans have destroyed 83% of wild mammals … 5000 new species have just been discovered in the deep ocean…that there’s so much more to learn from nature.
What advice do you have for other artists approaching these issues?
It would probably be to do with what I’ve been thinking about more in my own practice, which is the importance of exploring the local as well as the global. Through the media it’s easy to see and think about issues going on all over the world, but so much is happening on our doorstep. Although it’s of course important to think globally, as everything is so interconnected I think there’s real value in looking around at our local environment and what can be done right here.
You can find out more about Emma’s practice by heading to her website here