Articles

The Insidious Carbon Footprint of Travel to Art and Cultural Festivals

With climate change an undeniable threat, will arts festivals have to reassess their reliance on air travel?

Catherine Gallant performs Isadora Duncan, a one-woman show choreographed by Jérôme Bel entirely over Skype overseas (all photos by Elena Olivo, courtesy French Institute Alliance Française)

This article is part of a series of pieces covering or inspired by the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.


In Isadora Duncan, a solo performance that played at the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival in September, Catherine Gallant expertly performed famed dancer Duncan’s most influential works, arranged by the iconoclastic choreographer Jérôme Bel. It was an especially impressive performance considering that the pair never rehearsed together in person. Bel and his company, based in Paris, do not travel by plane anymore for ecological reasons, so he and Gallant worked over Skype.

Catherine Gallant in Isadora Duncan

Bel belongs to a very small list of artists who are boycotting air travel in response to the ever-growing threat of climate change. While he hasn’t made a crusade of urging colleagues to do the same, the arts landscape would change drastically if a critical mass of artists followed suit. From the roster of international virtuosos who play Carnegie Hall each year to the thousands of bands (not to mention fans) who converge in Austin, Texas, every March for SXSW, from the overseas tours of experimental American theater companies to the careful shipping of blockbuster exhibition objects from museum to museum, the arts and culture ecology relies on airplanes in incalculably enormous numbers.

A successful artistic career almost always requires long-distance travel, as touring and shows are the most vital income streams for many artists working today. Festivals, in turn, play a crucial role for artists in terms of exposure. And apart from the cash and publicity that travel brings to artists, it also delivers unique, enriching experiences. Live performances do, after all, need to be live. Out of the 12 shows featured at Crossing the Line, all but two — Isadora Duncan and Pierre Huyghe’s film The Host and the Cloud – featured at least one performer based outside of the U.S.

Extensive travel, of course, isn’t unique to arts events. State leaders and diplomats perhaps spend more time in the air than anyone — and typically with little regard for the carbon footprint they leave. Vice President Mike Pence infamously flew across Ireland in September to stay at a Trump resort 180 miles from his meetings in Dublin. Sports teams play half their seasons away from home.

Catherine Gallant in Isadora Duncan

Dr. Andrea Collins, a professor at Cardiff University in Wales, who has studied the environmental impact of several mass cultural events, including the Cardiff Half-Marathon and the Tour de France, found that England’s 2004 FA Cup Final produced a footprint of 3,500 global hectares (gha) — that is, 3,500 soccer fields’ worth of land was needed to produce the natural resources used by the tournament. Fifty-five percent of that came from travel.

But the notoriously liberal global arts community may be more responsive to such consequences, and Collins’s research shows that those consequences can be as great. In 2016, she and Dr. Crispin Cooper published a study that calculated the ecological footprint of the 2012 Hay Literary Festival, an annual Welsh event that attracts around 100,000 visitors over eleven days.

With a team of five on-site surveyors, Dr. Collins gathered data on more than 700 festival attendees, using a questionnaire covering travel arrangements, food and drink consumption, and duration of visit. She concluded that the Hay Festival left an ecological footprint of 3,300 gha, with travel accounting for 61 percent of that amount. “What I won’t say is, ‘Don’t have the festival,’” she says. “It’s just organizing it in a slightly different way.”

Their research suggests that festivals and other cultural events can put a dent in their environmental impact in ways that don’t involve travel. “Whatever happens on site, [festival organizers] can control,” Collins said. “You can manage what type of food and drink is served, the way in which it’s served, even recycling levels.” In New York, the Broadway Green Alliance runs an exchange program for the three-ring binders that are typically used for playscripts — a musical might need dozens of them for its actors, directors, designers, choreographer, music director, chorus members, stage managers, and others — and it collects a wide range of used objects for redistribution. Its Green Captain program, where a designated cast or crew member helps their production implement green practices, has had 100 percent participation on Broadway since 2011. The group is specifically a resource to the theater community, said BGA president Molly Braverman, “but a lot of the resources that we provide are applicable to many different art forms.”  What’s more, festivals and arts institutions might cease printing multi-color glossy brochures — Crossing the Line’s 5×7-inch booklet was 36 pages long, not including the heavy-gauge cover — and ban plastic cups and straws from their opening and closing receptions.

Catherine Gallant in Isadora Duncan

But these are paltry gestures compared to the ramifications of travel. Even while the Hay Festival has a “sustainability director” and employs numerous on-site green initiatives, the grounds’ rural location and lack of public transportation mean that long-distance travel is required for the majority of visitors. Hosting festivals in urban areas allows organizers to take advantage of public transportation and local venues, but non-locals still have to get there.

Collins suggests that the key for festivals in controlling audience travel is to know them in depth by collecting data similar to the surveys from her studies. Organizers for the Cardiff Half-Marathon, for example, decreased the event’s CO2 levels by 49 percent in 2018 by creating transportation initiatives like carpools for runners and increased shuttle service. “The reason why that happened was that the organizers put incentives in place. They made it easy,” she explains. “They used some of our research to develop a green action plan centered around travel, and developed their first environmental strategy.”

In the U.S. the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals have implemented sustainable travel initiatives and incentives geared toward their audience. According to Newport Festivals Foundation associate producer Brittany Ryan, organizers capitalized on the prominent local bike-riding culture and partnered with Bike Newport and HiRoad Auto Insurance to provide route maps, bike parking, water refill stations, and free tune-ups. In general, Ryan notes that Newport’s long history of championing social justice has made enacting green initiatives a relatively easy task. “We’re a nonprofit with a focus in music education, and we’re working to foster this next generation of musicians,” she explained. “We want them all to grow up into a world and a climate and an environment that’s sustainable.”

Europe is ahead of the US in addressing climate change, and the arts sector is no exception. The 10-year-old, London-based activist organization, Julie’s Bicycle, for instance, has, among many other things, partnered with Arts Council England (roughly the British equivalent of the National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S.) to build ecological considerations into their grant-giving. When arts organizations apply for funding from ACE, they must submit their environmental impact data and an environmental policy and action plan. Julie’s Bicycle has developed tools for such calculations, which include travel (along with energy and water usage, among other impacts). The NEA does require grant applicants be in compliance with NEPA and NHPA, but the questions regarding environmental impact are open-ended and don’t require the same hard data that ACE does.

And at least some aspects of live performance, as Bel’s Isadora Duncan showed, can be prepared without anyone boarding a jet. But it’s not easy: Gallant and Bel had to contend with the six-hour time difference between Paris and New York and with a wobbly wifi connection. Gallant even brought on an assistant to move the laptop around so that she would stay in the camera’s — and thus, Bel’s — view while dancing.

She lamented that rehearsing via Skype is “not nearly the same” as face-to-face collaboration, which allows the choreographer to see the dancer from all angles, demonstrate movements for the dancer can follow, physically position her, and so on. Still, she said, “If it’s the only choice for the creation of something, then you work with it and you find ways to make it as effective as possible.”

Isadora Duncan had its U.S. premiere at FIAF Florence Gould Hall in Manhattan, New York on  September 25, 2019.

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