As the climate crisis accelerates, how can artists' residencies be testing grounds for new – and better – ways of living and working? The Nordic Alliance of Artists’ Residencies on Climate Action (NAARCA) is a coalition of seven organisations that are exploring this question together.
So how did NAARCA come about? What are its goals? And... what is an artists’ residency, anyway?
Host Katie Revell learns more from Alexia Holt (Cove Park, Scotland), Leena Kela (Saari Residence, Finland), Charlotte Hetherington (Artica Svalbard, Norway) and Jaana Eskola (NAARCA’s Eco Coordinator).
Credits: Testing Grounds is produced and edited by Katie Revell and includes original music by Loris S. Sarid and artwork by Jagoda Sadowska. With thanks to Alex Marrs and the rest of the NAARCA team.
Contact us: naarca.art/contact-us
Who we are: Art Hub Copenhagen (Denmark), Artica Svalbard (Norway), Baltic Art Center (Sweden), Cove Park (Scotland), Saari Residence (Finland), Skaftfell Art Center (Iceland) and Narsaq International Research Station (Greenland).
Thanks for listening!
00:01 Various speakers: Velkommen. Tervetuloa. Välkommen. Fàilte. Bures. Velkommen.
00:07 Narration: Welcome to Testing Grounds, from the Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action. Episode one: introducing NAARCA.
00:19 As the climate crisis accelerates, how can artist residencies be testing grounds for new – and better – ways of living and working? In this eight-part series, we'll be exploring that question by bringing together artists, researchers, and activists from across the Nordic region and Scotland.
00:40 Each episode will feature a conversation about some of the themes that the members of NAARCA are grappling with – that we're all grappling with – in the context of the climate crisis.
01:00 I'm Katie Revell. I'm a podcast producer and I live in Glasgow, in Scotland. For me, this journey begins with a train, a boat, and a short drive to Cove Park, an artists' residency on the Rosneath Peninsula, on the west coast of Scotland. Cove Park sits on a lush hillside overlooking a body of water called Loch Long. At the top of the hill is the main building. From here, the artists and writers in residence can gaze out across the landscape.
01:34 In the foreground, there are sheep grazing on the hillside. Further away there's a forest, then there's the shimmering water, and beyond that, the hills of the Cowal Peninsula. And above it all, there's a huge, ever-changing sky. From this vantage point, things look fine, peaceful, idyllic – but of course, things are far from fine.
02:01 Across the Nordic region, climate change is having a real, tangible impact – right now. In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the ground is literally giving way as the permafrost thaws. In Seyðisfjörður, Iceland, record rainfall triggered landslides that swept away houses. On the Swedish island of Gotland, severe water shortages are now the norm. And here in Scotland, as the seasons become ever more unpredictable, heatwaves are followed by torrential rain, and flowers bloom in November.
02:37 We're living in a crisis. The need for action is urgent. And yet, the wheels of change sometimes turn very, very slowly. So what role can artists' residencies, like Cove Park, play in encouraging and accelerating that change? The Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action, or NAARCA, is a collaboration between seven artists' residencies. It was initiated by Cove Park in Scotland, and Saari Residence in Finland, and it officially launched in autumn 2021 at Cove Park. It'll continue till 2024.
03:25 The founding members of NAARCA are the Baltic Art Center on the Swedish Island of Gotland; Artica in the town of Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian Svalbard Archipelago; Art Hub Copenhagen in Denmark, and Skaftfell, in the Icelandic town of Seyðisfjörður. In 2023, Narsaq International Research Station in South Greenland became the seventh member of NAARCA.
03:49 These residencies are working together to develop, test and communicate new ways of living and working that are ecologically, socially, mentally, and financially sustainable. This podcast series is part of communicating that work. It's one way of expanding the residency experience, opening it up – to everyone.
04:11 Across the series, we'll be travelling to each of the seven NAARCA members. We'll be meeting some of the people in and around the residencies who are imagining and building alternative futures. I'll be travelling from my home in Glasgow, but wherever you are, we invite you to join us. In this first episode, we'll get a bit of background. How did NAARCA come about? What are its goals? And what is an artists' residency, anyway?
04:44 Katie: Don't worry about stumbling or repeating yourself.
Katie: Or, you know, it's, that's all.
Alexia: It's all in the edit.
Katie: It's all in the edit.
04:50 Narration: Alexia Holt has worked at Cove Park since 2004. She's now their senior Director of Programmes.
04:57 Katie: Maybe if you can just briefly explain for people who aren't familiar with the term, what is an artists' residency and what's their purpose?
05:06 Alexia: I would say it's a place which supports and promotes the work of artists, providing the time, the space, the freedom, the financial support, and in one sense the inspiration, to make and to develop new work. And that might mean to be working to a deadline, or it might be purely exploratory time - time to reflect on what you've been doing, where you are in your practice, to try new things out that you've been meaning to try for some time, to experiment, and really to have that opportunity to do just what it is you need to do for your work, in your own terms.
05:40 Narration: For those of you listening who are artists, this might seem a bit obvious, but I know I'm guilty of forgetting sometimes that artists are people too. They have health issues and kids or parents to care for and bills to pay. Residencies can offer a temporary step away from all of that – away from the noise and the clutter of everyday life.
06:02 Alexia: You'll find them in all sorts of places – urban and rural contexts. And I think the good thing about lots of residencies is it's they play to their unique context and their strengths. And so yeah, they can be very, very different. But I think the underlying ambition is really just to help people make the work that they need to make.
06:21 Narration: So while it may be a break from normal life, being at a residency is not like taking a holiday. To paraphrase Scottish poet, artist and gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay…
06:32 Alexia: You know, it's not a retreat, it's an attack. Retreat implies that you're kinda removing yourself away, and it becomes quite internalised in some way. Whereas I think a lot of residencies give a moment where you are at your most engaged, your most kind of productive, and yeah, to describe it as a retreat maybe doesn't give quite that kind of sense of engagement.
06:51 Katie: Yeah.
06:51 Alexia: And directly tackling something that is really actually quite important.
06:54 Narration: Residencies can take different forms.
06:57 Alexia: Time, space, freedom model applies to many residencies, and it's about offering people the time, literally – two months, three months, whatever it, that might be. And the space – the accommodation, the workspace, the location away from their usual, um, home life or studio life, and the, the freedom that you're not expected to do any outcomes.
07:19 An inquiry-based model is really when you recognize that you have the opportunity to bring together a really interesting collection of people that are thinking about a particular issue or theme or subject.
07:32 Narration: And it's this focused time – time spent in a context that's different to the everyday, time spent together with other people who have a range of backgrounds and experiences – this is one of the things that makes artists’ residencies potentially really powerful in the context of the climate crisis.
07:49 Alexia: It's like a sort of a petri dish of bringing people together and seeing what might happen, what that might lead to, how the conversation and the discussions that happen here can be brought together and harnessed and used to kind of help influence policy or influence other people's thinking around the climate crisis, and bring new and different perspectives, artistic perspectives, to it.
08:11 Katie: What do you think makes an artists' residency like Cove Park well-placed to explore ways of responding to climate change?
08:21 Alexia: I think it's that natural process of the meeting of minds, bringing together people from very different backgrounds with huge wealth of expertise and knowledge. And we're not just bringing them together for a conference; they're, they're here working alongside each other for, you know, sometimes as short a time as a week, but a lot can happen in a week, but often for as much as two to three months. So that sort of literal, kind of amount of time that people have the opportunity to really explore deeply their views and their opinions and their experiences.
08:54 It, it's just a unique thing in the arts. People might come together for symposia, for conference, for exhibition previews, but they're not living and working and experiencing life together. And that opportunity, yeah, to really, really share perspectives.
09:11 Jaana: Artists' residences are really special places. I mean, they are places where the artists live and work.
09:19 Narration: Jaana Eskola is NAARCA's Eco Coordinator.
09:22 Jaana: And also for the staff, they're really specific working places. The line between work and leisure time gets really blurred, and so they're also brilliant platforms for new thinking, new ideas, new experiments and new projects. The fluidity between work and free time and the fluidity of thought and the flexibility in the way of doing things is definitely the strength of any artists' residency. It's very unique. I can't underline that enough, that these places are very unique. I think that's definitely an opportunity that we should use and not let go from our hands.
10:07 Leena: Residencies also by being, being these places that kind of have this special knowledge, there are also places where I think the change can happen on a very concrete level.
10:18 Narration: Leena Kela is the Residency Director of Saari Residence, in Finland. She's also a performance artist and a curator.
10:25 Leena: We host people, so artists and also researchers come and work in the residencies, but they also live there. So we are thinking that residencies are good advocates for change, if kind of the activities in the residencies are inspiring and, and also pushing for change. Pushing to change your kind of ways of thinking, first of all – sort of getting new insights on these complex topics around climate crisis, but also thinking about the kind of sustainability in energy, in food, in transportation, kind of on, on different levels within the residency context.
11:07 That can kind of change your behaviour, if you are willing to change, and then as residency artists and researchers, kind of through that experience, you might be kind of bringing those, uh, new insights back home and then expand that change.
11:25 Jaana: And I really strongly feel that we have almost duty to use that opportunity to invent new ways of being, living, as part of this society and this world. We have all the possibilities to do things differently and be experimental, be bold, be radical. That's definitely one of my core messages to everybody, that – take that opportunity. Test out things. Don't be afraid of failures. Be like one step forward.
12:04 Narration: So why a Nordic alliance?
12:07 Leena: Maybe that kind of like mainly came from that we share something, and also that Scotland identifies, kind of Cove Park being in Scotland, being a residency there, not in the Nordic or Scandinavian country as such, but identifying themselves as Nordic – that was like an interlink that we could find.
12:25 And on the other hand, like we were thinking that what happens when we kind of put a specific focus on this geographical area and kind of recognizing that even within that Nordic sphere and Scandinavian countries and Scotland, there are also quite a lot of variables in terms of like how climate crisis is affecting on all of us, and also to keep it kind of still small enough for the start. Maybe in the future we would like to expand and kind of bring in another perspectives and kind of start to expand from that. But yeah, for the beginning, Nordic, Nordic countries.
13:07 Narration: I think one thing to add is also that the Nordic countries and Scotland are pretty wealthy – these are countries that have benefited disproportionately from the extraction of resources and of people – both from within the region itself, and from other parts of the world. And as such, we’re disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis – and for responding to it.
13:36 The idea for NAARCA was sparked by conversations that happened at Saari back in December, 2020.
13:43 Leena: When Francesca Bertolotti-Bailey, who used to be the CEO of, uh, Cove Park, visited us here in Saari and um, kind of without any specific agenda, just doing a residency visit and we spent a day together, realising that there's a lot that we're both kind of thinking as the future visions to our residencies.
14:07 Francesca was just about to start, uh, her work at Cove Park and we in Saari, we had been having an Eco Coordinator, Jaana Eskola, working with us by that time for one year, and kind of going through our residency models and activities, uh, from the perspective of ecological sustainability. But what was something that we both shared was that also we included social sustainability and mental sustainability within that spectrum.
14:41 So we were discussing the whole day and thinking about the meaning of residency within the climate crisis and the activities it requires. And from that conversation, it was kind of clear right away that we should work together and invite other residencies to collaborate with us. So that was the beginning: shared interest and, and a vision.
15:08 Narration: Four other residencies joined the alliance, and NAARCA's first in-person meeting took place at Cove Park in November 2021 – at the same time that the COP26 Climate Conference was happening just down the road in Glasgow.
15:24 Leena: We spent few days together kind of thinking if there would be more like a clusters of activities. So we formed subgroups and these subgroups are, uh, responsible of, of these various actions that we do. The subgroups are: art commissions, pedagogy, and knowledge production and communication.
15:47 Art commissions are commissioning two larger artworks where the artist is also travelling to different residences to make their work. And that, like both of the processes will take like couple of years. Then we have a group focusing on pedagogy, climate pedagogy especially, for children from 10 to 12, developing educational toolkit or packages for schools, for climate pedagogy with the means of art.
16:17 And then the third one is knowledge development and communications. And in that subgroup we are working on this podcast for example, so producing knowledge and distributing knowledge, and thinking about also what kind of knowledge NAARCA alliance produces, and how can we kind of expand and reach out to, to new audiences, and tell about these residencies as places where maybe there's a lot of knowledge produced, but it might not become visible for the outside audience.
16:51 So how to tell about residencies as these special places, locally very much grounded and located, and at the same time being international places where people travel and bring their own, uh, practices and also influence the place. That there's a lot of things in the residencies that happen in the residency, so I think NAARCA's, one of the main activity, is to really share, share that.
17:18 Alexia: We've just been talking a bit about, you know, the point of bringing people together. There's all of these amazing discussions, fantastic work could be produced, who knows what writing will be produced and, and where things will go. But we need to make that visible and we need to vocalise it. And collectively, you know, coming together as a group of like-minded organisations, we can really amplify what that message is.
17:43 It's also at a very practical level, it's about sharing other people's experiences. So I think, yeah, coming together with other organisations, sharing the same views and perspectives, although coming at it from very different angles, amplifying those views on a much broader platform really means that we're much more visible, and the people that need to hear what we have to say will listen, we hope. Whether that's funders, politicians, wider community – the more people that we can reach, the better.
18:20 Narration: Eco Coordinator Jaana Eskola was based at Saari before she took on the role with NAARCA.
18:26 Leena: And her job with us was two years to kind of really look through all our activities from the perspective of sustainability, ecological sustainability, and also to kind of, uh, notify what should be taken into account in the future. And that's kind of ongoing process anyhow, so there's no kind of one formula that, that fits for the future because things can happen, and we need to be kind of maybe making also mistakes and learning and, and experimenting and then through that developing our activities.
18:58 So Jaana continued as the Eco Coordinator of the whole NAARCA alliance. She visited each of the residency only for one week, but she had a good kind of concept with which to work with each of our organisation. And then the aim is that, first of all, that each of the NAARCA members have a more clear vision, what to do and how to develop their actions in terms of the sustainability.
19:25 But then also like how through these visits and kind of, uh, looking at this diversity of our sizes also, and geographical locations like mentioned. So how through that we can develop a toolbox that other residencies can also use, so that everyone doesn't need to start from the scratch, but there are some tools and methods and kind of questions to think about in order for each of the residency to look at their, their own activities from this perspective.
19:55 But like even that she worked with us for two years, it's an ongoing process, so we cannot say that we are ready. So for each of us, it means that there's a commitment, that ecological sustainability is an important value in the residency, and it's a value through which we kind of look at our decisions and actions and, and also these future visions that we have.
20:18 Jaana: What we aim to do within NAARCA is to share our best practices and sort of make all us six stronger together than we would be as individual organisations. People working on ecological issues within their organisations, they might be very alone with that work. People have different roles – you might be the director and you also think about the sustainability issues, but then you have no one to bounce the ideas back and forth. So now one important part of NAARCA network is also to offer platform for discussions and support and exchange of ideas.
20:52 Charlotte: And also to test out real action.
20:58 Narration: Charlotte Hetherington is the director of Artica Svalbard.
21:01 Charlotte: We all know those small steps that we can take to do things, but they can be different challenges depending on where you’re based. So for example, here in Svalbard, recycling is actually very hard. When I was living in the UK, it's obviously you feel like you can kind of pat yourself on the back because you're doing your recycling – you're sorting your plastic and your cardboard. And then when I moved here, we can't recycle plastic and all of our waste has to be shipped off the island.
21:36 So it really makes you think, okay, how can I reduce so that I'm not just putting this into the bin? So it's quite helpful to be challenged even on those everyday things. But we all know that it is much bigger than that. And so I think being part of NAARCA is gonna help in testing out real action.
22:04 When I started here in late 2020, I really wanted us to start thinking about our environmental strategy and plan, 'cause that's something that's not currently in place. And to me it's the elephant in the room, because we are in a very remote and vulnerable location. And I think it's something that we need to discuss. It's something that we need to address. We need to start asking ourselves some of those difficult questions of why and how are we bringing artists and writers here?
22:45 So that's something we're gonna be working on a lot next year with our partners and with our board. So to be part of the NAARCA network is gonna really help with all of that work. And it's, it's gonna be interesting to see how the other organisations in the group are working on that and how we come together. So yeah, I'm looking forward to sort of being part of those conversations.
23:17 Narration: So how does NAARCA actually hope to achieve change?
23:20 Leena: It's a massive question. What change, and how do we perceive change? But I think that since we are different, the organisations in the alliance, we are all different and we have all specific kind of local questions, uh, in terms of our geographical location and also who we work with and how we work that we can bring in our specific expertise – not only the specific expertise as, us as residency, but kind of within our, the people that we work with, their, their expertise.
[23:56] So we can look at this question of like climate crisis from various perspectives. We know there's no one answer and it's amazingly complex and kind of multidimensional question. So I think one of the sort of factors around the change is also that we have hope. We have hope for change and we can support each other. Being kind of hopeful and willing to work for change, 'cause the change should happen everywhere. And if we lose hope, what is then left?
24:36 Katie: What would you say motivates you to do the work that you do?
24:41 Jaana: I could almost turn it other way around: I couldn't do anything else. I mean, if I'd work on something completely different, I'd feel that I'm wasting my time, I, I'm wasting eight hours per day not to work on the most burning topics of our time. So I feel very privileged that I can be part of this project. So yeah, the motivation obviously comes from the urgency and, and justification for our own existence that we all have to do our share to keep this planet livable for the future generations. So yeah, I don't really, I don't need to look for the motivation very far.
25:23 Alexia: I've worked in the arts for a very long time. I love it. I love working with artists, amazing thinkers, makers, producers, making life-changing work that really helps you understand and see the world in different ways, introduces you to all sorts of new experiences and ideas. That's really what I love.
25:41 Working with artists at Cove Park, when the pressure is off in many senses, when they can explore, they have the right to fail as well as to succeed, to make big changes in their work. It's privileged access, and a really amazing moment to work with artists. And in terms of the environment, you know, having been brought up in rural Cumbria and living now in rural Scotland, I care very much about the environment and, and how we live and how we care for each other.
26:10 I care very much about social justice and you know, the levels of deprivation at play in this country, in the wider UK, very much. Cove Park is an amazing resource and we want to share that with as many people as possible. On a national level, there is so much wealth in all sorts of ways, and it's just not equitable. It's not shared. And I think that's, that's a huge sort of motivation, as well.
26:36 Leena: Oh wow. Like, of course being very, very motivated, but kind of struggling between the motivation and hopelessness. 'Cause it's a, it's a, it's massive. The question is massive. But personally I've been long time, uh, very committed, but at the same time kind of thinking that as an individual, like whatever you do, it's not enough.
26:58 So I think my personal motivation in the Saari residence, kind of being super committed to ecological sustainability that we want to develop and also embrace, comes from this idea that we need to do this together. So I could kind of spend my days in, in thinking about my kind of personal choices and activities and kind of putting my energy in recycling and all that.
27:25 But we need to do it in a wider scale. So there's kind of like this concrete aspect of living sustainably, but then there's also this symbolic aspect that how you can also invite others to think about these questions, in, inspire others, and especially kind of coming from the point of view of like being inspired and motivated and not just guilty.
27:51 'Cause if you're kind of working from, from the perspective of guilt and being kind of, feeling super guilty, you burn out yourself really easily, then you give up because it's just a massive task. So I believe in this kind of inspiration and building hope and, and through that, being motivated and yeah, doing it together gives that.
28:30 Katie: What are your hopes for the alliance?
28:34 Jaana: I wish like boldness of thought and really like, truly radical action. Of course, I wish that that would become as a permanent part of the way these organisations operate. But even if that's not the case, I, I wish the braveness and boldness to try out things, be willing to fail, but just to start doing things differently.
29:02 'Cause words don't mean anything. Actions are everything. And until we really start doing things differently, nothing will change. Good example is travelling – that the more people travel via land, the more change we can create and the more positive like example we can give, and then slowly introducing different kind of habits into our ways of operating. This is what we are made for – artists’ residences, basically everything is possible. There's no obstacles of doing things in the most imaginable and crazy ways, so we should not waste that opportunity.
29:45 Alexia: You know, we're at a really scary time and art can, I think often some people think it's a luxury – it's something that, you know, in good times you do, and I don't believe that. I think it's something that at bad times you need to really do more, because this is where change happens. The arts enriches life, absolutely, it's an enjoyable thing to do, but I really do believe it's where change happens.
30:08 Leena: Art and artists' role in, in change, and working with the question of climate crisis from different perspectives, is really about imagining. Because we have facts. We are not missing the facts about what's going on, and there's endless scientific research, endless amount of knowledge. So the input from art and artists for this discussion is not only knowledge, of course it can kind of like come with it, but it's, it's to imagine, it's to kind of open this horizon. Not only to see, but to kind of like use other senses to experience, to understand the question in its complexity.
30:54 We are talking about carbon footprint, but then we are talking about the, the handprint that the art can do. So art can kind of be the positive actor in that field. And really through that kind of imagining alternative futures, we have kind of something to, to go towards.
31:19 Narration: In the next episode, we'll be travelling deep into the Arctic Circle to visit NAARCA's Norwegian partner, Artica Svalbard. I'll be talking to an architect and an anthropologist about how the built environment acts as an interface between people and climate change.
31:38 Thank you for listening to this episode of Testing Grounds from the Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action. Subscribe to hear the rest of the series, and find out more about the project at naarca.art. If you enjoy the podcast, please tell your colleagues and friends, and leave us a review – it really helps us to reach new people.
32:01 This episode featured Alexia Holt, Leena Kela, Charlotte Hetherington and Jaana Eskola. It was produced by me, Katie Revell. Our series music is by Loris S Sarid, and our artwork is by Jagoda Sadowska. Thanks also to Alex Marrs, Jacob Fabricius, Rose Tytgat, Helena Selder, Lise Autogena, Iben Mosbæk and Julia Martin.