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An Oracle for Climate Change Anxiety?

James Leonard with a visitor in The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies (Photo: Melissa Blackall)

By KATIE CERCONE, JUN. 2016

The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies is a new performance installation by the Bedstuy, Brooklyn based artist James Leonard. A nine feet in diameter, roving ritualistic space inside which Leonard performs divinatory readings addressed to climate change, The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies will be traveling the country this summer for one-day pop up events. Like other houses of divination, the tent’s structure amounts to a metaphysical crossroads of sorts. The meeting point of querent and diviner represents a threshold between spirit and observable world, interior and exterior. The tent’s interior has rainbow walls made from multicolored recycled clothing, while the exterior of the tent features a series of small devotional paintings, many of which Leonard produced while an artist-in-residence at MASS Moca this Spring. Each painting depicts a plant or animal species reportedly affected by climate change, and is pinned to the exterior of the tent where it gently waves like a prayer flag.

Leonard promotes the work on the web and conversationally as a project that helps individuals “confront climate anxiety.” Stemming from the artist’s own lingering, existential angst around global warming, it is one man’s sincere effort to spark the cultural change needed to confront a myriad of impending environmental crises.

(Photo: Wendy Whitesell)

In a world that’s rapidly changing, one in which increasing amounts of artists are questioning object-making, and in an art world that has become a high stakes game of celebrity and hype, Leonard insists that it is through more ephemeral, community-based projects that he and his colleagues are reclaiming their agency as cultural producers. Doing socially engaged art, he observes “a deep sincerity” steering a collective push to “invent a new world.” Leonard suggests it might be a post-Occupy sentiment, and that many of the people he sees using art to create real change in the world spent at least a couple nights of 2011 down at Zuccotti Park. “Things were run really differently there,” says James, “seeds have been planted.”

Nonetheless, both Leonard and I are hesitant to adopt the terms social-practice or socially-engaged art uncritically. During his interview, we talked a great deal about how an art tied to the community, often invoked through ancient, transcultural practices such as divination, is hardly new. Community art is not a one-time trend that can be succinctly gutted by language and eulogized for art historical record.

(Photo: Wendy Whitesell)

Ancient forms of divination existed in nearly every culture in the world — divination by laughter, divination by bouncing pearls, divination by flowers, dripping wax, scrying, cookies, thunder, sand, salt, dust, spiders and even human sacrifice. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno write in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (1947) that the Enlightenment’s project was essentially “the disenchantment of the world.” It aimed to “dispel the myths” and “overthrow the fantasy of knowledge,” which ultimately, led to fascist thinking that justified war. Leonard comments that whatever traditional pagan practices we in the Western world did away with during the Enlightenment sprung back up in the magical religions of the 19th century’s Second Great Awakening, when the building of the Eerie canal sent a huge region into environmental and social crisis. Where there is trauma, there is a visceral need for ritual magic and art that heals. Cultures which embrace ritualistic practices acknowledge death and impermanence as a natural part of the life cycle.   

Leonard mentioned that it was through this project that he felt his “heart coming back alive.” His work in the community as a diviner served as an unexpected antidote to the “poisons” of the contemporary art world — “the desire to show the right way and describe your work the right way and be communicating with the right people.” His research into divination, which took him into various ethnic, cultural and spiritual communities solidified for him the sad ways in which the art market and artists themselves have “cordoned off the role [of the artist],” removing the most integral spiritual aspects of it.

As for the nature of social practice and the role of the socially-engaged artist, in Leonard’s opinion there are two fundamental requirements for this work. First and foremost, “There is an emphasis on agency, usually on the part of an artist who is feeling totally disenfranchised and struggling to find their own agency in the world.” Secondly, “a good piece of social artwork will take that agency that the artist discovers and somehow find a way to give that back to the audience.” As for the The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies, the piece is not fully activated until someone sits for a reading.

In addition to environmental organizations, cultural hubs and museums, the tent will travel through several spiritual centers, including a handful of Zen Buddhist organizations and a traditional Haitian Voodoo community in South Boston. Although the official tour is only just beginning, there have been preliminary runs. During our interview, Leonard recalled fondly various gems imparted to him by participants. One visitor to The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies talked about his use of traditional Aztec dancing as his way of healing the planet in crisis. A fifteen-year-old born in Guatemala asked several pointed questions about water right issues specific to her home country. Leonard described the teen as having imparted to him a great deal of knowledge, educating him in a very clear way about the infrastructure of Guatemala and the immediate dynamics at play there with respect to climate change. Says the artist, these are “ground stories” of a cultural shift, and indicate to him exactly how regular people are “engaging daily in their hearts” with this very complex global issue. Young people, he insists, often come to him with the most profound inquiries, because after all, “these will be the people who are inheriting the planet.”

Ultimately, The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies offers a unique cultural space that is interpersonal, healing and generative. “I’m definitely interested in engaging all audiences with the balance leading toward non-art audiences,” says James. His accessible marketing of the project projects his desire too avoid cloaking the work in esoteric art speak or cult-y intellectualism. He remarks, “I’m really interested in how different populations with different global ethnic touchstones in their background relate to the piece.” Leonard is perhaps most excited about interchanging with the Haitian American community when he lands in Boston.

James Leonard in his Tent (Photo: Wendy Whitesell)

Due to the effects of climate change and an extremely intense El Niño causing one of the most dramatic droughts on record, for Leonard, Haiti represents a model community undergoing the type of cultural shifts that will continue to occur as global warming escalates. “There is probably a lot of similarities between what is going to happen to the global material economy and what is happening now to the island economy,” remarks Leonard. If anything, he’s learning a lot from the Haitians he’s worked with just by what concerns they are bringing to the table. “These highly constrained situations where there isn’t enough food, water or medical resources, they are already living in what the world is going to look like,” and it’s for this reason James feels that Haitian people might offer the best insight into where we are going, including “what to anticipate, how to interact, what to value within our communities.”

(Photo: Wendy Whitesell)

Leonard also spoke about recently watching the new Josh Fox film “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the things that Climate Change Can’t Change.” He was particularly humbled by one segment highlighting a female public-housing activist from the Rockaway area. In the film the Rockaway woman addressed the greater public post-Sandy saying something along the lines of, we have water now, we have food, but we need more we need acknowledgement, we need love, we need therapy. This woman’s poignant statement confirmed for Leonard the true value of a socially-engaged practice that performs the work of being present to individual’s fears and anxieties. Certainly, as an artist in his forties, this work is the product of a somewhat drastic reassessment of values. He remarks, “At the end of the day what does the Art World mean? How is it going to fit into this new world that’s coming? We’re on the edge and the world’s going to change and it’s not going to be defined by us.”

In addition to the artist’s many exchanges with multi-ethnic spiritual communities, Leonard has also found a home for this work amongst a more scientifically-minded population. Recently featured on the academic reality television show Harvard PredictionX program (a series about the history of prediction), through this and other interactions with the scientific community, Leonard was able to draw profound connections between scientific and sacred belief systems. Leonard insists scientific method reveals truths about the universe that very much echo spiritual intuitions that have persisted for many generations. “Anything that is considered to be serpentine or moves serpentine is seen as an origin of life in a number of traditions. Only in the Abrahamic religions is the serpent vilified.” James explained that this same snake-like form prevails throughout the physical environment. Everything from mountain ranges, coastlines, rivers and “anything that moves along” (including the rivers of air within each hemisphere stabilizing our climate) moves along in this serpentine fashion.

As for the title of the piece, “Casually Observed Phenologies” refers to the the species of plants and animals depicted in the delicate paintings that line the tent’s exterior, and reports of these species having been affected by climate change come directly from folklore. Part of Leonard’s outreach and research has involved asking older people such as fisherman and farmers to report any changes in the patterns of their local wildlife they can assess by calendar year. This is one element of the project some of the scientists and biologists are most excited about. “It’s important that people understand the lore space they activate by just telling their story. It’s only by people saying that they are seeing these things that some grad student that’s a biologist decides to go study them.” Leonard jokes that in a security state where IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING has become colloquial, maybe these rapidly changing environmental patterns are precisely what we best be speaking up about. He concludes, “These are the satchel bombs under peoples’ seats that people should be talking about, the canaries in the coal mine…” WM

Look out for James Leonard’s "Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies" this summer as the tour kicks off June 18th in Massachusetts at the Framingham New England Wild Flower Society, followed by a pop-up event June 19th at the Democracy Center in Cambridge. See the full tour schedule here


Katie Cercone

Katie Cercone was born 1984 in Santa Rosa, CA and is an interdisciplinary artist, yogi, writer, curator, and instructor of a course called Gender Trouble at the School of Visual Art. Cercone has published critical writing in ART PAPERS, Brooklyn Rail, Posture, Hysteria Magazine, Bitch Magazine, REVOLT, Utne Reader, N.Paradoxa and Public Art Dialogue, as well as curated shows for Momenta Art, Sensei Gallery, Cue Art Foundation and NurtureArt. Cercone was a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow for the JUSFC Exchange Program in Tokyo, Japan. Check her out on instagram as @MysticalRatchet

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