The climate crisis begs of publishers and arts organisations and all in the arts to act differently. Why us arts people? someone might ask. We are the good guys; we don’t work for BP or Shell or Exxon; we don’t travel business-class across the world every other week. A fair point. But artists, authors and the organisations and businesses working with them are at the forefront of thinking about our culture and how we interact with the world we’re part of. In other words, when people in the arts consider their activity’s impact on the climate, it’s not just about reducing the carbon emissions of a flight or two or three. It’s also about artists’ and authors’ influence on the cultural conversation, whether we’re talking about the rippling influence from a public artist’s practical actions today or the way art can be part of deep changes in how we think about and are in the world.
But to come back to earth, in this post I’d like to look at one practical challenge and opportunity: there is normally a big carbon footprint to promoting international authors and artists. Just this summer we had Rita Indiana, a Dominican Republican author who lives in Puerto Rico, invited for one single event at Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, a time most bookshops don’t want to do events. Two flights there, two flights back for one event . . . So our practical question is: can we stay international as a publisher and slash our carbon footprint? We hope so. One under-explored avenue is digital linkups with authors. Cheap, low-carbon, and still a good conversation.
A successful pilot digital linkup event
Right after our first sustainability survey (particularly asking people’s opinion on flying our authors and staff), we held a pilot live digital event this month as part of Sheffield’s literature festival Off the Shelf. Did it work? Did it ever! This month we published Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik’s achingly beautiful Love in the UK and Europe and do in fact have the author coming over for a couple of events in Edinburgh and Norwich. However, Off the Shelf happens every October and, this year, with the festival’s Norwegian focus, they were keen to have Hanne talk. But it was a month before her visit. A perfect opportunity to try out a live linkup.
Our future And Other Stories author Rachel Genn sat at a laptop in Sheffield’s Central Library, in front of the Sheffield audience, and was in discussion via the Zoom platform (like Skype, but more reliable) with Hanne, who was talking to us from her home in Milan. It was such an engaging discussion. Hanne revealed the heart of her mother-son novel: ‘And what if there isn’t love? That is the icy fear . . . The present tense in the novel was the present tense fear I was living as I wrote it. As a new mother, I had gone to the far side of normality, whatever that is.’ And when asked about the narrative style she uses, where the mother’s and son’s stories have no distance between them on the page, she was able to reach up and grab other books of hers to show us how she had laid out previous books differently. And yes, while we would have liked to have Hanne in the room, everyone there felt they had been able to engage with her, and people stuck around for a post-event chat, just as they would do with any other event.
The challenges for such events
Having done one, and had one potential digital event fall through, we found three big challenges in particular. They are:
- getting the format right
- getting the tech working
- communicating the positives of such events to potential hosts (eg literature festivals) and potential audiences.
The format: Naturally every event has to be thought out on its own terms. We found that having someone in the room with the audience who was talking to the remote author made a massive difference. (Not least because she loved the book so much and had questions that the author engaged with.) Allowing time for the audience to ask questions was also important.
The tech: Our first event went 90% as we’d have hoped, enough for a successful event, thankfully. We found Zoom to be a stable platform and are glad we went with it rather than, say, Skype. For calls with just two locations/cameras, it is free like Skype. It was easy to connect a projector to our laptop and beam our author onto a big screen. We did a tech check before the event in location with our library host and Hanne Ørstavik. We made the mistake to not test one element at that point: the speakers, because our library hosts had used them many times with other laptops and they work with a simple headphone jack. For some strange reason, we couldn’t get them to work with our Mac laptops. (And we couldn’t use the library’s computers with Zoom because of access restrictions on downloading new software to the library’s hardware.) Luckily, our laptop’s inbuilt speakers were strong enough. Next time: tech check everything!
Communicating the positives to others: There was a good turnout for this event, and we were happy about that, since the event was before the book’s publication, and so it was an author and book most of the audience knew little about. However, there was another event in October with another author that had to be cancelled. The hosts were charging the same price to other events in the festival where the authors were present. So it’s possible that for everyone apart from the biggest stars (eg David Lynch’s live linkup appearance at Home, Manchester, during this year’s Manchester International Festival), audiences are not yet ready to pay top dollar for such events. That will probably change as more people experience good linkup events live and realise they are events worth being at, with real presence.
And such events may be the only way to see authors or artists in events. Apart from the ecological imperative, many artists and authors cannot travel to events for other reasons, including care commitments, for example, whether that is care of an elderly and/or sick parent or spouse, or young children. Then the UK’s visa restrictions are a known issue, and some artists have psychological anxiety around travel. Let’s start to consider alternatives so that no authors or artists are excluded.
Post-event plan for the recording
There is also a conversation to be had about what to do with the video recording. David Lynch’s event is now up online, accessible to all. Does this in any way reduce the event-ness of the event, if it can be accessed later? Do author and interviewer want the event online forever? Without the ££ of an event like the David Lynch event, where there were also two cameras ..[fill in] will the recorded experience We’re not rushing to say everything should be posted to Youtube or other platforms, but we’ll start to talk to authors and everyone involved about what we all might want to do, case by case.
The wider discussion
And this is part of a wider discussion. We’re already working closely with the Newcastle-based visual arts producer D6: Culture in Transit to start to think about, discuss and develop pilot projects related to:
- Changing travel habits in favour of lower carbon alternatives
- Improving international mobility, accessibility and connections via digital events and participation
D6: Culture in Transit and And Other Stories have a similar ethos and paradox: sharing culture across borders is what we do (because that’s really what culture does, as we see it), but we also don’t want to harm the world we live in by carbon-heavy travel. We hope to think more about all this, and develop pilot programmes and approaches, which we can in turn share with the wider arts world and publishing industry. Do get in touch if you’d like to involved in the discussion or have comments to make.