Interview: Michael Walling – Magnetic North

COVID 19 and the climate crisis are changing our way of life, offering a unique opportunity to pause and look at our world from new perspectives. Renowned theatre company Border Crossings takes this moment to celebrate the cultural diversity of the Arctic and its importance to us all in Magnetic North. This is a special online event from their ORIGINS Festival, presented at the British Museum in conjunction with the Arctic: culture and climate exhibition, the first major exhibition on the history of the Arctic and its Indigenous Peoples, through the lens of climate change and weather.

We cannot wait to attend this online event but before we do we’ve been lucky enough to ask Michael Walling from Border Crossings some questions regarding the event and this moment of reflection and opportunity for action.

For those who may not be familiar with your work, could you possibly tell us a little about Border Crossings?
Border Crossings is celebrating its 25th birthday this year! We are an intercultural theatre company, working in various ways to connect people from different back-grounds, both nationally and internationally. We make cross-cultural productions: the most recent was THE GREAT EXPERIMENT, about indentured labour in Mauritius, which we just managed to squeeze into the start of 2020 before the lockdown. We do a lot of work with marginalised communities, for example we have an ongoing project with young refugees. And we run the biennial ORIGINS Festival, which creates a space in London for Indigenous people to share their cultures and knowledge.

Magnetic North will be presented at the British Museum in conjunction with the Artic: culture and climate exhibition but what can audiences expect to see in this online event?
We’re having to experiment with new approaches to performance, in response to the Covid restrictions, and it’s actually proving very exciting and very appropriate for a performance centred on climate change. We’re not able to gather our audience in the Museum space, and we’re not able to fly artists from around the world – but we are able to use the web as a way to engage audiences right across the planet, and as a way to bring together artists from all round the Arctic Circle. So – unless we have to respond to another change in the Covid regulations – there will be a constant musical heartbeat to the whole evening, offered by the Sámi band VASSVIK, in the heart of the Museum itself, together with two amazing artists of Inughuit heritage: the mask dancer Elisabeth Heilmann Blind, and Hivshu, who is an extraordinary drummer, speaker and keeper of knowledge and culture. Then everyone else will be joining remotely – spoken word artists, poets, storytellers, activists. What audiences will hear are their words and VASSVIK’s music – what audiences will see is a blend of live performance in the Museum, remote performers, and pre-recorded footage from the Arctic, shot by the wonderful Kiliii Yuyan.

How did the idea for this initially come about?
In 2015, the British Museum had an exhibition on Indigenous Australia, which coincided with ORIGINS that year. As part of the Festival, we curated an evening of performances at the Museum, which really brought the artefacts to life. A mask isn’t just an object in a glass case when you see someone dancing in it! Freddie and Amber at the Museum also knew that we’d worked with Arctic people before: we presented Tanya Tagaq’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH at the National Maritime Museum in 2017. So, the original idea was to have another Late opening, with a series of perfomances from around the Arctic. But, once Covid struck, we had to re-think the entire approach….

Of course the arts community is facing challenges like never before, but why do you think it is so important for producers to find new and innovative ways of keeping audiences engaged while at home?
Because otherwise they won’t be engaged at all, and our culture will just fall apart. There’s only so long we can survive on a diet of regret: I think the rush to put recordings of previous productions online at the start of the lockdown (of which we were a part) was like an act of collective mourning for the theatre we had, and the response I felt to many of the pieces I saw online was “That must have been so wonderful to watch live”. But we’ve passed that point now: we have to do something fresh and exciting within the framework of the current time. That’s what theatre has always done – it responds, it adapts and it survives.

I think it’s fair to say that the heartbreak and devastation of the pandemic can feel at times overwhelming; however we have seen a number of positive changes in the world around us. For the first time in my life it seems the Earth has had a (small) chance to heal and we’ve seen so many people finally appreciating the beauty of Mother Nature.

When looking at the environment, what would you say is the most encouraging thing to have come out of the pandemic?
I absolutely agree with you. It’s been amazing to breathe a purer air, to hear the birdsong, to see people out in nature so much more. For me, the most encouraging thing is exactly what our “leaders” are telling us is the biggest disaster – the fact that we are consuming so much less. The economic downturn is good for the planet, and it’s good for us too. We’re starting to see the true value of what we have.

Working with Indigenous people from the Arctic is a real eye-opener for 2020. They don’t think of their wealth in material terms at all. If you look at the material culture in the British Museum exhibition, you see that every object they create is understood as something that emerges from a natural environment, and that will return to that environment. You don’t have it because it makes you rich or special – you have it because it’s an aspect of your integrated and sustainable relationship to the world which you are briefly privileged to inhabit.

Can you tell us a little about why you think it is so important for us all to take this moment of reflection and why you think it is so important that we act now?
We’d all gone mad. And the planet just said “Stop. This has to stop. Right now.” And the pause is an opportunity to step back from all the crazed activity and ask what we’ve been doing – to ourselves, to each other, to the Earth. There’s a new pace now, a new rhythm, and it allows us to go deeper, to concentrate more intently, to experience the emotional weight.

The virus is a messenger, and we have to hear the message.

If you could only pick one, what would be your one hope for once we see the back of the pandemic?
That we don’t go back to “normal”, because “normal” was the problem in the first place. The virus was able to spread so rapidly because of the intense cramming together of humanity, the speed and frequency of travel, the extreme inequality and the fracturing of responsible politics. We have to become more sustainable, and we’re only going to achieve that by cultural means, through a spiritual transformation. We have to put the chimera of “success” behind us. We don’t need more successful people consuming vast amounts of material wealth and leaving a trail of carbon emissions in their wake. What we need now are the healers, the carers, the peacemakers, the storytellers, the prophets and the poets. We need people who can live well in their place, and who can understand that way of living as it connects to other places and other people across the globe. The current moment is an extraordinary opportunity, and we can’t afford to miss it.

Magnetic North will be streamed live on Thursday 3rd December 2020 at 6:30pm. For more information or to book tickets please click here.

Images courtesy of ChloeNelkinConsulting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s