Sophie Perry

Art & Climate Action | Sophie Perry In Conversation

Originally from Wales, Sophie Perry is currently studying for her PhD in Environmental Education and Engagement at King’s College London, where she also teaches undergraduate and Masters students about environment and society. In addition to her academic work, Sophie is the Manager of Einstein’s Garden – a science engagement area at Green Man Festival. This year, Sophie has been part of the team commissioning a new climate-focused art installation for the festival, funded by the Green Man Trust, which is the charitable arm of the festival. While the fine details remain under wraps, Caragh Medlicott caught up with Sophie to hear more about the power of art to communicate beyond facts and fear, and why climate activism can take many forms.

Caragh Medlicott: To start could you talk a little bit about your role at Green Man, and the part Einstein’s Garden plays within that? 

Sophie Perry: Yes, so, I’m the manager of Einstein’s Garden, which means I curate and produce everything in this specific area within Green Man. There are ten areas that make up the festival, and Einstein’s Garden is all about science engagement. It’s the UK’s first festival science engagement area and was set up in 2008  – it’s all about curiosity, all about asking big questions. And also about bringing science to really unexpected places, namely, a music festival. I think there’s always been a big environmental theme within the garden but historically it’s been kind of like a subtle thing, it existed more in the sense that everything in the Garden is powered by alternative energies. You know, there’s a solar powered music stage, a hydrogen powered theatre tent. But this year, as the garden’s matured, that environmental theme has really come to the fore. So as well as the art installation, there is heavily programmed stuff on the stages and the talks and the workshops. We hope that this area will bring out something creative that’s inspiring but also that brings up questions. 

Caragh Medlicott: And how has your background fed into this role?

Sophie Perry: I’m originally from rural Wales, so there’s definitely a link there in terms of working with Green Man. But I’ve always felt a connection to the environment and to nature and I think that partly comes from growing up in the countryside. I studied biology at university and then I went on to work in science engagement, both in terms of journalism and science writing, but also in terms of events with programming and exhibitions. Following on from that I did a Master’s looking at science and society and how they interplay. I did go back to work in science engagement but I found myself looking more and more towards incorporating environmentalism in that work. 

It’s such an important topic but it felt like it was maybe more rare than I would have liked – I was working with museums and galleries where it was quite hard to justify focusing on the environment for more than, say, one exhibition. It was kind of seen as a one time thing rather than something you could continually explore in different ways. Recognising that, and those kinds of barriers, I kept working in the industry but also applied for funding and started a PhD in environmental engagement and learning. Basically that’s about how we conceptualise and understand the world around us, how it links to our societies, and specifically how young people form those connections – what the impact might be for them later in life.

Caragh Medlicott: When you were deciding on the installation and which artists to go with, what kinds of things were you looking for? By which I mean, did you think education would be the most important element, or eliciting an emotional reaction, or was it more about a call to action. 

Sophie Perry: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So, clarifying the term a bit, if I refer to education I mean that in a really broad sense. So for me, with the work I do on my research, education isn’t sitting someone down in a classroom and telling them what to do. It’s much more than that. You know, when we read the news, when we use our free time to walk through a museum, I would consider that to be an educational experience – it’s just through exploring, and learning that way. So we weren’t looking for something educational in that traditional sense, but definitely something which brought up feelings and emotions in a new way. 

I think it’s obviously an interesting line to cross, that idea of a call to action because I think we want to avoid telling people what to do – I’m not even sure if that’s a good way to get people to take action anyway. Plus, there’s a balance, right? People come to a festival to have fun, to have an experience, not to feel pressured into something. So, the Green Man Trust who funded the project, and me working on the Einstein’s Garden as a whole, we knew we wanted something emotional. Something which produces a visceral reaction. Because we see so much about climate change and the environment and the crisis, we’re almost deadened to it. It’s stopped shocking us because it’s been gradual. Like, if somehow we all forgot about it, and we found out again all at once, we’d be seriously shocked. 

Caragh Medlicott: It’d be like a disaster movie countdown. 

Sophie Perry: Exactly. But because we’re in this context all the time, it’s so different. For me, I’m 27 years old, I’m kind of numb to it. But if you think about people who are like 17 or 18, they have literally grown up with it. That’s more intense. They don’t know anything else. That’s what we wanted to move out of, not telling people what they already know, and instead focussing on what you can feel. Bypassing people’s brains and connecting with them through different senses. That’s why I think we’ll really see some different reactions coming out of people from this – for some that might feel like a call to action, for someone else it might be learning something, and it could also just be a good memory. But the festival is a blended space where people come together, we’ve got circus, dance, comedy and I think it’s really key that this piece is art. It’s a collaboration between scientists and artists, continuing that theme of collaboration and blending.

Caragh Medlicott: I often think one of the trickiest parts of activism is making sure people know the severity of the situation without imparting this sort of existential dread. I wonder how you walked that line? Did you have to consider that in your approach? 

Sophie Perry: Yeah, this is something I encounter a lot like doing a PhD in Environmental Learning. I mean, I already thought about it before, and now it’s kind of my job to think about it – basically, the climate crisis is on my mind a lot. Then with the garden it was coming up in the programming, too. It’s been a good opportunity, really, for me to confront that. To think about how things can be communicated in a way that is – dare I say it? – playful or experimental. That’s really what the garden is about. Last year, for instance, we had conversations about death and dying because that is a scientific phenomenon, it’s something that happens in life, and ultimately something we all encounter and experience. That needs to be engaged with in a favourable way; it can be a space for discussion, for being funny. 

It’s a similar thing with the environment or climate activism. It’s a reality so we have to engage with it. And the truth is it’s something which can be really sad and mournful and scary. There needs to be space for people to feel that way. After all, it’s a reasonable response – to feel scared, to feel angry. But the difference is it’s not our aim to make people feel that way. We don’t want to push people down. It’s a careful balance between being truthful, giving people space to process that in their own way, but handing them lifelines and opportunities for hope and excitement. In the garden those lifelines look like comedy, and practical hands-on workshops. Like we’re running a mushroom growing workshop this year which for some people will be a cheaper, low-carbon way to produce their own food. These small changes, small actions, can give you a bit of comfort, you know, because only so many facts can feel helpful. 

Caragh Medlicott: I wonder how you feel something like Einstein’s Garden fits into the wider landscape of activism? 

Sophie Perry: I think, just personally, activism can be understood in really different ways, by different people. There are so many grades of activism. It can be small and personal, it can be growing your own vegetables, that’s still a form of activism – contributing to your own personal aims. On the other side, it can be really politically charged, something that can be seen as polarising, throwing petrol on the fire. So yeah, it’s interesting, I think what’s important about a festival space is that it can be a melting pot – a coming together of people. It fits with that idea of care and compassion for one another.

A metaphor I like to think of with Einstein’s Garden is the petri dish, you know, it’s not anything without the introduction of external factors – the people who come to the festival and also the artists and performers. I sort of think of that mixing as a way of cultivating something. When I was programming it I’d try to represent these different things. Often scientists have one view of activism and artists have another, and that’s fine, there’s no single correct view. That’s almost what we’re sharing, bringing these different views in one place where they can coexist – all you can do is provide tools, hopefully inspire a bit of passion, from there I think whatever choices people make can be their own and that’s good. 

Caragh Medlicott: I guess what I also mean by that question is, with something like Green Man and the demographic that attends, is there an extent to which you’re preaching to the converted? 

Sophie Perry: I think there are a few ways of looking at it. I think there’s a difference between people being open to these ideas, and maybe actually feeling enabled to act on it. I think we live in a world and society where it can genuinely be quite hard to live life according to your ideal values. It’s not that Einstein’s Garden is going to magically enable people to live in a way that is in line with their values, but a festival is a break from the everyday, it’s something completely different. And obviously there is a diversity of audiences at Green Man. Some people will have more eye opening experiences than others, even some of those who are on that wavelength already. 

I mean with this installation, I’m obviously already converted but it’s still going to be a big thing for me – something I’ve never experienced before. I fully expect there will be something I take away from that, an angle I might not have felt or thought of before. Maybe in an ideal world we’d all be on the same page with the climate, but obviously everyone comes from different perspectives. I don’t think it’s the garden’s job necessarily to align those perspectives but instead it’s about giving people that break from their daily life, that space to be inspired and creative. It’s about providing the potential for that. 

Caragh Medlicott: It feels like the idea of inspiration comes up a lot. The fact there’s not one way to engage with the climate and environment, it doesn’t have to be cold, hard facts, you can come at it via comedy or something more playful and still deepen understanding. I suppose, just because something isn’t stern doesn’t mean it isn’t profound? 

Sophie Perry: Yes. 100%. I think that’s part of the issue with the climate crisis, we understand with science what the problem is. And scientists thought at first that communicating the issue would fix the problem. As in, we thought, if we understand the science, we’ll take action to fix it. But human beings are complex – we live in culture, we live with emotions. Life just isn’t dictated by facts. Obviously, those facts about climate change are so important, but telling people them is not going to change anything on its own. Often it just makes people feel terrified or hopeless or resigned. 

Caragh Medlicott: I read something the other day about “climate doomism” which is getting traction on TikTok. But the piece was saying, the idea that it’s already too late isn’t scientifically correct, either. It’s close, but it’s not past that point yet. It’s that thing again of lingering somewhere between underreaction and overreaction. 

Sophie Perry: I think that kind of thing is interesting because it does come from science, right? Like take the IPCC reports, they are telling us there’s this rapidly closing window in which we can secure a sustainable, livable future. I think responding to that with a feeling of doom… it’s not unreasonable. What those people are doing is taking the evidence, the fact time is running out, and combining it with the fact that in the past not enough has changed and then making a reasonable prediction that if that carries on things won’t change now, either. That’s a rational response. 

This is exactly why, when we communicate this stuff, we need to inject some hope – some radical imagination. Using action, movement, and collaboration. Coming together, basically. I think it’s hard to see this happening without the arts, using the power of engagement and creativity to make something that we can imagine together. I don’t think it’s about repeatedly telling people how bad it is, I think people know – in that way it comes back to the preaching to the converted. Because we’re not trying to impart that knowledge people already have or know, we’re trying to support active imaginations, of how things can change and get better.

Caragh Medlicott: For you personally, as a researcher and academic in this area, do you think it’s possible for us to make those changes and still have society stay the way it is now? Like, will it not require radical change, not just in how we consume but in the structure of society and culture. 

Sophie Perry: Yeah, to some extent society is always changing. Society is different today to how it was when a lot of the changes in climate were sort of “baked in” – but yeah, we’re going to need a mass mobilisation of people. The fact we’re not doing enough now means we will have to change to become a society that does look like it’s doing enough. I think there’s sometimes this idea, or maybe hope, that as an individual you don’t need to change because science or technology will fix it. Of course, science and technology are amazing, they’ve made loads of changes, but every change historically that has come from those areas has changed society, too. If you think, no one had to individually change when smartphones came about but they’ve totally changed our society and us, too. The changes we need are necessarily going to be research-led and society-led, and the technological innovations we have, the world will change because of them.

Caragh Medlicott: With the installation, and the garden generally, how did you approach finding that balance between art and science? 

Sophie Perry: It’s a challenge, one of the things that I always think really helps is to just to make sure that everyone who is on the team talks to each other. The artists and the performers, at the festival, before we even have any shows, I always ask them to come together for an introductory meeting about what the garden is – and so everyone can see the space and understand a bit about each other’s shows. 

It’s not a formal thing, it’s just creating a shared space so you can make that atmosphere you want the audience to experience. Because I do think there’s an atmosphere the audience should experience – I talk a lot about curiosity, about asking questions. There’s not one right way. It’s a collaborative discussion and exploration of ideas, and I don’t think that can exist for the audience without existing to some extent for the team. Everything that’s going to be in the space, physically and visually, it should be thoughtful.

Caragh Medlicott: The climate-based art installation that will be included this year, that’s a new thing, to have this big central piece. What was the thinking behind that – why now? 

Sophie Perry: I think having this big commission comes into that question of how does everything in the garden gel together. The Einstein’s Garden has pop up science stalls, it has a workshop space, it has a solar-powered music stage and a hydrogen powered theatre tent. So in the past that environmental theme has been there more in how the garden operates rather than being front and centre, I think part of what the opportunity with the installation is about is really bringing that aspect to the fore of the space. That was the idea which prompted having something which was exciting, and attention-grabbing, and novel. 

The opportunity to fund something like this came up from the Green Man Trust so we took some time to think about the kind of things we wanted to promote, in the garden and in the piece and in the festival as a whole. And this is what we came to, something which could be felt and experienced in a visceral way – communicating the science non-verbally, not in words. It’s deeply complex living amidst a climate crisis, I think there are many shared feelings that we all have but can’t easily communicate to one another. That’s why the opportunity to use art was so important. We wanted something that was about processing and understanding a shared catastrophe which is really hard to deal with. 

Caragh Medlicott: I guess it’s a human instinct to create art, and even if there’s a didactic edge to it in that you hope people take something from it, that artistic element is key. 

Sophie Perry: Yeah, exactly. Though, talking about didactic, we do want people to learn something from it – but we’re also excited to learn what that something is. 

Caragh Medlicott: It’s not prescriptive. 

Sophie Perry: No, not at all. People will take different things away from it, and part of what we want to understand is what that thing they’re taking away is. We’ll be thinking about how we address that. We want an impact, but we don’t want, or even couldn’t dictate how that’s felt. We’re learning, too, how people engage with it and how it interplays with other things. Because I’m not suggesting this one interaction will change people’s lives, but it can be part of a bigger picture and will help us learn how to keep fostering those feelings which are helpful.