Connecting people and places: The power of art in environmental storytelling

28th June 2024

“As artists we have the power to engage people and to inspire and create a sense of hope especially during the climate crisis,” says Nico de Transilvania, a Romanian musician collaborating with Carpathian village communities to explore the connection between biodiversity and local foundations, and a member of our Artist Residencies programme. “Being able to tell the story of the landscape, which is what I think I’ve done in the Carpathian Mountains, is a really important message because people don’t really understand a lot of the time what is going on there, and they don’t get to see the people who live in these landscapes or hear their stories. They are the guardians of these forests, and of these landscapes, and they really understand better than anyone what it means to live there.” 

Since 2019, CCI’s Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme has funded 10 Artist Residencies across Europe, supporting artists to explore the relationship between art and landscape restoration. These residencies have helped forge encounters that extend beyond the artworks themselves, bringing people together, celebrating traditions and sharing stories. By engaging communities in the process and co-producing artworks together, they provide innovative and exciting experiences that inspire and empower local communities to share their knowledge and perspectives, and be active participants in landscape restoration. 

Artists in residence in four restoration landscapes share their experiences. 

Discovering the Cairngorms with science, movement, and poetry  

Robbie Synge, Amanda Thomson, and Elizabeth Reeder are collaborating with local communities and conservationists to explore people’s relationship with the landscape in the Cairngorms, Scotland. The breadth of the Cairngorms Connect’s restoration work and its ‘200-year vision’ prompted a responsive approach from the artists.  

Although the three artists have distinct approaches, their work shares thematic similarities, from methods of engagement and gathering to learning about place and asking questions about how landscapes are shared spaces for different people and species.  

“One of the things that I think is lovely about the role of art and creative practice in landscape restoration is that we can extrapolate from the experiences that workers have and take it to different places,” says Amanda Thomson. “For example, moths are an incredibly important part of the ecosystem, indicating a healthy environment – yet they go about their business quietly and unobserved. Spending the night with an ecologist on a mountain and seeing moth traps led to an immersive artwork at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow, alerting different audiences to their beauty and significance.”  

Combining scientific insights with familiar places, Reeder and Thomson have invited local communities to creatively explore and reconnect to their landscape, bringing an enhanced sense of pride and understanding of their relationship with nature. Their residency shows how art and writing can reveal the complexities of the environment and the “poetics” in conservation work.   

“People love this place, and love is an excellent motivator for action, change, and hope,” says Elizabeth Reeder. “You’re really invested in the thing you’re making artwork about and invested in that landscape, and for me that is one of the relationships that the arts and landscape restoration have; they build individual and shared commitment, and understanding of how we are within a place.”  

Artist and choreographer Robbie Synge uses monitoring techniques, or “digital foraging” as he calls it, like tracking footprints and camera traps to create choreography considering how people and wildlife share places. This project also explores access and barriers to the landscape, questioning who can access natural spaces, and how conservation approaches need to represent different human perspectives, literally and figuratively. 

Photography uncovers the lives of nomadic shepherds  

During her Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme residency, Natela Grigalashvili explored Chachuna Reserve in the southeast of Georgia, a rich and diverse landscape along the Iori River Valley. Through her photography, Grigalashvili showcases the interaction between the landscape and its people, delving into its history, nature, and contemporary issues facing local communities. Growing up in a mountainous village, she formed a deep emotional connection with nature, which has influenced her focus on rural environments. 

“I think that art has the ability to cause positive change and can help to solve existing social, political, and ecological issues,” says Natela. “Art can raise awareness and can direct attention towards the problems to the people who are responsible and in charge of solving them.” 

Natela’s residency cumulated in a touring photographic exhibition aimed at introducing this relatively unknown place to wider Georgian society. The exhibition highlighted the landscape’s beauty and has helped to raise awareness of environmental issues like illegal deforestation and pasture degradation. 

Staying with nomadic shepherds, she captured daily life in this remote area throughout the seasons. The trust the community has shown her, especially in allowing her to photograph women in their homes, is significant. Developing close relationships with the local community are also crucial to the conservation teams, helping to build engagement and support from farmers working in the landscape.  

“The nomadic farmers who live on the reservation and bring their flocks here seasonally don’t realise the impact they have on the local environment and, unfortunately, bring harm to nature,” Grigalashvili explains. “Misuse of pastures causes desertification of these lands… That’s why I think that the work the environmentalists conduct with these farmers is very important. It is necessary to stop these negative processes and to allow the land to recover.” 

Heritage and electronic music fuse in the Carpathians  

Romanian musician and DJ Nico de Transilvania, raised near the forests of Transylvania, collaborates with Carpathian village communities to explore the inter-connectedness of biodiversity and local traditions. Her project, ‘I N T E R B E I N G,’ combines traditional Romanian songs and forest soundscapes with new electronic sounds, aiming to amplify the voices of elders from communities in the Carpathian Mountains.  

“My wish is to create a bridge between generations, and art is a great way to do this.” explains Nico. “If we don’t have this bridge between the elders and future generations, indigenous knowledge – this wisdom and understanding of how to work and live in harmony with nature – will disappear. We need to create this bridge, using music and the arts as a form of expression for people of all ages to build connections, start conversations and widen communication.” 

 Enabling artists to work in situ, engaging local communities, and showcasing their culture helps raise awareness and funds for projects while empowering the community to have a voice.  

Archaeology and music create a symphony in the Greater Côa Valley

Working closely with local communities in the Greater Côa Valley, ecological artist Antony Lyons and archaeologist Bárbara Carvalho have been exploring this impressive riverine landscape during their residency with Rewilding Portugal. Through engaging with the local community in creative workshops, artist-led walks, and events in the Côa Valley, they created a collaborative, atmospheric video-sonic artwork, called Wild Côa Symphony.

“Since the beginning, Antony & Bárbara had an interest in mixing everything together, and understanding the ecological and social elements of the landscape,” says Sara Aliacar from Rewilding Portugal. “The activities they organised with local communities went really well and engaged people. This is interesting for us because they provide a different type of activity than what we normally do as Rewilding Portugal, which are more like guided visits. Their project complemented our work by making people experience the landscape more on the emotional side.”

Many environmentally damaging human activities are now in decline in the valley due to rural exodus, land abandonment, and an ageing resident population. Celebrating local traditions and land-based livelihoods through creative activity such as music has allowed the artists to build connections with the local community and inspire younger generations to take a more active role in conserving their environment.

“Helping young people connect with ecological processes and with new visions for a territory is vital for future sustainable co-existence with other species. Creativity, imagination, and curiosity are central to this,” says Antony Lyons.

Through their residencies, these artists have uncovered new ways to articulate emotional connections to landscapes, created spaces for conversation, and celebrated local traditions, all while widening participation and reaching new audiences. In this symphony of art and nature, the landscape becomes both a canvas and a stage. Through the arts, we find new ways to celebrate, restore, and cherish the world around us.  

To find out about more Endangered Landscapes Artist Residencies, visit their project pages

Article originally published on the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme website in May 2024.