Feet to the Fire
Wesleyan University implemented the Feet to the Fire: Exploring Global Climate Change from Science to Art initiative from January 31, 2008 through May 9, 2009 with a leadership grant from Arts Presenters Creative Campus Innovations Program, a component of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The project was preceded by a six-month planning period that began in September, 2007 where partnerships were solidified, project activities outlined, a budget finalized and an evaluation plan drafted. All activities were overseen by the Feet to the Fire University Planning Committee made up of the provost, the academic deans, participating faculty, students and community partners.
Pamela Tatge, director, Center for the Arts (CFA); Barry Chernoff, director, Environmental Studies Program; and lead artist Ann Carlson directed Feet to the Fire from its inception. Principal partners were the Center for Creative Research (CCR), a collective of choreographers seeking to re-engineer the institutional context for artists; the Jonah Center for Earth and Art, a Middletown area environmental action organization; and the Green Street Arts Center, a community arts center located in the most underserved neighborhood in Middletown. Other partners emerged over the eighteen months of the project. The multi-layered project successfully engaged the campus and surrounding community with activities that included research opportunities for a team of students and faculty to explore first-hand the effects of global warming; pedagogical exchanges in existing courses; creation of new courses; a first year student common experience program; and two major festivals (one in the community and one a series of events on campus during the Spring Semester, 2009) that included performances, visual art exhibitions and installations, and commissioned works by student, faculty and visiting artists.
The project was primarily conceived by Tatge and Chernoff (also a professor of Biology, Earth & Environmental Sciences and the Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies). Tatge had embarked on projects to integrate the arts into non-arts areas of the campus collaborating with the Center for Creative Research. Notable was her facilitation of the collaborations between: i) Liz Lerman and faculty in the life sciences that led to the CFA serving as lead commissioner of Ferocious Beauty: Genome; and ii) Eiko Otake and William Johnston, professor of history, that led to their co-teaching courses on the history of the atomic bomb. Tatge was interested in supporting the University’s strategic goal of engaging more students in science. One of the scientists who collaborated on the Liz Lerman project recommended that global warming would be an important societal issue that we should confront as a campus and recommended that Tatge meet with Chernoff. Chernoff had an interest in developing the Environmental Studies Certificate Program into an academic major and saw this project as a way to promote the integrative thinking that would be the foundation of the new major. Choreographer and performance artist Ann Carlson was a fellow of the Center for Creative Research and Tatge knew of her interest in land-based work. Carlson was commissioned to serve as lead artist for the project and was invited to join the Project Management Team. She collaborated with Tatge and Chernoff to draft the proposal that secured the grant.
The project was conceptualized like the multi-layered evidence and interconnected results of the global warming process itself. The original goals of the project were to: 1) address the need for a deeper understanding of issues surrounding global climate change through multiple lenses; 2) use art as a catalyst for innovative thinking, scientific exploration, and student engagement; 3) galvanize campus and community collaboration by having artists and non-artists on campus share research methods, pedagogies and modes of inquiry on a single research topic; 4) re-imagine what it means for a university to commission an artist to work on a campus; and 5) evolve the responsibilities of a university presenter to galvanize the larger university community into integrative, creative thinking and new ways of engagement on topics of societal concern. Finally, of particular importance was to create a project in which students learn to question the boundaries of the certainty of knowledge and learn how to act when there are no right answers.