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Andre Neely ‘2 Degrees’ festival resident artist: “We live in a system formed on exploitation”

“It’s only 4 degrees, it’s only 4 degrees” sings ANOHNI (from Antony and the Johnsons) in her song about climate change. “I wanna burn the sky I want to burn the breeze, I want to see the animals die in the trees…” she serenades as an admission of complicity in the track called ‘4 degrees’. The song is an ode to the environmentalist view that if global warming reaches 4°C above preindustrial levels we could be facing flooding of coastal cities, unprecedented heat waves and water scarcity...in others words disaster!

The 2015 Paris United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiators adopted 2°C as the upper limit on global warming to avoid...again disaster! And perhaps that’s how we arrive at 2 Degrees Festival, the name of a London based 10-day festival of performance, discussion, exhibitions and events exploring how we can work together for a more sustainable future. Produced by Artsadmin and supported by Arts Council England and the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union the festival sees a huge breadth of approaches to the topic of sustainability from up-cycling primary school students, a documentary performance on the the Samarco mine dam collapse in Brazil and lessons on how to ‘rebel bank’ among much much more.

Through a series of questions Andre Neely who, along with Xavier de Sousa, is an artist in residency at the Festival, talks about urgency, queer persectives at 2 Degrees Festival and London’s first ever trans pride.

Jayson Mansaray: How did your residency at 2 Degrees Festival come about?

Andre Neely: Me and Xavier (de Sousa) first started having talks about this project a year ago. It was around the time David Buckel, who was an LGBT rights lawmaker and environmental activist, died by self-immolation protesting against the use of fossil fuels. I knew of David Buckel because of the Brandon Teena (American trans man who inspired the Academy Award-winning 1999 film Boys Don't Cry) murder (and rape) case and how passionate he was as a speaker and activist, but the news of his decision to protest in that way really stuck with us. There was something about that moment when a cause, or a collective urge, becomes much more important than the individual. To be honest it should always be like that.

From then on we started researching into other cases of self-immolation and other forms of protest who carried the same momentum and even caused replica actions; like in 2009 a Young Monk in Tibet died by self-immolation to protest the Chinese occupation and from then now over 140 citizens have done the same. We’re interested in what’s at play in establishing that momentum, what or who decides what actions end up repeated/go viral or not and how to preserve its original intent.

So when we approached Mark (Mark Godber, 2 Degrees Festival Programmer) with this proposal we knew it was a long research and residency period, and that we had to have an open transparent process and room to invite people to collaborate with us. It’s about building a continuous archive or database of these moments of hope and desperation and collectivity, of what makes people act/get involved. Because at this point we really need to act fast as a species.

Jayson: As an artist in residence what would you say is your unique perspective on the programming?

Andre: This is interesting because a lot of what this project is about for me is destroying this idea of ‘uniqueness’ or ‘individual’, and i’m very aware that the privilege of carrying this research within this context kind of brings some of that attention towards me and Xavier and that’s something I’m tentatively navigating.

One of the things I worry about, and that we talk through a lot, is how protest and radical aesthetics have been co-opted and assimilated into the art market and into cultural institutions because being - seen as - ‘radical’ is cool right now. It affords an artist, or an institution, a certain degree of recognition and cultural capital to publicly align with certain ‘liberal’ values and be on the frontline of the current political trend. But when it comes to actually doing the grassroots work, when it comes to organising, to take action, the be a safe-space and an accomplice, very little show up or know the history of what they’re stealing. I’m hoping that our perspective brings history to the front, contextualises the sometimes meaningless ‘radical’ imagery we’re surrounded by, and puts the actual urgent causes in focus rather than the activists who protested, or us who researched it.

Jayson: Extinction Rebellion (aka XR) has made a lot of headlines with their climate actions, how does 2 Degrees Festival differ?

Andre: I find this comparison difficult because one exists in a cultural and art sector and the other in an activist one (arguably) and I really think, although they sometimes merge and can learn from each other, that those are different things, specifically when we’re talking about art that happens within institutions. But 2 Degrees Festival has at least some awareness of racial politics (as much as we can hope within white institutions) and doesn’t romanticise imprisonment. 2 Degrees Festival is also much more open about where their funding is coming from and where it is going. I recognise how XR have mobilised incredible amounts of people but I’m not a big supporter, because of how inept their fundamental tactics are when it comes to racial politics, class and anti-capitalism (I would urge everyone to check out Green Anti-Capitalist Front for a more in-depth analysis and an alternative).

But, anyway, however I feel about them, XR presents itself as an activist collective employing direct action and 2 Degrees Festival is a cultural gathering stimulating new discourses and actions around climate catastrophe. They play different roles and present different aims; we need to stop framing everything as activism and understand the perspectival nuances needed towards achieving structural change.

Jayson: How does gender, migration and conservation come into the sustainability discussion?

Andre: I’m not a fan of the term sustainability because it still centres human experience over other nonhuman beings and that’s the root cause of our current crisis. It’s about equality, really. We all exist equally on Earth and all have the same importance and validity. We should’ve built structures of cooperation and collaboration and should’ve been concerned with equal and interspecies growth instead of spending years attacking our planet and tackling nature as a resource. Patriarchal Colonial Capitalism and it’s exploitative methodologies are to blame for this apocalypse. It has exploited Earth as much as it has exploited women and transfeminine people, as much as it has exploited migrants of non-western diasporas, particularly black and brown folk. We live in a system formed on exploitation, that wouldn’t survive without it, so this should come as no surprise. Marginalised folks attempts at fighting back have become stronger over the past few years with the surge of identity politics, the Earth also needs its reckoning. And we deserve it.

Jayson: What is a queer perspective on climate change?

Andre: For me a queer perspective on climate change comes from an active awareness that this catastrophe was caused by the current systems we have in place, and that no climate revolution can exist without a complete change in our systems of social and economical governance. A queer perspective on climate change needs to take into account that areas the west deems as ‘third-world’ have been suffering from climate change for much longer and much more violently than we in the west have; and it also needs to understand that that isn’t a coincidence. We’ve been redirecting the waste and consequences of our ecological abuses to areas of the world that are deemed less important to preserve, and with that we’ve destroyed the livelihoods of indigenous populations, as well as nonhuman entities. Really it is about full intersectionality and an understanding that no matter how hip and trendy being ‘queer’ is nowadays, our liberation won’t come from magazine covers, Hollywood films about us or state legislations in our favour. It comes from the full destruction of the systems who oppressed us from day one, and that continue to oppress those who aren’t white, who aren’t in the west, who aren’t cisgender, who aren’t able-bodied, who aren’t skinny, or who aren’t human.

Jayson: Do you think the queer community needs to be more environmentally ‘woke’?

Andre: I definitely think that with certain legislative victories and media attention some queers, particularly white cis-men, seem to have forgotten the importance of our history, of our fight and of solidarity because it became easier for them to go unnoticed or be afforded personal rights they didn’t have before. But the thing is: individual freedom is just assimilation and we can never be free until we’re all liberated and that won’t happen under capitalism. I think a lot of queers became quite tame in a lot of ways, even in an exciting queer scene like London, so I feel like we need to relearn the meaning of community and be more ‘woke’ in general, not just environmentally.
Jayson: These are fractious times - how do you feel about Brexit in relation to arts and the environment being part of an event part funded by European Commission?

Andre: I’m really bored of discussions about Brexit to be honest because of how much it became a privileged whinge. Firstly because there are certain violent hierarchies of migration established by our current system that mean that white and university educated EU migrants in Britain or British migrants in the EU won’t be the ones suffering the most from this. And also, yes a lot of the arts and culture sectors in the UK are potentially facing major funding cuts and it’s terrifying to think about what will happen to discourse in this country, I won’t deny that. But we can’t continue to trick ourselves thinking that the work we do using UK state or EU funding is radical in any way. Funding is so tricky because on one hand it is both a rarity and a need (to be able to sustain an arts practice), but it’s also on the other hand never ethical, as it directly contributes to assertions of British and EU cultural hegemony. The discourse around the EU in this country is now filled with dangerously uncritical nostalgia, but we must remember that the EU is a coalition formed by major colonial powers, still with violent migrant policies and borders, and the third biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. It’s not a borderless paradise if you’re not lucky enough to have a passport or when we don’t have enough oxygen to breathe.

Jayson: How did you start working with/meet “Performance Maker, Communist, Queer, Migrant, Ally and Ghost” Xavier de Sousa’?

Andre: We first met years ago at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh I believe, probably someone assumed we knew each other already because we’re both from Portugal. Since then I’ve worked at Queer Migrant Takeover that Xavier curates and I’m a research assistant and co-collaborator in his show REGNANT, which is in development throughout the next year.

It was whilst in residency in Dublin last year that we first started talking about this collaborative project.

Jayson: London has it’s first Trans Pride coming up in September 14, what’s your involvement?

Andre: I’m a part of a wider team of trans folk who are working towards building a fully-accessible, diverse and intersectional day that celebrates trans identities and centres around trans narratives. We will have family friendly activities, live music, performances, a series of stalls from LGBT+ organisations, panels and talks from inspirational trans people and artwork that explores our history. If you’re interested you should follow us @londontranspride as we have many more announcements to come. And also if you have any suggestions/concerns, or want to help out in any way, please email us at londontranspride@gmail.com.
Jayson: What does having a Trans Pride do that London Pride doesn’t?

Andre: I think it’s not necessarily about putting one against the other, but it’s a fact that trans experiences are sometimes not recognised or respected in the queer scene. We can see that from the demographics of some queer parties where white cis-gay men dominate, we can see that from the way Pride in London was hijacked last year by a group of TERFs (Trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Unfortunately, a lot of the times, the trans community comes under attack from inside the LGB community, and when we’re included it tends to be based on whiteness, thinness or how well we pass.

Trans Pride makes a space that is centred on ourselves, whatever our body-type is, where we and our joy and our pride is a priority. Allies are welcome, but the focus is on us for once, to counterbalance all the times we’re made to feel as guests, unwelcome or unsafe in spaces that claim to be also ours.
Jayson: Ok, time for some rapid fire questions... in three words answer the below:
Describe your work at 2 Degrees
Get queers on board with sustainability
A reply for climate change deniers

Andre: Researching collective urgency.
           It’s about equality.
           You’ll burn anyway.


2 Degrees Festival 2019
1-9 June 2019
Info and Tickets: artsadmin.co.uk