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Climate, Consumerism, Community - bold subjects for the Two Degrees festival by Artsadmin. Co-Director Judith Knight talks art and activism.

Judith Knight is co-director of Artsadmin, a producing and development organization for interdisciplinary artists based at Toynbee Studios London, which she founded in 1979. Increasingly Artsadmin has focused much of its work on climate change and more environmentally sensitive arts production.

Lucy Gilliam speaks to Judith about Artsadmin’s upcoming festival, Two Degrees, a fusion of arts and activism creating the space for audiences to participate and play a role in mapping a path to a more climate friendly future.

Climate, consumerism, community... Two Degrees asks what is broken in our world and what can we do to mend it? Two Degrees at various locations (London), 17-22 June 2013.


Lucy Gilliam: Can you tell me more about Artsadmin and how it has evolved over the years?

Judith Knight: I started Artsadmin in 1979 with Seonaid Stewart after we had both worked at the Oval House. The Oval and the ICA were the main venues for innovative arts and ‘experimental theatre’ as it was called in those days. We were acutely aware of the lack of support for much of the extraordinary work emerging at that time, so together we set up an organisation providing administrative and producing support. We began in a tiny office in Clerkenwell and were immediately inundated with requests for help from desperate artists and companies. We were pretty clear at the outset which sort of companies and artists we wanted to work with, work we thought was exciting and innovative, but of course had little or no funding, so while our decisions were artistically sound, they gave us a financial headache! But in the long run those early artistic choices made shaped Artsadmin’s future.

In 1995 we were really lucky to find a permanent home in Toynbee Studios and in 2001 we bought the lease and refurbished the building, creating a new rooftop dance studio and café, and updating all the other spaces. Toynbee Studios reopened in March 2007, providing Artsadmin with a wonderful new space for artists, a centre for development and long-term security.

Today our vision is to be “an arts lab for the 21st Century” for the creation of performance, site-specific and interdisciplinary work, where we support, produce and develop innovative and experimental work. Alongside producing and touring projects by more established artists, we now run a range of support schemes for emerging artists including workshops, mentoring, a free advisory service, bursaries, and an education programme.


Lucy Gilliam: Can you tell me about the time when your will for climate action materialized? Was there a lightbulb moment or slow dawning realization?

Judith Knight: There wasn’t really a light bulb moment, more a gradual realisation of what was going on, being inspired by the work of people like Platform and Ackroyd and Harvey. A key moment for me was attending the Tipping Point conferences in Oxford and listening to scientists speak. When you hear what is happening straight from their mouths it is pretty devastating. I left the two days feeling fifty per-cent pessimistic about what I’d heard and the other fifty per-cent totally inspired by the work people were doing, both artists and scientists.

At the same time Artsadmin started supporting the work of arts activists such as Ange Taggart, the vacuum cleaner and the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, becoming more connected to the radical political landscape of Climate Camp, Occupy and other social movements. This is something that’s stayed with us – and certainly a connection we try to make the most of in our Two Degrees Festival.



Lucy Gilliam: We've just passed the milestone of 400ppm of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is the highest level in human history. The last time we were at this level our ancestors were descending from trees and the sea levels were tens of feet higher. What hope is there for keeping the earths temperature below 2 degrees, the scientific consensus of a relatively safe increase?

Judith Knight: I know, it is pretty devastating. I went on an extraordinary visit to the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge not long ago and looked at the ice cores they have stored there, from which they measure the CO2 that was in the atmosphere centuries ago. Stunning. What the scientists are doing there, and everywhere, is amazing and optimistic, and I think sometimes we’re not aware of how much is going on - there are thousands of people doing amazingly positive things. But the lack of Government engagement is incredibly depressing. I know it’s the hardest of issues to tackle, but Government ministers have children and grandchildren too, and they need to act – and encourage us all to act too. I have some sympathy for their predicament, but the people I cannot understand are those who actively contradict the scientists and spend millions telling us there is no such thing as climate change.

In 2009 we decided to call our first festival Two Degrees, to reflect the general scientific and policy consensus that this should be the maximum global warming we allow. After the Copenhagen climate summit we joked, and sometimes thought seriously, about changing the title to Three Degrees for the next festival, and then Four Degrees and so on. Of course there are lots of reasons we haven’t, but one of them is that the message “we’re running out of time!!!” isn’t really true, and is also unhelpful for getting people to engage, and not just give up.


Lucy Gilliam: If you could wish for 3-climate friendly actions in society what would they be?

Judith Knight: Well, if I was Prime Minister…..!

I’d love to see at least short flights banned! Apparently one third of flights from UK airports go to places within 2-hours reach on a train. Why are people still flying to Brussels or Paris? [Editors note: for more info on rail and air travel, check out]. We did a wonderful project with Richard DeDomenici in 2009’s festival called Plane Food Cafe where the audience had a chance to sit on board a ‘plane’, watch an inflight movie and enjoy genuine airline food, without the need to emit tonnes of harmful greenhouse gases.

It would also be great to see more people turning to vegetarianism, as meat production uses enormous amounts of energy, land and water, involving significant carbon emissions. Or at least have people eating meat less frequently.

And why can’t all new buildings have solar panels, top notch insulation and ground source heat pumps?

We hope that Two Degrees encourages people to think differently about these kinds of things, and maybe to make changes in their own lives. Most importantly we try to give people the information and motivation to enable them to speak out. Collective action and creativity can really change things, as we know. But we have to hurry up!



Lucy Gilliam: Can you tell me about a project / initiative that has had powerful impact in creating environmental change?

Judith Knight: There isn’t one project on its own. Artists like Michael Pinsky and Clare Patey are doing amazing things, groups like Platform, Encounters and Cape Farewell – all have a combined effect. The Transition Town movement has been extraordinary in demonstrating there can be another way to live, incredibly optimistic.

We have Davis Freeman’s 7 Promises in this year’s Festival – a very funny performance he and his co-performer Jerry Killick play the role of evangelical preachers. They try to persuade the audience to sign up to seven changes in their own lives, starting with easier commitments like shopping in farmers’ markets, to bigger changes including vegetarianism and not flying. When you sign up to a promise, you receive the ‘bribe’ of a shot of vodka, which might make you more willing to commit as the evening goes on, and do something you might regret in the morning. All the signatures are posted online – who knows what change we might be able to achieve that evening!



Lucy Gilliam: Who is inspiring you at this moment? Who are the wave makers?

Judith Knight: Again, I’d have to point to the amazing scientists who work in this area, including the British Antarctic Survey. So much of it goes unseen by the public. The Centre for Alternative Technology are fantastic - they have a plan for Zero Carbon Britain by 2030 – it should just be adopted now! In the Political world it would be Caroline Lucas, who seems to be a lone voice in parliament, but never gives up!

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) are another inspiring organisation – they show us it can be done. Along with LIFT festival we’re working with them on a day called Imagine the Great Transition for the end of Two Degrees. It’s a combination of talks, performances and artist-led events. I think it’s going to be really exciting.

Ultimately it’s the optimists and activists who keep me from despair. I have a phrase on my noticeboard which I think originally came from Greenpeace; ‘the optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought’. I try to remember that when I get too gloomy.


Lucy Gilliam: Where does the responsibility lie for action? Where would you advise to focus attention?

Judith Knight: Responsibility lies with all of us. We are all messing up the planet, and we have to be a bit more aware of the results of our actions.

But in the end if Governments don’t act, it will be very difficult. Look how many people gave up smoking because of the smoking ban, how fewer children have asthma, how lung cancer figures have reduced. It is much harder to legislate about climate than smoking, of course, but it would make a profound difference. Governments of whatever side have to look further ahead than the next election.

Newspapers and the media have a huge part to play in awareness raising. There has been very little linking of the relationship between the droughts and the floods and the resulting crop failures or landslides to the issue of climate change – extraordinary.

And Education. If our generation are not doing enough, at least we have to educate our children about the dangers so that hopefully they will be cleverer. The issue needs to be priorities in the national curriculum, though I fear that the opposite is happening under Mr Gove’s (Minister for Education) plans.


Lucy Gilliam: You are a member of the European Imagine 2020 network. What are the outputs of this network? How do attitudes to climate activism through art differ across Europe?

Judith Knight: It’s an amazing and inspiring group of arts producers and practitioners – Artsadmin and LIFT are the two UK partners. The others are from France, Belgium, Slovenia, Latvia, Croatia, Portugal, Holland and Germany.

Everyone is doing a lot in terms of art, education, discussions, engaging with the community – it’s all very inspiring. Some of the countries think the UK is way ahead of the game – that’s a bit worrying in terms of where they are then! There is probably more of a growing movement of artists engaging with the subject here, but I think things are certainly moving.

I feel we really have made a difference. I think we continue to make a difference – it’s really just a question of whether that difference is enough, and indeed if change happens fast enough!


Two Degrees Festival
17-22 June
Toynbee Studios
28 Commercial Street
London E1 6AB
For info and tickets:


020 7650 2350

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