Curating the Eden Project: interview with Misha Curson

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

The issue of climate change is not just a scientific one, it represents a threat to art, culture, and, in particular, marginalised communities. There are places around the world that focus their energy on where these issues intersect - one of these being the Eden Project, a world-famous environmental arts and science site in Cornwall. Aoife Fannin talks to Misha Curson, the Eden Project’s Senior Curator, about the role of the Eden Project, the responsibilities of art, and democratising the conversation surrounding climate change.

Nestled within a former Cornish china clay pit sits the Eden Project. As a place, it defies definition. A hybrid perhaps. Part garden, part museum, part laboratory. Its cross-disciplinary nature makes it a breeding ground for ideas. 

With its social and environmental mission to reconnect humankind with each other and with the natural world, it acts as a much-needed antidote to the climate crisis. Its very existence comprises a narrative not premised on devastation, but rather transformation, openness, and optimism. 

As the climate crisis grows more severe, the pressure to create these new kinds of futures increases. This is where art has power. Art and culture have an innate ability to disrupt, to generate, to intervene - to build new narratives. 

The Eden Project’s Senior Curator, Misha Curson, uses her practice to cultivate cross-disciplinary arts programming that identifies solutions, unleashes pathways, and formulates frameworks for change. Working with emerging and established artists to engage with topics of social and environmental justice, Misha’s curatorial practice sits where science, art and nature meet; to tell us the story of our fragile, wondrous planet, whilst creating what was once thought impossible. 

I spoke with Misha about her curatorial practice; to find out about how optimism, solutions and the importance of taking risks defines the vital work the Eden Project is carrying out.

With the threat we currently face as a planet, creative risk-taking is of critical importance. The conception of the Eden Project was itself a creative risk of gigantic scale. Its name owes something to the nature of risk; being a project - not yet finished. 20 years since it began, it’s still striving for something not quite ‘there’. But with the growing urgency of the crisis we face, as a curator how do you balance the necessity to find solutions with that of taking risks? 

There are no perfect solutions to the planetary emergency that will work for everyone, so we ask ourselves, what’s the most productive approach? Let’s start a conversation and see where it leads. As an evolving project, we will always be adaptive to our audiences. 

It’s hugely important to me to make space for risk-taking and for mistake-making, both of which are critical to the creative process. Without creative and critical thought, how do we find solutions to the social and environmental challenges we all face, or question the systems that have led to this emergency?  

Our art programme sits alongside a thoroughly researched, cited and authenticated science, interpretation and education programme, which is implicitly factual, accurate and objective. The art programme serves a different purpose. It’s our opportunity to bring subjective human narratives back into the conversation, to provide space for reflection, inter and intra-personal provocation. There’s no right or wrong way to respond to an artist’s work or exhibition and so public programming should and will always be risky. It presents esoteric moments that can abstract our conventional wisdom, challenge the status quo and affect us on an emotional and existential level. If we play it safe, we will have already failed. We can’t try to create something that appeals to everyone, but we’ll always endeavour to offer something for anyone. To act as an entry point and a conversation opener, to widen the audiences who are interested to engage with us. 

With the generous optimism that the Eden Project embodies, your art programme this year is entitled ‘Culturing the Symbiocene’ – could you explain a bit more about this concept?

Many people have now heard the term ‘the Anthropocene’, coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. Albrecht continues that we need to imagine a new kind of future, a Symbiocene: a positive affirmation of the interconnectedness of life and all living things. The concept of the programme is based on this ideology and ambition to foster an enduring culture of symbiotic living. 

We aim to embed culture on-site at Eden, to work more closely with grass-root community programmes and world-leading artists and scientists to encourage creative practise, critical thought and share human reflections on the ecological priorities of climate, biodiversity, extinction and their civic consequences.

Which contemporary artists have influenced your thinking? 

Many artists have influenced me in different ways. Pablo Wendel launched a ground-breaking project in 2019, E-WERK Lukenwalde. Wendel founded Performance Electrics gGmbH in 2012, to produce and supply Kunststrom (Art Power), an original type of renewable electricity generated through contemporary art.

In September 2019 Performance Electrics re-animated a former coal power station into a Kunststrom Kraftwerk. The power station, which dates back to 1913, now produces and supplies renewable Kunststrom electricity to the building and national grid.

As a non-profit electricity supplier, Performance Electrics gGmbH produces and supplies Kunststrom to clients, and this, in turn, funds the contemporary art programme at E-WERK Lukenwalde, led by Artistic Director, Helen Turner, and the advancement of Kunststrom technology.

E-WERK Lukenwalde challenges conventional models of art-making and art-programming and challenges us to think laterally about new approaches to sustainable culture. 

Do you think artists have a responsibility to engage with the crisis? 

We all have a responsibility to consider our individual relationship to the natural world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all artists should be making work about the emergency, or that all institutions should be platforms for this conversation only. There are many crucial debates that our cultural institutions must offer a platform to. 

In the current climate, more and more artists and curators are considering the environmental impact of their practice, the sustainability of the materials they use, methods of shipping and display, and if their funding originates from responsible sources. 

I hope that this shift in how our cultural institutions, arts-education bodies and arts-funding bodies engage with this emergency can continue to raise accountability, empower creative practitioners and influence change. 

Cultural institutions have a long way to go before they embody a holistic, progressive, and sustainable creative community. In recent years, there has been much more of a commitment to environmental sustainability across organisations. But with the art world’s addiction to travel (in a 2014 New Yorker profile, Hans Ulrich Obrist was said to have made 2,000 trips over the previous 20 years) it seems that there’s a gaping hole in between what cultural institutions attempt to communicate and their actions. How do you ensure sustainability practices are embedded into your programme and operations at Eden? How do you think other cultural institutions can catch up? 

We are by no means perfect, we’re on the journey too! We have a three-year Regenerative Sustainability Strategy that is embedded organisation-wide. Ownership is shared across the team, so everyone contributes to its achievement. All of our permanent staff undergo sustainability training when they first join Eden, to empower them to apply sustainability in practice in their daily work. By 2023, our main ambitions include becoming carbon positive, partly as a result of our deep Geothermal project which will supply us with enough renewable heat and electricity to satisfy all of our demands and more. 

We’re also planning huge projects: to grow over 250,000 tree saplings, and increase the Net Biodiversity Growth at Eden Project Cornwall by 20%. We have just launched a major three-year project underpinned by actions designed to conserve native pollinators and the landscapes they depend on, including scientific research, fieldwork on pollinator landscape restoration, community involvement, citizen science experiments, action plans for all to get involved and a major art commission – more details of this project will be announced soon. 

Within the climate debate issues of equality and equity are often raised. Marginalized groups within the Anthropocene, including Indigenous groups, often are victim to erasure and whitewashing. This wilful disregard of diversity culturally mimics the biological erasure of the crisis, and both are a primary cause of what we are now experiencing. Yet it still seems like far too often, the environmental movement is shaped by a certain group of thinkers in the ‘global north’. It’s as if environmentalism is a monoculture in itself. What do you do at Eden to democratize the conversation on a local, national and international scale?

We recently held an evening at Eden with The Royal Society, exploring the variety of life on Earth and solutions to rising extinction rates. Eden Co-Founder Sir Tim Smit was joined by BBC Springwatch presenter Gillian Birke as well as world-leading conservation scientists Professor Sebsebe Demissew, a world-renowned plant scientist who led the international effort to create the first complete record of plant species in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Dr Lindsay Turnbull, who studies the vast diversity in plant life, how plant species coexist and the symbiotic relationships they forge, and Professor Georgina Mace, who studies the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss and changing ecosystems.

The free event was the latest in a series of talks across the country exploring scientific solutions to some of the biggest environmental issues facing our planet. It offered an opportunity for wide audiences to ask direct questions with the global thought-leaders. 

I strongly believe arts and cultural practice can play a key part in identifying opportunities and removing barriers. Our exhibits are often developed in partnership with Indigenous artists and storytellers. Our Rainforest Biome is the home to a series of murals painted by traditional Peruvian herbalists Francisco Montes Shuna and Yolanda Panduro Baneo. In the Western Australia Garden is an artwork commissioned in consultation with Dr Richard Walley, a Nyoongar statesman from Perth, to tell stories of the traditional six seasons of Nyoongar culture, their strong connections to their country and ancient knowledge of native flora, fauna and environment. 

Eden's aims to connect people to where resources come from and to highlight the imperative to support local livelihoods hand-in-hand with conserving environments. We hope to demonstrate that we are one interconnected world – that perceived boundaries between our countries are purely conceptual.

We also have to consider how marginalised groups in the UK can access environmentally sustainable alternatives. Many people in this country use food banks, work in low-paid roles and can't afford to consider the environment in their choices. People can only worry about the environment once other basic needs (housing, clothing, food, etc) have been met. Eden’s communities’ teams run phenomenal programmes to offer support on a local and national level.

These are all contributions towards a more democratic and non-exclusive conversation. 

Each year we do not solve the problem of climate breakdown, the harder it becomes to solve, which proliferates feelings of despair. Psychology Today refers to what they term ‘climate anxiety’ as ‘a fairly recent psychological disorder affecting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis.’ How do you combat personal feelings of angst? Does your mood infiltrate the work you produce? 

I certainly experience levels of eco-anxiety, when I hear that data processing centres are being built under our oceans so that the water can absorb the excess heat?!?… or turn on the news, or simply go for a walk in January and see the daffodils in full bloom. But importantly, I know that that feeling isn’t helpful.   

At Eden, we make sure the message is one of optimism by focusing on solutions, empowerment and agency; if we raise our ambitions and work together there’s still time to turn things around. 

Due to Covid-19, Eden remains temporarily closed and the majority of its programmes are now on pause. To find out more please visit the Eden Project website. Please also see the Community-Action-Response pages for resources on how to support your communities and in particular those who are currently vulnerable and isolated.