Q&A: Norah Zuniga Shaw

Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager

Nov 03, 2021

Image from Norah Zuniga Shaw's Climate Gathering project

As world leaders meet over the next two weeks at the 2021 United Nations Global Climate Change Conference, or COP26, intermedia artist and Wexner Center Artist Residency Award recipient Norah Zuniga Shaw (ZShaw) is using social media to continue an ongoing dialogue in her work about climate change, and to prompt greater consideration of what each of us as individuals could bring to the work of mitigating, adapting, and addressing injustice. Digital “traces” of ZShaw’s work on this subject will be shared on the Livable Futures Instagram account, as well as in Stories on the Wex’s account. Offered as “resources for reflection, interaction, and dialogue,” the traces will accrue in a social media installation in Highlights.

The broader scope of ZShaw's residency work will also be accessible via this site.

Below, the artist shares the thoughts that launched this project, a sense of the work she’s already created around climate change, and what audiences can engage with soon, including a performative lecture at the Wex this spring.

Norah Zuniga Shaw

ZShaw; photos by Seth Moses Miller unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of the artist

Why did you decide to investigate climate change in this way?

Climate change terrifies me, so for years I turned away from it. At some point I realized that turning away made me a denier. Even though I had been doing social justice and environmental work for years, it was the fun stuff: intercultural exchange, planting trees, volunteering in community gardens. All good stuff, but it’s the stuff that gave me hope, and it was pleasurable. Somewhere during the 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and leading into the 2016 elections, I realized I needed to turn toward the harder things that I’m afraid of and that make me feel hopeless: climate change and the crushing inequities of its effects in the world, and the colonialism, anti-Blackness, and misogyny that underlie environmental degradation. 

The scientific data and the bad news are important to face. We are in a crisis. But at the same time, the rhetoric of doom and gloom leaves me—and maybe others—feeling paralyzed, feeling afraid, feeling really powerless. In turning toward my fears, I also made the leap of assuming that my artistic practice might be relevant and offer a means of finding a way into action.

You’ve been developing Climate Gathering events for several years as part of this project. What's involved, and how do you bring the audience into the work?

I want to be clear, I don’t make dances about climate change, although that's cool, too. I’m taking my intrinsic practice as a dance artist and juxtaposing it against climate change, asking what I know how to do and working from there. I’m an improviser. I make immersive worlds with sound and movement and images. So I started by saying, what if this is climate activism?

This could be true for any practice. In fact, in the Climate Gathering performances we start by asking folks what they know how to do. We send out a survey as part of the ticketing process that asks participants, “What would your friends or family members say is your greatest strength?” Audiences are kept small, groups of 10-20. I memorize their responses and integrate them into the piece, expressing those strengths in a poetics that applies them to survival.

You can do this for yourself, too. Maybe you’re a really great, nurturing parent, or a good listener, or you’re loquacious. Those are your superpowers. What if you simply bring those powers to the needs at hand? I do this in workshops as well. It can be really liberating.

Norah Zuniga Shaw, Climate Gathering performance image

ZShaw (left) as the banshee during a Climate Gathering performance in New York City, photo: Guy DeLancey

You’ve also developed a small community of artist collaborators around this.

Really everything I’m doing is co-creative. I am a community facilitator, and I don't make anything alone; all of my best work is the result of facilitating intercultural and interdisciplinary communities of practice. So, I called in my friends and the Climate Gathering performances emerged from our collective practices (sonic arts, dance, interactive media, environmental humanities) over several years of workshopping ideas with audiences. We have the luxury of collaborating in the Motion Lab at ACCAD, a performance technology space I cofounded at Ohio State that supports our process of iterating and taking the time needed for the work to evolve. 

Climate Gathering also sits within my larger public practice work called Livable Futures and the collective intelligence of the many contributing artists and scholars who have been co-creating it.

You state on the Climate Gathering page on your website that the audience is the heart of the work. Could you talk a little bit about that, and how that has manifested in the workshopping that you've done so far in performances?

I find that when people have time to reflect, to relate a little, and to respond to climate change in a poetic or evocative way, they make their own intentions and find really surprising and authentic ways into action.  

Very early on in developing these Climate Gatherings, which are essentially secular performance rituals, we invited audiences to make their own offerings and reflections. 

More specifically, for each gathering we invite a small group of people and then ask them to invite someone else. Sometimes it’s an open call. The invite includes the survey I mentioned, which also asks you to reflect on your climate memories and to share why you go to performance. That is a priming step, facilitating entry into the state of the work, which involves intention and personal responsibility. Then, as participants come into the work, it is a big installation of light and sound and vibration. People are invited to write their memories on the floor in chalk or in ice and share them with each other in various ways. There's a series of tasks they're given over about an hour to make their own offerings in gestures, objects, sound. Between those tasks, the performers and I are creating charged spaces and interventions, but they are always in a spirit of invitation, of consent, of communal ritual, softening into the magnitude of the issue and dealing with whatever comes up.

Participants make sound into mics in the space, which we then mix and move through the room with custom interactive sound and media software that Marc Ainger and Oded Huberman created with us. And we have a tent in the installation on loan from the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center that was an actual Antarctic expedition tent. Participants go in the tent to share ideas with each other and rest. 

Once people have made their offerings, we close with a tea ceremony to dialogue about the resources we will take with us from the work. Michael J. Morris is a wonderful co-creator who facilitates this dialogue from their experience in queer ecology, and really powerful conversations have started coming out of the gatherings.

We just keep evolving the work this way with small groups here in Ohio; we also did some in New York with communities there, and some in Melbourne. Before the pandemic, it sounded crazy that the audience was going to be small and invited, and now it seems quite relevant.

Byron Au Yong in a Climate Gathering performance led by Norah Zuniga Shaw

Musician Byron Au Yong works with audience members to capture their sounds during a Climate Gathering performance; photo: Guy DeLancey

And what about your own performance? Can you share more about the figure you call banshee and why you perform this in your climate work?

Since I knew that the work would only evolve in collaboration with communities of practice, I invited people to experience some of the performative aspects very early on and I improvised in response to their presence. That’s how this figure I call the banshee, that you see in a lot of the videos that I’m producing in the residency, emerged. 

The banshee is a live, improvised state that I enter into, in which I am principally trying to do the impossible: to stay completely present at all times with climate change and to simultaneously attune to sensation, to bring it into the scale of my body. It’s a constant battle to stay present, and I create the vocalizations from that state of being. 

As anybody who meditates knows, there's a human tendency to drift off, especially when confronting something hard to face. I’m not letting myself drift. I’m also not letting myself do the things I typically do as a performer to feel secure on stage and draw you in. I’m seeking to remain in flux, unstable, refusing the illusion of stability. The result is awkward and ugly sometimes, and cathartic. 

The banshee is expressing the inexpressible. In this way, it is in the tradition of the prophetic. The banshee shakes things up, literally creating vibration in the room, and then the ability to make choices gives the audience some agency. It has a very strong emotional aspect. People experience their own grief, loss, and rage, which are appropriate shared emotions around climate collapse and crisis.

We have done the work now with enough people that I see the way this softens audiences into intention.

What other elements have been key to the success of these gatherings?

Sound is very important. There are live musicians, and they provide a grounding presence. We work with local musicians wherever we are performing. 

And there are two other movement improvisers in the piece who are in states of mirrored unison and deep attention throughout the ritual. A core collaborator, Laura Rodriguez/LROD, has been evolving this role with me for several years. They all serve as means of support for both the banshee and the audience, creating symmetry and other forms of refuge in an unstable landscape. 

The work also includes what I call resilience videos. These are short video loops usually installed in the space on small screens. I’ll share some of these during the Instagram installation for sure. They started in a collaboration with Israeli artists Ohad Fishof and Noa Zuk and have expanded as a mix of found footage and more crafted pieces, evoking states of oscillation and loop culture in music and animation. They highlight actions that create their own energy or momentum, like a ball bouncing, a kind of literal choreographic metaphor for “bouncing back” or resilience.

And these videos are quite soothing, like rocking can be, or tapping your foot. They feature youth in lo-fi animal disguises. They help keep me focused on the need for a transition that centers social justice in the climate crisis, acknowledging who is most vulnerable and whom we ask to be resilient.

Performers in Norah Zuniga Shaw's Climate Gathering events

What went into your decision to move the project from the physical to the digital space?

Well, I'm a director for dance and technology here at Ohio State so I’ve been taking physical ideas and moving them into the digital space for the past couple of decades, alongside these performance practices, so it's almost about taking the two parts of my practice and putting them together. 

I’m looking at how the forces in the work come through digitally, not translating or trying to document the live performance. That live performance ritual does its own thing and it's powerful. I’m asking, what else can the performance become? What else does the physical thinking in dance produce? What are the forces in the work and how do they come across on video, in data, or in a social media dialogue? Some of this thinking comes out of years of collaborating with William Forsythe, so I just want to uplift him. He likes to say, “What else might this dance look like?” and I can hear the reverberations of our collaboration in my language there.

Then, when Lane and the Wex gave me this commission and the invitation to think about digital performance capture in relation to these works, the obvious question was, how does meaningful audience interaction happen digitally? This piece is about humans that come together and therefore, social media seemed like one experiment we had to try. Can we create some of that evocative dialogue, a gentle sense of intention and awareness and relationality in a social media space? That's the experiment.

"This piece is about humans that come together and therefore, social media seemed like one experiment we had to try. Can we create some of that evocative dialogue, a gentle sense of intention and awareness and relationality in a social media space? That's the experiment."

What might someone see when following the social component of this project?

We are drawing on all the resources of the work: the banshee, the resilience videos, our prompts for participants, audience contributions, images, and whatever feels right in response to what is emerging in the climate talks each day. It is a really live process in that way.

In what other formats are you looking to explore this subject? 

Screenings, workshops, online workshops, and in audio, I work a lot with sound. We have a Livable Futures podcast with lots of great interviews and we’re going to be putting out some artist audio walks this year. I’m working with Charles Vince Burwell and André M. Zachery on a radio ballet that weaves together their interest in Afrofuturism and my own queer posthuman fascinations. I am going to do a performative lecture version of this in the spring at the Wex. These are ongoing iterations, and the Wex has just been a really wonderful partner in this phase of it.

What’s your intent with timing this to the UN’s global climate summit?

It's pretty straightforward.

These talks in Glasgow mark a pivotal moment and I want to be turning toward them. We're not necessarily analyzing or reporting on the talks but understanding that there are many humans gathering to focus their energy and time on this during these next two weeks. Can we also gather in our own community—if digitally, that's fine—and bring our power to the collective power?

I’ll offer something every day. One of my ongoing practices for the past several years is to turn toward the issues cognitively and through my more creative awareness. So, I have been adding pages to my own climate change chronicle that I create by reading the news each day and then making a trace in a journal—visual, textual or in paper cutouts. Alongside these traces I paste teachings from my mentors, real and imagined from dance and performance, again juxtaposing artistic practice and methods and wisdoms with extreme events and rising temperatures and pandemics, as well as breakthroughs in clean energy and consciousness. During the talks, I’m also synthesizing these sensory, sonic and visual prompts, along with resources from Climate Gathering, for the installation on Instagram.

Do you have any expectations or hopes in terms of the reactions that might arise to the traces in the social sphere?

No, I don't work from a place of expectation. I don't find it very helpful. I do have a strong feeling of invitation and curiosity. I want to make the offering, and then I'm interested in what it does for folks. We're going to have some evocative elements and alongside those, some very intentional prompts or questions for people to reflect on, maybe just in their own consciousness. That's beautiful; that's enough. If they feel called to comment or to DM us, I’ll be there listening and connecting. 

It's a bit risky for us to share this work in a social media space. I usually do a lot of community building around any of my works, so this involves a kind of trust in the Wex community. Also, we're in dialogue with all the work the Wex has already done and other artists have done around climate change. You just had the Climate Changing exhibition. This is all a lineage of works and it doesn't end; it needs to continue.

I just listened to an episode of On Point focused on turning feelings of hopelessness into action. It’s so easy to fall back on cynicism. There's something sort of monumental about giving yourself over to hope.

And to a kind of engagement, regardless of results. For me, the easiest metaphor to think about is hospice work. If this were a partner who was dying, we would not just give in to cynicism, or at least I hope not. Let's hope we wouldn't give in to fatalism, that we might still care for that partner and be present for whatever's coming next. I hope we can become healers of the planet but at the very least, we can approach our role as hospice care in these troubled times.

More than human survival, we need a decentering of the human and notions of who gets to thrive and continue on the planet. That’s why we use the word livable instead of sustainable. There are beautiful contributions to help think about this from the artists who've been on the Livable Futures podcast and others out there. I’ve been so grateful for adrienne maree brown and Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ work, and other Black feminist artists and scholars leading the way in this space of holding the complexity and the tension of what it is, and staying with the trouble. In fact, I just paraphrased Donna Haraway, another powerful guide.

We do not know the future. There’s hope in that. I'm not being naive. I'm interested in turning toward the very real collapse we're experiencing now with the pandemic and with the cascading extreme events we're in, it is happening already. More of us understand it on the scale of our bodies and our lives in ways that maybe were less clear before the pandemic. 

How might the responses that you see from these traces inform what you're doing later in the project?

In a way, this is just another Climate Gathering, but it's an even more radically inclusive Instagram Climate Gathering. 

We have been gathering visual and other responses throughout the process and weaving them together in an online audience portal. It's kind of half archive, half community space, and it’s one of the other performance capture projects—an art object and portal of its own that people can come to and maybe find resources for doing the work that's needed. Perhaps these responses will become a part of that and connect with the ongoing dialogue. The comments and connections that come out of this social media dialogue will be something I share in the live event this spring.

And I will be synthesizing and integrating it all physically as well. These dialogues will come into the improvisation state that I perform as the banshee. The work is always in response to all these contributions from people who have participated, which is in the hundreds now. 

In essence, I think there are two things at work in this project. One is my own, frankly personal journey of dealing with climate change and bringing what I know to bear—movement, sound, media, interdisciplinary practice. The other is about building creative community, facing our fears together, and feeling our way into action.