Just Say When

Still from Jessica Segall’s film Say When, produced by Little Sun (2021)

Speaking on behalf of all the amazing artists I’ve interviewed over the past four years for this monthly Renewable Energy series, I think that one of the greatest compliments any of us could ever hope to receive would be to be described as a “superhero” by Olafur Eliasson.

That’s exactly the word that popped into Eliasson’s mind when he first saw Brooklyn-based artist Jessica Segall‘s brilliantly understated, less-is-more performance in Say When, her visually stunning short film about solar energy. Say When was showing at the #COP26 in Glasglow, along with four other short films from the Fast Forward film series produced by Little Sun, the social enterprise co-founded by Eliasson in 2012 with solar engineer Frederik Ottesen.

“Little Sun’s Fast Forward film series offers a vital new space for artists to reimagine the future,” according to a quote by Eliasson on Little Sun’s website. Segall’s Say When is one of those films whose deeply saturated, starkly composed images stay with you long after seeing it for the first time. For me, it’s the bold image of a sequined goddess standing alone on a massive sand-dune, a conduit for the Sun’s rays that she receives and then redirects to the viewer with her magic mirror.

In Segall’s film, there is no need for words. No need for numbers, statistics, or degrees centigrade. Just a simple technology – a piece of coated glass – that allows us to look in the mirror, reminding us of what we already knew but that we seem to have forgotten: “Human culture is and has always been inexorably connected to the ultimate source of light and warmth, the Sun,” wrote Maria Popova in 2016.

I asked Segall in an email exchange to explain the importance of embodiment in her work. Here is her unedited response:

In my performances, I play with both the risk of engaging with the environment and the vulnerability of the environment itself. Ecofeminism identifies the abuse of women and nature as from the same source. Any person with a vulnerable body – people of color, gender non-conforming people, know what it’s like to feel in danger embodied on a daily basis. Non-human beings know it as well. Climate change is an embodied danger that to some is still imperceptible – in the legacy of endurance performance, I embrace that vulnerability.

In a previous post, I wondered out loud if embodiment was “the secret sauce that’s been missing in the artistic community’s response to the climate crisis to date?” Eliasson mentions it here. Chantal Bilodeau, Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle and founder of this Artists and Climate Change blog, mentioned embodiment six years ago in her essay about theatre in the age of climate change:

But if we want to be active participants in shaping our future, we need to move beyond writing plays about climate change to writing plays that are climate change – plays that embody, in form, content, and process, the essence of the issues we are facing. Plays where the concept of climate change is so integral to the work that the term doesn’t even need to be uttered. New problems cannot be solved with old solutions. A new consciousness requires new artistic constructs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about embodiment lately, especially after re-reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass about Indigenous wisdom and the teachings of plants. But I was totally unprepared for the visceral, embodied performance by the British contemporary dance artist and choreographer Charlotte Jarvis. Filmed in an empty Globe Theatre, Jarvis embodies the pain and violence that we humans have inflicted upon our non-human relatives with whom we share this planet, as her partner Ben Okri reads aloud his Letter to the Earth. The video ends with a cameo appearance by their daughter, Mirabella Okri, reading her own Letter to the Earth. Brilliant. Masterful. Spellbinding.

Apologies to Jessica Segall! When I sat down tonight to write this post, my intention was to focus on Segall’s inspiration to create a silent film about solar energy. But my pen seems to have had other ideas. I have learned to embrace this tension, allowing my pen to open new doors for me, finding connections that I hadn’t previously considered. In this vein, the similarities between Segall’s and Jarvis’ performances become clear. While visually distinct – slow/contemplative versus jarring/gut-wrenching – these two performances share the common language of embodiment. Both artists have become vessels through which they receive and transmit ancient wisdom. Both artists shine a much-needed light in the darkness of this chaotic era.

This article is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Artists & Climate Change on October 29, 2021, as part of Renewable Energy series.

Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. She is a member of Women Photograph. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her grief about climate breakdown. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.