On the Ground

Explorations in the Environment

Three artists discuss how themes of care, connection and ecojustice move through their practices By Jillian Groening
  • Carly Butler and Hjalmer Wenstob's Halifax to Clayoquot Sound / Photo courtesy of Nocturne

Halifax’s 13th annual Nocturne: Art at Night festival took place from Oct. 12 through 17 both online and in person. The theme of 2020’s festival was Echolocation, an examination of the role of art in relation to ecojustice and collective responsibility.

Nocturne 2020 is one example of how artists and curators are seeking to address the challenges spurred by decades of environmental exploitation. Lindsay Dobbin, Heather Lamoureux and Ralph Escamillan discuss their complex and ever-evolving experiences with ecojustice, sustainable practices and environmental connectivity.

Dobbin is a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk)-Acadian-Irish artist, musician, educator and curator for Halifax’s 13th annual Nocturne Festival: Echolocation, which centres ecojustice at the core of its programming. She lives and works in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of Lnu’k (Mi’kmaq). Lamoureux is a community organizer, artist, facilitator and artistic director of Vancouver’s Vines Art Festival, which explores themes of land, water and relational justice. She lives on the Coast Salish Territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. Escamillan is a Queer, Canadian-Filipinx performance artist, choreographer, teacher, community leader and founder of Van Vogue Jam. For the past two years, Lamoureux and Escamillan have collaborated through Vines and Van Vogue Jam on the Eco-Ball, which brings together ecological-themed categories and performances in organic contexts.

Jillian Groening Can you tell me about the decision to work with themes of ecojustice?

Heather Lamoureux Two years ago, Ralph and I discussed how it would be interesting for both the Vines Festival and the Van Vogue Jam ball to be centred around environmental justice. Due to COVID-19, this year’s event took place on Zoom, and it was really exciting to see the creators not only dive more into sourcing sustainable materials but also navigating bigger stories. For example, one competitor from Peru named Cuarta Benetton focused on the issue of tree felling in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. They had a whole story connected to their submission, which was a tribute to Indigenous Peruvian water protectors. 

Lindsay Dobbin My guiding force is my own experience, and ecojustice is not separate from that. I grew up in a family who are mixed Indigenous, and they taught me about connecting and listening to nature. Art is my method of connection and it provides a space for me to explore certain questions relating to this connectivity, some of which appeared in the Nocturne festival submission call. I am at a point where I’m interested in asking other artists those same questions that I ask myself. 

Painting of humpback whale / by Katy Payne


JG What do you find to be points of connection between your body-based practice and the current ecological climate?

LD The last couple of years, I have been in a state of learning and listening. There was a time before when I was in a place of a lot of creative output, and then I got really sick. It resulted in a forced stop that had me reassessing what I felt called to. There is a lot happening in the world right now and it all changes so quickly; however, there are things in nature that are not changing quickly. In the last two years, I have been visiting the same place in nature over and over, letting the place get to know me as much as I am getting to know it. To me, that feels like the most important part of my practice. Sometimes I’ll create things and sometimes I won’t, but the gift of being present in nature will never change.

HL The relationship between ecojustice and embodiment is ephemeral and can be based in healing. How the water in your body moves in relationship to the water on the land is a point of importance. We are taught that we take from the land and ‘We need this and we use that,’ and everything is a resource instead of being focused on finding relationships. Regarding creating dances in relationship to specific issues like an oil spill or, in the Eco-Ball, to the forest being cut down, we look at the land we are on – Indigenous land, stolen land – and all of those dances are for the land and in relationship to the land.

JG How does the notion of sustainability resonate with you?

Ralph Escamillan True sustainability comes from listening to the body. I also think that sustainability will change and shift as things progress. How can we find a commonality with the world and with the people that surround us, the feelings of sustainability in a relationship? 

Hailey Finnigan at 2019 Eco-Ball / Photo by Sheng Ho


HL For the Eco-Ball, those deeper stories of decolonizing and of relating to the land are more exciting because I think sustainability is drawn into those things. It becomes about yourself and about other people and relationships. That’s my bigger interest. But sustainability is also important and it’s actually how we started the conversation of ‘How can competitors in the ball create looks with invasive species?’ and ‘How can they upcycle things instead of buying new?’

LD Sometimes, I feel that sustainability is a concept. Such as, when the word sustainable comes up, who is asking the question and who is it sustainable for? When practised in Indigenous contexts, sustainability is rooted in relationship and reciprocity. It feels more like a space that is being co-created rather than a line that we are travelling along. Regarding Nocturne, I did think about the term, and it informed my curatorial approach. I was thinking about sustainability in terms of community. A lot of the projects I curated are rooted in this sharing and learning from each other in collaboration and relationship. To me, that is where the art lies, with projects centred around revealing and hopefully creating relationships. And, of course, that is what is sustainable and will continue to exist beyond the festival.

JG In what ways does care inform your creative practice?

LD I feel that it is all about relationships. For the collaborative work that I do in nature, my approach is to try not to go in and impose a vision or mould things to achieve something specific but to really listen. In terms of care, it’s about being present and listening and being open to some kind of relationship that might emerge. It’s similar when working with other people. In the collaborative performance pieces that I do, it’s about providing the frame that supports people so that they can have their own experience and can feel comfortable sharing. Creative, caring, respectful and supportive spaces are an important part of creativity, even for the individual. We need to create that for ourselves.

RE The idea of care can be quite broad, but to me, to care for something is to make choices with consciousness and not a fixed consciousness but one that is malleable to shift as your life does. From choosing where I buy food, how I wake up out of bed or what I wear, I find life a series of choices wherein care becomes one of many deciding factors. 

Raven John at Eco-Ball 2019 / Photo by Sheng Ho


HL Last year, Vines held a panel on community care and resistance. The event brought together leaders in our communities and was centred around trans voices because so many models of care have been built in trans communities. We are interested in looking to communities that have built these care relationships. It’s very important to us that [our] relationship [with] the artists that we work with isn’t just a transactional relationship at the festival. We want to make sure that it continues past the festival. I also like to think about care in relation to how the land cares for us. And how, if we are going to be land-related, Vines has to continue that kind of care.

JG How do you navigate the role of the artist in regard to ecological and social injustices? And how might the role of the artist provide a unique platform at this present moment?

HL A really important part of that is in how social and environmental justice are completely interconnected. The harm that is being done to the land is done by humans. We’re protecting the water or protecting the trees, but the harm being done impacts various groups differently. That has to be the grounding for what artists are doing. I think it is very dependent on the artist themselves and their history and where they are in their community. I think that everybody can use the arts as a healing and connecting tool within all that. 

Dong Ganisa and Skim in Eco Mini Kiki Ball 2020


RE I was recently in a creative process and was reminded how the embodied body is a gift – a superpower and something of privilege. I think that as artists/creators/movers, we have the ability to bend time, to shift people’s perspectives and allow for space in the mind and body. By the action of doing, we have the ability to affect the space and the people around us, which, while beautiful, comes with a great responsibility. My personal position on this is to find more ways for others to find embodiment in their own ways and to imbue the agency and possibility that we have.

LD This is something I have been considering, and it’s difficult for me to say it specifically. I guess I’m discovering what that is. I think we’re all discovering what that could be. As artists, we do have a way of connecting to the world around us and to ourselves and have a way of sharing that, transmitting that, which can be helpful for other people to recognize their own connection. I do feel that, through the pandemic, folks are looking to art and to artists for escape and for entertainment but also for connection. I feel that art does and can provide such incredible connection. If it is a medium of connection, which I truly believe it to be, then artists working with the environment are really in a beautiful place to help others connect to ecological issues.

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