The art and music of our world’s predicament

by | Jun 3, 2010

I got back from the Dark Mountain Project’s Uncivilisation festival a few days ago, and while I could write about many of the aspects of that stimulating week, one thread it really tugged on for me was the role – the critical importance – of the arts in shifting the cultural stories that shape our future.

So today I would like to highlight a few musical artists who have inspired my personal journey, and to invite you to suggest a few artists of any kind who have brought something to your engagement with the global problematique, in whatever way, and perhaps deserve a little more exposure.

The ‘headline act’ at Uncivilisation was George Monbiot debating the usefulness of the Dark Mountain project with one of its founders. Sitting in the audience I was engaged by this – if rather frustrated by some of the arguments unvoiced or misrepresented – but then found myself profoundly refreshed to have my intellectual cogitations blown away by what followed. Immediately afterwards, Alastair McIntosh took the stage, and used the language of music to speak to the spiritual in us – to our connection with our homes, our land.

Maria Elvorith, ‘Red wine, Lipstick and the World in my hand’, 2009
Maria Elvorith, ‘Red wine, Lipstick and the World in my hand’, 2009

The shift in energy in the room (and in me) was palpable, as we moved from our separate intellectual camps to what felt a unified sense of wonder and shared values.

Thinking back on this, I am put in mind of some insightful advice from the late Howard Zinn which I recently discovered and am endeavouring to embed into my outlook:

“Don’t look for a moment of total triumph. See it as an ongoing struggle, with victories and defeats, but in the long run the consciousness of people growing.
So you need patience, persistence, and need to understand that even when you don’t “win”, there is fun and fulfilment in the fact that you have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile.”

The arts are so key to that fun and fulfilment, as well as to the growth in consciousness, that I feel the need to acknowledge some of my own inspirations…


Saul Williams – Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)



Ani DiFranco – Self Evident


My new friend Alex Fradera has already suggested adding this link to three folk songs on the subject of the credit crisis (though clearly none as well-sung as this one).

For me personally though, Nine Inch Nails’ 2007 album, Year Zero, was the point where my musical interests collided head-on with my life.

The mysterious initial trailer video (above) contained the critical clue to send online fans worldwide spiralling off into an ‘Alternate Reality Game (ARG)’ set in a dystopian near-future ravaged by climate destabilisation and social breakdown. Without ruining too much of the fun for newcomers who want to explore, the Viability Index site gives one flavour of the world that music fans were drawn into, some parts of which are genuinely moving and disturbing. And drawing us ever deeper was the fact that a few of the tracks off the forthcoming album lurked in its depths.

I talked with people for whom the experience – and the music it uncovered – opened their eyes to the realities of our present, as well as to new ways of engaging with those realities. And for me it led to my work on the Superstruct ARG, which tried to expand on that success.

But that’s another story. For now, I’ll leave you with some of the art that has affected me, and look forward to discovering more through you.

Nine Inch Nails – Zero-Sum


Painting by Edwin Landseer, ‘Man proposes, God disposes’ ,1864

Photograph by Iain D. Williams, Canada, 2009

Edit – March 2011: This is just too good not to add to this post:



  1. Maria Elvorith

    Photographer Edward Burtynsky’s images powerfully capture the tension in the relationship between industry & nature which also remind me of the “Koyaanisqatsi – Life out of Balance” film works.
    Max Eastly, Robert Adams (photographed industrial forestry)
    Michael Kenna’s “Little Tree…” is a particularly striking image in my opinion.

    “Burning Ice” from the Cape Farewell project and “Vanishing Landscapes” are two books which include some striking responses from artists (authors, musicians & others) to climate change.
    However, I’m bound to remember and come across so many more having written this response!
    I also love Emma Wieslander’s photograph included at the start *^~*

  2. angela

    (lyrics here)

    interesting song about overpopulation and the hypocrisy in reducing your carbon footprint if you’re going to ruin the effort by having kids. it interests me that we’re the first animals on the planet self aware enough to see the damage we’re doing and choose to deny the biological imperative to reproduce, and yet collectively we’re always looking for new technologies to let us overpopulate the planet even more than we already have done.

  3. Shaun Chamberlin

    Thanks all – a great haul already!

    Ben, I’ve added links to your post, and the video for “Bombs” in particular I found very affecting. That one will stay with me.

    Chay, thanks for getting me to take a look at some familiar oldies, and introducing me to the excellent Non-Phixion. I remember listening to The Road to Hell as a child, but I had never taken in the lyrics until today – I like the song a lot more now. I thought I was going to have a similar revelation about Blue Flowers, but no, I still have no idea what he’s on about!

    Maria, thanks for the potent images – one of them is now adorning my computer desktop wallpaper!

    And Angela, I couldn’t decipher many of the lyrics on the live video, so I looked them up and added a link to your post. They show that music is starting to tell the survivalist tale, so hopefully it’ll be Transition soon enough!

    By the way, Chris Rea in particular reminded me of one seminal influence I really shouldn’t have left off:

    Leonard Cohen – Everybody Knows


  4. music discovery

    Hm, sweet post. Do you offer any kind of rating system because I can’t see it.
    Nick Mensin

  5. Roger

    I do not think the spiritual outlook in global problematique is correct… we are aware of the spirit that ‘moves’ us and its truth is available to us one we cease to listen in preference to the world’s defiantly created stories … some folks already made this trip inwards and agree in what they have written down the ages , but the whole does not agree with this rather superficial engineered view … there is absolute knowledge available to mankind and it is objective in that those who seek it the only way it can be reached agree , even though they lived at different times in different ages… relative [conditional] knowledge has popular appeal , but is what led us into the crises we now face … grasping at half-truths by those who didn’t yet make the ‘trip’ will not provide the answer … in short, to know the ‘spirit’ of man one must listen to the spirit , not to the world… for the two do not agree , one is mistaken , the other true, and there is no compromise of the absolute truth, cannot be … it is clear I believe that the world is mistaken in its mass belief [mostly in the power of money which is simply mistaken and delusional, love is far more powerful for instance and a far more worthy ‘god’ to follow]

  6. Mandy Meikle

    I really wanted to go to Dark Mountain – maybe next year! Thanks for this great post & discussion. Communication is such a strange thing, yet vital if we are to survive the future we’re creating. That the painting of the polar bears should be considered disturbing and covered up demonstrates that awful tendancy we have to believe that we are the most important thing on the planet and all else has to be beaten into submission. As for the second polar bear image, that too would be considered disturbing but it is nature (red in tooth & claw). I wonder how many would eat meat if they had seen the ‘farm to fork’ process?

    I really related to the World Problematique link, especially the update as deep ecology has also played a small but important part in my life. I too am an atheist (first generation!) and have long wondered why we cannot see the planet and all its life as ‘sacred’, not follow some made up fantasies about who runs the show! A book which was a real eye-opener to me is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn ( – there are imposter sites, apparently!). Without wanting to ruin the plot, it explores the idea that the bible was written by those who could see the folly of settled agriculture, cities and overconsumption.

    On to music – some excellent stuff. Self Evident is one of my all-time favourite poems/songs. Art & music are as important as science because we are all so different and what works for some will not work for others. I’d like to share Leftfield’s 21st Century Poem ( Lyrics here ( but go on, have a listen, your ears & heart will thank you!

    with love from your alter ego – The Cheery Pessimist (

  7. Luke Concannon

    Dear Shaun

    It was good to talk to you after your debate last Sunday concerning climate change, iner transformation and tecno fixes. It was good to witness your clarity, intelligence, and willingness to Weave a consensus with your fellow panelists. Well done!

    Well In terms of Radical music, see the wonderfull life affiriming work of Rory Mcleod: this is a great video of his work from the 80’s but in truth you must witness him live to see the way he gives insight in to the lives and struggles of refugees, old folks, young women, Occupied peoples, indigenous peoples. He is a true English Bard. And By the way a fecking beautiful musician:

    Damien Dempsey:

    Miriam Makeba:

    Fred Small: A song of his performed by the mighty English folk singer Roy Bailey (I heard this from a friend at the small is festi!)

    Jimmy Davis: Listen to J.D.F.F.P.W.M.T.N.A.A.A
    Great Radical rapper

    Immortal technique:

    I allso Write and record:

    Up for a cuppa at somepoint? We gotta keep weaving this web of folk!

    Love Luke

  8. Shaun Chamberlin

    Wow, thank you thank you thank you Luke 🙂

    Every one of those links has something incredibly powerful, and Fred Small/Roy Bailey had me in tears. Good ones.

    The only ones I had come across before were Immortal Technique and, in fact, your song “England Uprise”! Not sure where, but I’ve sung along to that chorus before now 😀

    Cuppa would be good next time our paths cross. Drop me an email if you’re ever down Kingston way, although I’m getting around a fair bit myself lately… sure it’ll happen when the time is right



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