On The Road with Amanda Palmer
“In the dark times. Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”
- Bertolt Brecht, ‘Motto’
When I was hired to document musician Amanda Palmer’s There Will Be No Intermission tour of Europe, I was not expecting to encounter neo-Nazi parades through suburban German streets or to witness a two week occupation of central London by grief-stricken environmentalists. But from the vantage of a tour bus playing at a different city each night, Amanda, photographer Gabrielle Motola, and I soon realised that these were not isolated events.
At every stop we made across a dozen countries, European citizens were marching in the streets. They marched for the planet or against corruption, for independence or against immigration. Further afield, they were marching in Algeria, Bolivia, Catalonia, Chile, Ecuador, Egypt, Haiti, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.
In those final months of 2019, people everywhere were marching with a sense that something had gone terribly wrong in the world. That same feeling fuelled Amanda’s confessional concerts, where between songs on motherhood, grieving and hope, she asked what the purpose of making art was, in a world she saw growing darker by the day.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that 2019 was also the year that we seemed to finally acknowledge the existential risk that climate change poses to us all. On New Year’s Eve, Amanda and I were in my home country of Australia. The continent was ablaze from unprecedented bushfires, and holiday-makers turned refugees were evacuated from ashen beaches behind blood-red skies.
Climate change. You could say it is the elephant in the room, but this phrase hardly encompasses the horror of it. It is the guest sawing off their arm at dinner. We know we should intervene, but we don’t know what to say, so we stare into our soup instead.
As a millennial who grew up under the shadow of climate change, my life has often felt like a grotesque pretence, planning for a future that I can’t really believe in. But in the course of this tour, I found dozens of people suffering the same lonely madness of pretending everything is okay as our biosphere collapses. Inspired by the scornful defiance of Greta Thunberg, it seemed like we could finally start going mad together.
It is clear from the allusions to rising waters and darkness in There Will Be No Intermission that Amanda Palmer understands climate change in the abstract. Over the course of our time together I watched her grow, like so many of us, to acknowledging it on an emotional level. And her questioning of the value of her own work, as all the certainties we have ever known crumble away beneath our feet, seemed a microcosm of the questions we are all facing in the Anthropocene, myself included.
What is the point of making art when the planet is burning?
How should we live?
And what do we do now?
GERMANY: ‘Racism is back in the Salon’
The last year has seen a fashion for confessional art. In a time of discord, many people are looking for comfort and empathy rather than entertainment. Amanda, pointing to Hannah Gadbsy, Nick Cave and Bruce Springsteen as inspiration, had responded to the zeitgeist.
The last time she toured Europe, she performed the theatrical and macabre music she made her name with, but There Will Be No Intermission was a deeply personal piece of storytelling. Much of the show dealt with the emotions and politics of abortion, but beneath that was a more general anxiety, expressed in lines Amanda would repeat every show as she tried to justify her work to her audience and herself.
“Things are scary. It seems to be getting darker and darker outside, and nobody seems to know what’s happening. When you’re an artist, and you have friends who make real things like shoes and bridges and government policy, you start feeling insecure. What are you doing to help? How are you contributing?”
Amanda’s sense of helplessness and impending catastrophe was shared by almost everyone I spoke to at her shows, summed up most bluntly in Germany by Jayem Wolf, a singer and the best-dressed audience member in Stuttgart.
“Germany is a shitshow. The way we put it is, ‘racism is back in the salon.’ Fascism is normal again; it’s frightening. That’s why we need artists to talk about it, this stuff society wants us to shut up about. Artists are not here to make you feel comfortable. They’re here to show you that you’re not alone.”
I’d heard these warnings of resurgent fascists throughout Europe, but it didn’t become real until we reached Essen, a post-industrial city in the Ruhr valley, once the coal mining centre of Germany. On our arrival, we received warnings from a local fan that a neo-Nazi vigilante group called the ‘Steeler Jungs’ (Steele Boys, named for the suburb in Essen) would be patrolling their suburb, where an anti-fascist counter-march would seek to intercept them.
Like Amanda, I had been asking myself how my writing was actually helping the planet; and since I certainly wasn’t helping anyone during the technical setup at the venue, I figured I could at least bear witness to what was happening in the world outside. So, along with photographer Gabrielle Motola, I went in search of ‘the shitshow’ that we had heard so much about.
The words Steele and fascism had suggested to me a crumbling industrial town, where jackboots crunched past abandoned warehouses. In fact, it seemed a prosperous suburb, completely normal except for the fifteen police vans and two ambulances that had taken up residence in the plaza. Gabrielle took a bold photograph and then approached a handsome officer who was buckling himself into body armour. “Can you tell us about the demonstration?” she asked.
“Which one?” he asked in guarded English. “The Right are quiet. The socialists, they are very loud. The Right just walk to have a … presence. They say that since a million refugees came, it is not safe. That we’ve lost control. It’s not true.”
A chain-smoking woman at a cafe called out to us in German. We sat with her and used our phones to translate. “The city is the problem,” she explained.
“They don’t protect us. The government will not protect us. Foreigners come shooting, and the police do nothing. These people are not good, but that is why they march.”
Party balloons bumped against the fencing, and the police lined up to buy cakes at the bakery. Steele did not feel like a city that had lost control. And yet at sunset, fascists did start sauntering through the square in loose formation, indecipherable Gothic script stretching from their necks up to their shaved scalps. They were muscular, but kept their eyes front as if embarrassed to look at the grinning locals, and in the sunset, their shadows loomed larger than they were.
From the station, a much larger group was on the move — the black bloc anti-fascists. They formed a regiment and paced out into the street, shouting, “Say it loud and say it clear, refugees are welcome here,” while hundreds of police, also in black, kept the two parades separate.
Some of the black bloc pulled up their face coverings and glowered at us, but we fell in with an earnest young man who was happy to talk. “I was living in Malaysia a while, but I had to come back, and I can’t believe what is happening in my country.”
“What were you doing in Malaysia?”
“I was teaching diving. But now there’s more dead coral than alive. Anyway, fighting Nazis is more important. You know the police won’t do anything?”
If there was the one thing everyone in Essen agreed on, it was that the state wasn’t able to protect people from what was coming. I suspected that it didn’t matter if it was true or not in the immediate sense. What mattered was people’s growing fear that society was spinning out of control, and nobody was at the wheel.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that seventy years after World War II, fascism is rearing its head again in Europe, at the same time as there was “more dead coral than alive.” Desertification and drought are already driving refugees, which feeds the politics of xenophobia. Self-professed ‘ecofascists’ have committed racist murders in Christchurch and El Paso, and I have increasingly heard ‘normal people’ on talk radio calling for enforced population control measures. The worse climate change gets, the worse our politics are becoming.
After Amanda’s show that night, Gabrielle and I recounted the day’s events to the crew. Amanda nodded her agreement. “Yes. It’s all connected. Fighting for feminism and abortion rights is all good and well, but if there are no people around to make use of those rights, then I’m not really sure where my energy is best spent.”
“But instead of writing about climate change, I’m covering this music tour,” I said.
“Well, make it the same thing! Climate and politics and art, it’s all the same thing. That’s what you’re writing about. That’s what I’m singing about. Come with me tomorrow.”
“What’s happening tomorrow?”
“We’re going to join the Global Strike for Climate.”
ANTWERP: ‘We need to make this our responsibility’
The Global Strike for Climate, Friday, 20th September, was arguably the most politically significant day of the year. Millions of people across the world were walking out of their schools and offices to demand that their leaders take planetary collapse seriously. Since we happened to be in Belgium on the day, Amanda had got in touch with the local Youth for Climate, and they urged her to join them for a meeting with the Mayor of Antwerp. Or perhaps there would not be a meeting. Like Belgium’s federal government, the plans were in an abstract phase.
It was, in Amanda’s words, ‘fuck o’clock in the morning,’ when we met our contact Lander Goossens, a curly-haired 17-year-old with a grave smile. Around a dozen of the Youth for Climate had gathered in front of Antwerp City Hall, which was sealed by protective sheeting. They had prepared a letter for the Mayor, asking that Antwerp’s council declare a climate emergency and cease subsidising fossil fuels. Given that the young activists believed themselves to be facing a future of global famine and chaos, they felt that these requests were not unreasonable.
Mayor Bart de Wever avoided the meeting, sending another functionary to offer platitudes. In his absence, the teenagers stood in silent protest in front of the shrouded hall, holding copies of their demands. I was reminded of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses five hundred years ago, which had triggered a complete upheaval of the European social order. Along with centuries of war.
I was proud of the students, but sad that there were only a dozen. But when Lander led us through a twisting street towards the cathedral, the quiet was broken by a rising chant ahead of us, “We are unstoppable, another world is possible!” We entered the cathedral square to find it crammed with hundreds of teenagers and children, some as young as eight or nine, cheering their defiance beneath a faded moon in a morning sky.
When I glanced at Amanda, I saw she was crying.
Antwerp’s state schools had been scheduling compulsory tests today to keep children in school, but hundreds were striking anyway. Dragging a loudspeaker on a trolley to mark their presence, the kids blasted the Rolling Stones and “YMCA” and formed hand steeples above their heads. Anti-capitalist rebels dancing to the last days of disco.
The last time the youth of Western Europe notably rebelled against their system was in 1968, when counterculture was in full swing. The protest music was good in the 60s, and it matched the social drumbeat of the time. Fifty years on, these kids were playing the same tunes — perhaps symbolic of a youth movement that refused to accept our suicidal status quo but had yet to find its own voice.
When the march reached the centre of town, the students broke into a joyous sprint across the plaza towards the steps of the opera house, where a comedian lookalike for Mayor de Wever warmly declared a climate emergency.
He was an imaginary leader, but then all leaders are imaginary, and perhaps it’s time we started to imagine some better ones.
After the speeches, Amanda braved scratchy microphones and terrible acoustics to play her own ode to joy — “Ukulele Anthem”. “Tell the children ‘crush the hatred,’ play your ukulele naked!” When she finished, Amanda spread her arms and shouted, “I am playing in Antwerp tonight. I am going to be talking about all this. My show is about reproductive rights for women, because the climate, fascism, abortion: it’s all connected!”
A sea of silent faces looked back at her uncertainly. Amanda sees everything as connected in a badness gestalt, but these kids were here to protest the climate, and the link with women’s reproductive rights was not immediately apparent to them. Reading the crowd, she quickly changed gears. “I’m so proud of you. You’re about to take over the planet from the terrible people, and thank you. We can’t wait.” This got an easy cheer, and she hopped down from the steps.
““Ukulele Anthem” wasn’t really right,” she admitted to me. “Listen to Edwin Starr’s “War,” and you can practically see the crowds. A good protest song has a catchy hook, simple lyrics and easy instruments. I really need to write one.” She filed this in the mental to-do list that stretches to the distant horizons of her mind, then snapped her attention back to the activists around us.
“Come to the show tonight?” she asked the Youth for Climate organisers. “I want people to hear what you have to say.”
While the school strikers surged towards the station to take their message to Brussels, a few adult Amanda Palmer fans lingered, and I asked them what they had felt about the march.
“It gave me hope. For about ten minutes. Then I just want a drink to numb the pain,” said a rainbow-haired woman called Hilary.
“So, you don’t think we’re going to be able to turn things around?”
“It’s sad looking at these children and thinking what’s coming for them,” said her friend, Saskia. “I’m not going to have any children.”
The others agreed — to bring a child into this world, knowing what was coming, would be unconscionable.
A man in sunglasses, hitherto silent, spoke up calmly. “Nothing will change until we start killing the rich. We need to kill bankers.”
A pause, on the steps of the opera house.
“I don’t think that’s quite ‘on message’ for Amanda,” I said, but I wrote it down anyway.
Amanda had been skirting around the climate crisis every show, but that night, kneeling in a puddle of light, she plunged into it.
“Everyone I know is feeling this disorienting powerlessness in the face of what is happening. This global catastrophe. The refugee crisis and the climate crisis are so obviously related, as is the exhaustion and confusion that people feel in the face of them. What do we do? How do we even wrap our brains around this?”
She paused, sipped her drink.
“So, a couple of years ago, I went to my patrons and said, ‘I’m going to write a song, really fast. Tell me what’s going on.’ And Hurricane Harvey was bearing down on Texas, and all of the subtext of climate change was there. All of the comments were of isolation and powerlessness, and all of this water imagery, and I was writing these notes and creating a map of what it seemed like everyone was feeling. And this is what I wrote.”
Now I can taste it coming, I can taste it with my tongue
And my children are so heavy, but I pick them up and run
And I know I’ll have to swim soon, when the water gets too high
I’ll keep on holding them above me, I’ll keep on holding them and crying
Everyone I love…
The stage was illuminated by a light in the depths of the piano. Amanda yanked down her arm like she was pulling a ripcord, and the theatre plunged into total darkness.
…is drowning in the sound
While the audience was processing the song, Amanda called the Youth for Climate up onstage. Lander took the microphone, blinking in the glare of the floodlights.
“Hello everyone, this is a bit overwhelming. So, Amanda asked if she could march with us, and we said yes. We need everyone to march with us, because in days like this, where the government is doing literally nothing, we need to make this our responsibility. Because it is our responsibility.
“I have a question for you. Who has children in this hall?”
Many hands went up.
“And who has children who have already striked? Thank you. Well, I can’t say you need to send your kids onto the street, but please, support them in anything they do. And talk about climate with them. Be part with them in this movement.”
He lowered the mike a second, then raised it again.
“In this revolution, actually.”
It was the first time I had heard a call to revolution applauded by a thousand people. But I thought it would not be the last.
There were tears on my cheeks. Just hearing people acknowledge and share the horror of what was happening to our world, after fifteen years being gaslit by denialist Australian politicians. I realised this was the catharsis that so many of Amanda’s fans had told me they found in her music.
Not everyone found it so uplifting. During the intermission, a group of eight frowning Belgians headed decisively for the exits. “Does she always talk so much?” one of them asked me. “I do not know who this woman is, we just wanted a nice evening out and to hear some songs. Someone should tell her she talks too much.”
We had one more day in Antwerp, in a hotel where smiling Belgians in the lobby hid the fact that the upper floors were a surrealist construction site. I’d hung a Do Not Disturb sign on my door, but this was of little use the next morning when a man next door started smashing his bathroom apart with a sledgehammer. Every room in the wing but my own was being renovated, and the doors hung open to reveal empty concrete shells, where wind gusted through rents in the walls and stirred brick dust across the floor.
To escape the chaos, I wandered down to the old city. Antwerp sits on the famously flat Plain of Flanders, which faces existential risk from rising sea levels. Since the 19th century, a concrete and wood seawall has lined the River Scheldt as it winds through Antwerp, and green sludge on its posts showed where tides and storms reached almost to the top.
This will not be enough in the 21st century. The city is reinforcing the old walls and then building a second line of defence a short way back from the riverside, a levee 2.25 metres above the current quay. Between them is a cobblestone plain that can be sealed off by weighty, orange metal barriers on grooved tracks. It is quiet, European, non-flashy, but it marks the preparation for a future where walls are going up in more ways than one. Antwerp is ceding ground. Bracing itself for the flood.
Back in my hotel, the doors were closed. It disturbed me, knowing those bland portals hid scenes of empty devastation, and the gleam at their peepholes was the sunset shining through broken walls. But safe in the corridor, guests could pretend all was normal.
Pretend it wasn’t breaking all around us.
LONDON: ‘Everyone’s a Hypocrite’
The day after Antwerp, I woke from dreams of being trampled by animals made of smoke to find Amanda’s crew watching Greta Thunberg on their phones. Greta, the world’s most famous school-striker, had just delivered a speech to the United Nations that indicated the gloves were coming off in this youth revolt.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
She was then grotesquely applauded by the people she was eviscerating.
Amanda has been pescatarian since college for environmental and ethical reasons, but climate change had always taken a back-seat in her activism to feminism. But after Antwerp, she had sat up late into the night reading scientific papers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather. Now, jittery, she sought solace from her crew on the tour bus.
“There’s about to be a catastrophe on this planet, and I’m starting to rethink my entire life. Do I really want to be the person my kid looks back at and says, ‘You didn’t do anything?’ I’m not sure I could live with myself. I keep thinking about Ash and the world he will live in twenty years. Even if he’s okay, he might be living in a lawless dystopia.”
Emilie Tondeur, our tour assistant, spoke up with the plan I had chewed over more than once the last few years. “If it gets too bad, I’m going to go north to the woods, live in a cabin.”
“You’re not alone,” said Amanda. “A lot of people around Woodstock, even the hippies, are starting to gather guns and food. And our house up there is everything you could want for homesteading. There’s a well, fresh running water, animals, fishing. But I don’t know how to fish! I don’t know how to do anything.”
“If things fall apart, I think having a strong social network will be more important than land or money,” I said.
“Yes, you don’t want land, you want other people,” agreed Amanda. “Self-sufficiency doesn’t work, especially in a world where my family and community has no history of being self-sufficient. We are so blithely interdependent, and we think ‘someone else will fix it.’ Well … all I know is that tonight’s show is not going to fix it.”
The conversation petered out, as the apocalypse discussion always does.
Amanda wasn’t alone in weighing these questions, and things were changing fast in the music industry. In November, Coldplay announced that they would be giving up international tours out of environmental concerns, while Massive Attack publicly weighed the value of ‘unifying cultural events’ against the emissions of air travel. Travelling mainly by bus, Amanda’s carbon footprint was much smaller, but she, too, was struggling with the cold equation of carbon vs. culture. In Portugal, she asked where her fans had travelled from and found some from as far afield as Canada and Russia. “So, if I stand still, but five hundred people fly to see me, is that better for the environment?” she asked.
Change was in the air. As the tour zoomed through city after city, I kept my eyes peeled for the murals that illustrate Europe’s urban culture. I saw bees, vines, lakes. I saw memorials that listed extinct species with their dates of death. Something green and powerful was sprouting, growing roots in the autumnal streets and pushing up towards the future.
I also saw the increasingly familiar hourglass symbol of Extinction Rebellion — the relatively radical fringe of the environmental movement. Extinction Rebellion activists seek to make ‘business as usual’ untenable by getting themselves arrested in mass disobedience protests inspired by the Suffragettes, Gandhi and the Civil Rights Movement — a strategy that saw the group temporarily branded as an extremist ideology on the UK Government’s anti-terrorist watchlist. In October 2018, Extinction Rebellion didn’t formally exist. In October 2019, tens of thousands of ‘rebels’ occupied the streets around London’s Trafalgar Square for two weeks in defiance of police orders to disperse.
Extinction Rebellion’s ‘first demand’ is for us all to tell the truth about the climate emergency and the horrific repercussions it will have on our societies. Amanda seized on the idea — here it seemed like something she could do with her platform to make a difference. She pledged support to Extinction Rebellion in a newspaper interview, and for two weeks she held conversations with organisers about playing a concert in the midst of the London uprising. “I am fully committed to this. I just want to focus on this for…the rest of my life if necessary,” she assured them. But her determination rose and fell with her energy levels, and in the end, it came to nothing, as her Extinction Rebellion contacts were themselves arrested and as Amanda began to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the task.
“I wanted to do my great Helping,” she said forlornly. “But if I want to spend time with my child, get over jet lag and deal with personal problems, it’s going to come at the expense of lending my time to this movement. It’s so paralysing to know what to do. Do you take care of the world, or your family?”
I suspected she had also grown nervous as she realised the consequences of advising her million-strong Twitter following to break the law in support of an organisation that, as Amanda admitted, she didn’t really know a great deal about. In my private circles, I am hearing more people from all walks of life saying that breaking the law might be the only way to break our addiction to fossil fuels. But anybody who endorses a rebellion in public is going to be attacked for hypocrisy, especially if that person’s relative wealth and lifestyle seem representative of the system the rebellion aims to dismantle.
I raised the question of hypocrisy with Amanda one evening as we explored Trafalgar Square, where a giant pink octopus was being kettled by police, people danced to the Spice Girls, and giant flags hung from Nelson’s Column read EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE.
“Everyone’s a hypocrite,” she said guardedly.
“Yes, but there are degrees. You’re a globetrotting rock star.”
“I know, I know. I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t know what to do except be honest about it. And the thing I’ve found hardest about living in this rarefied world of privilege is that people don’t talk about it, because everyone knows how shameful it is.”
Her voice cracked as she looked away and added, “Anyway, soon we’re not going to have the option of any of this privilege.”
“Do you believe that? That things are going to get really bad?
“I … don’t know. I know that I believe the science. And I also know that humankind has done extraordinary, revolutionary, magnificent, things fast before. But I do have a pretty acute sense of extreme change coming at me and my family like a freight train.”
Hearing her genuine fear made me scared too, about the real possibility of some kind of social collapse, especially if food crops begin to fail. And yet, standing among those hundreds of tents, seeing how, defying threats of arrest, citizens had come together to set up first-aid stations, libraries, music stages and prayer rooms, I also felt something new. That even if our institutions wouldn’t act, maybe we could. The narrative of our helplessness was shifting.
EASTERN EUROPE: ‘We Will All Face Mumbo Jumbo’
Everywhere we went, I asked Amanda’s fans what they thought about the future. Some of them laughed and some of them cried, and all of them said they thought things were falling apart. In France, a woman called Lia Guillaumet told me, “I have a Bachelor’s in Chinese studies, and something that strikes me from my Chinese history lessons is that every time a dynasty was about to fall down, the country faced terrible natural catastrophes. Earthquakes, typhoons, you name them. When Earth was angry, that meant the last monarch of the dynasty would fall, and a new era would begin. It’s hard not to draw parallels.”
Collapse doesn’t necessarily mean a plunge into a Mad Max dystopia. It usually comes as a fall from a complicated social system to a simpler one, and with it a transfer of power from institutions to strongmen. Worlds can collapse, and they have before. And nowhere were we more aware of that than when the tour rolled beyond the rusted remnants of what was once the Iron Curtain.
The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics was born out of war in 1922 and euthanised itself in 1991. A blink of an eye in historical terms. But to a young person in the 1980s, it was all the world they had ever known and all the world their parents had ever known, which is close enough to eternity for most people. The USSR was a society built on the promise of progress, but it quickly became a place to survive, not thrive. The leaders grew older and more cut off from the people they supposedly represented. And when those people built the courage to stand up against their society, it turned out that the structure was rotten from top to bottom. All it took was a push, and a moment of humanity from the men with the guns, and the whole thing came crumbling down.
I wonder if it was a relief in the end. To lay down certainty.
Climate change may spell an end to global capitalism, but that end seems as unimaginable to us now as the fall of the Berlin Wall did in 1989. I had been thinking more and more about those countries as they stood at a precipice, and what it felt like as they took the plunge into the unknown. I couldn’t know, but Amanda’s fan base spans all ages, and when I put out a call, I quickly heard back a story that was familiar in many of its parallels
I am a patron of Amanda’s and was happy to see you asking for possible parallels between today’s political situation and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. In the last months, I have been musing about that a lot myself.
I was born in the GDR [East Germany] in 1964 and I finished my degree in 1987. Due to an ecumenical process of the Christian churches in Europe in 1988/89, I learned in great detail about industrial pollution in the GDR and the processes which had people lose their faith in a state which refused to tell the truth. Human-made climate change was a clear-cut scientific truth already then.
At the end of 1988, my world started contracting. During the summer of 1989, many people just vanished (they left the country without telling anyone about their plans). From one day to the other, my doctor was not there anymore, a teacher did not return, neighbours just left their flat behind. It was clear that something had to happen, and it would happen sooner rather than later.
I was afraid it would be a civil war. Especially after what happened in China in June 1989. It was a great surprise when on October 8th things turned around and the city council decided to start a conversation. On October 9th, it was also happening in Leipzig and later in Berlin. And then everything changed dramatically in just a few months.
I vividly remember the feeling of my world shrinking. Comparing it to the feeling when Trump was elected and Brexit chosen — there are parallels. Especially the feeling: this cannot go on much longer.
But the difference for me is that now it is much harder to grasp what to do. When we shrugged off our government in the GDR, they had the police and the army on their side, but not billions of money and hidden think tanks to tell lies and keep everybody separated. In truth, their power was not that big.
Now I am much less hopeful, and it makes me ill.
All the best,
It was hard to forget the legacy of communism in Prague, which knew its dark side better than most places. It was in Prague that Amanda told me to speak with her friend Gaba Kulka, a Polish singer who had become a mother at the same time as Amanda, and who Amanda described as writing the most intelligent song lyrics she had ever heard.
“What does she look like?”
“Can’t help you. A human. A friend. A human friend.”
“Cool. You understand, Amanda, that I will not be able to find this woman?”
In the end Gaba found us. She had loved Amanda’s show, and was frustrated it would not be coming to her home country. “Poland is really shitty right now,” she said. “We have re-elected a government that is populist, conservative and hell-bent on chipping away at democracy via the destruction of the Polish judicial system. They also worship coal, even though when you look at the list of the world’s most smog-ridden cities, Polish cities are up there with Delhi and Chengdu.”
Gaba saw it as a forerunner for what was going to happen across the West, where populist-nationalist governments are strengthening ties with fossil-fuel companies even as their interests come into increasing conflict with democracy. “Britain and America are becoming more like us,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who speaks; it’s just a magma of meaningless. Soon we will all face mumbo-jumbo.”
We already are. Unable to even acknowledge environmental collapse within the paradigm of their politics, and helpless to influence global economic trends, most of our leaders have been reduced to waffling nonsense. It has been striking that the bigger our problems get, the smaller the apparent concerns of our governments. Blue passports! Dress codes for citizenship ceremonies! Bathrooms!
“So, what should artists do?” I asked Gaba.
“I think the only effective way is to be an example. If you want others to effect a change, they need to see you sacrifice your own time and energy. It could be the way you create your art, or the way you tour. We are all really … thinly spread. Overwhelmed. I think sticking to what you know best is a good start. Incorporate the activism into your art, instead of stressing over how little you are able to do everywhere.”
Gudrun talked about the contraction of her world — the escape valve that was the West. When the communist governments collapsed, others were there to step into the void. Predatory capitalists with briefcases and smiles helped relaunch the new Russia as a petro-state. But today there is no island remote enough that our pollution isn’t washing onto its beaches. The globe is so connected and capitalism so pervasive, there is nothing outside our system. Who will step in today if our society fails? Who can save us, except ourselves?
LUXEMBOURG: ‘Another World is Possible’
Nobody can be panicked all the time. Like my own, Amanda’s very real concerns about the future came and went with her moods. “I can’t see myself doing a tour like this ever again,” she would say one day, then the next discuss plans for an international reunion tour with the Dresden Dolls. She exists in two worlds, planning a Schrödinger’s future. In one, her life will continue as it always has, she will make music and watch her son grow up. In the other, she will retreat to a fortified compound to eke out subsistence farming in parched soil. In the meantime, until the world collapses or improves, there is nothing to do each day but wake up and keep doing the job.
And so we came to play a gig in Luxembourg.
Luxembourg is a civilised place. It was hard to believe in the end of the world in Luxembourg. But its students were as passionate as anywhere else, and we were again crossing paths with a climate strike. So Amanda and I joined one more march, alongside hundreds of students filing from the university to the centre of town.
I found Zohra, a teenage organiser with striped cheeks and pigtails, who also served in Extinction Rebellion. I asked her “old person” questions, like: Why the green stripes across the cheeks? Isn’t it a little militaristic?
“I don’t know! Someone else was doing it, so we copied them.” She cupped her hands and joined in a chant also copied — words from a foreign language that had been sung in Antwerp and are being sung all over the world: “WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE, ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE!”
After decades of stasis, something has clicked in the zeitgeist. The climate movement is coalescing around symbols and demands that spread by osmosis: Greta’s face, ‘climate emergency,’ ‘change the system, not the climate.’ Among the internet generation, climate rebellion had finally gone viral.
As streams combine to make a river, our group swelled with tributaries from parallel marches until we filled the streets: students and unionists and just anyone who gave a damn. People opened their windows and watched from upper stories. Above us, Luxembourg’s golden statue of a lady holding a wreath was obscured by the green and purple smoke of flares. Amanda found me in the crowd and seized my arm. “I think this is it, Jack,” she said. “A revolution.”
We crammed around a bandstand in the centre of town, where Zohra shouted for her generation.
“I look to the future and I see nothing but pure existential fear! People all over the world are dying from the climate crisis. And people in power try to trivialise us or calm us down. Well, we won’t accept that! And if they keep telling us that our demands cannot be met in our system, then the system needs fundamental change!”
Whoops and cheers.
She then hyped the crowd for the singer most of them didn’t know, and Amanda bounded up on stage, ukulele raised. “Hello Luxembourg!”
Luxembourg cheered and blew horns.
“I was recently in Antwerp on a march just like this, and the kids there were on fucking fire! Hundreds of thousands of people are marching in Australia, in America, in Africa. Millions of people around the world are sick of this system, and we are going to change it!”
Amanda was jumping now, fist raised, green cheek-stripes aglow.
“I want to say something in defence of being an artist. I’ve been asking myself a lot whether art is helping the world. And yes, it is! Because look at what you’ve done to make a movement — paint, drums, singing. That’s art! We need you artists now more than ever. Artists are the ones who are least afraid to tell the world the truth about how it feels to be living in the world.”
“So share your stories. Art does not have to be perfect, and it doesn’t even have to be good! Just make something! Make a parade! And on that note, I am going to play you a silly song on my ukulele.”
As we left the march, Amanda said to me, “I always wanted to be a gatherer, and I became a musician because it seemed like the only way to get people to gather together.”
And from that point in the tour, she seemed renewed in purpose. When the mood took her, she would add an old Dresden Dolls number to her show, “Sing”. And when she did, the gathered fans who knew the words would stand and chime in, together.
There is this thing that’s like talking except you don’t talk,
There is this thing keeping everyone’s lungs and lips locked,
It is called fear and it’s seeing a great renaissance.
Sing for the bartender, sing for the janitor, sing.
Sing for the cameras, sing for the animals, sing.
AUSTRALIA: ‘This is Really Happening’
Only ten years ago, we were talking about climate change as a problem our grandchildren would face, but I woke up yesterday with ash in my throat and anger in my heart. My family have lost homes in the Australian bushfires, and my mother wears a mask to walk her dogs. Our beaches are littered with ash and dead birds.
It feels like these fires will mark a tipping point in how we think about our climate, at least in Australia. Not only because of the damage they have caused, but because they are the first catastrophic fires in the era of smartphone saturation, which means they are being recorded in all their apocalyptic savagery. It is the astonishing photos and videos coming out of Australia that is keeping the fires in the international media spotlight and putting pressure on our politicians. In other words, it is art that is mobilising a response to crisis.
The last message Amanda wrote to me was dictated from Tasmania, on a day when the smoke plume from Australia’s fires covered an area half the size of Europe.
“I am standing here in Launceston looking over the hills and even down here in Tasmania, there’s a massive amount of smoke. My husband has to wear a mask just to go outside. I had to watch the tears come down my babysitter’s face as she told me that her uncle’s house was gone, and that her friend’s animal sanctuary had been burned to the ground, they weren’t able to save any of the animals.
“You know, this is real. It’s really happening, Jack. And I don’t know what the right thing to do is and I know you don’t either, but all we can do is try.”
Celebrity platitudes about the climate can seem reminiscent of the anti-famine songs of the 1980s, mocked in our memories as virtue signalling that did very little to feed the world. But while Bono and Bob Geldof knew they were never going to go hungry themselves, the climate emergency is getting closer to all of us, day by day. Whether or not you see Amanda’s activism as hypocritical, helpful, or both, her fear for her family is genuine. And when I receive messages from loved ones showing fireballs bearing down on their homes, so is my own.
If school-children can fight to save the world, so can the rest of us. For me, I’ve joined Extinction Rebellion, because I believe history shows that we can change the world, and that peaceful disobedience is the best way to do it. That is not for everybody, but others are opening their homes to people who have lost theirs, swearing off meat, or getting down to writing those protest songs.
We’ve already stepped off the cliff. This historical moment is when we decide how we land — on our feet? Or breaking our backs? It may be too late to save everything we had; but once we accept that, it’s not too late to build something new.
Sing for the cameras, sing for the animals.
This essay is second in a four part series of long-form articles by Australian writer Jack Nicholls and British/American photojournalist Gabrielle Motola, completely funded by more than 15,000 of Amanda Palmer’s Patreon supporters. The other three chapters are available at:
Chapter 01: There Will Be Some Introspection: Us and Them
Chapter 03: The Art of Asking About Abortion
Chapter 04: Safe Spaces
Gabrielle Motola is an award-winning documentary, travel, portrait photographer and author. Her work has been honoured by the AOP, The Observer, Olympus, TWPP, and FujiFilm. Her personal work focuses on people, identity in society, individually, and how society influences identity, with a focus on gender-related aspects. She is known for her immersive journeys which take her around the globe. “Henge to Henge” chronicled her solo motorcycle trip from Stonehenge to Iceland’s Arctic Henge. Her first self-published book, “An Equal Difference”, is a sociological portrait of the Icelandic mindset, published in 2016. She maintains an Instagram account of street encounters and stories at @gmotophotos. Gabrielle is also teaching photography and sharing extended stories and images on Patreon. If you’d like to become part of her community, learn from her, and support her work visit www.patreon.com/gmotophotos. Her official website is www.gabriellemotola.com.
Jack Nicholls writes speculative fiction, poetry, and essays, all part of their attempt to chronicle the tectonic social shifts of the 21st century. They are interested in history, climate change, and the narrowing space in our culture between plausible science-fiction and implausible reality. You can find links to their work at www.jack-nicholls.net or on Twitter at @Jackofninetales.