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Artist Divines Climate-Change Anxiety With Tarot


Published September 21, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 21, 2016 at 1:06 p.m.

"The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies"with James Leonard - COURTESY OF MELISSA BLACKALL
  • Courtesy of Melissa Blackall
  • "The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies"with James Leonard

Scientists have a lot to say about climate change and the future. But what about diviners? Ask Brooklyn-based contemporary artist James Leonard. This Thursday, September 22, he's bringing his "Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies" to Burlington's Peace & Justice Center, where he invites visitors to receive free climate-change-related tarot readings.

Phenology is the study of climate patterns and natural phenomena. The tarot is a deck of cards used since medieval times for games or, more recently, for divination by practiced "readers." As for Leonard's handcrafted tent, he bills it on his website as "a cross between a post-apocalyptic wigwam and a children's blanket fort."

His one-day performance installation in the Queen City marks the project's 26th and penultimate stop on a summerlong tour that has taken Leonard from the mid-Atlantic region to New York State to northern New England. What inspired it?

"I've always been divinatory-curious," Leonard said in a phone interview, then explained that "Tent" grew out of his earlier work based on coming to terms with mortality. Leonard began work on the tent in February 2015 as an artist-in-residence at the Boston Center for the Arts. The exterior of the intimately sized structure is made of oiled marine canvas; a textural rainbow of recycled clothes lines its cozy interior. Leonard estimated the project involved more than 500 hours of sewing.

It mattered to him to craft a warm setting in which to address such a heavy topic as the future of the planet. "I knew what I wanted was the real-world equivalent of [the scene in] The Matrix when Neo goes into the kitchen and there's the Oracle," Leonard said. "She's baking cookies, and she tells Neo things that he doesn't want to hear but that he needs to hear."

Tarot readings offer "a form of very personalized, contemplative storytelling," Leonard said. His practice as a reader begins with helping visitors to "take things like anxiety and nebulous concern" and formulate coherent, multivalent questions, "as opposed to simple binary questions that disempower people."

The tarot decks Leonard uses are not altered, but he has formulated a customized "spread" — a guiding format for reading the cards. Court cards, for example, may be interpreted as representative of a particular ecological population such as an endangered species.

Most of the questions Leonard addresses from "Tent" guests fall into one of four broad categories, he said, probing for narrative, vocational, ethical or spiritual insights. People ask about timelines, he said, usually in the 20-to-50-year range. Some ask for guidance about work, such as a man who operates a permaculture business. Leonard estimated that a dozen or so millennial women have expressed ethical concerns about whether to have children.

While researching global divinatory traditions, Leonard said, he found that such practices in American culture have been marginalized as "curiosity and a form of entertainment." But divinatory practices can be "as much about contemplation as about predicting the future," he asserted.

Emotional catharsis can result from the readings, too. "It's not uncommon for me to have people cry in the tent," Leonard said. At least four people in Butler, Pa. — a community deeply affected by fracking — "just burst into tears," he noted. "That's how raw the community was."

Many people in multiple locations "were asking about now," Leonard continued, "because they're feeling pain connected to our energy policy right now, in their community."

Leonard counts himself as part of what he called "a huge stampede, almost, to social-practice art." Whether artists affiliate themselves with racial, economic or climate justice, he said, "We're grasping for agency, and it's showing up in our work." During his "Tent" project, he's found inspiration in reading about early American abolitionists and suffragists who also toured the country to espouse their causes.

"I need to be engaging people," Leonard said. "I can't wait for the art world to find me."