What Shall We Build Here: a festival of art, climate and community Back to previous

What Shall We Build Here: a festival of art, climate and community

Author: Artsadmin


Aldgate Connect BID is proud to partner with Artsadmin in launching the programme for the second iteration of the summer festival What Shall We Build Here (28 June – 2 July 2023), a celebration of art, climate and community rooted in its hyperlocal area: Aldgate, Whitechapel, Spitalfields and the City of London.

The festival aims to empower individuals and communities impacted by the climate crisis, by asking them to consider a simple question – What Shall We Build Here? This titular provocation invites audiences to imagine ways of living together that are just and sustainable for people and planet. In addition to artistic commissions, What Shall We Build Here will host an international symposium with the ACT network, exploring the intersections between contemporary performance, democratic participation and climate justice. By shifting the focus from the globally shared threat to hyperlocal issues, the festival aims to build better understanding, unlikely alliances, solidarity and community empowerment through culture.

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Why this is urgent right now

  • Tower Hamlets is one of London’s most polluted boroughs, with 7.4% of deaths in people over 30 attributable to air pollution. The What Shall We Build Here programme is deeply rooted in climate justice and social justice, responding to the Tower Hamlets’ Net Zero Carbon Plan 2020 which calls for the collective and collaborative action necessary to ‘meet its part of the global ambition’.
  • Friends of the Earth highlight the lack of diversity in climate debates, and Artsadmin’s research partner The Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) emphasises that democratic dialogue and artistic engagement are powerful ways to develop action around climate, particularly with the areas where people live, work and study.
  • Artsadmin was lead partner on Season for Change, a £1m project that brought 10 climate artworks to communities across England in 2021-22, platforming voices historically excluded from the climate conversation. Data collected showed that participation in immersive, focussed activity gave participants the space and time to think about how their personal choices have an impact on local and global environments.

Growing out of this context, What Shall We Build Here creates temporary spaces to imagine other possible futures. Following a successful first year in summer 2021, this year’s festival continues to work with artists to make events that bring people together – in conversation, in play, in reflection and in rest.


The centrepiece of What Shall We Build Here is The People’s Palace of Possibility, a temporary outdoor pavilion from Sheffield-based theatre and interactive arts company The Bare Project, which will take up residence in Mallon Gardens for the duration. This participatory installation creates a collaborative space for utopian scheming and rageful dreaming. Nomadic and always growing, The Palace is added to and animated by people wherever it goes. It has many rooms: a radio station, a pantry, a library, and an escape hatch. The kitchen, which is at the heart of the Palace, will host performances and workshops throughout the festival, including weaving with Sheila Ghelani, sculpture with Becky Lyon, and audio artworks from Land Body Ecologies and Farmerama. It will also host two Palace Feasts, on Wednesday 28 July and Saturday 1 June. During these shared meals, The Bare Project will uncover the mysterious origins of The Palace, and toast to possible unbuilt futures.

In the Theatre at Toynbee Studios, British-Nigerian multidisciplinary artist Nwando Ebizie’s 70-minute guided multisensory experience Extreme Unction Vol.2 constructs another utopian space, this time drawing inspiration from hammams, saunas and bathing spaces from a variety of cultures. From 28 June – 1 July, audiences can experience the Celestial Tent, a liminal, sonic-ritual art environment inspired by the life and spirit of 12th century visionary Hildegard von Bingen. As people immerse themselves in sound and light, Ebizie’s creation invites them to enter into mythic time before returning to new life. Elsewhere in Toynbee Studios, on Wednesday 28 June, internationally renowned artist, performer and author, Sarah Vanhee will stage We are before in the Court Room. A continuation of her iconic, transdisciplinary performance Lecture For Every One, where Vanhee spent seven years walking, uninvited, into meeting rooms and speaking about how we live together as human beings, We are before is a story about words, love, violence and connection, and what it means to speak up, today.

City of London-based artist Tink Flaherty’s intimate solo performance Benched will also be shown in the Court Room, on Sunday 2 July, following its first performance at the Barbican’s Golden Lane Estate on Friday 23 June. Flaherty has been taking their bench out to parks, bus stations, markets and high streets across the country since 2018 and inviting strangers to sit with them. These ‘bench sittings’ form the basis of their first show, a unique exploration of human relationships created from a queer, autistic, working class perspective. Flaherty will be holding ‘bench sittings’ in and around Toynbee Studios throughout the festival, using interactions and exchanges with local people to inform their performances. Raw, humorous and tender, Benched emphasises the need for connection and conversation in a divided world.

Meanwhile, in the Artsadmin Canteen, artist, co-creator and human ecologist Zoë Laureen Palmer will begin her project What Shall We Grow Here? with an installation looking into biodiversity in the local area. Palmer views planting as a practise in dreaming, based on the belief that future generations will be around to reap the harvest. Her residency, extending from summer 2023 – spring 2024, will explore radical kinship with nature, envisaging what local communities might grow in and around Toynbee Studios. The activity kicks off on Saturday 1 July with an open workshop to inform seeding and planting rituals in the coming year. Also in the Artsadmin Canteen, Maria Andrews’ film Deliverance, which explores the local fast-food delivery and digital platform economy in Tower Hamlets, will be screened on Friday 30 June. Deliverance draws upon Andrews’ experiences as a rider for Just Eat Easy and Uber during the 2018 delivery rider strike, touching on themes of diaspora, history and landscape. Using her signature human-focussed documentary style, Andrews highlights the stark reality that 35% of every meal bought on these platforms flies straight out of the borough and calls for a disruption of this precarious system.

As part of Art, Climate, Transition (ACT), a large-scale European cooperation project on ecology, climate change and social transition funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, Artsadmin is co-hosting an international symposium over two days, from Wednesday 28 – Thursday 29 June. The ACT Symposium will feature lectures, panel discussions, performances, audio walks, and feasts. The programme includes: a practical exploration of resilience within environmental movements with Zamzam Ibrahim, a movement workshop with Brussels-based artists Daniel Linehan & Michael Helland, a masterclass in Legislative Theatre with Katy Rubin, weaving with Sheila Ghelani, and a keynote performance lecture from Mathieu Charles, whose innovative performance art reflects his Mauritian Creole heritage, his stance on anti-colonialism, and his embrace of diasporic futurisms.

Elsewhere in east London, mental health community and sober rave collective misery will present their first misery movies event on Sunday 2 July at the iconic Rio Cinema in Dalston. They will show a lovingly curated series of short films addressing themes of mental health, nature and QTIBPOC futures, including films made during their misery medicine programme – a yearlong project which saw them exploring and decolonising a different public green space in London each month, guided by QTIBPOC community herbalists.

Two Year Legacy

What Shall We Build Here is not just a moment in time, but a legacy of collective action and imagining in response to the climate crisis for local communities in Aldgate, Whitechapel, Spitalfields and the City of London. In order to connect these different communities with each other and build a wider conversation on the impact of the climate crisis in this area, Artsadmin is recruiting eight Community Climate Champions who live, work or study in Aldgate, Spitalfields, Whitechapel or the City of London, to participate in the festival programme.

Creating this hyperlocal, intersectional community will ensure that local voices are embedded in the fabric of What Shall We Build Here, developing relationships between different communities within the area which will persist as a legacy of the festival. Crucially, it will also provide paid experience in the arts and create a sense of ownership and awareness around climate issues, that the Champions can carry forward on their various paths. In addition, Zoë Laureen Palmer’s project What Shall We Grow Here? will continue for two years through a series of events, provocations, on site interventions that are grown or built and retaining these relationships.


Mark Godber, lead festival producer and interim co-artistic director of Artsadmin, says:

“This festival and its biennial predecessors (2 Degrees Festival) since 2009 have all had hybrid focuses, combining art and activism, climate and social justice, and have been international in influence whilst remaining rooted in the communities around Toynbee Studios.

Inspired by many of the artists we have worked with over the last fifteen years, we want to give space to the ‘yes’ and to the ‘no’: recognising that whilst we need to reflect the anger they feel about the injustices in the world, we also need to celebrate the ways that they are building change. What Shall We Build Here and the ACT Symposium were co-curated by Artsadmin’s former Artistic Director Róise Goan and both reflect her vision and commitment to social and climate justice.”

Dr. Malaika Cunningham, practice researcher at Artsadmin and artistic director of The Bare Project, comments:

“The unique role of artistic practice within environmental justice is within its ability to open new approaches to discourse. It can offer a spirit of play even within our rage and fear and connect us with the human stories at the heart of environmental crisis. The Art, Climate, Transition Symposium has been designed with this in mind. Working with our European partners we have put together an eclectic programme which allows for multiple forms of exchange, beyond talking and listening, to honour the emotional, playful and imaginative role of arts within this conversation.”

Ben Cooper-Melchiors, Executive Director at Artsadmin adds:

“UN scientist climate reports are getting steadily worse. How do we digest a globally shared threat and understand our role in net zero targets across our city? For decades our work has sought to address social justice and climate justice, from a hyperlocal to an international level. Understanding the relationship between the climate and where you live or work is vital and doing so through cultural experiences and conversations is effective and affirming. That’s why we’re partnering with and supported by Aldgate Connect BID and The City of London Corporation to build unlikely alliances between local residents and businesses. The legacy of What Shall We Build Here will continue beyond these five days, with two years of ongoing provocations and relationships highlighting the value of many small actions.”



As a commitment to inclusivity and affordability during a cost-of-living crisis, tickets for What Shall We Build Here are subsidised and priced on a Pay What You Can banded system. Artsadmin has based this model on the one developed by Buzzcut, SQIFF and Glasgow Zine Library. There are three price bands, ranging from £5 to £10 to £15 for individual festival events, and from £30 to £40 to £50 for ACT Symposium day passes. A comprehensive guide to help audiences decide which band they fall into is held on Artsadmin’s website. If paying for tickets in any band presents a significant barrier to attending, people can email admin@artsadmin.co.uk to request a free ticket.

Food and drink

Caffe Genco, the new independent café operator based at the Artsadmin Canteen, will be providing sustainable, nourishing food using seasonal ingredients, for audiences throughout What Shall We Build Here. In addition, they are catering the vegetarian and vegan lunchtime feasts at the ACT Symposium, which are included in the ticket prices. Inspired by the flavours of Turkey, Italy and the Mediterranean, guests can expect vibrant salads, focaccia sandwiches, slow-roasted vegetables and delicious cakes throughout the festival, all made with a zero-waste ethos.


Full accessibility information for all What Shall We Build Here events and venues can be found here. People requiring additional access adjustments to book or attend festival events can email access@artsadmin.co.uk or call 020 7247 5102.


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What Shall We Build Here is supported by ACT and BE PART, through the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, by the City of London Corporation, Aldgate Connect BID, and Arts Council England.


Part of Aldgate Connect BID’s Summer in Aldgate Event Programme, check out full programme below:

Summer in Aldgate