James Reed


Agents of Change in Muizenburg, Africa. Photograph by James Reed.

Agents of Change is an impulse that I have been carrying for a long time. To find a form for that impulse needed a lot of close observation, reflecting, and experimenting. I started to realize that a concern, which I had been carrying for many years, was the isolation and disconnection that I experienced within myself and saw everyday while growing up in Apartheid South Africa. When I began to engage with this concern, a process emerged and evolved into Agents of Change.


I started to work with Shelly Sacks (at Oxford/Brooks University in the UK). A part of her methodology is to encourage you to work with your concern and to shape a kind of research question that you can use to then shape your way of working in the world with a sense of equality, care and responsibility. Of course my constant relationship with the land and all living beings has also shaped this work. Seeing how resources and land that has belonged to people and living creatures has been destroyed or manipulated, or how people have been relocated, caused a large degree of pain, which in turn informed work.


The ten foot measuring stick, that the Agents of Change hold when they are standing on the shoreline indicates the rise of the sea level by the year 2107. It is almost like the measuring stick used by land surveyors. My father was an architect. Often, when I was a child, I used to go with him to do land surveying and I held the stick. So I carry this image of the stick with me as a way for measuring. We used to go waterskiing on a lake and we wore life jackets. I had this wonderful feeling of being able to ski when I had the life jacket. I always felt the safety of the life jacket and I also had this idea that this bright, orange life vest has a sense of emergency about it. I knew that I wanted to integrate these images from childhood into the work for sharing this experience and expanding this qualities potential.


The idea for using the image of the stick in this particular work came to me by way of a call, or an invitation, from The Harrisons in 2006 at Gunpowder Park in UK. They invited artists to develop strategies to make people aware of the reality of the rising sea level. They used the term, or asked the question, “How do we recede gracefully?” Because, as you can imagine, a panic or a sense of crisis emerges when people really begin to become conscious of this. I wanted to make a space where people could activate that grace within themselves.


A space where people have the time to explore, internally and externally, that quality of grace and then have the time to make it real.


As the participants start to work with the methodology of Agents of Change, layers of numbness and distraction start to fragment and to be questioned. There is a re-meeting of the self. People become energized, enchanted, and empowered by just having the time and space to listen, to think and to reflect upon where they are within this larger ecological crisis.


They have the opportunity to engage with their own concerns and shape their own questions and to ask themselves,  “How does my daily way of being connect to climate change? How is my way of being, in relation to other people and other beings, a part of climate change?”


Just having time to reflect upon shaping their own questions and those questions, the participants start to discover, or uncover, what guides their choices and the basis of their thinking. It has been incredible for me to see in the groups a quality of listening and a level of discussion that starts to become very human and vulnerable. People start to transcend their fear of being able to communicate from sensitive spaces and start to that ability as a resource for growing a new way of thinking and being in the world.


When I was working in Basel, Switzerland there was a student who were Agents of Change. He was standing next to the Rhine River, with his stick and life vest, and this older man came up to him and he said, “So what are you doing here?” 


The student replied that he was having thoughts about the ecological crisis. He told the man that before being an Agent of Change he did not know what positive action he could take in relation to the ecological crisis. Somehow, by doing this action he felt that he was participating on some level. The older man said to him,  “So you are 18 years old and you actually think that you can change the world? This is a problem that has been here for so long. What can you do? What can we actually do?”


And the young guy said, “You know I am just discovering a way to be in the world and somehow this is helping me to find a way of being.”  And in that instant the man that was talking with him must have thought back to the time when he was that age and felt that he to could imagine a different world. The young guy took out a journal that we use as a kind of conversation MAP. So while they were talking, he was noting these things.


Then the Agents of Change fill out a check that lists the passers by questions of concern. They give this check to the person that they are talking with, so that he or she can be reminded of their concern, of the experience that they had with the Agent of Change. The young student said that when he wrote out the check out and then gave it to the older man, he knew that he had manifested his positive thoughts materially into the world. Together they had manifested a quality of exchange that all human beings have available and can bring into a form that activate points for the imagination. Joseph Bueys said, “Our real capital is our imagination.”


When the Agent of Change gave the check to the older man the imagination was manifested with a tender experience.


We often have a knee jerk reaction to our world. Instead of being able to observe, digest and really shape our quality thoughts and allow those to emerge, we get absorbed into a larger system where we lose the capital of our imagination.  Finding and entering into this space is like a change back to our selves. It is an area where we can develop new organs of perception and to awaken our real, caring abilities and let those live in the world.