What exactly is an ecovention?
In this respect,
the exhibition reflects my own exploration of the last several years to
find artworks that cross the line from traditional art production and
institutionalization, into the larger context of human and non-human natural
communities. In the late 1990s, after more than a decade of working within
the contemporary art world as gallerist, curator, and publicist, I began
to have questions regarding my sphere of work. I wondered about the relevance
of the art I was seeing, and was faced with a serious dilemma: the planet
was deteriorating rapidly, while the prevailing art in galleries and museums
was mostly autobiographical and self-referential.
After some years of research and with great debt to both Barbara Matilsky's groundbreaking 1992 exhibition "Fragile Ecologies" at the Queens Museum in New York, and Heike Strelow's comprehensive "Natural Reality" (1999) at the Ludwig Museum in Germany, I began to see that an alternative vision existed. There is a small yet growing, world-wide movement of artists who are actively at work finding ways to creatively solve ecological problems. They are breaking out of the traditional confines of what is considered art by engaging in real world issues and daring for their art to have a function - thereby calling into question the very framework within which we define art. For years now, writers such as Suzi Gablik and Lucy Lippard have been championing a social role and function for art, rejecting the notion that aesthetics can not serve anything but itself and its own ends.
The purpose of Ecovention is to create public awareness of these innovative and inventive artist solutions taking place all over the world, where many artists have entered into the new scientific field of restoration ecology. They are reaching out across disciplines and helping to bridge the gap between art and life by raising awareness and appreciation of our natural resources. By giving aesthetic form to restored natural areas and urban sites, these artists are engaging in a collaborative process with nature, practicing a socially relevant art. They are helping to create a new paradigm by proving that art can contribute to society as a whole, not merely in the politically correct sense or as a social critique, but rather by participating directly in the world. By focusing on the interrelationships between the biological, cultural, political, or historical aspects of ecosystems, these artists are working to extend environmental principles and practices directly into the community.
By asking fearless questions that no one else thought to ask, these artists in Ecovention are taking on the role of visionaries, working collaboratively with architects, planners, social scientists, biologists, botanists, and communities. The goal for Ecovention is to present these projects as case studies. In this manner we hope that their experiences can provide access and information to those that might be inspired towards making works of their own, paving the way for a whole new kind of art that can help realize needed change in the world. Special thanks to artist Ruth Wallen for sharing her insights with me which were elaborated on in the above essay. Also to Tim Collins for his clarity and information regarding the practice of restoration ecology and to Jackie Brookner who continues to inspire me with her ideas and passion for Eco Art. I would also like to thank the CAC, Charles Desmarais and Sue Spaid for having the courage to take this exhibition, one which truly pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as art in the museum world today. I would also like to thank Suzi Gablik for starting me on this journey in the first place and to all the artists in Ecovention for their vision and commitment to this cause.
A Note on Ecoventions, Activist Art and Praxis
The influence of postmodern theory is distinctly discernible in Lippard's implicit conception of the "act" in "activist" art as a speech act. This construction limits her to a discussion of informational networks, and alphabetic and visual texts as the definitive outcome of this brand of activism. Thus, the subversive potential of artistic activism is restricted to the realm of discourse. Most of the works she discusses in support of her argument are, not surprisingly, conceptually sophisticated agitation-propaganda.
Lippard's definition of activist art locates the practices it designates at some remove from the committed, theorized, strategic, and substantive actions that are identified by the term "praxis." This move highlights the distinction between abstract ideas and their enunciation in spoken/written/visual texts, on the one hand, and principled practical activity, on the other, and returns this discussion to the very roots of the historical debate about the nature and significance of praxis: Aristotle's writings on ethical life.
Aristotle argued that all human enterprises might be understood as either
theoretical or practical. His classification system has been usefully
summarized: The purpose of a theoretical discipline is the pursuit of
truth through contemplation; its telos ["goal"] is the attainment
of knowledge for its own sake. [
] The practical disciplines are
those sciences which deal with ethical and political life; their telos
is practical wisdom and knowledge. 4
It is the
practical disciplines that are identified with praxis.
Lippard's communicative exchange certainly arises out of critical reflection, and it exceeds this first Aristotelian category of theoretical activity when it produces subversive and/or empowering speech acts and texts. But insofar as it fails to link theory to socially ameliorative practice or action in a relationship in which they modify one another reciprocally until a satisfactory synthesis is achieved, it never rises to the level of Aristotle's privileged second category. It constitutes activity without praxis. For this reason, the products of this communicative exchangeLippard's activist artcan never be more than mere discursive residues.
from Lippard's account of recent activist art is almost any discussion
of public projects by the many artists, addressed in this book and exhibition,
who have been engaged for more than three decades with issues in ecology
and environmentalism. Perhaps this is because the very term "ecovention"
was devised to designate a category of artistic activity exclusive of
the purely educational, or fantastic and unrealizable environmental remediation
and restoration activities that would correspond with Lippard's limited
notion of activist art as communicative exchange. If a given project does
not proceed from the producer's critical reflection on a specific
environmental challenge through research, community dialogue and consensus
building, and direct political action to concrete realizationif
it doesn't actually change the world in positive waysit is
simply not an ecovention. In this sense, ecoventions may be considered
the sine qua non of activist artistic praxis.
2. Lucy R. Lippard, "Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power," in Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984).
3. Lippard, 344.
4. Wilfred Carr and Stephen Kimmis, Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge and Action Research (Philadelphia: Falmer Press, 1986): 32.
J. Cuomo, Ph. D., excerpted from Feminism and Ecological Communities,
As far as the work of ethical theory and practice is concerned, useful and accurate notions of human flourishing can only emerge from richly contextualized, sometimes local, evaluations of what it means to be human, what people want and strive for, and what enables their living in ways they value in specific historical and cultural locations. Also, although physiological considerations must be part of what it means to flourish, human flourishing cannot be understood solely as the fulfillment of biological needs, and when biological criteria are used we must remember that these are always conceived and filtered in and through the social and cultural lenses. Even Aristotle believed that what it means to be human, and to thrive as a human, is determined through a variety of cultural considerations, including intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and political well-being. Finally, conceptions of human flourishing that are consistent with ecological feminism must be ecologically sensitive, or built upon an awareness of the fact that all humans are ecological, as well as social and individual being....
Typically, anthropocentrism, or human-centered values and ontologies, are believed to be the root of environmental degradation and exploitation. Ecological holists believe that the majority of humans, especially those in postindustrial, technological societies, ignore the extent to which we are dependent members of biotic communities and ecosystems, and that in order to halt the degradation of nature, radical ontological and ethical shifts toward a more humble 'citizen' perspective are necessary. Human placement within, as opposed to above biotic communities, calls for humility and a reconceptualization of our relationship to nature...
Consider: to what extent are most people and groups who misuse political or economic power exclusively human-centered? Is first-world mega-consumption and toxic dumping really allowed or encouraged with the interests of the human species in mind? Surely self-centeredness, corporate greed, ethnocentrism, militarism, and nationalism result more directly in questionable environmental ethical practices than anthropocentrism does. If so, the most pressing ethical questions concern the relationships among these various prejudices. But proponents of Deep Ecology and other holistic environmental ethics pay little attention to social justice issues, and focus instead on how and why humans, as a species, tend to devalue and destroy the biotic community and its members. Holistic conceptions of natural systems, and what it means to promote the well-being of these systems, are often based on scientific models, especially those inspired by ecological sciences.
Environmental philosophy must be critical of the scientific models and metaphors it inherits or assumes. Science informs ethics by providing data, models, feedback, and projections of risk and impact. At the same time, ethics must question science's models, methods, goals, and assumptions. Powerful metaphors encourage us to think that only two options are available: chaos or harmony; nature as pure machine, or imbued with full intentionality; human beings as selfish, atomistic utility-maximizers, or as wishy-washy group-thinkers with no autonomy. In fact, options exist beyond the cognitive universe evoked by any powerful metaphor and its opposite. Moral agents can decide how to negotiate the world without hopes of reaching a pre-determined, necessary state of harmony or static equilibrium, or any ultimate state.
ecoartspace is a nonprofit organization supporting artists who create works that raise environmental awareness and inspire visions of a sustainable relationship between humans and the natural world. ecoartspace activities include curating exhibitions, working with school children in an Art and Environment curriculum and serving as an information and consulting resource for artists and museums seeking to address ecological issues.
The organization's accomplishments as of 2002 include presenting exhibitions in galleries, public spaces and museums, such as Ecovention for the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, Ohio; implementing an Art and Environment curriculum at The Earth School, a public elementary school in New York City concurrently with Pt. Dume Marine Science elementary school in Los Angeles; advising for an environmental exploration park and museum complex in Northern California; writing a third and fourth grade curriculum in conjunction with an exhibition titled "By Nature's Design" for a municipal art gallery in Southern California.
ecoartspace has organized and participated on panel discussions focusing on the topic of nature and its relationship to art and culture, including Reconstructing Ecologies at the Guggenheim Museum, New York (2000); California Waterways at University of California, Irvine (2001); Taking Nature Seriously, at the University of Oregon, Eugene (2001); Art Culture Nature International Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona (2001); Art and Ecology at the Pomona College Museum of Art, California (2001); Art for Life's Sake the New Aesthetics of Participation at the New York Open Center (2001); The New Ecology of Culture: A Terra Nova Evening, City University of New York (2001); and Art, Culture and Community at the Los Angeles Arboretum (2002) in conjunction with an exhibition titled Cross-Pollination.
was founded in 1997 in Los Angeles by Patricia Watts who developed the
website in 1998. Watts and independent curator, Amy Lipton of New York
traveled together to Germany to see "Natural Reality," curated
by Heike Strelow of Frankfurt in June 1999. Following this trip, they
decided to join forces and develop ecoartspace as a nonprofit organization
on both the East and West Coasts.
Art and the Big Picture
In Western culture, artists normally do not train to engage with real-life problems. They learn instead to be competitive with their products in the market place. Because we live in a society that is oriented around manic production, maximum energy flow, and upscale consumerism, profit has become the primary criterion by which we measure every good, every activity, every attitude, and every cultural product. All of our cultural institutions are subtly and lethally influenced by this ideology-based on set patterns of conventional success and its economic imperative. Artists are thus constantly being challenged in their identity as winners or losers in the success game, and "professional recognition," in the form of brisk sales and positive reviews is a primary incentive that colors the internal rhythms of art making.
So are we forever locked into the inevitability of a world view based on materialism-and with it, a certain kind of art fixated on the notion of saleable objects? Or can we recover, if we choose, from the estrangements of Western civilization? Instead of art-as-commodity, deprived of any useful social role, can art actually help us to revision ourselves and our way of living on this earth? Can we learn to participate in the "great work" of our time, which, according to the great geologian Thomas Berry, involves "moving from a devastating presence on the planet to a benign presence?"
In the dominant
paradigm, art is understood mostly as static objects, existing in museums
and galleries, separate from ordinary life. The work of artists who have
been included in this exhibition goes against the prevailing current.
It requires you to step out of line, to break with the past. Other people
will feel the ripples and often, they won't like it. Make no mistake:
to change the paradigm from which art operates is to change something
about its fundamental nature. Beliefs tell us what is possible and what
Until a few decades ago, artists generally were not motivated to express concerns about biodiversity, global warming, reclamation of wetlands, or acid rain in their work. Aesthetic paradigms acting in partnership with environmental impact statements was unheard of. But now, a whole cadre of artists has emerged with a new form of practice, loosely called "ecoventions."
Several years ago the University of Chicago alumni magazine featured the philosopher Richard Rorty on its cover, announcing that "there is no Big Picture." This is the very philosophy that has brought the world to the edge of eco-systemic collapse. Thus, for anyone who wants to change the tides of where our civilization is headed, the first step is to look at the Big Picture-and to become conscious of how profoundly they have internalized the values and dictates of the dominant paradigm. And then, as Annie Dillard suggests, you go home and soak your feet. Because the task at hand, the task of renewal, is very daunting-and will require a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce.
If you are
going to challenge the old Cartesian dualisms-like the one that separates
art from life-with more participatory and engaged forms of consciousness,
then you will also need a whole new language: one that expresses interdependence
and reciprocity, so that the creative imagination can meet its new task.
Changing paradigms is more than just a conceptual challenge: it requires
that we personally leave behind certain things that have been a central
part of our individual and cultural self-definitions. Hard-edged individualism
will not apply. The bare white walls of the gallery and the aluminum frame
will not apply. Recognizing an artist's worth through the fact of
showing or not showing, selling or not selling, will not apply. The archness
and bravura of postmodern aesthetics will not apply, because this art
comes from a different vision. It is a vision dedicated to a single perception:
how to live appropriately in an interconnected universe.
Haley - the future and other creation myths
time was before time that life hung by chance in a mist of water and dust not knowing which way was up as the winds drove atmospheres to spin and storm between volcanic ferocity and gravity clashing as the dice rolled a millennia or two for a few carbon atoms to meet in a droplet and then caught in the moment struck by lightning charged to live in multiple oceans of possible forms made of themselves splitting, joining and sharing each with each in seeming infinity far from equilibrium suspended in rich brine until the memory of potential fusion to become complex and diverse permutations some of whom used the sun's energy from the clearing skies to consume more carbon and issue oxygen making a new atmosphere in which to evolve as new species to become and inhabit new kingdoms but some returned from the mineral surface to enjoy their refuge in water
come to pass
time was when there was a shift in the weather, it got even warmer and the glacier stopped moving and melted where it was and life awoke as one droplet of water melted from the ice and joining another liberated droplet, they ran to a third and a forth, waited a wile for a sixth and seventh to run into them in quick succession over the ice they ran and fell and splashed, building-up behind ridges and brimmed over tirelessly joining and being joined by other drops again and again and again and again for millennia added to by the rains spilling forth to carve in the emerging ground a river channel that invented and improvised around shifting hills and through gaps joined other streams and pools taking its time invigorated by every twist turn confluence and diversion as it rushed from the mountains then meandered across the plain depositing silt and rich minerals looping back and forth to a mighty gorge where it met and spun into vortices of warm brine on a flow tide from the new ocean
come to pass
time was when it rained and rained and the aquifers filled and the river rose to meet the people watching as they spent so much of their time waiting for one in a hundred years to see if their defenses would hold against the moment and some prayed, some fled and some felt they were one with their property and refused to let go of the reassurance of re insurance so they waited and watched lifetimes in the moments of a million droplets falling that ran to the river see which droplet would be the one to break the surface tension of disbelief
all things come to pass
Matilsky, excerpts from "Environmental Art: New Approaches to Nature,"
in Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists' Interpretations and Solutions,
Environmental art relates to two other important American movementsó minimal and process artó that emerged during the 1960s. Both were concerned with extending traditional boundaries of form, space, and materials.... In contrast to the commercially fabricated materials used to create hard-edge minimal sculpture, process art was defined by nonrigid materialsó rope, fabric, lead- that could be scattered, thrown, or poured. The subject of the work was the process itself, which expressed the changeable aspects of the material and its potential to expand endlessly in all directions. In process art, the compositions were often determined by chance and the nature of the material. By allowing nature itself to determine the form and content of the work, environmental artists share many of the concerns defined by process art...
For environmental artists, nature embodied and inspired the freedom to forge new directions in art and move away from the commercial gallery system. The traditional art gallery, by exhibiting art objects and reducing them to a commodity, was perceived as limiting the artist's creative possibilities. Environmental artists joined a growing number of artists who created works that could not be purchased. This, of course, opened up the question of support and patronage. Some galleries responded favorably to the new art and exhibited indoor projects by environmental artists. University galleries and museums also provided opportunities to survey these new developments. The most important consequence of artists freeing themselves from dependency on the gallery was their beginning to work in the public domain, a fertile forum for the creation of ecological art (page 38).
wave of environmental activism of the 1960s and 1970s, many artists reestablished
a link between people, plants, animals, and the elements of nature. Using
a new vocabularyóthat of nature itselfó artists interpreted
the processes, variations, and internal rhythms of the earth. These artworks
often changed according to the seasons, times of day, and atmospheric
Although all environmental artists contributed to fostering a new awareness of nature, some were more ecologically conscious than others. Within the movement's diversity of approaches and range of attitudes, environmental issues were interpreted and solutions proposed or implemented to restore nature and revitalize the cities. From this new consciousness, ecological art would continue to evolve and expand in new directions (page 55).
the ground-breaking exhibition, "Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary
Artists' Interpretations and Solutions," Barbara Matilsky is
currently the curator of exhibitions at the Ackland Art Museum, The University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Thompson, The ART of WHOLE SYSTEMS
The ART of