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Art and Ecology: Unified or Fragmentary?

by Maja and Reuben Fowkes (2005)

Ecology and Artistic Practice Symposium,
28th April, 2005, RSA, London

The RSA and Arts Council England have organised a major programme of events to 'profile, encourage and support artists in addressing ecological concerns.' The Ecology and Artistic Practice Symposium was the first of a series of five conferences intended to address the issues raised by questions such as: 'Can artists make a difference? Is it the task of art to point out solutions to ecological problems? What are artists currently doing in response to these issues?' Surprisingly perhaps, there was no clear consensus on the podium over the answer to the first two questions, although the familiar arguments between the 'autonomy of art' and socially-engaged practice were aired. The third question proved the most fruitful line of enquiry, and delegates were treated to fascinating and enlightening presentations by leading contemporary artists.

Allora and Calzadilla
Allora and Calzadilla "Returing a Sound," 2004.
The theoretical basis and 'keynote paper' to the symposium was provided by Gary Genosko, Research Chair in Technoculture Studies at Lakehead University, Canada, who spoke about Félix Guattari's The Three Ecologies. His paper ranged from the distinction between inter- and trans-disciplinarity to Guattari's notion of ecosophy, and the need to extend our understanding of ecology from the 'environmental' to include the 'mental' and 'social' worlds. A new subjectivity that could challenge the dominance of consumerism would, he predicted, be 'marbled by eco-consciousness' rather than a representing a 'single-issue' eco-logic or one that followed the 'paper trail' of the 'techno-scientific elites.'

Questions and comments from the floor revealed some concern about the lack of urgency and relevance to ecological activism of Guattari's ecosophy. A lively discussion broke out contrasting the 'unified vision' of deep ecology theorist Arne Naess and the 'fragmented' approach represented by Guattari. The speaker reiterated his view that 'fundamental change in how we think' is only possible through the emergence of 'dissident subjectivities that become ecologically expressive.' Simplistic and 'single-issue' theories, along with all attempts at a 'technocratic solution' to environmental problems are counter-productive, while long-term ecological solutions are to be found in the 'paradigm of creativity.'

The heart of the symposium was made up of case-studies and presentations of artistic practices that connect with ecology. Clare Cumberlidge, director of Public Art Agency, presented her work in developing a series of visionary development ideas for a rundown area at the mouth of the Thames. She described how artists, architects and theorists were brought together to brainstorm for a day about the region's future. Their recommendations included reconnecting the urban areas with the river by developing 'aquatic housing' and abolishing the ecologically unsound distinction between 'green' and 'brown' belt zones.

A business-style presentation by the director of a consultancy firm did seem a little at odds with the usual understanding of a curatorial case study, which is what her contribution was billed as, and served to emphasise the importance the RSA places on encouraging communication between the spheres of art and business. Questions from the floor focused on the danger that the project's short time span and reliance on the views of experts meant that the opinions of the inhabitants of the area would be ignored. An alternative 'more ethical' model of activity in the form of 'slow-activism' was proposed by a member of the audience.

By Nils Norman
By Nils Norman
The first artist's presentation or 'studio visit' was by Nils Norman, who talked about a recent project looking at the culture of adventure playgrounds resulting in a book entitled An Architecture of Play (2004). He described the origins of these anarchic children's play spaces in Second World War bomb sites and shared some of his observations about their hidden history and function.

He contrasted the freedom and spontaneity of adventure playgrounds in the past with the increased regulation and fear of litigation that has meant children are no longer allowed to use to tools or build the playgrounds themselves. A member of the audience contrasted the 'random, dirt, organic, mystery' of adventure playgrounds with the 'banal, sterile, repetitive modules' of commercially-designed play areas. Nils Norman, reflecting on the way artists are 'increasingly inscribed in the regeneration process', argued that artists should take responsibility for their participation in architectural and urbanistic projects.

The Puerto Rico-based artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla presented several aspects of their long-term engagement with the small island of Vieques and its inhabitants, who have been forced to live for decades with an unwanted American airbase and bombing range. They introduced their research into the history of the island and the airbase, which was illegally established during the Second World War, making hundreds homeless. Their work has involved creatively engaging with local protests against the base through art projects. A highlight of the whole symposium was the screening of their short film Returning a Sound (2004) showing a local man riding round the island on a moped with a trumpet attached to the exhaust pipe in an act of celebration and demonstration of the community's success in reclaiming the island from the US air force.

Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon presented a selection of on going projects, all of which can be accessed from their web-based 'studio'. These included Natural Reality Superweed, which mimics the 'mutually-assured destruction' concept of nuclear defence by threatening to unleash a breed of 'superweeds' that are genetically-resistant to the pesticides used with GM crops. Their Borderxing project entailed hiking across the 'green border' between dozens of European states, an often high risk form of practical resistance to the growing power of police and border guards over our personal freedom of movement.

One result of the project was a small publication detailing both the best routes and the rare plants that can be found in off-limits and unspoilt border zones. They also presented their celebration of international tree-climbing day in the parks of Bristol, a project in tune with the overall anarchistic thrust of their approach, according to which, it is okay to disregard regulations that we regard as wrong in the pursuit of ecological goals. Another project with the capacity to radically open our eyes to the possibility for individual and communal action is their Food for Free project in their home town of Bristol. This involves identifying marginal spaces under confused administrative jurisdiction and planting edible and fruit-bearing plants and trees there: all of these wild resources are marked on a map on their website, while the artists claim they plant around six trees a day across the city.

The final part of the symposium was a roundtable discussion involving: an academic, Declan McGonagle from Belfast; an art critic, Jan Verwoert from Frieze; the director of a communications company, Solitaire Townsend; the Berlin-based artist Henik Håkansson; the artist Dan Peterman from Chicago; and Jane Trowell, co-director of the London artist collective Platform.

Declan McGonagle argued that art is already social and it therefore does not need to be attached to social or environmental issues. He applauded recent 'four dimensional' art practices that includes a Beuysian understanding that 'we all participate in the art process' and artists who are engaged in 'resistance to commodification and objectification.'

Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon, Borderxing.
Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon, "Borderxing", 2004.
Jan Verwoert was invited to the round table as the only theoretician. His main point was that 'art cannot be instrumental'. He argued, after Adorno, for a general need to break with instrumental reason. As a result, he stamped every involvement of art outside art as a political tool on the Soviet model. The problem of having a representative of the school of the autonomy of art as the only theorist on the panel was that discussion on how to go forward was stalled. Arguably, if the aim of the symposium was to bring art and ecology together, then the speakers should have had a common understanding of the role of art in shifting consciousness about the environment. In other words, how can you have someone on a panel about art and ecology who denies the possibility of any engaged or responsible art in the name of artistic autonomy?

Solitaire Townsend was an interesting inclusion on the panel and her contribution generated a noisy response from both the panel and audience. She runs a communications company with a government commission to sell the idea of sustainability to the public and is entrusted with huge budgets, although she is willing to fund art projects only if it can be 'proved' that they are effective on the level of advertising in changing peoples' environmental attitudes. She expressed disbelief when, from the floor, the artist Kayle Brandon talked about how 'too much money often leads to the collapse of art projects' and also had little sympathy for the issue of the need for ethical art funding. Her style was very forceful, reminding us of the way money is dominant in all public issues. She embodied the business mind-frame against which Jan Verwoert's 'non-instrumental art' has to struggle as much as environmentally-engaged art.

Jane Trowell effectively used the panel to promote the work of Platform, a trans-disciplinary group dedicated to environmental issues in the Thames basin. Of all the speakers at the symposium, she was the only one to have the clear profile of an environmental artist, and argued convincingly that art could and should 'point out solutions to ecological problems.' She also made a key point about ethical funding of art, by posing the following question in relation to a new exhibit at the London Science Museum: 'How can you take money from one of the most environmentally destructive industries to make an ecology centre?'

There was a sense in which part of the symposium seemed to regard art and ecology as separate ideas or spheres that might be combined to open up new creative possibilities. Parallels could be drawn with the juxtaposition of the words 'art' and 'science', which has been the justification for dozens of conferences, exhibitions, research projects and collaborations with the science industry over recent years. The environmentalists at the symposium, as well as the many artists present whose work either deals directly with the ecological crisis, or is informed by environmental consciousness, tried to steer the discussion towards specific ecological issues or problems in the relationship between art and ecology.

One criticism of the symposium was that it largely ignored already existing interconnections between art and ecology in both theory and practice, and the established critical discourse of environmental art. Through the choice of speakers and questions to be addressed, the organisers arguably set the debate at the beginning, rather than at its present moment, and at some points, it seemed as if the audience was better informed about the issues than the panel. On the other hand, to invite artists who are all successful in 'mainstream' contemporary art, rather then renowned 'environmental' artists, is positive evidence of wider shift towards ecological thinking in art and society.

© 2010