|The Art of Making Do with Enough||
Published in the new art
The artistic engagement with sustainability draws on radical critiques of art and society and the dematerialised practices of conceptual art to offer sustainable alternatives for art and life. While in contemporary living we have a greater understanding of sustainability in our everyday choices (or the lack of them), contemporary artists increasingly take on the role of alternative knowledge producer, involved in producing, mediating, and exchanging alternative models and dealing with issues that are marginalised in mainstream culture and politics.
Sustainability in art brings awareness of a wider ecological context around the production and reception of art works. It questions the sacrosanct status of the art object as the highest civilisational value and problematises the belief that artworks are created, and should be preserved, for eternity. Just as in society there is a tendency to stop seeing nature as an endless resource, attuned artists problematise the understanding of art as commodity, and are reluctant to add to the stockpile of art objects, choosing instead to explore alternative means of expression.
A perpetual dualism of form and content comes to the fore in a new way here. Arguably, sustainability of form takes priority over content, it is perfectly possible for a work to be sustainable without having a direct political or environmental message. To paraphrase deep ecology, sustainable form is about making do with enough. It means avoiding damaging the environment, or effecting the rights of other species to exist without harm, as well as eschewing the exploitation of other humans. Recycling in its widest sense is another element of sustainable form, both materially and in terms of concepts, and can be opposed to a constant search for novelty in the media industry and consumerism. The legacy of conceptual art practice of the early seventies proves to be a renewable resource for contemporary artists.
Engaged artists are involved in creating something like a wave effect to shift society in the direction of sustainability; by exploring and demonstrating alternatives. Artists also develop strategies to frustrate attempts to assimilate their work to dominant liberal capitalist discourses in order to avoid appropriation and taming of radical ideas. There is a thin line between artists genuinely engaged in sustainability and those who employ the same models and deal with the same issues for the sake of art spectacle. To recall Walter Benjamin here: ‘The best political tendency is wrong, if it does not demonstrate the attitude with which it is to be followed.’
Regarding the functioning of art structures, there are very few examples of liberated zones in the contemporary art world. Spectacle, entertainment, and audience figures drive a cultural industry deeply wedded to a productivist growth model. Where is the alternative to more conferences, more merchandising, more branding, more special events, and more VIP lounges in galleries and museums? Gerald Raunig, the theorist of art and revolution, sees the key to change in refusing ‘to supply the media and politics with ever new contents, to vanish from the machinery of the spectacle, to betray the spectacle.’
Artist Nils Norman draws on practices of alternative culture, his work seems particularly close to ideals of social ecology and eco-communalism. Social ecology sees the primary struggle as against hierarchy and domination, is grounded in an ecological sensibility, and opposes instrumentalist attitudes towards the natural world. It seeks to re-embed humans in nature, and espouses bio-regionalism, small communities, diversity, and appropriate technology. Eco-communalism favours ‘disengagement from corrupt social and political institutions, and the establishment of exemplary institutions or the pursuit of exemplary personal action.’
In the book The Contemporary Picturesque, Nils Norman gives us a ‘structuralist’ critique of the repetitive and oppressive features of the modern city. For instance, he shows how in the interests of efficient social control, urban planning has devised street furniture that is too small and uncomfortable to lie down on, barriers and bollards that direct the flow of crowds, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, patented anti-climb paint and anti-sitting bumps on fences and pavements. The artist also illustrates the subversive techniques and possibilities of resistance offered by the modern city, such as lock-ons, barricades and tripods, describing the methods used by insurrectionaries and protestors to reclaim urban space from state power. Barricades, for example, ‘unlike the official barriers and guard rails of city spaces, [are] built to obstruct the distribution of capital (and the paid representatives of the state) and to bring it to as long a standstill as possible.’
Processes of gentrification, and the pernicious role of public-private partnerships in transforming cities, are recurrent themes in the recent history of art. Hans Haacke’s paradigmatic early socially-engaged work Shapolsky et al. (1971) drew attention to the social injustice resulting from monopolistic property ownership patterns in Manhattan. In particular Haacke addressed connections between the interests of big business and the Guggenheim Museum. Nils Norman is lucid about the ethical dilemmas facing contemporary artists who are “inescapably inscribed within urban regeneration strategies”, and calls for the creation of “more disruptive and experimental methodologies, not just neo-situationist spectacles.” Norman’s proposal for turning New York’s Battery Park into a “monument to protest”, offers a radically different approach to that of public-private developers in the redesign of inner city parks. His plan integrates a number of ideas including nomadic dwellings, an alternative energy centre, local economic trading system, and a 24 hour free outdoor sound production facility. One feature of the proposal, touching on the issue of the value of art objects compared to the right to quality of life, was for an existing sculpture in the park to be modified so that people could lock themselves into it and only be removed by police if the sculpture itself was to be destroyed.
Another Nils Norman book, An Architecture of Play, traces the instructive history of London’s adventure playgrounds—from origins in post-war bomb sites, through their hay-day in the 70s, to rare examples surviving today. The artist explains: “I have come to see adventure playgrounds as radical models of alternative public space—playful spaces of disruption, disorder, and undevelopment, in direct opposition to the relentless privatisation and dismal redevelopment of every sad scrap of urban space.” Adventure playgrounds encourage diversity, are bioregional in the sense of belonging to a specific place and responding to a particular ecosystem, and represent a counterpoint to the obsession with public safety in a ‘risk society’ that masks the real origins and consequences of danger.
The Exploding School is based on the ideas of anarchist educationalists of the 1970s to use the urban environment as an educational resource and create “schools without walls.” Nils Norman takes his classes to eco-communes, autonomous sites, anarchist libraries, garden cities, recycling centres and permaculture communities in their locality to introduce them to alternative social models and impart a critical understanding of public space and social processes. The project implies a localised, molecular approach to sustainability, close to eco-communalism in ecological thought, as well as a belief in the necessity in current political circumstances to, as Hardt and Negri put it in their global bestseller, ‘attack power from every place, from every local context.’
Though well-known as a net artist, Heath Bunting’s recent projects take place in real time situations, with internet used as a tool for publicising, communicating and archiving artists’ projects. The medium of the internet is widely encountered in contemporary art as an environmentally-friendly alternative, although Heath Bunting’s background in net art activism gives him a strong insight into the web as “intellectual battlefield populated by governments, corporations, activists and artists”—hardly a control free zone. His practice of storing material on a remote server is a liberation from dependence on the possession of the material object of the computer, and resists the consumerist imperative to new technology. The website Bunting runs with other members of the irational.org collective hosts subversive art projects and is exemplary in its minimal style and appropriate technology aesthetic, clearly opposed to the flashy corporate branded web presence.
International Tree Climbing Day, initiated by Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon, is an example of the use of the internet to spread certain freedom-enhancing ideas and behaviours. The project involved setting in motion a new tradition of ‘international tree climbing day’, with the expectation that this innocently subversive celebration would spread across the world. By 2006, the day was actively celebrated in Australia, Hungary, and locations in the UK. The invitation to spend the day climbing trees is an opportunity to reconnect with the natural environment, and experience ourselves as part of it, as well as to break free of the social conditioning that inhibits us from climbing trees every other day of the year.
Heath Bunting’s fascination with the crossing of fences, transgression of borders, the probing of the limits of the human body, resulted in works intertwined with sustainability. For Tour de Fence, the artist invited people to join him in climbing fences in his home town of Bristol. The fences were graded according to their level of difficulty, and help was given in climbing techniques. The artist questions the obedient and passive acceptance of fences as impassable physical and metaphorical barriers. In D’fence Cuts he goes a step further. This project involved cutting through all the fences between two points on a selected route in, again, the Bristol area. Much of Bunting’s work demonstrates resistance to regulations and state oppression of the individual’s freedom of action.
According to Gerald Raunig, the political rhetoric around the dissolution of borders has shown itself to be ‘primarily an ideological instrument of neo-liberal globalisation’ and hides social inequalities in freedom of movement. He sees the urgency in negotiating ‘constantly newly emerging borders’ as the ‘precondition for a self-determined distribution in space.’Borderxing is a project by Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon that involved actually crossing borders between European states at points not intended for that purpose and without travel documents, precisely for the reasons Raunig identifies.
Their actions of passing over frozen lakes, rushing streams or through deep forests, are documented in the Borderxing Guide, which aims to guide its users in the art of crossing borders without detection. The Botanical Guide arose as a supplement to Borderxing, and combines information about the flora to be found in the green areas of the border zones with advice for borderxing undertakers. The complexity of the environment and our immersion in it, to the degree of no separation, is stressed through passages in the Guide that talk about cycles of plants and practical instructions for users in the same breath. In the ecocentric sense, the Guide highlights border zones as wilderness areas in which nature thrives without much human interference.
On the opposite wing to radical ecocentrism are those who believe that new technologies and efficiency savings can turn the tide in the direction of a more sustainable society. There is a sense of optimism and faith in the ability of humans to understand and control physical, biological and social processes for the benefit of present and future generations. The artist Tomas Saraceno, who was born in Argentina and is based in Frankfurt, engages in the quest for sustainability through experiments in new technologies. Saraceno’s AirportCity involves an ever changing airborne platform made up of floating cells. It is a post-national vision of genuine freedom of movement across the world in a melting pot of national, cultural and racial identities. The structure would be environmentally friendly, solar powered, and designed to improve our quality of life. Tomas Saraceno, trained as an architect, refers to the qualities of alternative architectures, and in particular the vision of ‘spaceship earth’ associated with the futuristic theories of Buckminster Fuller. According to the artist, “during times of uncertainty, people look to the sky to escape the reality of earth.” The formation and transformability of clouds seem to be a recurrent subject in the artist’s work. His 2006 commission for the Barbican Curve Gallery Cumulos, a video installation which had been shot in the largest salt lake on earth in Bolivia, was intended to give the viewer the impression of being in the clouds, bringing us a degree closer to Airport City.
Tomas Saraceno has spoken about the ecological impulses in his work. He maintains that art, architecture and science could learn from the ‘principle of ecology as a system of cohabitation of different cultural areas’, recognising the importance of cooperation, biodiversity and the maintenance of a ‘dynamic balance.’ This view echoes the notion in environmental thought that social structures should correspond to the workings of natural ecosystems.
The artists discussed here are sincerely engaged with the full implications of sustainability for present day lifestyles. They are searching for alternative ways to satisfy vital needs, such as the need for food. Nils Norman explores permaculture in a wide sense, from growing food in urban areas to designing an edible playground. Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon’s Food for Free identifies sources of naturally-occurring edible plants in Bristol. There is web access to information on harvesting seasons, as well as locations of the free foods, collated on a map of the city without street names. Tomas Saraceno’s AirportCity is equipped with flying gardens, he describes them as “multiple Amazons in transcontinental flight.”
Another pressing ethical question for international artists is the problem of sustainable travel. Tomas Saraceno’s plans for travel without passports, under international law, in sustainable floating cells, could benefit from ‘Aerogel’, an ultra light gas used in spacecraft to enable them to fly on solar energy—which the artist is experimenting with. Nils Norman has designed a Geocruiser travelling art station, that has a greenhouse built in the back and a carefully compiled reading room in the front, and is additionally equipped with a solar powered photocopier. Heath Bunting on the other hand, explores his own body as the ultimate means of sustainable travel. The artist keeps a diary in the form of a map of his movements, he regularly climbs and surmounts obstacles on his route, canoes down the river, and skateboards.
Sustainable art practice is an opportunity as well as a challenge for contemporary artists. Giorgo Agamben observes that the situation becomes productive “exactly there where the zones of the indistinguishability of artistic practice and political activism are at stake, always then when a temporary moment of the indifference of life and art arises, through which both undergo a crucial metamorphosis at the same time” , and that seems to be the case here.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes