|Planetary Forecast: The Roots of Sustainability in the Radical Art of the 1970s||
Published in Third Text 100 Special Issue Vol 23 Issue 5 Sept 2009
The critical writings of artists and curators from the 1970s appear in a fresh light when reconsidered in terms of our current awareness of global ecological crisis and the search for alternatives to unsustainable economic models. This article explores the extent to which ecological understanding, and the specific concerns of environmental sustainability, is manifest in the art writing of the period. It turns out that many of the issues identified by theorists of sustainability, such as the necessity of integrating environmental protection into economic development, a concern for future generations, social equality and genuine democracy, and a recognition that quality of life is not just a matter of monetary income, as well as a range of creative solutions to the impasse faced by consumerist civilisation, were explored in the radical art of the early 1970s, only to be ignored in subsequent decades. These prophetic art texts are now ripe for rediscovery in the context of current attempts to grapple with the social and ecological consequences of neo-liberal globalisation and its crises.
The Summit was strongly influenced by the Limits to Growth, the study commissioned by the Club of Rome to estimate the reserves of natural resources, including topsoil, fresh water, minerals, forests and oceans, and the likely consequences of another 100 years of exponential growth. The realisation that there are physical limits to the natural resources of the planet, and that if humanity continues on the same track then precious and irreplaceable raw materials will start to run out, led many to the conclusion that limits must be placed on economic growth, a decision with potentially drastic repercussions for the developmental model of industrial society. Limits to Growth arguably heralded a paradigm shift comparable to Copernicus’s realisation that the Earth is only one of the planets in the solar system.
Rudi Supek had recourse to the popular 1970s cosmological allegory of ‘spaceship earth’ to explain the new theory: the planet was like a rocket that had blasted off ‘stocked with finite and limited amounts of a various resources and nutritional goods’, only to discover, practically at the beginning of its ‘eternal journey’, that supplies were already running dangerously low. It is presumably for this reason that Supek chose to subtitle his book with the rhetorical question: ‘Are we heading for catastrophe or a third revolution?,’ in the hope that the coming ‘third revolution’, in difference to the preceding agricultural and industrial revolutions, would be the first to succeed in placing limits on capitalist growth.
The Stockholm Conference strongly reflected the ideological divisions of the Cold War and was boycotted by the governments of the Soviet Bloc over the issue of the non-representation of East Germany. Within this polarised context Supek, coming from non-aligned Yugoslavia, occupied an interesting intermediary position. As an associate of the highly influential, and currently under-researched, Praxis circle of neo-Marxist philosophers, he both criticised the ‘imperialistic dreams of American technocrats’ and somewhat scholastically sought out the ‘biological roots’ of socialism, which he identified as a ‘stable society in revolutionary opposition to consumerist society’. It was only in the introduction to the 1989 edition of Our Only Earth that he was able to recount an anecdote about a Bavarian politician who warned fellow conservatives that ‘greens are like tomatoes that turn red when they’re ripe’, with the revealing rejoinder that Supek felt like ‘a red who had turned green.’
The significance of Stockholm lay also in the possibilities for interdisciplinary thinking brought by the convergence of scientists, writers, sociologists, protesters and even native Americans, whose contribution was viewed as especially important by East European theorists such as Supek, in their search for alternatives to the hegemony of capitalist ideology embodied by the American way of life. It was in this context that ecology could break free from the constraints of scientific-technological thinking to be recognised as a ‘subversive science’. The strict ‘positivistic division into individual disciplines with [an ideology of] scientific disinterestedness’ was opposed by the claim of an essentially holistic approach to understanding the position of humankind on earth that gives ecology an ‘ideological status equal to that of a protest movement.’ There were indeed important overlaps between ecology and the peace movement, with weapons of mass destruction described as ‘the biggest parasites on unrenewable resources’, an important point which is rarely voiced in current environmental discussions.
The deep ramifications of the Limits to Growth, and the notion that the earth is not an endless supply of raw materials, contributed to the later development of sustainability, which takes into account future generations on earth, as well as the need for equity both within societies and globally. It is also significant that these powerful ideas crossed the political divides of the Cold War, finding converts across the planet. Slovak artist Rudolf Sikora lived at the time in the restrictive conditions of Czechoslovakia after the Russian intervention in 1968 and subsequent repressive ‘normalisation’. In difference to many other artists, who either left the country or fled into nature in their wish to evade the control of the authorities, Sikora took the bold step of translating Limits to Growth and publishing it in samizdat. He went on to organise weekly ‘Tuesday Meetings’ in his studio, at which environmentalists and artists could exchange ecological ideas. The importance of Limits to Growth, and the sense in which it had planetary relevance, comes from the challenge the ideas represented to the both the Western capitalist system and the ‘state socialism’ of the Eastern Bloc, in that both relied on a productivist ethic of ever-increasing growth.
The idea of the earth’s limited natural resources had implications for all spheres of human activity, and was also felt in contemporary art, where the shift to the ‘dematerialisation of the art object’ in the late 60s had resonances with a new sensitivity towards the use of materials in the making of artworks. The problem of the overproduction of art objects and their circulation in an art market that reproduced the conditions of the capitalist growth model, based on the idea of investing in the future value of artworks and artists, also intruded on artistic thinking in the period. The imagery of an ever increasing stockpile of art objects in the world, that all have to be stored somewhere, appeared for example in Hungarian curator Laszló Beke’s futuristic ‘introduction’ to the neo-avant-garde ‘R’ Exhibition of 1970:
‘In consequence of a law enacting the eternal preservation of works of art to the end of the ...eth century there had been gathered together such a large heap of paintings, sculptures and applied art objects all over the world that strict measures had to be taken to restrict artistic production. The symptoms of the crisis first appeared in the surroundings of the museums: the depots became too small and the works had to be stored in the streets and they made obstacles for the traffic. Then these districts were to be reached only by airliner or in tunnels pushed through the hills of “nudes”, “paysages” and “busts”.’
The realisation that nature and society are interconnected is a foundation of later theories of sustainability, and also forms the basis of ‘social ecology’, a radical school of anarcho-environmentalism closely associated with the theorist Murray Bookchin. Like Rudi Supek, Bookchin was a ‘red who turned green’, having moved from being a Stalinist labour activist in depression-era America to challenging the US student movement to abandon simplistic ideas of proletarian class structure in his infamous tract Listen Marxist! . Bookchin’s ‘social ecology’ had a strong anarchist streak, tracing the problem of human disregard for and alienation from nature to problems in society, and ultimately hierarchical structures. His stress on the need for grassroots democracy and the importance of individual freedom can be felt in a text written in 1989, in which he warns against technocratic attempts to coerce people into feeling personally responsible for the ecological crisis. He expresses his disagreement with ‘militant recycling’, which ends up diminishing people’s ‘freedom to travel or their access to culture’ by effecting a ‘scaling down of needs that often serve to enrich human personality and sensitivity.’
Felix Guattari’s pivotal The Three Ecologies, published in 1989, anticipated many of the issues facing the globalised world of today, while drawing on the insights of the ecological debates of the early 1970s. He lays the blame for the present situation, in which ‘ecological disequilibrium’ threatens the ‘continuation of life on the planet’s surface’, at the doors of ‘Integrated World Capitalism’, a de-centred, post-industrial capitalism that bases its power on ‘structures producing signs and syntaxes’ and control of the media. Guattari uses a striking ecological metaphor to describe the mega rich oligarchs and their affront to the notion of equality in social ecology, who are ‘permitted to proliferate freely, like another species of algae, taking over entire districts [with their real estate deals]’, while the poor who are driven out ‘are condemned to homelessness, becoming the equivalent of the dead fish of environmental ecology.’
The crux of Guattari’s argument is the need to differentiate between three ecological registers, the natural environment, the social environment, and the level of mental ecology. If we examine these categories within the sphere of art, then an artwork, at the level of the first register, might be considered in terms of its impact on the natural environment. This could include the resources used in its production, potential damage to ecosystems, the amount of waste produced and the implications of showing, transporting, publicising and storing the work, in short, all the measurable components that contribute to the ‘life cycle’ of an artwork in its relationship to the natural environment.
The second Guattari ‘register’ deals with the social dimension and could refer to the social nexus around the production and use of the work, including the level of potential exploitation, and the question of whether the artwork empowers people rather than objectifying them. The ‘social register’ is a degree less quantifiable and it can to some extent be compared to the ethical implications of scientific or academic research when it involves people, animals and plants. This, in terms of sustainability, refers to human rights, as well as the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which proclaimed the right of animals and plants to exist without damage. Hungarian conceptual artist Gabor Attalai’s contribution to the 1972 publication Kunst in Osteuropa is very much in the egalitarian spirit of social ecology. He wrote: ‘My best friends are farmers, pilots, engine drivers, road sweepers, hairdressers, meteorologists, mathematicians, postmen, chemists, and numerous others.’
When it comes to the third register of human subjectivity, Guattari directly asserts that in order to ‘reinvent the relation of the subject to the body, to phantasm, to the passage of time, to the mysteries of life and death’ and to provide an ‘antidote to the mass-media and telematic standardisation, the conformism of fashion [and] the manipulation of opinion’, society should look to the working methods of artists. It is on this mental level that art has the potential to creatively counteract the forces of ‘mental manipulation’, ‘strategic infantilism’ and ‘sedative discourses’. At this point, arguably, art has implications for ecology and sustainability, rather than vice versa.
Gustav Metzger occupies an important position in the history of the interplay between art and ecology since the 1960s, both for his art projects, including Auto-Destructive Art, and his Stockholm Project, made for the UN Summit in 1972 itself, which dealt with the environmental effects of motorcars, and also for his insightful art writings, such as the ‘History of Automata’ published in Studio International in March 1969. In this text, which focuses on the problematic relationship of artists to technology in modern times, Metzger identifies the contemporary manifestation of the ‘ancient dream of paradise’ in the ideal of ‘tapping energy as directly as possible, with a minimum of plant, waste of raw material, and damage to man and any form of nature.’ The ‘technology of paradise’ would include ‘the use of water and air, solar energy and vibration within matter.’ He makes further reference to ecological ideas in the co-authored ‘Zagreb Manifesto’, written on the occasion of the International Symposium on Computers and Visual Research in May 1969. He states that some artists are ‘exploring new ideas about the interaction of the human being with the environment’ while others identify their work with a ‘concept of ecology which includes the whole technological environment that man has imposed on nature.’ For Metzger the ‘man/machine problem’ lies at the heart of ‘making the computer the servant of man and nature’ , and in this sense, the use and abuse of new technologies in society, as well as by artists, should necessarily be considered in a wider ecological context.
The relationship of artists to technology is explored by Metzger through a comparison of the situation of the Bauhaus and contemporary new media art. He charts the path taken by the Bauhaus from criticising industrialism in the vein of William Morris and John Ruskin in 1919, to ‘cementing capitalism’ after 1923, by allowing its innovations in modern design to be adopted by big business, with the result that it ‘handed the established systems the instruments of mass persuasion’ and ‘failed in its aim of social change through art and technology’. Artists dealing with computers and new media were liable to be drawn into comparable relationships with unsavoury companies, such as those involved with the arms trade, as a result of a desire for access to expensive new technologies. The tremendous ‘opportunity, challenge, excitement and power of the new media’ risks overwhelming artists, who may end up being ‘eaten up by big business and manipulated by technology.’
Computers in particular should not be viewed as a ‘neutral technology’, although this was the implicit message of the ICA exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968, which gave ‘no hint that computers dominate modern war’, seducing both artists and audience with a ‘technological fun-fair’ of modern gadgetry. For artists to integrate themselves with technology in this context, ignoring the wider circumstances around the use of computers, amounted to ‘immature’ and ‘dangerous’ behaviour, while the exhibition was a ‘perfectly adequate demonstration of the reactionary potential of art and technology.’ Metzger also presciently considers computers as ‘becoming the most totalitarian tool ever used on society’, which also resonates with Guattari’s comments twenty years later on the effect of new technologies on the processes of human subjectification. For Metzger, technology is irreversibly transforming ‘people, animals, [and] nature as a whole’, a process about which society has only ‘minimal knowledge’, with few resources put into understanding the potentially self-destructive path that humanity is headed down.
Metzger’s text also captures the radical political atmosphere of the period and mentions ‘Student Power and Revolt’ as one of the healthiest developments in the post-war era. This is in tune with the readiness of environmentalists in the aftermath of 1968 to conceive of radical social and political change as the only enduring solution to ecological crisis and to lose patience with the moderate proposals to reform the capitalist system and make it less ecologically damaging, originating from technocratic environmentalists.
Not all artistic engagements with ecology were as radical or thorough. An opposing view, far less suspicious towards capitalism, is expressed by Robert Smithson, the American land artist with a magnified ecological reputation. In a posthumously published and widely quoted fragment, Smithson makes a rare reference to ecological concerns and sees the artist as a mediator between industry and ecology: ‘Ecology and industry are not one way streets, rather they should be crossroads. Art can help to provide the needed dialectic between them.’ Industrial development and the accompanying degradation of the environment are accepted as a necessity, in which art can provide a ‘practical solution for the utilisation of such devastated places.’ Although his vocabulary draws heavily on natural metaphors, such as ‘the artist and the miner must become conscious of themselves as natural agents’, these linguistic devices betray little concern for the increasingly precarious conditions of the environment under growth-oriented capitalism.
Many of the environmentalist concerns of the early 70s, such as the fascination with the issue of overpopulation, clearly belong to that moment in time, and have been overtaken in more recent ecological discourse by new preoccupations. Climate change was a minor concept in the early 70s, while sustainable development only became widespread after the end of the Cold War. On the other hand, the 70s stress on the peace movement and the demand for demilitarisation, are still relevant but less audible today. The image of the pernicious motorcar driving the pedestrian off the pavement is dwarfed in today’s discussions of air travel in terms of carbon footprint, noise pollution, and as a sign of growing cultural homogeneity on a shrinking planet. The fear of chemical pollution by pesticides such as DDT has been overtaken by worries over genetically-modified crops. The ‘role of the media’ has become a more complex issue, with opportunities for ‘tactical media’ to fight back against the mainstream, which in some senses seems to have lost its footing in the fast evolving spheres of youtube, torrent and twitter. The warnings in the writings of Metzger about the totalitarian potential of new technology and the threat to human freedom are of continuing relevance in the age of constant surveillance. Above all, it is the sense of urgency in both ecological and artistic texts from the early 70s that rings true for today’s world in which the dialogue between technocratic and creative ecological solutions continues.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes
Even in the relatively freer atmosphere of communist Yugoslavia, It was only in the introduction to the 1989 edition of Our Only Earth that Rudi Supek was able to make the point that Marx had failed to anticipate the attitude of ‘state socialism’ to the exploitation of natural resources. Supek, Ova jedina zemlja, 11.
‘The worker is no less a "bourgeois" than the farmer, student, clerk, soldier, bureaucrat, professional--and Marxist. His "workerness" is the disease he is suffering from, the social affliction telescoped to individual dimensions.’ In Murray Bookchin, ‘Listen Marxist!’ Post Scarcity Anarchism (1971).
Maja and Reuben Fowkes