and Ecology: Unified or Fragmentary?
Ecology and Artistic Practice
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 focussed 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.
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.
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.’
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.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes