Since the last symposium on Sustainability and Contemporary Art held at CEU in February 2008, which took as its subject the Operaist dilemma of ‘Exit or Activism?’ and examined Paulo Virno’s idea of ‘exit’ as the ultimate form of resistance, the world has witnessed an intensifying fight for resources under the Arctic, the rocketing of food and oil prices, the Russian gas crisis, and the systemic failure of international financial institutions. These ‘hard realities’ have caused a switch from concerns of immaterial labour to recognition of the ‘new materiality’ of current circumstances.
This recent turn has been addressed by theorist Slavoj Žižek, who notes that while in the last decades it was ‘trendy to talk about the dominant role of intellectual labour in our post-industrial societies, today materiality appears in an almost vengeful way in all its aspects, from a future struggle for ever-diminishing resources (food, water, energy, minerals) to the degradation of the environment.’ The 2009 edition of Sustainability and Contemporary Art therefore brings together artists, theorists and environmental activists to investigate the implications of ‘hard realities’ and ‘new materiality’ for political action, artistic theory and practice, and sustainable living in the 21st century.
Speakers at the symposium included Slovenian artist-theorist Marina Grzinic, who together with her colleague Sebastjan Leban gave a forceful presentation examining the roots of ecological crisis in the capitalist system. Their argument that the notion of ‘sustainability’ was an invention of big business was a cause for some debate, with environmentalists pointing out its origins in ecological thought, as well as the UN Brundlandt Report of 1987, including Alan Watt from CEU, who himself gave a very precisely positioned paper about the stakes of sustainability today. The discussion did though suceed in drawing attention to the way in which the idea of sustainability have become increasingly associated with business-speak and risks losing its critical force if not distinguished from greenwash.
A slightly different approach was taken by Tadzio Muller, a Berlin-based environmental theorist, editor of Turbulence-Ideas for Movement and activist, whose presentation was entitled ‘It’s economic growth, stupid! On climate change, mad-eyed moderates and realistic radicals’, and according to his bio text, ‘after many years of being a counterglobalist summit-groupie, in the emerging climate action movement’ he managed to ‘escape the clutches of (academic) wage labour.’ His charismatic talk seemed designed to get people to stand up and join the struggle, and very much conveyed the urgency of the situation, and clearly stating that since the Rio Summit of 92 nothing governments have done has reduced greenhouse emissions, which continue to rise.
Polish artist Janek Simon explained ‘How to make a digital handwatch at home’, and talked about several of his works which although he doesn’t necessarily think about them in that way, certainly seemed to contribute to the discussion about sustainability and contemporary art, and the contribution of artistic knowledge.
The other artist contribution was from Tamás St.Auby, who agreed to talk about his ‘Subsistence Level Standard Project 1984 W.’, and ended up giving a provocative and interesting demonstration of the subversive possibilities of ‘E-Cumenism Tele-Education‘, which led a number of participants to leave the auditorium, perhaps missing the point of his conceptual intervention involving the the projection of a film of an earlier lecture on the same topic, which luckily was also recorded on video, potentially adding another layer to his highly relevant argument about the sustainability of international conferences and formal education as a whole.
Our presentation was on ‘The Environmental Impact of Contemporary Art’ and took the example of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall from the point of view of the impact of works of art on the environment and showed some of the problems involved in developing a model for analysing the environmental impact of contemporary art.
We also organised a tour of the exhibition Arctic Hysteria at the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, and held an impromtu conversation with some of the speakers, that was recorded and will be available soon.
Full details of the symposium, including abstracts and biographies, can be found on Translocal.org