From Stockholm to Copenhagen via Rio: Art and Ecology in the Wake of the Global Summits

Talk at Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz on 2 September 2010

The pattern of world environmental summits has been one of raised hopes for global action in tackling ecological crisis, followed by disillusionment as dominant political and economic interests reassert themselves to block radical change. Contemporary art’s recent enthusiasm for environmental questions, which peaked during the media hype preceding the Copenhagen Summit, has an instructive prehistory in the interconnection of art and ecology in the 1970s, with the 1972 Stockholm conference slogan ‘only one earth’ a powerful rallying call for artistic collaborations. In their talk at Muzeum Sztuki, art and sustainability theorists Maja and Reuben Fowkes explore the lessons of art’s engagement with ecology, from the first understanding of the crisis of human environment in the early 70s, to the global perspective ushered in by the end of the Cold War, with the popularisation of the idea of sustainable development at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and the crystallisation of the debate between technocratic and radical approaches at the ill-fated Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.

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Ecological Citizenship and Contemporary Art

Kaszas Tamas

Public lecture by Maja and Reuben Fowkes at Turner Contemporary dealing with a pivotal issue for art and sustainability.

A heightened awareness of the ecological consequences of our actions, lifestyles, and everyday choices has rapidly gone from a fringe concern to a mainstream preoccupation, reinforced by the newfound enthusiasm of politicians and the media for green issues. Contemporary artists have in many cases maintained an independent position, showing a willingness to engage with the most radical implications of sustainability for society as well as for artistic practice, while remaining alert to the dangers of coercion, manipulation and social control. This presentation will investigate the ongoing encounter of contemporary art with the quest for ecological citizenship, including the artistic exploration of its deeper ramifications and discussion of the instinctive preference for an ecology of freedom.

Djeribi and Stevens in Budapest

Djeribi and Stevens at CEU

Following on from the Symposium on Sustainability and Contemporary Art at Central European University Budapest in March 2006, this guest lecture and workshop led by Mari-Aymone Djeribi and Dominic Stevens was organised in April 2007 to explore the rural as a site for contemporary art and architecture and discuss the possibilities and challenges of sustainable living.

Mari-Aymone Djeribi is an artist who makes artist’s books, installations, objects, films and sourdough bread. She founded her publishing company mermaid turbulence ( in 1993. Her work appears in a number of international public collections, most notably the Tate gallery Artists Book Collection, UK and Centre National D’Art George Pompidou, Paris , France.

Dominic Stevens is an award-winning architect. His work has been published internationally (see, for instance, A10 Magazine March-April 2007) and, more importantly he hopes that it has improved the lives of the people that commissioned it. He represented Ireland at the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Having moved to Leitrim in rural Ireland in 1999, Djeribi and Stevens built a timber and strawbale house and they farm with their two small children just under five acres, tending goats, ducks, chickens and trees.

The Implications of Sustainability for Contemporary Art

This lecture was given as part of the TRAIN open lectures series at Chelsea School of Arts and provoked a lively and productive discussion with the audience.

The notion of sustainability has spread from the field of environmentalism to many other areas of human activity, including the spheres of art and culture. There is a growing understanding that radical change is required, if we are to find a way to ‘meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ For art, the implications are felt in the preference for sustainable forms, the critique of unsustainable art world structures, and the reassessment of art history from the point of view of our relationship to the natural world. It offers a challenge to the ingrained habit of producing objects and the relentless search for novelty in contemporary art.

What we are dealing with is no longer confined within the niche of earlier environmental art, which is associated with art acting as a vehicle to popularise environmental campaigns, or symbolic gestures to purify rivers through ritual, or to raise consciousness through art with a direct ecological message. In fact, the closeness to sustainability of much challenging contemporary art practice owes more to the legacy of 1970s conceptualism, and even primarily the non-market East European variety of conceptual art, than for example to Land Art. This presentation will therefore discuss the ways and extent to which a concern for sustainability has passed into the mainstream of contemporary art.

The rigid divide between autonomous art, for which the highest imaginable function is to have no function, and instrumental art, which is accused of sacrificing artistic freedom for the sake of a political message, is a direct legacy of modernism, and still informs many widely held assumptions about the nature of artistic engagement. We will consider recent theoretical reassessments of artistic autonomy that point to a degree of convergence in contemporary art between approaches formerly considered to be binary opposites. Arguably sustainability in art recognises no contradiction between autonomy and engagement, as long as the formal qualities are fulfilled, as it is precisely the autonomy of art that creates a space to consider alternatives.

The implications of sustainability for contemporary art will be examined through the work of international artists, including Adrian Paci, Heath Bunting, Beata Veszely and Ivan Ladislav Galeta. Their sustainable practice might be considered in terms of the contemporary avant garde.

Art in the Age of Global Warming

This lecture was given by Maja and Reuben Fowkes at the conference Europe Now, Europe Next organised by and sought to bring a ecological dimension to the notion of ‘cultural versus national borders’ in Europe.

Issues around borders and memory have had a strong presence in contemporary art for a decade or more, especially in Eastern Europe, where identities of all kinds were put into question ‘after the Wall.’ We argue that a powerful set of concerns have recently come into play, changing how these issues are perceived and placing them in a new context. The need to face up to the implications of climate change is arguably as much of a challenge for contemporary art as it is for the car industry. The challenge of sustainability for art leads to the questioning of established institutions and practices, including art fairs and biennials, the craze for building new art museums, down to the ecological impact of the art work itself. Sustainability also opens up new possibilities for art to take a critical position towards the unsustainable aspects of contemporary society.

This paper explores the implications of sustainability for contemporary art and examines how the need to respond to the global ecological crisis is bringing about a reorientation of the most acute contemporary art, where virtual space is valued as a carbon-free zone, the border crossings of Europe rediscovered as an accidental wilderness, and popular memories and myths are treated as perishable elements of human experience that are endangered by the juggernaut of progress. Equally, just by being sustainable through their practice and preserving their autonomy from mainstream society, contemporary artists have the potential to create a space for radical thinking and to experiment with alternatives.