Ecology and Ideology: In Search of an Antidote in Contemporary Art

VERGE no.1 (February 2010)

Sustainability has become a buzzword of politics and commerce, and with its spread from the field of environmentalism into society there has been some dilution of its radical implications. Ecological sustainability is also mentioned with increasing frequency in discussions of contemporary art and there is a parallel lack of awareness of the history of environmental thought, which in many accounts begins and ends with the early 60s classic of poetic, anti-pollution literature, The Silent Spring. If we begin with an understanding of sustainability derived from green capitalism, then the widespread belief amongst critical theorists that sustainability was invented by big corporations to create new markets for environmentally-friendly products seems a logical conclusion. Unravelling the confusion between ecological sustainability and greenwash, in other words between the solution and part of the problem, requires revisiting theoretical debates within the field of ecology, in order to open up our understanding of sustainability and its relevance for both society and contemporary art (full text here).

Going Nuclear at the RSA

The recent symposium on Art and Radioactivity at the Royal Society of Arts proved an exception to the many generalised discussions around art and ecology, by focusing on the specific and timely issue of the relationship of all things nuclear to contemporary art. While the organisers, the RSA’s own Arts and Ecology team, together with Arts Catalyst, who specialise in the relationship between art and science, and another UK arts organisation SCAN, laid out their intention as to try to bridge the divide between the ‘pro and anti-nuke’ lobbies – conscious of the fierce debate around this issue in the environmental movement – the symposium ended up giving voice to a consensus of opposition to nuclear power from both artists and scientists.

The first speaker, American artist James Acord, presented his long term engagement with the decommissioned Hanford nuclear plant, which is the most radioactively contaminated site in the USA, with levels matching in some areas those in Chernobyl, and his desire to create a ‘Stonehenge for the nuclear age’, as a warning to future generations. He described his ‘greatest idea ever’ as to use a reactor to transform radioactive elements into harmless metals such as platinum, and a failed attempt to convince Imperial University London to let him use their experimental reactor for these purposes. While for Acord, such a ‘transformation of elemental substances’ was inately sculptoral, the chief scientist apparently refused to allow him to use the university reactor for artistic purposes, for fear of the potential negative publicity (as most people in London are blissfully unaware that there’s an experimental nuclear reactor at Imperial College).

Acord’s thoroughly conceptual understanding of artistic practice came through in his insistence that ‘art is not frivolous’ and that scientists shouldn’t have a monopoly of access to nuclear technology. His art came over as being primarily about his long term research and provocation of the nuclear establishment, such as by going through the very complicated legal process to gain a license for handling radioactive materials – and having the license number tatooed on his neck, rather than in the occasional (also appealing) art objects that he produced along the way. Having failed to convince the authorities to allow him carry out his ‘greatest idea ever’ using nuclear reactors, he resorted to DIY techniques involving the creative misuse of a smoke alarm and some orange uranium-coated dishes, which over a period of months he maintained would bring about the transformation of a small but registerable quantity of plutonium into a non-radioactive metal.

Two other presentations were of commissions for a related exhibition entitled Nuclear: Art and Radioactivity. On the one hand, the approach of Simon Hollington and Kypros Kyprianou was to criticise through mimickry the communications strategies of the nuclear power industry, which involved the setting up of the British Atomic Nuclear Group, giving the appropriate acronym B.A.N.G. This seemed to rest on a rather familiar artistic strategy, although to make a valid critical point about the absurdity, defensiveness and moral bankruptcy of the commercial advocates of nuclear power. The other new work, by Chris Oakley, appeared to run the risk of looking like an advertisement for nuclear power, in the idealised picture it presented of nuclear fusion being developed at Culham as a clean and safe alternative to fission. The artist was clearly sensitive to such criticisms, admitting that the press people at the nuclear plants he suceeded in accessing tried to influence him through the archive materials they provided into giving a rosy picture of nuclear power. He also was questioned at the symposium about why he decided not to refer in his film to the dual history of Harwell, as birthplace both of UK atomic energy and the British nuclear weapons programme. There were clearly pitfalls in the aestheticisation of nuclear power through a reliance on visual imagery alone to deal with a complex and highly politicised issue.

The symposium was enlivened by a video link up with radical new media artist Steve Kurtz in Australia, who gave an off-the-cuff introduction to his current work researching the way in which George Bush used ‘radiation’ as an ideology to justify the use of torture and undermining of civil rights in the USA. Asked in a question about the chances that Obama will bring a change in US policy, he said he feared that Obama was not likely to do much about the fundamental problem of ‘predatory capitalism’, The Critical Art Ensemble he said was interested in ‘stopping the abuse of information so we can make an intelligent decision.’

There were also two presentations by scientists, both of whom were clearly anti-nuclear. One of the scientist presentations showed how the government’s consultation process for the new generation of nuclear power plants, which was given the go ahead earlier this year, was completely flawed and undemocratic. The other scientific presentation was an enjoyable jaunt through the history of the universe, specially done for artists, by someone who clearly had an artistic frame of mind, despite his strictly scientific credentials. He started with a quote from Joni Mitchell (‘We are stardust – billion year old carbon’) and went on to say that the only safe place to have a nuclear reactor is in the sun, and that we should go back to this original energy source that powered evolution from the beginning. Keith Barnham (the scientist in question), explained why he moved from heading a team of particle physicists at the CERN accelerator to pursuing practical research into a new generation of solar energy panels. It was actually quite inspiring…

The last presentation was by the veteran conceptual artist Gustav Metzger, who used the categories of ‘prescience’ and the ‘extreme’ to approach the notion of apocalypse, looking back to moments in modern art history, such as Picasso’s Guernica, while picking up on amusing but significant slices of life culled from the British press, such as a report that Abramovich is buying a house in Kensington, in order to pull it down and build a bigger one, but bomb proof. His message was in the end quite pessimistic, as he said that no one wants to realise that ‘there is no permanent life on earth.’

One of the other illustrious speakers was Kate Hudson, chair of CND, who spoke about the history of CND and nuclear disarmament. Someone made a comment about the failure of CND, and one of the younger artists interjected meaningfully: ‘I was 10 in 1980, and spent the next decade walking around with a CND badge, you don’t know what effect that had.’

The dimension of sustainability came out strongly in several of the talks, and was reflected in the artists’ long term commitment to the nuclear issue and the dematerialised notion of the art work, which most speaker’s shared. There was an interesting moment when members of the audience stood up to insist that the scientists not misunderstand contemporary art, by conceiving of it in aesthetic terms (on the lines of ‘we need artists to make our solar panels more beautiful’), when in fact, what many artists were doing is exploring the idea of art as an alternative knowledge producer, something that trespasses on the excusive rights of the sciencist to control knowledge. Many of the speakers also showed a keen interest in finding ways to intervene in dominant systems, especially those of the media, and to address white hot ecological issues through their work.

Sensuous Resistance: The Legacy of Modernism for Sustainable Art

Adrian Paci, PilgIMAGE, 2005

This text probes some of the legacies of modernism for sustainable art practices, arguing for a re-evaluation of the notion of artistic autonomy as a path of resistance, and was published as part of the Dokumenta 12 magazine project, where the full text can be found.

In 1467 the Madonna del Buonconsiglio miraculously appeared in the town of Genazzano near Rome, descending from a cloud and hovering before an unfinished church wall. Genazzano immediately became a site of pilgrimage and devotion. At the same time, Our Lady of Shkodra, the most venerated icon in Albania, was seen at the height of the Ottoman siege, floating up into the sky, and was followed by two Albanian witnesses all the way to Rome, where they lost sight of it. The holy legend was kept alive from generation to generation and the Madonna was prayed to in Albania’s darkest times of foreign occupation and religious persecution, with hope expressed by the hymn “Madonna of Good Counsel, return to us.”

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. Recent theoretical reassessments of artistic autonomy however, point to a degree of convergence in contemporary art between approaches formerly considered to be binary opposites. Christoph Menke has argued that along with autonomy, art in modernity achieves sovereignty, which enables it to raise claims against rationality. It might therefore be suggested that the autonomy of art guarantees its status as a separate sovereign sphere, with a resultant independence from the rules and conventions of society. It is autonomy that gives art, as well as artists as social actors, the potential to be free and able to offer alternatives to dominant ideological paradigms. So, sustainability of 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 for resistance.

The Art of Making Do with Enough

Tomas Saraceno

This text originally appeared as a chapter in The New Art, a collection of essays on contemporary art published by Rachmaninoff’s London. Our account of the challenge of sustainability for contemporary art includes criticism of the ‘turbine hall effect’ on contemporary art.

Sustainability presents a far reaching challenge to society and raises important issues for contemporary art. Responding to the broad dilemma of ‘how to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ has implications for artistic practice and brings a reorientation of in our opinion most attuned contemporary art towards sustainability. According to environmental thought, the key problems to be addressed on the path to sustainable living are a capitalist model of growth, consumerism, hierarchies in society, social injustice, and the human impact on the environment and natural world. The transformation of society into a more sustainable one entails putting into practice the principles of ecology, grassroots democracy, social justice and non-violence.

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.

 

The Principles of Sustainability in Contemporary Art

Ivan Ladislav Galeta, Spiral Mow, 2004

This essay appeared in a special issue of Praesens: Central European Contemporary Art Review published to accompany the Symposium on Sustainability and Contemporary Art at CEU Budapest as well as on GreenMuseum, where the full text can be found.

The Land art movement of the 1960s and 70s has often been seen as the origin of today’s environmental art. Land artists famously left the white cube of the gallery to make dramatic interventions in the living landscape. ‘Instead of using a paintbrush to make his art Robert Morris would like to use a bulldozer.’ This statement by Robert Smithson points to the ‘earthmovers’ preoccupation with marking, removing, and rearranging natural materials on a grand scale, arguably treating nature as a giant canvas. Although they were involved in a dispute with Greenbergian modernists, who disapproved of all art that tried to link to the real world, denied the connection of art to a specific historical context, and wished artists to remain within traditional disciplines, it could be argued that their polarised positions represent two sides of the same modernist coin.

A more fruitful ground for searching for the origins of today’s sustainable art is in the innovative practices of the conceptual artists of the same period. Their radical questioning of the art system, alternative strategies for making and presenting work, engagement with social and political realities, ethics, and encouragement of independent thought, are all important legacies for contemporary art. Furthermore, dematerialisation, through the disavowal of the art object and shift towards process-based practices, performances, actions, as well as ephemeral works that were created not to last, was an invaluable inheritance for later sustainable art, as of course was the desire of conceptual artists to provoke on the level of idea or concept. Regarding the interplay of art and nature, a highly resonant image from the late 1960s was the art student Goran Trbuljak’s gesture of throwing empty picture frames into the boundless sea.