Artforum

Thoughts on TJ Demos’ Art after Nature

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

Art after nature: TJ Demos on the post natural condition, in Artforum (April 2012) is, as Suzaan Boettger pointed out, important because it represents a key moment demonstrating that ecoart is impacting on mainstream contemporary art’s discourses (maybe).

Perhaps more importantly, the piece concludes with the work of artists who are at this moment, as has happened at key points in the past, choosing to position the focus of their work outside the artworld. Artists such as Nils Norman, whose work Demos focuses on, as well as Fritz Haeg, Superflex, Marjetica Potrc, Art not Oil, Allora & Calzadilla and The Yes Men all engage directly with the biopolitical and the eco-financial (though the work of many of these can be seen in galleries and museums pretty regularly, e.g. Haeg’s Animal Estates 1.0 was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2008). It would be trite to say that economic crisis turns art away from the market, and in any case it wouldn’t be true of the artists profiled in this article, most of whom have been pursuing critiques of markets for decades.

This isn’t Demos’ first foray into art and ecology: he wrote one of the introductory essays for the 2010 Radical Nature show at the Barbican and has also written about the work of Nils Norman in other contexts.

The double entendre in the title Art after nature, alluding to both Timothy Morton‘s Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics and also to art chasing nature, signals the philosophical and phenomenal complexities of the issues he is engaging.

He opens with a discussion of the installation Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium (Autogena and Portway, 2001/04) and, through unpacking the denatured core of this work, frames the challenge through Frederic Jameson‘s challenge to the naturalisation of finance. Is the market part of human nature? Jameson argues that the naturalisation of the market “cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.” This is of course a key theme of the moment, demonstrated not least in the occupy movement.

Curiously Jane Jacobs, who, whilst not being a Marxist, you might assume to be on the same side of the argument, made a case for economics precisely as natural. Her text, The Nature of Economies, argues that economics works in the same way as natural systems, not metaphorically, but literally. Jameson is directly challenging the consequences of this line of thinking. Whether Jacobs is right in her argument (see here), the wider issues of the naturalisation of economics and in particular markets is deeply problematic.

Demos summarises the relationship between economics and environmental crisis, and uses key art works to frame questions around whether environmental crisis should be understood wholly within economic terms (as it is in the Stern Report of 2006, commissioned by the UK Government).

Dave Pritchard’s comments based on a deep understanding of environmental policy and politics, (previously highlighted here) also question this assumption. Pritchard highlights the trajectory of environmental thinking from the emergence of deep ecology through the increasing reliance on the economising (for instance as ecological services) of the environment as a tactic adopted by the environmental movement to engage politicians and economists.

This double process of economising, by both the mainstream culture and the environmental movement, provides a context for recent statements from George Osborne, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the UK cannot afford the green agenda (“…environmentally sustainable has to be fiscally sustainable too…”). He couldn’t make this argument effectively if it was not already accepted that economics was the ‘natural’, or pre-eminent, mode of assessment.

Demos highlights Amy Balkin’s Public Smog (2006-11) which provides another point of critique of the financialisation of the environment and raises some deeply ironic moments in relation to assumed value. The reportage of a conversation with a bureaucrat around the need for international agreement on the “outstanding universal value” of the atmosphere in order for it to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, is frankly, priceless.

Demos next turns to the 2007 Sharjah Biennial entitled Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change, and in particular Tue Greenfort‘s work Exceeding 2 Degrees (2007). Demos, framing it as an evolution of current tropes of contemporary art, introduces the idea of eco-institutional critique. Greenfort’s work draws together a number of elements globalised production framing environmental crisis through an installation comprising room temperature and furniture. A thermo-hydrograph installed in the gallery demonstrates that the air conditioning of the museum has been reduced allowing the space to be warmer by 2 degrees Celsius (the target maximum increase identified in the Stern Report as a limit around which Climate Change Policy should be constructed). The thermo-hydrograph sat on a table made in Japan out of Malaysian wood and sold in Dubai. The money saved by reducing the cooling of the Art Museum was donated to a Danish environmental organisation to protect an area of two square miles of rain forest in Ecuador. The work is fully entangled in the complexities and paradoxes of globalisation and environmental crisis. Demos says, “…although it rescued only a tiny plot of land, Greenfort’s work successfully demonstrated the connections between economic, ecological, and institutional systems.”

Demos tips his hat to the pioneers who were, from the late 60s, creating works “within a ‘mesh’ of social, political and phenomenal relations.” His list includes Joseph Beuys, Agnes Denes, Peter Fend, Hans Haacke, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, and Alan Sonfist. He draws out a key point: they go beyond the simplistic glorification of nature which tended to “posit nature as a separate realm of purity needing protection from industrial degredation, pollution and economic exploitation.”

The question of positioning, framed in terms of creative practices, is in Demos’ interpretation a microcosm of the larger arguments around the status of ‘nature’. Those who argue against, for instance, GM crops (e.g. Vandana Shiva) are according to Demos, “necessarily maintain[ing] a nostalgic belief in the natural and defend[ing] it as a sphere in need of protection.” Demos seems to miss the real territory of debate: he refers to the argument for naming the reality of the ‘Anthropocene‘, but he misses the argument from Deep Ecology for the valuing of all living things and the acknowledgement of interconnectedness. This is a critical issue, because environmental philosophy is not polarised around those who are nostalgically arguing for the protection of nature, versus those who embrace the human shaping of the whole world. Rather the key is to challenge human hubris. The argument for the current geological age being called the Anthropocene is that human activity is affecting all aspects of the planet and that evidence of human activity is manifest in all environments: plastic particles in the oceans, CO2 levels in the atmosphere, consequent mass extinction. In this respect the naming is accurate. But humanity has sought to control the environment through the modern period, shaping it to suit our convenience, first in relation to habitation, but increasingly in relation to all our desires. If the conceptualisation of Anthropocene reinforces an assumption of ‘use’ rather than, for instance, ‘stewardship,’ or if it underestimates our capacity to precipitate broad-scale accidental calamity, then it is in significant danger of reinforcing the destructive aspects of human culture. Does using the term ‘Anthropocene’ sharpen the question around our place in the world, or does it re-package an existing assumption of dominance?

But returning to Demos’ narrative, he concludes by focusing on the ways in which some practices of art and ecology move beyond the tropes of institutional critique. In this he picks up on remarks made by Nils Norman (e.g. on the Bad at Sports interview), in which Norman questions the effectiveness of institutional critique and suggests that artists need to reduce their mobility and focus on development of work in particular locations. This is a practice adopted by others (including PLATFORM who take great care in judging where to travel, using trains even when travelling to the Middle East, and only travel when the reason includes practical ways of engaging with local activists and artists).

Demos draws out the implications of Norman’s project Edible Park, undertaken with Stroom den Haag, initially by juxtaposing with the previous proposal for the site developed by Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Where OMA developed a masterplan for the Binkhorst area of the Hague incorporating an Formula 1 racetrack, skyscrapers, a beach, amusement park and leisure facilities, “Norman’s low-tech ‘counter master plan’ joined organic agriculture and practices such as rainwater harvesting, forest gardening, and composting to craft his model of eco-communalism and bioregionalism, realised in collaboration with a local group of permaculture activists. Norman also worked with Dutch architect Michel Post to build a central place-making structure, a “roundhouse” with passive solar front windows and strawbale construction.”

Demos relates this project as an initiative which responds intelligently to the crisis in the economics of capitalism. His juxtaposition of Edible Park with the OMA masterplan highlights its function as embedded or durational critique, not merely an ecological version of institutional critique. The contrast with Tue Greenfort’s Exceeding 2 Degrees for the Sharjah Biennial is informative. The latter is the tactics of the avant garde attempting to shock the audience through the cleverly formulated and intensely referential highlighting of weakness (mea culpa, mea culpa). But it never leaves the artworld. In contrast Edible Park is a durational and engaged work which negotiates between local ambition and critical positioning, seeking ways to draw attention to alternative configurations of the city, within the city and through the city.

Norman raises the question clearly in The Guide to This World & Nearer Ones (2009), Creative Time’s temporary public art project on New York’s Governors Island. He’s quoted saying,

“I’ve been looking at the history of bohemian artist movements to find a possible place of dissention. Is Bohemia still a place where artists can experiment and develop strategies outside the mainstream? The normalising effect of the market makes this now almost completely impossible, and Bohemia has been instrumentalised by people who make direct links to ‘creatives,’ bohemian lifestyles and a new class of urban entrepreneurs through city regeneration. Where can alternatives be developed? Where is it possible to drop out and develop new languages and codes.”

From this perspective, is it good that Artforum is paying attention to ecoart?

Thanks to Dave Pritchard for additional comments.

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.
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WOOLOO.ORG in ARTFORUM

An Excerpt from Daniel Boese’s article in ARTFORUM on Wooloo’s “New Life Coppenhagen”.

“We work in the medium of hospitality,” Rosengaard says. The “New Life” project created the possibility for strangers to share their homes and experiences, to thus collaborate under the broad goal of addressing climate change in a global conference and treaty. All participants created the work together, unlike public art projects in which artists serve as teachers for a lay public. Individual acts of hospitality create hope in the face of planetary ecological crisis; strangers can agree and cooperate. But our heads of state did not follow suit; they failed to usher in an age of global cooperation at the summit. “New Life” walked the line between art and activism in a new way, updating tactics pioneered by Beuys, Gran Fury, and the Russian Constructivists: Times have changed, and the problems have only become more urgent.

WOOLOO.ORG.

The Unsustainable Art Market Bubble

The contemporary art bubble will surely go down as the vanity and folly of our age” was the concluding claim on Ben Lewis’ charming BBC4 documentary about the notoriously secretive artworld market. 

But before writing about last nights TV, I want to say that the inflated bubble refers to the private international contemporary art market, not the whole of contemporary art. It is a good thing that gallery attendance is at an all time high and more people are making and creating things in their spare time. But as Lewis said, ‘Billionaires are effectively hijacking art history’, or at least they were…

He explained that the art market has increased 800% in the last 5 years, it is largely unregulated, which allows collectors to monopolise certain artists’ work and price hiking is driven by a small number of dealers. So when the rest of the economy crashed ‘one bubble kept growing because billionaires turned it into a game that only they could play’. Last night’s TV show was a welcome addition to the small amount of material that introduces the private art market to the public. If you’re completely unfamiliar with the international artworld market, and would like to hear the sound of your jaw hitting the floor, it is worth reading anthropologist Sarah Thorton’s Seven Days in the Artworld or get a taste of the hard-edge glamour of the auction rooms in her recent posting on the Artforum’s scene and herd (the artworlds favorite gossip column).

Art professionals rarely talk about this publically, so it is left to anthropologists and occasionally critics to report on these dealings.  Although a mischievous artist made a promotional postcard for London’s 2006 Frieze Art Fair, that stated: ‘Art fairs are good places to meet retired arms dealers’.

So while government ministers expenses are eclipsing more rational discussions of democratic accountability, it is worth stating explicitly that media sensationalism is one of the reasons that arts professionals (a majority of whom don’t profit from this bubble) don’t point out the follies of the uber-rich in the art market –  because to flag up how bizarre the system is substantially distorts what people think art is for.*

The beliefs around the social value and economic value of the arts are messily intertwined. To put it simply(ish): focus on the artworld market portrays art as primarily existing to grant social status with unique art objects regarded as tangible assets. The counter position is that contemporary artists’ create provocative works that are of aesthetic and social value for whoever engages with them. However, to dismiss the arts because of distaste for one or other of those apparently contradictory understandings of art – social well-being verses objects as social status – throws the baby out with the bathwater.

Personally, my frustration with the art market, in its current form, is that it keeps the art system deliberately elite. The current system does not enable art to fulfill it’s potential role of being a fully engaging site that celebrates human creativity in the broadest terms. I am not making a purist anti-market point, I am making an anti-mega-elitism point. Like many others who work in this field, I am passionate about the arts and celebrating creativity (in all fields), which is why I think there needs to be more rational and open discussion of how art systems operate. 

Lewis’ programme concluded by reporting that the contemporary art bubble burst over the last few months and the artworld market is falling faster than any other, including loses of $60million by Sotheby’s. But as with the other major crisis and crashes at this time  – this dramatic shift also has the potential for transforming how the art system functions and opens up timely questions about what responsibilities artists and art professionals have in setting the arts agenda.

For a substanial account of the character of economic bubbles, check out the RSA event with Kevin Doogan , or read his article Not All that is Solid.

*Addressing Ben Lewis’ early criticisms of the art market in 2008, Jennifier Higgie, co-editor of Frieze magazine said: ‘Lewis seems to think that the art world is a single glitzy, corrupt entity inhabited solely by Damien Hirst, a few lucrative galleries and the auction houses. He doesn’t mention the hundreds of artists who work hard every day, often for many years, and barely manage to scrape a living. He doesn’t mention the myriad non-profit art spaces, run by sincere, informed people, whose only aim is to expand and explore art’s remit in contemporary society. He doesn’t mention the countless talented writers who work tirelessly, and often for little reward, simply because writing and thinking about art are integral to who they are… Lewis is simply perpetuating the kind of anti-intellectual resentment against art that is usually to be found in the tabloids.’ Discuss. 

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