Dramatic Impact

Sue Spaid reviews Expo 1: New York, Dark Optimism at PS1. Intro by Amy Lipton

This post comes to you from EcoArtSpace

244820899c73d0d08db6fa098f16eab2Expo 1: New York, focuses on some of the most pressing environmental and sociopolitical issues of the day. It takes the urgent and pragmatic sensibility of “Dark Optimism” as its position. Dark Optimism addresses ecological challenges set against the backdrop of economic turmoil and sociopolitical upheaval that has made a dramatic impact on daily life. In response to these global challenges, the magazine and editorial collective Triple Canopy calls for “dark optimism,” an attitude that encompasses both the seeming end of the world and its beginning, one that is positioned on the brink of apocalypse and the onset of unprecedented technological transformation. Climate change has generated storms, droughts, and floods that occur with greater frequency and severity. Economic volatility around the world has precipitated political action, giving rise to manifestations and uprisings in regions such as Northern Africa, the Middle East, Western Europe, and New York’s Wall Street. Meanwhile technological innovations and novel architectural initiatives offer the tantalizing promise of a brighter future. Recent advancements have facilitated communication – which at times has helped organize political protests-as well as access to information with such ease and volume that it threatens to become overwhelming in scale. The works exhibited in Dark Optimism make note of these paradoxical conditions and the instabilities of both natural and artificial systems. – wall text at PS1 MoMA

I’ve made three visits to PS1 MoMA’s exhibition Expo 1: New York, Dark Optimism, and have tried unsuccessfully to find anything in the exhibition that reflects the museum wall statement quoted above. As a curator who has focused on working with ecological artists for over a decade, I went to PS1 with excitement to see this challenge (finally) being taken on by a major New York institution for contemporary art. The show was organized with good intentions in direct response to the effects of last year’s Hurricane Sandy and its far-reaching impact on our local environment and economy, on coastal communities and in New York City. Unfortunately I have to express my disappointment. The works in the exhibition refer to the title Dark Optimism, presenting the dark, apocalyptic and catastrophic in current art trends.  My co-curator of the landmark 2002 exhibition Ecovention, Sue Spaid, aptly calls it “catastrophe art” in her review below. Sadly missing are examples of the many important artists working today whose efforts do offer some cautious optimism. Our environmental situation is dire to say the least. Myriad issues conspire towards our demise – climate change; land, sea and air pollution from the relentless extraction of fossil fuels; oil spills and nuclear leaks; habitat destruction; species extinctions; the list goes on and on.

In the New York area alone there are numerous artists, established and emerging, making profound and inspiring works that tackle these issues, but they are not represented in this exhibition. Brandon Ballengee, Lillian Ball, Joan Bankemper, Jackie Brookner, Betsy Damon, Michele Brody, Wendy Brawer, Mel Chin, Elizabeth Demaray, Peter Fend, Katie Holten, Natalie Jeremijenko, Kristin Jones, Eve Andree Laramee, Ellen Levy, Lenore Malen, Mary Miss, Maria Michaels, Mary Mattingly, Aimee Morgana, Eve Mosher, Leila Christine Nadir, Cary Peppermint, Aviva Rahmani, Andrea Reynosa, Christy Rupp, Jenna Spevack, Alan Sonfist, Katrin Spiess, Tattfoo Tan, Mierle Ukeles, – to name a few. And that list doesn’t include the many artists outside of New York, internationally, or the hundreds of painters and photographers who make work representing and bringing awareness to environmental issues. No exhibition can be completely inclusive – but a show on ecological challenges in New York City has been long awaited and this is a real missed opportunity to give the topic the seriousness and depth it deserves.

Thanks to the daily programming of lectures, debates and discussion by Triple Canopy at PS1 in conjunction with the exhibition – Speculations (“The Future is____________”). A few of the artists I mentioned above, Natalie Jeremijenko, Mary Mattingly and Mierle Ukeles (and Agnes Denes, the one historical ecological artist included in the show) were invited to come discuss their visions for the future and give a presentation on their works that go beyond addressing environmental challenges to offering creative, imaginative and pragmatic approaches to the dire problems we face. That is what I call optimism.

Expo 1: New York “Dark Optimism” remains on view through September 2, at MoMA PS1

Amy Lipton
Curator ecoartspace NY

Expo 1: New York
Dark Optimism May 12-September 2, MoMA PS1
Rain Room May 12-July 28, MoMA, West Lot
School May 13-July 28, MoMA PS1

According to its press release, Expo 1 is a “festival-as-institution,” enabling people to explore “ecological challenges in the context of 21st century economic and socio-political instability.” This statement indicates MoMA PS1’s neoliberal delusion, since instabilities rather mitigate “ecological challenges.” Consider Europe’s diminished car sales since 2008. Greater stability typically invites capital investments and development, which deplete natural resources and animal habitat, while intensifying climate change, flooding, desertification, and groundwater contamination. Consider the BRICS nations, whose swelling ecological challenges reflect their expanding ecological footprints.

Dark Optimism, which assembles 35 solo exhibitions, is the satellite around which Expo 1 revolves. The curatorial team (more than twenty collaborators) has also organized a school (50+ Triple Canopy events), kitchen garden (for M. Wells dishes), colony inhabiting cultural agents, cinema, ProBio (mini-expo), community center (VW geodesic dome sited in Rockaway to showcase relief shelters and 25 proposed climate-change survival plans), and Rain Room. As compared to Olafur Eliasson’s magical Your strange certainty still kept (1996), the high-tech Rain Room adjacent MoMA eradicates wonder. The metaphorical approach of the smaller exhibition ProBio fails to uncover anything remarkable as compared to works by dozens of artists who explore technology’s actual impact on human bodies.

The curators claim that the presence of so many simultaneous activities enables PS1 to experiment with “social practice,” yet none of the invited artists are especially known for sparking conversations or engaging unsuspecting spectators. Absent merry makers, “social practice” is reduced to ever more festival spectacles and educational programs. Of the fifty artists, filmmakers, and novelists invited to lecture and/or lead discussions in response to Triple Canopy’s suggestion, “The future is___”, only Ruth DeFries, Natalie Jeremijenko, Agnes Denes, Mary Mattingly, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles confront ecological issues. This dearth of eco-personnel further devalues this festival’s stated goals.

Opposing Dark Optimism is The Politics of Contemplation, fifty dramatic Ansel Adams photographs from 1932 to 1968. Shot mostly in Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and the San Mateo County Coast, they record nature’s fragility and majesty. One might say that Dark Optimism “surveys a landscape of wilderness and ruins, darkened by uncertain catastrophe. Humankind is being eclipsed and new ecological systems struggle to find a precocious balance.” However, I am quoting the New Museum’s 2008 press release for Against Nature. As a trilogy, Against NatureSeptember 11 (2011), and Dark Optimism launch a new genre, “catastrophe art.”

Exemplary of stability’s role in augmenting ecological challenges, Olafur Eliasson’s Your waste of time (2006/2013) presents twelve glacier chunks transported from Vatnajökoll (Iceland’s largest glacier) and displayed in a solar-powered refrigerated gallery. Equally cynical is Cinthia Marcelle’s video depicting a bulldozer performing crazy eights atop an already flattened field. Equally over-the-top is Adrián Villar Rojas’ La inocencia de los animales (2013), an indoor amphitheater whose colossal scale evokes Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. With its simultaneous references to antiquity and post-apocalyptic Earth, La inocencia seems straight out of Planet of the Apes. Absent bathers, Meg Webster’s reconstructed Pool (1998/2013) makes promises but negates possibilities, which is this exhibition’s leitmotif.

By presenting artworks focused on natural or manmade catastrophes, Dark Optimism overlooks artists’ endeavors to prophesy or alleviate preventable disasters. Rather than exhibit any of the novel ecological solutions that dozens of ingenious artists working on every continent have implemented —over the past forty years—the curators present artworks that merely react to our planet’s terrible situation, leaving Earth’s ill-health as yet another arena for appropriation. Colonization offers a better description. In this context, Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield:A Confrontation, which presaged Wall Street’s ascendancy and global food shortages, is less a testament to human potential and more a nostalgic monument to pre-9/11 innocence. Once a clever solution, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fresh Air Cart (1972) is now a sign portending doom. One leaves thinking, “What’s bad for Earth is good for art,” as if disaster photographs now provide artistic inspiration. Peter Buggenhout’s three fascinating sculptures evoke mud-encrusted metal structures, while Anna Bettbeze fabulous wall hangings hint at acid-stained or flood-ravished carpets.


Pierre Huyghe
Zoodram 5 (after Sleeping Muse by Constantin Brancusi) 2011
Live Marine ecosystem, sculptured shell, basalt rock and filtration system


John MIller, A Refusal to Accept Limits (detail), 2012
The curators claim that Dark Optimism reflects the future that is, “if you want it to be there,” yet few artists here glance forward and most treat catastrophes too lightly. Given wolves’ moose diets, Mircea Cantor’s short video Deeparture (2005) proved to be incredibly scary, as I envisioned the wolf devouring its lone cohabitant. Belittling lynchings, Mark Dion’s Killers Killed (2004-2007) features nine tarred and lynched predators. As remarks on consumer excess, Klara Lidén’s nine trashy trashcans and John Miller’s gold-plated recyclables feel trite.

No “catastrophe art” exhibition would feel complete without Chris Burden’s model Titanic ships balanced on the Eifel Tower, Latifa Echakhch’s shattered tea-glass installation, Mitch Epstein’s menacing power-plant photographs, Paweł Althamer’s outerspace zombies, or Pierre Huyghe’s staged battle between elegant arrow crabs and a hermit crab inhabiting Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse.

Premised on utopia’s twin promises of harmonious nature and technological liberation, “catastrophe art” actually distracts us from Earth’s generosity, leaving us unwilling to face our destructiveness fully and practically. Only Ugo Rondinone’s sensorial soundscape and Dan Attoe’s intriguing paintings rise above this exhibition’s passivity towards disaster, precisely because they invite possibility. Attoe’s hidden messages warn people to pay attention to past mistakes, and remind us, “This world has everything that you could ever want.”


Meg Webster. Pool. 1998/2013. Installation view of EXPO 1: New York at MoMA PS1.
Photo: Matthew Septimus.
Sue Spaid, 2013

This review first appeared in Issue 113 of H art, a Flemish art journal


Natalie Jeremijnko top and Mierle Ukeles bottom (photos: Amy Lipton) from Triple Canopy’s School at PS1 Speculations (“The Future is____________”) 

ecoartapace ecoartspace is a nonprofit platform providing opportunities for artists who address the human/nature relationship in the visual arts. Since 1999 they have collaborated with over 150 organizations to produce more than 40 exhibitions, 100 programs, working with 400 + artists in 15 states nationally and 8 countries internationally. Currently they are developing a media archive of video interviews with artists and collection of exhibitions ephemera for research purposes. Patricia Watts is founder and west coast curator. Amy Lipton is east coast curator and director of the ecoartspace NYC project room.

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Trash the Tate: Tax Yourself for the Cleanup.

I got invited to a facebook event the other day. It was a protest. It instructed attendees to wear black and march up San Francisco’s Market Street in a statement against the ongoing BP oil spill. And for the first time in my adult life, I found myself wondering “Why protest?” Nothing makes a statement quite like hundreds of thousands of crude oil flooding the gulf. No amount of marching equals the dramatic impact of the loss of marine life and fisheries. The spill is not suffering from a lack of media coverage: it’s a constant point of discussion on blogs, television news broadcasts, The Daily Show. In the same way that the Exxon corporation has become synonymous with the Exxon Valdez spill, so this spill will haunt the reputation of BP, and justifiably so. Why march? Why not, say, collect natural fibers for booms and send them to the gulf, to aid in the cleanup effort?

I had a similar reaction to Rising Tide’s recent “Liberate Tate” action. The organization sent a letter to Tate Modern Museum officials, stating:

By placing the words BP and Art together, the destructive and obsolete nature of the fossil fuel industry is masked, and crimes against the future are given a slick and stainless sheen.

It goes on to threaten:

Beginning during your 10th anniversary party and continuing until you drop the sponsorship deal, we will be commissioning a series of art interventions in Tate buildings across the country. Already commissioned are Art Action collective, with a birthday surprise at this weekend’s No Soul For Sale event, and The Invisible Committee, who will infiltrate every corner of Tate across the country in the coming months.

That No Soul for Sale surprise involved hanging balloons of oil in several Tate galleries and littering them with dead birds, forcing portions of the exhibition to close. The blogs Liberal Conspiracy, Art Threat and Indymedia UK touted the action as powerful and appropriate. In the meantime, museum workers were attempting a cleanup of their own artful oil spill.

PLATFORM London argues:

A decade ago tobacco companies were seen as respectable partners for public institutions to gain support from – the current BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery was previously sponsored by British American Tobacco. Now it is socially unacceptable for tobacco to play this public role, and it is our hope that oil & gas will soon be seen in the same light.

It’s undeniable that many companies see arts sponsorship as helpful rebranding following ecological or administrative catastrophes. My question is: if the Tate were to drop BP sponsorship, ending a 20-some-year relationship, what would prevent another, differently socially acceptable, differently bad, corporation from taking its place? The Tate has not disclosed the specific amount it receives from BP, and its account reports available for download do not specify BP’s contributions, but the museum does acknowledge that fully 60 percent of its funding comes from corporate sponsorships.

The Liberate Tate action is the brainchild of John Jordan, a former co-director of PLATFORM and the co-founder of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Labofii). It’s his feeling that arts funding should come from “taxes not corporations,” despite the fact that the British government is reducing arts subsidies. While “Liberate Tate” has no alternative-funding actions planned, Jordan cites’ the Tate’s budgetary silence: “Even if we did find other funders who could take their place, we would never know how much were talking!” In the meantime, “Liberate Tate” will continue to pummel the museum with insurrectionary actions.

I live in California: my taxes don’t fund the Tate. I can similarly not regard the Tate as my neighbor. But I am an employee of a San Francisco museum, and as such I can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for the Tate, a bit of shock. Seriously? We’re going to punish art institutions for the crimes of its funders? And simultaneously: seriously? BP is just now starting to use natural fiber booms? Why shouldn’t corporations fund initiatives that seek to reconcile their most grievous errors, like Tate’s Rising to the Climate Challenge? Or are the taxpayers to shoulder the burden of cultural advancement, as they will shoulder the burden of the oil spill’s ecological cleanup?

To be fair, Jordan took the issue up with Tate officials directly before beginning the “Liberate Tate” campaign, engaging with director Nicolas Serota via a forum led by the Guardian, and emailing director Penelope Curtis,

Does what takes place outside the citadel that is Tate not feature in the decision-making of the Ethics Committee? If not, is that Committee held back from doing what is right by legal restrictions forcing it to act only in the interests of Tate itself? If so, how can we help change that situation?

This in response to Curtis’ statement that

Without BP’s support Tate would be less able to show the collection in a changing and stimulating way. Given that the majority of Tate’ s funding is self generated, it is necessary for the gallery to work across a wide range of corporate organisations and the sponsorship policy is regularly reviewed by the Trustees. The points you raise are important ones.

Jordan is well versed in disobedience against art institutions: the Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center dropped a workshop led by the Labofii when it became clear the the resulting “tools of civil disobedience” were to be used in COP15 actions. The Art Center feared a clash with the City of Copenhagen, a funder of the museum. Similarly, participants in Labofii’s “Art and Activism” workshop at the Tate Museum learned largely about actions against Tate and its funders, specifically because the Tate stated, in workshop preparations, that it could not host any such actions. The resulting insurrection hung a large “Art Not Oil” sign under the Tate’s “Free Entry” welcome.

In an age where environmental artists are using their skills to solve problems both cultural and ecological, are protest and disobedience really the most useful tools in the box? Or are they just the most dramatic? If there are artists working in soil health, reforestation, and urban gardening, can we not also have administrative artists? Where are the massive bureaucratic art “actions”? And, finally: who would be willing to donate 10 pounds to the Tate for every 5 pounds of BP funding dropped from its budget?