Morison

Help us choose the best art of 2009

Still from Flooded MacDonalds, Superflex, 2009

It has been an extraordinary year for art that responds to issues surrounding the environment. In the (almost) five years since we have been operating, there has never been so much great work being produced. Art never speaks with a single voice, but there has been an increasing cluster of activity around climate change, politics and the enviroment.

It’s time to compile our annual list of the best of the year. We have an embarrassment of riches to chose from. Radical Nature at the Barbican; 100 Days at the Arnolfini; Denmark’sRETHINK; Steve Water’s The Contingency Plan at the Bush Theatre; Artsadmin’s 2 Degrees; Heather and Ivan Morison’s The Black Cloud; Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid, Manchester’s Environment 2.0 at Futuresonic 2009, Superflex’s Flooded McDonalds Petko Dourmana’s Post Global Warming Survival Kit or one of the Yes Men’s interventions – like their one yesterday at COP15 which proved so embarrassing to the Canadians … that’s just dipping our toes in the water.

What were your highlights of the year – and why? What have I criminally overlooked in that above list? What were the best books and stories – the best films? We want to include your comments in the piece which we’ll put up on the main RSA Arts & Ecology Centre website.

Tell us in the comment field below – or email me at william.shaw@rsa.org.uk.

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The Big Draw under The Black Cloud

bigdrawbristol
Two projects we’ve been involved with came together in a good way this weekend. The idea forThe Black Cloud, the public shelter artwork created by Heather and Ivan Morison emerged out of a Bristol residency the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre organised back in 2007, with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Curated by Situations, the shelter has been hosting a series of community events based loosely on how we imagine our uncertain future – all held literally under The Black Cloud.  After the discussion it was also host to The Big Draw, the Campaign For Drawing’s great project to get as many people drawing as possible. This year is their tenth year and they asked The RSA Arts & Ecology Centre to pick one of the themes; we chose Look to the future: work together to combat climate change.

Michaela Crimmin, Head of Arts at the RSA was down there this weekend and took this on her phone.

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Environmentalism: towards civilisation, or “uncivilisation”?


The environment movement is failing because it has only a negative vision of the future. Discuss.

That’s the nub of the argument suggested by Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club in her essaythat we published last week, and one echoed by Emma Ridgway’s recent article for theRETHINK exhibition catalogue. Environmentalism, the argument goes, is about limiting possibilities. It’s about what we shouldn’t do. Appleton believes that art has a visionary role in thinking beyond this drought of possiblity; humanity must instead accept its place as the species that transformed the earth – we must take on that leap of consciousness when we start to think of solutions and not start from the romantic baseline of earth as a wilderness, despoiled by man. We must move forwards, not back.

A radical idea. And the polar opposite to another radical idea proposed recently by poet/writer/activist Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. For them and their Dark Mountain Project, human civilisation itself is the toxic factor that has plunged the earth into crisis. In the blink of an eye – the five thousand years or so  in which  humanity has accelerated towards modern civilisation – we have so stamped over the intricacies of nature that the wheel is now flying off the machine. We must prepare our exit from civilisation, for “uncivilisation”. In the visual arts, this has echoes in the recent work of Heather and Ivan Morison, whose How to prosper in the coming bad years discussion takes place in The Black Cloud (see above) next weekend in Bristol.

Art, a place where the imagination can roam to extremes, is an excellent laboratory for ideas.  The Dark Mountain Project finds its inspiration in literature, particularly in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers – the Californian who shared a romantic vision of wilderness with environmentalist Edward Abbey, referred to below. It was Jeffers who had first suggested the idea of  “inhumanism” that  inspired the Dark Mountain Project. Human civilisation was, Jeffers suggested, always too self-centred to understand the complexity and beauty of the world around it. The Dark Mountain Project also plant their flag in the literature of Joseph Conrad and his “heart of darkness”.

There have been some interesting responses to the Dark Mountain provocation. In the New StatesmanJohn Gray responded to the Dark Mountain provocation by demonstrating that literature has in fact been much more successful at showing the catastrophic results of “uncivilisation” than eulolgising it. There is nothing romantic about the crumbling of civil society. Gray too cites Joseph Conrad, to make the point that Conrad, like J G Ballard – shows the genuine  horror of what a society in disintegration actually looks like. Both Conrad and Ballard were witness to the atrocities that happen when the crust of civilization is removed.

(On a sidenote, Paul Kingsnorth and I have disagreed elsewhere about whether Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road is a novel primarily about climate change. Gray’s line of argument  reminds you that MacCarthy’s book, in which baby-eating survivors scavage the land,  displays the awful consequence of uncivilisation.)

But as both suggest, it’s time to rexamine the givens. Environmentalism hasn’t produced the major shift in culture that the global warming era requires. Something radical has to shift.  Appleton’s idea is that to save civilisation we need more civilisation, not less:

The anthropocene is here, and there is no way back. To wish that we could retreat is the mythical fantasy of wishing that we never ate the apple or stole the fire. It is a wish that we were children again, back in a former stage of history. We cannot reverse out of the anthropocene but only go forward.

I doubt John Gray would quite see eye to eye with Appleton’s thesis either. Gray’s book Straw Dogs was a vigorous assault on the idea of that idea of human centrality in nature. Appleton’s argument is unashamedly anthropocentric; in fact the very notion of the anthropocene, by definition, is a human-centred concept. Gray follows James Lovelock: such assumptions of human supremacy over nature are fundamentally arrogant and hubristic.  Myself, I find the technological postivism of Appleton’s approach hard to embrace. Above all, I don’t believe, as she does, that, ” The climate moves slowly; we have time.”

The Black Cloud by Heather and Ivan Morison (Bristol, 2009)photographed by ac (y su camarófono)

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Change and the power of narrative

When it comes to changing perceptions, artist Heather Morison, whose work with Ivan Morison is strongly located in narrative, argues for the importance of story telling in a new interview on the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre website:

One of the things which I find really fascinating is how when you …
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