Optimism

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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UN COP17 Climate Negotiations kick off in Durban

The 17th UN negotiations to try and limit the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions and potentially catastrophic climate change began on 28th November, in Durban South Africa. Since the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force in 1995, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC have been meeting annually to assess progress in dealing with climate change.

With the slogan “Working Together; Saving Tomorrow Today”, it seems as though there is plenty of optimism and a will to achieve. However, recent COP meetings, in Copenhagen and Cancun, were felt by some to have failed to deliver lasting commitments from countries to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s an update from the UKYCC delegation in Durban on Monday 5 December:

“It’s the first day of the second week and the pressure’s started to build. This is the make or break week for the negotiations and I’ll be  honest – I’m afraid it’s going to be break time. There are some really important issues on the table – the one a lot of people are talking

about is the Kyoto Protocol. It’s the only legally binding treaty we have to reduce carbon emissions but it runs out in 2012. If we want to have emissions reduction targets (which we do), then we need action now.  The KP (as it’s called) only applies to developed countries. The US never signed up to it (they just don’t like playing fair or acknowledging that they’re part of the world) and now Canada is actively trying to kill it so it can sell highly polluting tar sand oil to every other country in the world for maximum profits. Japan and Russia are being lame too.

It’s not often I’m proud to be British but the EU, and the UK within it, are doing their best to keep it alive – I’m 100% of the way behind them. Say it loud and say it proud: ‘I heart KP!

Other important issues are having a broader mandate for a universal treaty that will cover both developed and developing countries come out of Durban. That, and money. Always with the money! But the UNFCCC want to create a Green Climate Fund to manage the money that will support mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The big question is, who’s going to take care of the money and where’s it going to come from?

For a more in-depth insight, check out the second UKYCC hand puppet video. If talking hands can’t explain what’s going on, nothing can!”

Websites to keep up to date with progress of the talks:

Go to Arcola Energy

Worldchanging: Bright Green: Thank You for Seven Years of Worldchanging

Sad news at the start of international talks….

Seven years ago, Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio started Worldchanging with the intention of providing access to the tools, models and ideas for building a better future. They wanted to push the concept that solutions-based thinking could transform the debates about sustainability and social innovation. With a scrawny little blog, a brilliant crew of fellow travelers and a lot of moxie, an initial group of us set out to change how people think about (and prepare for) the future.

Since then, Worldchanging has published almost 12,000 essays, articles, blog posts and “quick changes.” We’ve put out a bestselling book (which has been translated into French, German and other languages). We’ve had roughly eight million unique readers, and reached tens of millions more with our ideas through talks, interviews in the media and so on. We’ve had a major impact on the debate, introducing a whole bunch of new ideas and moving forward some entirely new discussions. Many Worldchanging writers have become leading voices in important planetary conversations. We’ve coined a number of phrases, not least the idea of bright green environmentalism. We’ve won awards, earned critical acclaim and, if our mail is to be believed, offered some optimism and inspiration to a number of bright, idealistic people.

But all things change, and so it happens with Worldchanging. The organization is taking steps to close its doors and dissolve as a 501c3 nonprofit organization by the end of 2010. It is our goal to see the archive of work here maintained, though the form of that archive is still uncertain.

via Worldchanging: Bright Green: Thank You for Seven Years of Worldchanging.

Bill McKibben on the “torrent of art” about climate change

Bill McKibben wrote recently on Grist.org about how, over the last few years, art has been shouting increasingly stridently about climate:

That torrent of art has been, often, deeply disturbing—it should be deeply disturbing, given what we’re doing to the earth. (And none of it has quite matched the performance work that nature itself is providing. Check out, for instance, James Balog’s time-lapse photography of glaciers crashing into the sea—if we could somehow crowd that thrashing sheet of ice into the Guggenheim for a week, people would truly get it.) But for me, it’s been more comforting than disturbing, because it means that the immune system of the planet is finally kicking in.

Artists, in a sense, are the antibodies of the cultural bloodstream. They sense trouble early, and rally to isolate and expose and defeat it, to bring to bear the human power for love and beauty and meaning against the worst results of carelessness and greed and stupidity. So when art both of great worth, and in great quantities, begins to cluster around an issue, it means that civilization has identified it finally as a threat. Artists and scientists perform this function most reliably; politicians are a lagging indicator.

I wonder, how true is this? Is identifying artists as the “antibodies of the cultural bloodstream” a hopelessly romantic idea, part of McKibben’s relentless optimism, an optimism that has sustained him for twenty years and more as a campaigner? Or will the next few years prove him right in his faith that, not only are artists making work of “great worth, and in great quantities” about the issue , but that art still has a privileged role in how society concieves of itself.

It’s certainly a role that many established artists would feel extremely uncomfortable with; but maybe this isn’t the time for such niceities.

Read Bill McKibben’s article in Grist.org

Bill McKibben’s 350.org campaign

Bill McKibben talks to RSA Arts & Ecology about his call for artists to lead on 350.org

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

The achilles heel of climate campaigners

As American writer Barbara Ehrenreich suggests in her book Bright-Sided, it’s now OK to say that optimism may be over-rated.  If a relentless economic positivism led to the economic crash, I’d also say that an instituational inability to say how dire things really are environmentally must now be seen as one of the contributing factors to why the public are reluctant to back the kind of radical measures we need from COP15.

In private, climate experts often admit they’re scared silly about what the future’s going to be like; in public they maintain a more positive face. There are, of course, very good reasons for this. Conventionally, we assume that people don’t change unless there’s something in it for them. But what if the climate crisis doesn’t fit this paradigm for cultural change? What if we actually need to start to panic to achieve change?

A slightly comic tussle took place on Monday in the Guardian between two people – both climate campaigners – who hold opposing views on this. The new British bugle blower for looking apocalypse in the face has been the writer and activist Paul Kingsnorth, who, along with his friend Dougald Hine, established the anti-modernist Dark Mountain Project to urge us to embrace the end of civilisation, (see this blog from  a few weeks ago). Kingsnorth’s radical view is that civilisation is the disease, not the cure. Any efforts civilisation makes to combat climate change are doomed to failure, and will only prolong the descent.

Kingsnorth and the Guardian’s climate rottweiler George Monbiot went to head on this, Kingsnorth belittling Monbiot’s efforts to browbeat us to reform ourselves:

We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better lightbulbs) if we can only embrace “sustainable development” rapidly enough; and that we can then extend it to the extra 3 billion people who will shortly join us on this already gasping planet.

It’s an odd situation for Monbiot to find himself in. Monbiot is more accustomed to coming under attack from the denial-bots of the conspiracist fringe. Now activist Kingsnorth himself is attacking his friend Monbiot forbeing a denialist. You have to feel sorry for the man. Interestingly poet and author Kingsnorth comes at the issue as much as an artist as a camaigner – and as noted earlier – art often scratches at the apocalyptic door.

Monbiot’s obvious defence is to point out that Kingsnorth’s millenarianism has a lurid seam of misanthropy to it:

I note that you have failed to answer my question about how many people the world could support without modern forms of energy and the systems they sustain, but 2 billion is surely the optimistic extreme. You describe this mass cull as “a long descent” or a “retreat to a saner world”. Have you ever considered a job in the Ministry of Defence press office?

Monbiot is right of course. Kingsnorth’s world is a dark one. It’s just whenever I hear Monbiot arguing like this, there’s something about the primness of his tone, the convolutions of his clauses and the use of words like “surely” that always makes me think of Miss Jean Brodie.

But despite the misanthropy of Kingsnorth’s position, he has hit on a real achilles heel of the climate change movement. It’s never healthy to believe one thing and say another.

Read the Guardian article.

The Dark Mountain Project

By the by, Kingsnorth himself refers to Monbiot’s love of McCarthy’s The Road as evidence of Monbiot’s own millenarianism. Kingsnorth and I have been disagreeing about that book (see comments); he doesn’t think it’s about climate change at all. It’s one of those arguments where the only solution will be to pull McCarthy off the sidewalk and ask him himself:

EDIT. Coincidentally, Bill McKibben and Steven Colbert also danced around the same maypole on the Colbert Report, with Cobert adopting a slightly lighter form of millenarianism: “It’s game over. We should all have end of the world sex, right now. We’re all going to die!”

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bill McKibben
www.colbertnation.com
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Go to RSA Arts & Ecology