Radical Nature

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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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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New York’s Waterpod; artists of the floating world

When Radical Nature opened, some critics bemoaned the fact that the exhibition was cloistered away from both the environment it discussed, and the audience that it deserved to reach. EXYZT’s wonderful Dalston Mill project was a clear answer to those critics

In New York, The Waterpod – pictured above – has been slowly circumnavigating Manhattan. Conceived by artists Mary Mattingly and Mira Hunter as a literal platform for art, it brings New Yorkers to the water that surrounds their island. Like Dalston Mill it provides not only a space for performaces, artworks and discussions, but it creates a triangulation between food, community and environment. This live-aboard ark grows at least some of its own food and includes its own henhouse.

For a taste of what it’s like to live and work aboard The Waterpod, try this NY Times article, which reveals that the floating pod was built from a variety of donated materials, including metal railings used in a Broadway production of Equus, and foliage print wallpaper recycled from the US soap As The World Turns.

It’s currently moored at Pier 5, Brooklyn Bridge Park but will be moving on to Staten Island after the 17th. Have any readers visited The Waterpod? Did it work?

Photo: thanks to BH301.A7

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Emulating Genius: learn how to do it in under 2 hours

Many thanks to everyone who came to the event, ran around forming adaptive eco-systems and generated new design possibilities. (And sorry to those who couldn’t get in because the event sold out).

Biomimicry is a new discipline that consciously emulates life’s genius.

It’s a design principle based on the genius of nature. The idea is not simply to utilise the natural world, but to learn from the exceptional aspects of its design.

It is the most radical approach to problem solving I have heard of.

And when architect Michael Pawlyn (FRSA) told me about it, I thought: ‘ Hmmm, it’d be good to learn how that works – not just ‘hear about it’ as something interesting – it would be great to understand the principles of it, then find ways to apply it.’ Then I drifted off into a daydream about the possibility of applying biomimicry in the arts….

So Michael has been developing games that can teach the principles of how biomimicry works – and we g0t to try them out with him and ecologist Dusty Gedge (FRSA).

The event is part of the Barbican exhibition Radical Nature – Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969–2009.

The genius behind the genius of biomimicry is Janine Benyus – she is an Ada Lovelace for the 21st century. If you want to see a short introduction to Benyus’s work, her latest TED talk is now online.

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No Really Now.

Really. It’s a common blip for the wordpress theme to get all aggressively defaulty, but hopefully now it is fixed. We hope. We are hoping. ‘Cause the blips and farts are really exhausting.

In the meantime, some really awesome stuff has been going on.

In Seattle, artist Mandy Greer has just unveiled the installation Mater Matrix Mother and Medium at Camp Long in Seattle, Washington. It’s a lot of yarn. A lot of yarn in deep dark to bright lights blues, twisting and spazzing and coughing its way through a series of urban trees. Water. On its opening night it danced with performer Zoe Scofield.

Trees are growing sideways in the exhibition Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009, on display at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. They’re part of a massive retrospective of environmental artwork, ranging from Beuys to Smithson to mounds of grass. Trees also paraded through London to celebrate the opening of the exhibit.   William Shaw gives an excellent overview on the RSA Arts & Ecology blog: there’s a video of the exhibition from them below. Monumental, both in the comprehensive gathering of significant artworks, and in the diverse reactions from the critics.

And sadly, the environmental art gallery Collectively Grasp will be closing its San Francisco doors in August. For those of you in the area: they’re having a closing party August 15th. Check it out.

The Bay Area Air is alternately hot, stale, and rich and creamy like ice cream. Here’s RSA Arts and Ecology’s video of Radical Nature. Enjoy.

Radical Nature | Barbican 2009 from RSA Arts & Ecology on Vimeo.

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10 ways of looking at Radical Nature

The critics pass judgement on  Radical Nature, at the Barbican and elsewhere:

PERCEPTIVELY Hari Kunzru The GuardianNature is in crisis… It’s not even really beautiful any more. It’s a problem, a remnant, something that needs to be conserved and argued for. The chances of being romantically overwhelmed are slim.

PROVOCATIVELY Regine Debatty We make money not artAs long as these artworks do not step out of museums and galleries most people hardly ever visit … , I fear that the impact of their work might be somewhat limited.

NEGATIVELY Edwin Heathcote, Financial TimesThe show just doesn’t hang together. “Museums,” said Smithson, “are tombs, and it looks like everything is turning into a museum.” Forty years on, we’re still in the museum.

POSITIVELY Madeleine Bunting in The GuardianOn every side, artists are putting their shoulder to the wheel, trying to prompt the revolution in values and attitudes required to deal with environmental crisis.

ARTISTS SHOULD STICK TO ART-ISHLY Rachel Campell-Johnston, The TimesIt’s all very worthy and often delightful… But do artists contribute anything practical?

THOUGHTFULLY Skye Sherwin in The GuardianFrancesco Manacorda, identifies… a dangerous dualism concerning how we think about nature and culture:.. but while many artists here lament the rift or attempt to close the gap, only a few explore its potential…

DEFEATEDLY Christopher Werth: Newsweek: That somewhat defeated tone pervades much of the newer work, which reveals little of the excitement[… ] found in the campaigns of Beuys and Ukeles. Perhaps that’s only natural after 40 years of environmental art, when for most of that time, so few have paid attention to the message.

ENTHUSIASTICALLY Throughstones blogThe Radical Nature project is an extremely important landmark exhibition, and groundbreaking in the degree to which it reaches out to the public and integrates with real life as it is lived. It will for sure have a far-reaching influence for many years to come.

OBTUSELY Rowan Moore The Evening Standard: Saving the planet is more to do with the Chinese changing the way they build power stations, or Americans changing the way they make cars, than anything an artist can do.

LOOK AT US, WE’RE CYNICAL AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS-ARE-ALL -FASCISTS ANYWAY-ISHLY Anorak.co.uk on the Tree Radical parade through central London: One man has painted his face and others are raising their arms in the air, in the manner of Moseley’s mob. The driver tells us that these are the Green Shirts not the fascist Black Shirts. Old Mr A says “same difference”.

Some are thoughtful, some are downright enthusiastic; some seem distinctly rattled, too.

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Heather & Ivan Morison | The Black Cloud barn-raising


The Black Cloud in production at Spike Island, Bristol from situations.org.uk

Heather and Ivan Morison’s The Shape of Things To Come: The Black Cloud barn-raising takes place on Saturday July 25 in Victoria Park, Bristol. Continuing their run of pavilions for a fragile future that, includes I’m So Sorry. Goodbye at Radical Nature, they’re creating a shelter for public performance and debate, based partly on the shabono communal huts built by the Amazonian Yanomamo – the “fierce people” of the Amazon. More about that on the Situations website. Situations are still looking for volunteers to help record the day.

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Madeline Bunting in today’s Guardian: the “quiet powerhouse” that is RSA Arts & Ecology

Radical Nature’s The Dalston Mill project

Radical Nature’s The Dalston Mill project

Madeleine Bunting’s article on the role of arts in changing perceptions about the environment kicks off by looking at Radical Nature’s The Dalston Mill project, and discusses new work Gustav Metzger and new thoughts from Tim Smit and gives a very warmly appreciated nod to the RSA Arts & …

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R Beau Lotto: the mathematical impossibility of vision

As part of Radical Nature, The RSA Arts & Ecology Centre hosted this extraordinary talk Seeing Myself See: the ecology of vision by neuroscientist R Beau Lotto. It was half-illusionist show, half evolutionary science. Look out for the wonderful experiments with the vision of bees towards the end.

More information: http://www.lottolab.org/

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