Doomsday art: is it bad for you?

Does the dark heart of art make it the right medium to discuss climate change? Is expecting anything productive out of the alignment of art and ecology a ghastly mistake?

Alongside the Tantalum Memorial, in the line up for transmediale09‘s Award this weekend at Deep North is Michiko Nitta‘s Extreme Green Guerillas  – a final project from her time as a student at the RCA that was displayed by the ICA in 2007 and even attracted the attention of

The artwork uses writing [see above], illustration and flash sites to propose the creation of  Extreme Green Guerillas. The actual artwork itself deliberately leaves room to imagine that they are already in existence. Nitta writes,”They are a network of amateur self-sustaining people who have shortened
their lifespan to sustain the ultimate green lifestyle. Whilst going to
extreme lengths to protect the environment, they try to enjoy a
decadent quality of life by utilizing urban waste and biosystem. This
consists of embracing emerging technology to develop the ultimate green

Her imaginary guerillas take their rejection of consumerism to extremes. They don’t use corporate structures like mobile telephony. Instead they use a network of electronic devices implanted in pets and migrating animals to spread messages around the world. 

Instead of relying on agribusiness for our meal, she proposes guerilla hybridisations of vermin with gourmet delicacies, like the piguail (half quail, half pigeon) rattit (half rabbit, half rat [pictured right]. Yum.

Extreme Green Guerillas also opt for voluntary euthanasia at 40 to ensure that they do not consume more than their fair share of the earth’s resources.

It’s one of a growing number of artworks which demand the viewer participate by imaging themselves in this future. There was After Nature at the New Musem curated by Massimiliano Gioni; Superflex’s Flooded McDonalds; Heather and Ivan Morison’s work last year for the One Day Sculpture festival or their work at Margate, Folkestone and Tatton Park; Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s TH.2058 at the Tate Turbine Hall. It’s clearly on a lot of people’s minds.

Also up for the transmediale09 Award this weekend  is Petko Dourmana’s Post Global Warming Survival Kit.

This is a room with a caravan in it, and an infra-red projection which is invisible to the viewer until they pick up night vision devices to see it with.  The visitor is then confronted by a vision of a devastated world; inside the caravan are blankets, food and communication devices, the bare essentials for survival.

Dourmana’s work dreams a time in which governments have collaborated to create a nuclear winter as a last-ditch response to global warming. It’s a scenario that could be the setting for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. If that is what it takes to survive, you’d want to end it all now.

We recently asked a poll question on the main RSA Arts & Ecology website about whether apocalyptic visions were more or less powerful in leading to change than positive encouragements. A majority, 41%, reason that positive images are more likely to lead to change. But a huge 22% are undecided.

Conventional wisdom suggests that carrots work better than sticks. Matthew Taylor held this line in an article on our website Climate Change = Culture Change:

In order to tackle climate change we need specific action and I think
this throws in interesting distinctions about what art can do in terms
of encouraging strong feelings, and what actually inspires us to do the
right thing. We know from social psychology that telling people that
things are terrible is often just disempowering.

According to that view, all this work is disempowering.

Two points:

One. To understand why art so often finds darkness, death and contemplations of destruction more productive to depict than positivism, hope and light would require a much, much longer post than this, (and the Gulbenkian Foundation’s Sian Ede will be discussing this in an interview shortly to be posted on the main site) but the fact is, it does. To wish it otherwise is to wish that black was white, or that Damien Hirst would finally realise that it’s not clever to sound like you don’t know much when discussing your own art.

Two. If a scientist tells me straight that we’re going to hell in a handbasket I’m terrified. That scientist knows big stuff I don’t. But if an artist creates an installation envisaging a post-nuclear winter, I don’t start panicking. Art is not journalism; it is not science. It is art. None of the artists above have any more power to predict the future than I do. I don’t know of anyone who has ever mistaken one for the other. But what artists do engages the brain in totally different ways and and one of those is to make me think, but what if… in ways that are totally unexpected.

Which is good. Empowering, even. So bring on the apocalypse. It’s great. Artistically speaking, at least.


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