Harrison addresses the fundamental question of whether we can justify the continued production of art in the age of climate change, for her first essay whilst studying for her Masters at Glasgow School of Art. Published by Nottingham Visual Arts Magazine in 2009. (Word count: 3,106)

Time for a New Environmental Conceptualism

Introduction: Crisis Point

If the numerous predictions are true, it seems inevitable that climate change all over the globe will make life in the twenty-first century a lot more challenging and less comfortable than it was for the majority of the twentieth. It looks likely that we will have to contend with rising sea levels, widespread desertification, water shortages, crop failures and the displacement of millions of environmental refugees. If we are to believe Engel’s assertion that art is only possible once basic human needs such as food, water, shelter and clothing are taken care of, then surely we must begin to consider art’s future in an age of environmental crisis. And, more urgently, we must begin to take action on what art and artists can do to take responsibility for, and minimise, their contribution to this situation.

In February 2008, an article entitled ‘Eco Art’ was published in Art Monthly. The opening paragraph acknowledges the situation we, as a species, now find ourselves in and begins to question whether we can even continue to justify the existence of art.

“As ecological awareness instils in us a sense of waste, the finiteness of resources, and the myriad costs of production and supply, shouldn’t we then question the continued existence of objects and activities which seem excessive to our basic needs?” (Kenning 2008, p.1-2)

When considering notions of ‘wastefulness’ and ‘uselessness’ in light of the unprecedented environmental crisis that we face, it seems the logical conclusion is that all art production should cease and that artists should focus their attentions on more worthwhile and pressing tasks which could actively help to remedy this situation. And indeed the cessation of art production has been proposed on numerous occasions most notably by Gustav Metzger (Years Without Art: 1977-80) and Stewart Home (Art Strike 1990-93).

This essay aims to uncover the reasons why reaching this reactionary conclusion would be futile, and, in light of this, aims to investigate just what ‘useful’ role art could play in the twenty-first century. It calls for a New Environmental Conceptualism (NEC) – not simply a move towards artworks which preach about environmental issues to the people, but a manifesto for a new way of making art which requires artists to acknowledge their role as ‘producers’, and to begin to shift their modes of production so that they embody an ethic of sustainability. The essay aims to explore how, in NEC, the new forms artists find to visualise their ideas can become integral to the work’s political and critical power, and then to show why our present point in history, which (by no coincidence) is also a time of heightened economic crisis, provides the perfect opportunity for this new paradigm to emerge.

Giving Up Is not an Option

Over the course of the twentieth century, capitalism has expanded unchecked at an alarming rate to the extent that it now fully encompasses the globe and has transformed into the rampant beast Guattari terms Integrated World Capitalism (IWC) (Guattari 2000, p.17). The exploitation of the earth’s resources in order to feed the ceaseless production this system demands has simultaneously led to the environmental crisis (described above), which is the motivating focus of this essay. Capitalism is, of course, maintained by promoting (incredibly successfully) a dominant recreation and entertainment system based on the brainwashing mantra ‘buy, buy, buy, consume, consume, consume!’ (Curtis 2002).

What art has the potential to offer is an alternative to this system of recreation and entertainment, by providing places – publicly funded galleries, events and exhibitions – where people can go to spend their time without the pressure to spend their money. If, through overanalysing, we reach the conclusion that art is ‘useless’ and should be stopped, then the result would be to lose our only chance of a system which offers resistance to the capitalist hegemony. As explored in a recent article published in Frieze, the space left in art’s wake would be eaten up by IWC in no time.

“Big money and the omnipolluting mega-corporations would be quite happy to see system-critical contemporary artists argue themselves out of existence. So they could landfill contemporary art spaces with flash marketing events instead.” (Eichler 2007, p.213)

It is the unique reactionary potential of art which Guattari believes has led to an increase in artistic consumption in parallel with the “increasing uniformity of the lives of individuals” as capitalism went global. This is perhaps because, what differentiates this system of recreation and entertainment from the mainstream is that, as well as offering alternative physical spaces for people to spend time in, the artworks themselves offer alternative conceptual spaces which allow people the opportunity to look and think about their own lives from different perspectives, illuminating, perhaps for the first time, the overbearing dominance IWC has on the world they know.

Art vs. Capitalism

With all this ideological talk, it would be naïve not to acknowledge that, as well as offering a potential alternative to capitalist rationality, the art world is also totally entrenched in it. The art market is a powerful, multi-million pound industry after all. However, if one is to view this industry as a microcosmic version of the massively larger IWC, then one could also conclude that it is no longer sustainable. The global art scene and the vast amount of shipping and jet fuel that it consumes (Godfrey 2007, p.198), along with the decadence and extravagance of all its art fairs and exhibition launches, not to mention all of the materials used in the production of the majority of commercial art, is making its own substantial contribution to the environmental crisis.

NEC offers art a chance to move away from this mentality and its accompanying wastefulness and to save itself in the process. As Lucy Lippard notes, this kind of commercial art “has no real context in the society outside the marketplace. The distance between the art world and the world in which most of us live remains vast” (Lippard 1997b, p.269). It appears that a revolution is necessary! One in which the art that is prepared to connect with the real environmental crisis and adjust its modes of production accordingly, breaks away and leaves behind on a sinking ship the art which persists in wearing the ‘we’re not listening’ earmuffs of IWC. If we are to believe the often cited claim that “the best art comes out of periods of financial difficulty” (Rose 2008, p.23), then it appears that an art detached from capitalism will be all the stronger for it.

Developing Marx’s conclusion that revolutions are only possible at times of heightened economic crisis, Guattari suggests that different types of crises, ecological or social, opened the “field up to a different deployment of aesthetic components” (Guattari 2006, p.80). Our current global situation, therefore, appears to provide the perfect conditions for a revolution towards NEC to occur, but it must be artists who, as the ‘producers’ at the top of the supply chain to the art world, make the first move.

Artist as Producer

Once it has been acknowledged that it would be futile, even detrimental, for art to cease to exist, artists in this ‘endgame’ situation (Gablik 1992, p.14) are faced with a number of contradictions. The most strikingly obvious is in the linguistics of the two phrases the ‘conservation of the environment’ and the ‘production of art’ – one implying keeping the earth from harm or decay and the other implying the use of its resources. The artist must first acknowledge their conventional role as resource users and waste producers (Goulding et al. 1994, p.10) and then begin to work out ways in which their modes of production can be transformed to minimise their environmental impact. In his 1934 essay ‘Author as Producer’ Walter Benjamin explains how, for political integrity, it is actually always the duty of the artist to attempt to change the conventional systems of production in which they operate.

“To supply a production apparatus without trying, within the limits of the possible to change it, is a highly disputable activity even when the material supplied appears to be of a revolutionary nature.” (Benjamin 2003, p.496)

And so, it is the very act of change itself which enables the work to become a complete critical commentary on the prevailing political situation. Benjamin therefore infers that it is only in the experimental, critical avant-garde that true political virtue can be found (Benjamin 2003, p.494).

No More Objects

It was in the sixties that artists first began to acknowledge their role as ‘producers’ and to consider the effects that the modes of production they chose to employ were having on the world around them. New developments in Conceptual, performance and event-based work coincided with intensification in both industrial production and mass consumption (Bourriaud 2005, p.85). Conceptualism was initially born out of a desire to detach art from its commodity status (Lippard 1997a, p.ix). In 1969 Douglas Huebler made the somewhat radical statement for an artist claiming that “the world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more” (Miller 2006). 1969 was also the year Lawrence Weiner wrote a manifesto, in which he explicitly linked material production to pollution and environmental problems:

“Industrial and socioeconomic machinery pollutes the environment and the day the artist feels obligated to muck it up further art should cease being made. If you can’t make art without making a permanent imprint on the physical aspects of the world, then maybe art is not worth making. In this sense, any permanent damage to ecological factors in nature not necessary for the furtherance of human existence, but only necessary for the illustration of an art concept, is a crime against humanity.” (Weiner 2003, p.893)

In many ways, Weiner prefigured the demands of NEC, reaching similar conclusions forty years previous. But yet his message did not prevail, and the corrupting effect of the art market booms of the mid-eighties and late-nineties into the new millennium, warded off any real attempts to transform the ideology of art practice away from the production of ‘commodities’. But now it appears the glory days are over.

Practising not Preaching

In this period of intensified crises, it is essential that art begins to move away from the capitalism that demands a ‘material form’ that can be easily traded. In doing so artists must begin to engage in changing their modes of production so that artworks embody the ethic of sustainability which will be central to the twenty-first century. NEC is far more about practising this environmental ethic than it is about preaching about it. It is not calling for an art which simply ‘deals with’ environmental issues on a purely content level – more “cliché, sloganeering and message-heavy satire” (Kenning 2008, p.4) or “didactic polemic” (Andrews 2007, p.218) – but rather for an art which manifests these concerns through the way it is produced.

In ‘Author as Producer’ Walter Benjamin also explores the conventional relationship between what he terms ‘commitment’ – dedication to a political cause and ‘quality’ – the aesthetic and critical quality of the work. He was writing in specific reference to ‘social realism’ – the type of art demanded by the communist regime in the USSR, a forced politicisation or propaganda, which lacked any criticality or true aesthetic quality. Benjamin argued that it was not the case that art had to be either / or. Conventional work which discussed the political situation for the sake of it was accused of “continually extracting new effects or sensations from the situation for the public’s entertainment” (Benjamin 2003, p.496), whereas the most ingenious critical work was that which embodied the political issues of the time by challenging the established modes of production. It can therefore be asserted that, by adopting new working methods which embody an ethic of sustainability, NEC can attempt to incite real change within the systems it operates, and perhaps beyond.

New Modes of Production

Having explored the problems of a conventional art that simply preaches about the environment, we must now expand upon the possible forms NEC could take. Carrying forward Weiner’s declaration that if it makes a “permanent imprint on the physical aspects of the world, then maybe art is not worth making” (Weiner 2003, p.893), we shall look to three examples of types of contemporary practice which attempt not to, to take as our paradigm.

Dematerialisation – Tino Sehgal
The art of Tino Sehgal is quite exemplary for its extreme dematerialisation. To the extent that his work takes no material form and is neither documented in writing nor photography. The pieces are realised in the gallery space by actors who render discussions and performances, taught to them by the artist, for the audience. And despite their immateriality the works are dramatic, all-consuming and sometimes visually stunning. For example, his 2005 piece for the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale comprised a dance and corresponding chant of ‘this is so contemporary!’ performed by the three invigilators for each new group of visitors entering the space. The intensity of the experience was heightened by the hordes of onlookers who had themselves just been humiliated by the same experience, and by the conventional abstract paintings attached to the gallery walls which, it seemed, the whole performance was critiquing.

“My point is that dance as well as singing – as traditional artistic media – could be a paradigm for another mode of production which stresses transformation of acts instead of transformation of material” Tino Sehgal (Bishop 2005, p.217)

In line with NEC, Sehgal’s claim for the work is that it offers a new mode of production which helps transform art away from its unsustainable past:

“Both the appearance of excess supply in western societies in the 20th century, as well as of mankind’s endangering of the specific disposition of ‘nature’ in which human life seems possible, question the hegemony of this mode of production, in which the objecthood of visual art is profoundly inclined.” Tino Sehgal (Bishop 2005, p.217)

Recycling Forms – Postproduction
In his book ‘Postproduction’, Nicolas Bourriaud defines a new movement of artists from the mid-nineties onwards who are responding to “the proliferation of chaos in global culture” (Bourriaud 2005, p.13). The characterising feature of these artists’ work is the anti-capitalist action of reappropriating redundant forms (Townsend 2009, p.12) – physical, visual and cultural. Following on from Douglas Huebler, their acknowledgement that there is already enough stuff in the world to be used, modified and transformed into new ideas, is also a central tenet of NEC. Later in the book, Bourriaud develops the notion that the advance of this mode of production comes with the acknowledgement of the responsibility and accountability of artists.

“Every individual, and particularly every artist, since he or she evolves among signs, must take responsibility for forms and their social functioning: the emergence of a “civic consumption,” a collective awareness of inhuman working conditions in the production of athletic shoes, for example, or the ecological ravages occasioned by various sorts of industrial activity is each an integral part of this notion of accountability.” (Bourriaud 2005, p.92)

Social Projects
Bourriaud’s theory of Postproduction explores the techniques employed by the artists associated with the movement he coined as ‘Relational Aesthetics’ in 1998. This incorporated a new wave of artists (including Jens Haaning, Christine Hill and Rirkrit Tiravanija) who were using social interactions between humans as a ‘material’ with which to visualise their ideas. The works took the form of social situations in which conversations between audience members could be had or new experiences generated. The idea was “a rejection of the commodity status of art in favour of a symbolic activity which takes place between real people, in the real world, over time, necessitating a move away from the isolated art object.” (Kenning 2008, p.2)

A manifesto for New Environmental Conceptualism should be seen as an amalgamation of the ideas and ideologies motivating the practices outlined above. This should be combined, over time, with all the innovative new modes of production generated by new artists who are in the process of making this revolutionary break away from the modernist traditions of the autonomous art object and its intravenous link to the art market and, in turn, to capitalism. As well as the embodiment of an ethic of sustainability, what these practices all seem to share is an aspiration to connect art back to the ‘real world’ – to real experiences and the real global crises from which it has become so removed.

How Can We Continue Making Art?

The pressing question this essay has been addressing is essentially two-pronged. In its rhetorical sense, the question is answered by looking at what art can offer society as an alternative to capitalism. We can continue making art because of the unique potential of its counter-hegemonic power. Art allows people an opportunity to spend their recreational time outside of shopping centres or away from the TV screen. Without art as a resistance to capitalist modes of entertainment, we would all be subsumed. The true counter-hegemonic power of art relies on its ability to separate itself from the art market (capitalism’s fat finger in the art pie) and to reconnect with the ‘world in which most of us live’. The combination of the current economic and environmental crises offers the perfect opportunity for this fracturing to occur and for art to realise its true ‘useful’ role in the twenty-first century. Only then will it be possible for art to reach what Guattari saw as its culminating phase in which it has an integral relation to ethics (Bishop 2006, p.15).

In its practical sense, the question is directed specifically at the ‘producers’, namely the artists themselves. It is a battle cry to those, upon whose shoulders, the responsibility ultimately lies. There is only one way artists can continue making art – sustainably. It must be the imperative of artists to change the prevailing modes of production to more sustainable practices and in doing so to become teachers, influencing future artists to do the same. Concluding ‘Author as Producer’, Walter Benjamin states that an “… (artist’s) production must have the character of a model: it must be able to instruct other (artists) in their production and, secondly, it must be able to place an improved apparatus at their disposal…” In short, the move to NEC is as much an evolution as a revolution – a way of transforming art, over time, so that with each incremental change its mode of production becomes further and further removed from the mentality of IWC, to which it must remain ideologically opposed. Benjamin’s final demand to the artist is “to think, to reflect upon his position in the production process” (Benjamin 2003, p.498).


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