ART + THE ENVIRONMENT
This project combines my interests in artistic practice, activism, and the environment.
Art has an undeniable power of persuasion when it comes to illuminating societal issues and catalyzing change. Major issues of the past century - including immigrant housing, workers rights, civil rights, the free speech movement, and war, to name only a few - were documented by artists whose works literally galvanized social movements that lead to cognitive and behavioral shifts amongst millions of people. In this century, our communities continue to struggle, but now in an accelerated period of environmental threat. In 1972, when Apollo 17 snapped a picture of the earth from space, it is said that this photograph, titled “The Blue Marble”, sparked the modern environmental movement. Now one of the most widely distributed images in existence, it’s publication coincides with the establishment of Earth Day, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and many more initiatives to raise awareness and collaborate to change our destructive patterns toward our green earth. The 1970s also gave rise to an emergent era of artists engaging with environmental issues in their work, both to instill a sense of reverence in the natural world, and to shed light on imminent threats to it. Forty-five years later, environmental issues persist. Corresponding with this startling reality is a burgeoning crop of artists and thinkers working to illuminate these issues and to find creative solutions.
The intellectual rigor and creative acumen of today’s artists, as applied to environmental issues, is as inspiring and as successful a tool for activism as the Blue Marble photograph. My interest focuses on interdisciplinary artists who create socially engaged work around environmental issues and who collaborate with scientists through research-driven processes. The curatorial direction comes from the lens of scientific collaboration and social engagement. How do creative practices intersect with science to help people understand the global scope of climate change (for example)? How does art/science collaboration promote agency and action in response to the overwhelming evidence of ecological collapse on the planet? How can viewer-participants engage with the work to create connections and take actions on issues they care about?
Stiv Wilson, a waste and plastic pollution expert at The Story of Stuff Project in Berkeley (and who also happens to be an old pal from college) spends some of his time traveling the world (sometimes by boat) studying inefficiencies in our global materials economy. He meets allies in the field and collaborates on solutions to help manage the world's waste cycles. He sees firsthand how vast accumulations of garbage affects the environment and the millions of human and other animal inhabitants. Understanding a slice of how toxic and devastating human consumption and disposal has been presents a conundrum for me in the context of this project. It feels almost impossible to imagine an artist, or group of artists, making an impact in this arena. And then I think of the art of Vik Muniz, the Brazilian artist who was featured in the documentary film Waste Land, directed by Lucy Walker, which featured Muniz's work on one of the world's largest garbage dumps, Jardim Gramacho, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Vik cultivated relationship with garbage collectors and there at Jardim Gramacho, "he photographed an eclectic band of “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials. Muniz’s initial objective was to “paint” the catadores with garbage. However, his collaboration with these inspiring characters as they recreate photographic images of themselves out of garbage reveals both the dignity and despair of the catadores as they begin to re-imagine their lives. Director Lucy Walker and co-directors João Jardim and Karen Harley have great access to the entire process and, in the end, offer stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the alchemy of the human spirit." (synopsis from WASTE LAND)
ARTS + ENVIRONMENT ORGANIZATIONS
Some organizations (that have existed for YEARS) are dedicated to discovering, understanding, and highlighting environmental injustices and ideas of sustainability through creative forms. Here are a coupe of entities that do just that:
COAL, the coalition for art and sustainable development, is a multidisciplinary and innovative organization that mobilizes artists and cultural actors on social and environmental issues, creating awareness and implementing concrete solutions through exhibitions, events, and the Coal Art & Environment Prize. The COAL Prize, created in 2010 by the COAL Art and Ecology Association, aims to present to the general public and political figures other ways of understanding the complexity of climate and other environmental challenges through a multiplicity of views and creative alternatives. Every year the COAL Prize highlights ten projects by contemporary artists working on environmental issues in the field of visual arts. They are selected through an international call for projects. In seven years, the COAL Prize has become an international meeting place for artists who take up the main universal issue of our time : ecology. The ten nominated artists are selected for artistic value, relevance, originality, pedagogy, social and participative approaches, eco-design and the feasibility of their project. Together, they demonstrate how creation, in its diversity of forms and actions, is a key force in shaping the future of our societies.
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation fosters the legacy of Rauschenberg’s life, work, and philosophy that art can change the world. The foundation supports artists, initiatives, and institutions that embody the same fearlessness, innovation, and multidisciplinary approach that Rauschenberg exemplified in both his art and philanthropic endeavors.
REPRESENTATION IN MUSEUMS
“Don’t try to change the world, that’s a concept floating on our horizon. Just use your wits and change your heads.” - Lily Cole, environmental activist
My thesis advisor in museum studies graduate school always teased me for choosing the broadest subjects possible. "You want to do a project on how we remember, Svea? How about choosing something more manageable, like North America." He was speaking in jest, but I got the point. I still LOVED that concept, and found it crucial in the context of museums and their role in representational story-telling for a public audience. Incidentally, my thesis was "The Social Seen: Documentary Photography in US Art Museums," where I explored photography's role in story-telling, and more specifically, its power to address and change social concerns. Broader outreach and accessibility to these collections in museums was a foreground issue. I'm using a similar tack as I research art + the environment, taking a special interest in artwork that has succeeded in making a positive impact for change. Who are these artists, and how and why does their art have major impact?
One angle is the curator. When looking at presentations of this work in museums and galleries, conferences and publications, the role of the curator means at least four things, according to Hans Ulrich Obrist (named by ArtReview as the most powerful figure in the field): “It means to preserve, in the sense of safeguarding the heritage of art. It means to be the selector of new work. It means to connect to art history. And it means displaying or arranging the work.” He also said: “I’ve realised that the curator’s role is more that of enabler,” he said. “I’ve never thought of the curator as a creative rival to the artist. When I became a curator, I wanted to be helpful to artists. I think of my work as that of a catalyst—and sparring partner.” Jamillah James, recently appointed curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, describes her role: “My commitment is still very much to giving voice to artists of color, women and queer-identified artists within institutions, and foregrounding their contributions in art historical discourse.” She adds “Using a curatorial platform for advocacy and activism is a responsibility and an honor I don’t take lightly."
Each curator comes with a unique and individual experience, no matter how mindful he or she is of broader contexts. I am the curator for this art + environment project, for example, and I will "edit" as I go based on my subjective perspective (cis white female American mother). I very much wish to use this project as a "voice" for the artists cultivating awareness and change through their work. I came across the term "relational art." coined by the Parisian curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the 1990s to describe work whose content cannot be separated from its communal reception. Works that fall into this category foster interactivity without leaving people isolated. In the world of environmental issues, it's very easy to feel helpless, futile, impotent. This project is honing in on more "relational" projects that engage, inspire, and educate audiences on real-life issues that affect us all, and actually will have a disproportionately negative affect on poorer communities (lower-land inhabitants) more.
Image: I visited the Gordon Parks exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum, which examined a series of photographs Parks took of gang wars plaguing postwar Harlem in the 1940s. The exhibit traces the editorial process of publishing these photographs in Life magazine, and the larger discussion about "photography as a narrative device."
Internet rabbit holes (thanks, Artsy) have led me to basically start a "lit review" to see what's already out there in the field related to art and the environment. I discovered an annual conference at the Nevada Museum of Art called Art + Environment Conference 2017. The amazing roster included Trevor Paglen, Jonathon Keats, Minerva Cuevas, Lauren Bon, and Nicholas Galanin, among others (definitely more on them later). I also became of member of the Long Now Foundation, a SF organization dedicated to fostering long-term thinking about the world. I registered for this upcoming seminar with Elena Bennet, who looks at how humans can interact with their environment in a more sustainable manner through purposeful action guided by research and education.