(Through the development of potential ecological art projects with fellow arts practitoners and environmental development agencies I have become increasingly aware of the lack of understanding about the unique and radical nature of this contemporary practice. In order to engage more fully with such prospective collaborators I have written this introduction to hopefully express my meaning in more tangible terms…)
“At the heart of today’s ecological crisis lies a terrible failure to understand the essence of our relationship with the natural world. One can of course address that failure rationally and empirically; but the arts (particularly the visual arts) offer different insights into that relationship, and touch people in ways that conventional education and advocacy can rarely do.” Jonathon Porritt, Director, Forum for the Future, UK
Ecological art, or ecoart, may be seen as a cultural response to the often-overwhelming contemporary environmental issues that are threatening our survival within the earth’s biosphere. With roots in the Land Art, Arte Povera and Conceptual Art movements of the 1960’s its aims are to actively and communally investigate, through arts-based, interdisciplinary means issues such as climate change, land use, pollution, sustainability, resource management, health, biodiversity to name but a few, and to find resolutions appropriate to the nature of ecological principles.
Such work is founded on an understanding of art and culture as an active and functional process within society and the broader ecology. While much ecological art may not be instantly recognisable as the ‘object-based art’ represented within our education or the media, its practice is based in the principles of investigation (drawing), composition (ecology), juxtaposition (relationship), making (technology) and communication with which we are more familiar.
L-R: Joseph Beuys – 7000 oaks, Kessel, Germany, 1982 – present; Ackroyd & Harvey – Beuys’ Acorns, 2007 – present; Shelley Sacks – The University of the Trees; Mel Chin – Revival field, 1990 – present; Platform – protest against BP funding the Tate 2011.
Ecological art is created in response and as a response to the needs and dynamics of specific communities, ecological or otherwise. It is based very much in an ongoing reciprocal process of consultation and modification to accommodate the vast array of evolving influences and information acting within any specific situation. It may simply take the form of awareness raising, experiential education or knowledge transfer within pre-existing environmental projects, enable holistic and transformative arts experience, or more ambitiously initiate community-based ecological remediation and reconciliation projects through interdisciplinary collaboration. It may even take the form of direct environmental activism…
art as a means towards ecological understanding and environmental action …
Art may be utilised as a service to community …
• To stimulate thinking and action
• To reach and communicate new understandings of the world
• To enrich our lives through creative expression and learning
• To affirm our connection to the animate world
• To celebrate our creativity and sense of community through action
The basis of ecological art lies in reciprocal communication, in relationship and in enquiry, not just between an artist and an audience but between an artist and the material world, it is about intelligent participation in this immanent, wonderful existence…
ecological art in practice
Ecological art may take a number of forms. Here is some more specific information to help identify what they actually are. While each may be exercised in isolation it is generally through a combination of a few or all over a prolonged period of time that the most effective results may be developed and produced. Most actions may also be seen as both output and research to facilitate further, more informed interventions within an overall development programme.
- Awareness raising/sharing: interdisciplinary conferences, symposiums, exhibitions; media coverage/attention; public events/exhibitions and information leaflets – Wide Open Space Conference, Sturminster Newton, Dorset 2011 was organized by Alex Murdin to explore public attitudes towards, and the environmental impact of, newly implemented planning laws in the UK; Biosphere Action Week the value of trees event in Barnstaple Town Square, October 2011 with RANE , NDBR and Beaford Arts.
- Interdisciplinary transformative arts experience and education: activities to encourage empathy and understanding through direct observation, creative play and reflection within nature and focused upon ecological issues – http://www.naturearteducation.org; http://www.universityofthetrees.org; http://www.eartharteducation.com; forest schools; Beaford Arts education programme encourages engagement with the local rural environment.
- Knowledge transfer: data interpretation and documentation of projects and research through publications, displays and presentations
- Ecological remediation: site-specific interdisciplinary research, creative resolution and appropriate application to identify and address environmental/social issues – (‘Trigger Point Theory’ is being developed by American artist Aviva Rahmani, involving ecologically and socially sensitive interdisciplinary mapping and analysis, creative resolution and intervention into damaged ecosystems – http://www.ghostnets.com; Living Landscapes – environmental consultation service offered to communities by Wildlife Trusts recognizing the lack of respect for local knowledge and hence antagonism caused by top-down environmental intervention; ‘Revival Field’ by Mel Chin – interdisciplinary art work to develop a creative de-pollution strategy for an area of post-industrial land; Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison – interdisciplinary mapping and assessment of ecosystems for strategic ecological interventions – http://www.theharrisonstudio.net.
- Ecological reconciliation: participatory events to facilitate recognition of shared community interest and respect for individual knowledge and interests, based in ethical implications of ecological understanding/for the good of all – Shelley Sacks ‘earth forum’ invites interested parties from all sections of society, from policy makers, priests and business people to children and indigenous inhabitants to share perspectives within an environmental situation. The process is facilitated through art activities.
- Community creation/affirmation/networking: events, actions and digital media sharing to facilitate communication between prospective participants in project – The efficacy and uses of social media and blogsites to raise awareness and network is a relatively new but highly potent means of communication within projects, for example NDBR’s photo sharing and facebook pages; ‘7000 oaks’ Kessel, Germany, 1980-present – Social Sculptor Joseph Beuys initiated the planting of 7000 oak trees alongside 7000 limestone boulders in a city decimated during WWII. The action aimed to reinstate a sense of community through widespread participation. Acorns from the original trees are now being planted around the world to initiate similar community building work; ‘Touch Sanitation’ – between 1970 and 1980 American feminist artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, personally shook the hand of every garbage worker in New York in recognition and respect, and to highlight, their essential work.
- Activism: awareness raising, creative demonstration/celebration events to highlight environmental issues. Such actions do not need to be confrontational and are often fun events to consolidate links within a community while gently questioning behaviour and policy that inhibits social and ecological cohesion and healing – for example the ‘Big Lunch’ organized annually by The Eden Project. Quantum physicist and social philanthropist F David Peat amply describes such principles in his book ‘Gentle Actions bringing creative change to a turbulent world’.
“A fundamental aspect of this developing practice was exploring the possibility of making things happen rather than making things.” Mary-Lou Barratt