a conversation of sorts 121117
“What’s the difference between a social or educational project and an artwork?”
each may indeed have much in common and much to share.
it is the means and manner through which they communicate,
in which they engage, inform and sometimes transform that renders them effective or benign.*
an understanding of an audience, a demographic, an ecology
may encourage participation and transformation
reaching out and beyond those and that originally targeted.
the artist, teacher, social worker and ecologist intuit a means
to estimate, interpret, facilitate and hence empower (oneself and others)
literally, pictorially, intellectually, imaginatively, actively, physically, emotionally and most skillfully
the aesthetic that directs whatever intent motivated the craft,
that manipulates, interferes with and informs the intrinsic (or created) dynamic
towards a specific end or beginning or…
it is not necessary to determine how or when or what
those (or that) which experiences may take away
or if anything further does become
but it is in relationship that one may experience and affect movement
from one moment to the next
from one breath to another
so different too
that a tension reveals
swinging back and forth and around
we are all children in this world
dancing under the stars
of this earth
that we share
© P Ward 2017
(* yet how we may quantify such effectiveness is another matter.)
Some time ago I was invited to give a short presentation to a group of MA students about the nature of arts research, or at least what this (latest buzzword to make the arts more acceptable in a world dominated by science) meant to me as a practising artist. At the time, still somewhat caught up in the arrogantly insular, some might even say Cartesian[ii], world of academia (where much meaning is most often convoluted and detached from any actual everyday presence and hence understood only by its own exclusive membership) I waffled on incoherently but passionately about politics and purpose, about the instrumental and intentional and propagandic value of art to ‘save the world’. Of course, as is often the case, once I had finished I realised what I might have said, what could have more intimately expressed and embodied the nature of (or at least my present conception of the nature of) research within my own vocation as an ecological artist…
“Play is the highest form of research.” (Albert Einstein)
As an ecological artist (and by this I mean expressing myself as one transient, evolving, sentient and integral perspective within a complex local, global and universal energetically interweaving ecology[iii]) research towards any specific aesthetic goal encompasses…
all I see, all I hear, all I touch, all I taste, all I smell, all I feel, all I sense, all I read, all I watch, all I listen to, all I dream, all I imagine, all I give and all I receive, all I write, all I sing, all I dance, all I draw, all I paint, all I shape and form, every photograph and film I shoot, all I make and attempt to make, all I build and all I knock down, all I move, all I tie together and undo, all I bind, all I burn, extinguish, submerge and freeze, all I cook, all I eat, chew and swallow, all I may drink and smoke, inhale and exhale, all I bury, all I unearth, all I kill, all I nurture, all I waste, all I injure or maim, accidentally or not, all I help, all I hinder, all I block and unblock, all I catalyse, all I inspire, all I look for, all I lose, all I find, all I seek; every process that I perceive in parts and in its entirety, every success, every failure (whatever that means!?), every question, every answer and every question unanswered, every relationship I have had and have observed, consciously and subconsciously, and not just with other humans but with every entity that I have encountered, animate or not; every conversation I have had, every phone call, every email, every tweet, text and letter, every glance and whisper shared, every place I have visited, every step made, every movement, every action taken, every beginning and every end, every journey – by foot, cycle, car, horse, water and air, every mountain climbed, every field crossed and skirted around, every hat worn and every item of clothing ever worn – every sock, shoe and pullover, every joke, every machine I have used and that has been used on me, every situation I have been privy to, every association I have made – in theory and in practice, every judgement I have made and has been made about me, everything I have touched and been touched by…
Or, more simply…
All I have experienced and am experiencing,
All that I have done and am doing
In relation to others and all
Of course, one cannot be expected to physically collect, record, document, order and catalogue everything[iv], so I must make choices based on emotive impulse, on logic and reason – founded in memory, both personal and cultural, and contemporary misconception; on the availability of resources, including time, which leaves a rather incomplete but superbly imperfect representation of such all-ness
Nor is it pervasively possible within such a worldly remit to reflect objectively from some ridiculous utopian ideal upon such matters, to make decisions to solve any ‘problems’ of the world at a single stroke, to cast some great net of correctness about it all – we are all prone to miss things out it seems
Yet through a certain degree of collectively inspired intuition one may make a well-considered step, one beat of a butterfly’s wing within the tumultuous turning[v], one series of gentle actions[vi] that may sensually ripple the pulsating fabric and pull a radiant flower of specific resonant truth from a metaphorical hat, to share an occasional mutually identifiable mystery, and hope our subtle intervention doesn’t go pear-shaped, that our careful gesture does not create a hurricane of sorts
So, it is the rigour with which I observe, evaluate, manipulate, put together and apply such experience (my life) within this interactive and reciprocal sense of dynamic communication wherein the magic may lie, where the healing may occur, where the enrichment can exist and where the art is, that allow me to call myself an artist at all…
“My idea of research is to take a walk in the bush and watch the birds fly past, and I am exhilarated by every meteoric movement.” (Lars Knudsen)
P Ward 2013
[*] from WHAT IS ART? Conversation with Joseph Beuys, Edited with Essays by Volker Harlan (Forest Row; Clairview; 2004)
[iii] Indeed it is questionable whether the term ‘ecological artist’ is at all pertinent by the very inclusive nature of Nature
[iv] Such physical documentation certainly hasn’t been necessary for the multitude of indigenous people throughout our evolution who have employed a more oral and humanly self reliant means of memory, recall and expression…
[vi] F David Peat, GENTLE ACTIONS bringing creative change to a turbulent world (Italy; PARI PUBLISHING; 2008)
Socially-engaged-practice is a dirty word it seems;
A troublesome meddling in a cynical society.
To think that art might be instrumental for social change
Leaves the aloof aghast that art’s purity may be undermined for political purpose as mere propaganda.
But propaganda or not,
If it be for the good of all,
What harm may come of well meaning rhetoric or aesthetic deliberation in the name of love?
From the start we have toyed with function and form,
Seeking resolutions for our everyday needs –
We artfully explore our nature to further celebrate our existence as nature.
We learn lessons from this sensory experience,
Sharing trials and errors with our world,
Skillfully expressing our dreams and desires with what is at hand.
We engage, not disengage, with the means of our subsistence,
Simply understanding what it means to take our place within it all,
Nurturing for future generation’s sake, for our own survival.
So, I will continue to dig in the dirt for somewhere to call home
I will light fires in prayer with the wood that I have gathered
And intelligently interfere whenever I can, knowing that it is my right to do so.
P Ward 2013
(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
Following misapprehension and discontent aired on the ecoartnetwork about the lack of interest from graduates towards new courses exploring aspects of cultural response to climate change, sustainability and other such globally (and locally) important issues, I would like to offer some thoughts based on my own experience as part of one such course – the MA Art & Environment at University College Falmouth[i] developed by Dr Daro Montag and the RANE group in the UK.
For those of us who are deeply involved in ecological art and its development the many attitudes and assumptions we take for granted within our practice and vocation are maybe not always obvious – how perhaps we have been fortunate enough to be introduced during our childhood to the sense of empathy and responsibility that we hope to catalyse in others, or the practical skills and knowledge relevant to the ecological remediation actions we propose and even the power and potential of art as a means for social change. The pressing and desperate sense of responsibility we all feel towards the present crisis often clouding our perception as to what is right before our eyes. It is often also the case that we do not fully acknowledge those art practices that fall outside the mainstream of our vocational intent such as object making, art for therapy and pleasure and the multitude of functions that it plays both individually and culturally in our lives.
“Re-engaging with the raw materials from which our lives are shaped is a potent reminder of the difference between what is real and what is only illusory” Anna Konig[ii]
During my MA in Falmouth the discrepancies between our individual motivations and assumptions has become one of the most dynamic aspects of the course, providing an excellent opportunity for discussion and reflection on the nature of our approaches to what is ultimately a hugely diverse area of art practice. Participants on the course range from artists (painters, sculptors, photographers, performers) to management consultants, activists, conservationists, garden designers, ornithologists and fashion designers. While our individual dedication to environmentalism has been unquestionable and created an incredible sense of community within the group, our attitudes and experience of the function and form art might play within our political objectives has been a constant matter of philosophical debate. Such healthy and open-minded conversation has allowed us all to crystallise and define the way our own individual aptitudes might be utilised or simply how we might chose to respond towards the process of ecological reconciliation we hope to support.
However, one of the main bones of contention to be levelled at the course has been that we had primarily enrolled on the course as artists, whatever that meant to us at the time, and not as environmentalists or social practitioners, even though we all had an interest in ‘the environment’ in some way. What quickly became apparent was the course’s emphasis on issues and on the scientific interpretation of such issues, albeit framed within the context of (environmental) art, which led to a stimulating but often badly managed forum for philosophical debate. Many of us felt that such focus detracted from our main objectives – that is to explore and develop as contemporary artists, rather than as environmentalists, to investigate the dynamics and material of communication through art practice rather than through a deeply emotional engagement with the politics and despair of our times. But then is it really possible to explore one without the other? Can we detach the matter of politics and science from our practice as artists?
“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude…” George Orwell[iii]
Art in the West is too often a statement or expression of our privilege obtained through imperial domination. Until we can be honest with ourselves about this dimension of our behaviour, accept it as part of our nature and how it is manifest in our art, we will continue to produce work that potentially aggravates rather than alleviates the social and ecological issues we are facing. The dynamic ecology of this planet implies responsibility for its care – if we do not look after it all we are merely destroying ourselves – this makes no sense at all. However such an attitude of care is the complete antithesis of the dislocation and disconnection perpetuated by our civilisation, which purposefully aims to deny our individual power to respond in favour of corporate interests.
The prevalent attitude within art education is still that of modernism – art should and can only refer to itself, rather than anything of the world, that it should not be treated exclusively as ‘instrumental’ towards one cause or another, and that by doing so it in some way decreases its quality and value as art. But it must be remembered that such an attitude is certainly one of the attractions of art – to ‘escape’ from or avoid or skirt around the responsibilities that the world presents – to deny our influence and power in the world – and politically this is certainly not discouraged. It is generally only after some degree of life experience that our, and arts, potential as a powerful medium of social change becomes apparent and that we begin to recognise our aptitude for such work. Regarding the value and quality judgements levelled at ‘instrumental’ art, it is maybe better to see this as a challenge to produce work that simply sweeps aside such accusations. Indeed, those actions, which are not recognised as ecoart, are often the most effective through their ability to sidestep anti-environmental propaganda and stand up in their own right, and this is increasingly becoming the case.[iv]
But then the fact that art is in some way escapist should really come as no surprise, nor our tendency to keep it that way. We live in a civilisation that has developed through a desire to often detach itself from the harsh reality of living on this earth, to dislocate itself from the means of production and sustenance that represent the memory of our long struggle with and against nature in order to survive thus far. To change this attitude towards this constant everyday labour and to celebrate and embrace it as our primary objective on this earth is maybe one of the greatest issues that ecoartists might address. But such action boldly contradicts the very structures upon which it seems our comfortable survival depends, and it takes a great deal of courage to make the leap of faith that such a calling implies.
Added to all this, as the contemporary tendency towards mind-altering drugs and passive consumption belies, the world we live in, that we have created through our inherent inclination towards comfort and security and which is constantly (and not perhaps innocently) portrayed by the media, is no longer a pretty place nor one that inspires any sense of trust or joy in our ability to behave differently. It is no wonder that we do not want to spend our time choosing to look any deeper at the crises we are presently facing, nor that we do not believe in our ability to constructively engage with them. Obviously those of us who are fortunate enough to have sensed some alternative means of associating with the world are more in a position to communicate our understandings, but this takes not only a willingness but also an aptitude and highly developed skill set to do so.
This is not to say that artists are not deeply concerned with such issues, or that by any means every artist shares such ecologically orientated political goals, but that it is often not the motivation behind an individual’s choice to do or become an artist. And while it may seem that the sensitivity towards the world that art may promote should possibly go hand in hand with a sense of our power and responsibility towards nature, this is seldom the case. Maybe art has an intrinsic function within human society – to heal or to question, or to catalyse change, or simply to celebrate and entertain through our manual dexterity and the resultant intellect that its has engendered – but it cannot be taken for granted that such eventualities are always for the good of all. It is maybe more often simply a self-perpetuating expression of our existence within the world and to perceive it differently is maybe yet another manifestation of our arrogance to believe that we can control the course of nature.
“I will act as if what I do makes a difference” William James[v]
But let’s say, just hypothetically, that we can change the course of history, or at least our perception of it. That we can through our sensitive and sensible actions prolong our habitation as part of this earth, not just in our own interest but in its best interest, then how might we go about it? And how might we, as seemingly individually inconsequential aspects of this planet and universe, begin to appreciate its ever-changing complexity in order to confidently deploy such actions? And, more pertinently to this article, how might we encourage and catalyse such perception in others whose education thus far has unceasingly portrayed its opposite? What in our artist’s palette might appeal to or attract any potential recruits to the ‘cause’? Personally the prospect of ruminating over the causes and effects of our civilisation’s suicidal tendencies or representing a scientific appraisal of such information or even contemplating the agricultural methods by which we may redress such folly does not appeal to the more artistic bent within me. It certainly would not be why I may have adopted art as a career of life path, despite my current understanding of its relative importance.
It seems that we may need some understanding of communication, often displayed in the more commercially practical forms of art, such as graphic design, illustration and storytelling and the means thereof, before we begin to appeal to those in doubt. This is not to say that we adopt the subversive or underhand tactics displayed by most corporately motivated propagandists, but that we are aware of the power of such methods. For example, how might we make something seemingly mundane and unappealing attractive without undermining the spiritual self-worth of our audience or employing deception on any level? And how might we learn to observe the world through fresh eyes and convey our enquiries, through skillful and sensitive application to the circumstances we are experiencing? Or how have we already received and interpreted the plethora of imagery and sensory messages, both natural and artificial, bombarding us everyday throughout our lives? And even, what is the motivation behind them? What art offers us is perhaps the opportunity to explore such aspects of our experience, both intuitive and rationally empirical, and to transform them into something that further enriches and promotes our being[vi].
My own (eco)artistic inclination (and interest) would be to offer educational opportunities to explore these very means by which we may artfully communicate, not as a means to impose our beliefs upon another but as a reciprocal approach to respond to nature and the world in which we energetically exist. As a practising painter I sought to express the experiences I absorbed while in nature, its magic and wonder, its intimate relational complexity if you like, in the hope that through observation of such devotionally created objects I might inspire or channel some of the wonder that I felt to others. I have since appreciated the limitations of such a medium while also becoming aware of the diversity of other means through which such spirited information may be conveyed. While I understand that this is maybe not the motivation or method behind all artists work I do feel it portrays many of the elemental concerns which inspire people to become artists and that engage artists almost devotionally with the natural world.
“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.[vii]
Whether we are seeking to express a relatively literal response to climate change or oceanic pollution, or to more intuitively engage ourselves and an audience (of whatever form) with the resplendent diversity of this world it is still the ‘mechanics’ and philosophy of communication that underpin our practice. To explore such, admittedly quite practical, methodology is surely the essence of our art practice rather than the subjective discussion and spurious study of political issues, despite their implications to our response. As artists we must learn to observe the world through a variety of lenses and to interpret the ‘data’ gathered in a way that may appeal to and engender a response in others. Without such aptitude and skill maybe we should not call ourselves artists at all. Likewise if the work that we produce, in whatever form, does not embody the beliefs and processes we profess to keep then maybe that too should be brought into question.
This then brings me to another doubt I have about the offering of such educational experiences as forwarded in the original question – how is the prolonged disembodied study of empirical and academic theory and data an expression of our joyful or meaningful existence as part of this most physical planet? It is maybe better to focus on activities that lead to a genuine sense of well-being amongst participants, or at least activities that appeal to self-confessed or appropriate aptitudes, rather than focusing on the desperate conclusions of the environmental sciences, or gazing into a book or computer screen for hours on end. Such practice more often than not promotes a deepening sense of dis-ease about the situation and a consequent manifestation of guilt through our own disempowerment.
‘The only sound enough motivation for doing anything is joy. All other motivations, such as guilt, compulsion, obligation and duty only lead us to dissatisfaction, tension and resentment. When we are engaged in what truly gives us joy, we lead ourselves inevitably to more and more challenging, powerful lives which affect more and more of the world.’ Christopher Spence[viii]
Maybe, an art education towards sustainability could be asking ‘How might we utilize art towards ecological reconciliation?’ rather than proposing ‘This is how we might utilize art towards ecological reconciliation!’ – offering spaces for open-ended and individually creative responses in what is after all a relatively new and incredibly diverse movement. In a similar vein, while we have a responsibility to the planet and all its inhabitants, our responsibility to ourselves as agents of change within the ecosystem is also vital. Any experience or activity that does not promote or engage its participants with such principles, or offer support for any apparent short-sightedness relating to the emotional or physiological implication thereof, should seriously reconsider its methodology.
So what roles can art play in this unfolding drama, and what activities might promote a more powerfully embodied communicative response? My answer would have to be ‘MANY AND OFTEN but not necessarily big and noisy’! I have already suggested that art practice may still be (and traditionally has been) the most responsible and sensitive way by which we may observe and express the world, especially when performed in conjunction with other disciplines. I do however feel that its more specific power is in its skill and understanding, learnt or otherwise, by which it communicates – whatever that may immanently imply. But then there are so many beguiling contradictions and peculiarities in this world that it would be impossible to offer any general overarching formula. For example, maybe the only genuine way to deal with the impending global catastrophe is to celebrate our shared humanity, to embrace our exceptional nature and to rejoice in our implied communality. An element of art is the celebration of our technological and aesthetic dexterity. However this also intrinsically affirms our supposed dominance and our privileged reliance on others to provide the practical and material means that support such privilege. Without a change in the way we perceive art within society as well as the nature of work and labour in this world, towards an art and society within ecology, we will continue to struggle with an attitude of disinterest, and against an attitude of self-interest, perpetuated through a phenomenological misunderstanding of the nature of our interconnected existence, and a lack of conceptual understanding of the totality of what we are trying to achieve.
“A literal restatement of how things are and an emphasis on external action alone will not help us to end the great suffering of nature, or the dangerous contradictions inherent in our view of progress. It will also not help us develop more reverential perspectives toward other living beings, or deal with the complex questions of our supposed stewardship. The way we inhabit the world will not be transformed simply by information. As the coordinator of a UK climate change organisation has said: “We have enough information to have caused us to change our lifestyle decades ago. What is holding us back?” Deeper levels of connectedness are vital if we are to find the energy and commitment needed to make such enormous changes.[ix]” Shelley Sacks, Social Sculpture Research Unit, Oxford Brookes University.[x]
To conclude I would like to add that my own experience of such an educational framework has been a most enlightening and productive one, maybe not always enjoyable and hardly ever confirming my limited expectations of what such a course might provide. But then that is maybe how we learn and, as already mentioned, the nature of such work is that its method is still very much in the making. Likewise, my experience and opinions are personal ones encouraged by my own aptitude and interests as a practising eco-artist with a background in graphic design and illustration, and a definite inclination towards a sense of animate belonging in the wild environment. While by no means perfect according to the sustainable values we might judge our actions by, this experimental course[xi] that I ventured upon has offered an excellent and flexible opportunity to actively participate in and shape itself to suit the needs of its contributors, while providing a rich source of differing opinion to play against my own strong views. And ultimately it has provided a caring and diverse community of similarly motivated individuals to continue to share and develop my practice with.
But the most essential aspect of the course, and what I feel sets it apart from other art courses, is the numerous field trips when we leave the ivory towers, the lecture theatres and indoor studios, away from the self-effacing reams of academic pontification, to participate more fully with the world – to actively contemplate our subject in its correct context, accompanied by the birds and beasts, the wind and rain, getting our hands dirty at last…
[ii] Anna Konig The Joy of Making, Resurgence Magazine ISSUE 263 • NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010
[v] from Suzi Gablik; THE REENCHANTMENT OF ART (London; Thames and Hudson; 1991)
[vi] See the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who explored holistic science as a means towards sensible perception in the 18th Century. His work is currently cited by many inter-disciplinary and ecoartists such as Shelley Sacks (www.universityofthetrees.org) and Jan van Boeckel (www.naturearteducation.com) who utilize his idea of ‘organs of perception’ as a means towards behavioural transformation in their practice, and contemporary holistic scientists such as Dr Stephan Harding (www.schumachercollege.org.uk).
[viii] from AIDS Time to Reclaim Our Power by Christopher Spence (LONDON; Lifestory; 1986)
[xi] The MA Art & Environment Course at University College Falmouth led by Dr Daro Montag could often be seen as an experiment in a form of Social Sculpture, as proposed by the German artist Joseph Beuys, bringing together diverse but interested parties into an open-ended dialogical structure. The creative potential of the course has possibly been best displayed in its ability to circumvent and accommodate the criteria for running an MA course within a mainstream educational establishment while still fulfilling its ecozoic intentions.
gentle actions towards an art of healing and reconciliation
To continue with themes arising in recent posts and discussions on this site around the practical and ethical aesthetics of art within society, accorded to the newly appropriated ecological and phenomenological intentionality of contemporary and personal understanding…
We cannot ‘fix’ things because they are never ‘broken’, they have only changed in form.
We cannot ‘mend’ that which we do not fully understand without the whole wherewithal.
We may only perceive their new arrangement within our inherent predetermination
Adding flourish to the flow towards our own and all’s mutually beneficial meanderings…
After suffering the discomfort of back pain for some time I recently ventured to a Bowen Technique[i] therapist to hopefully alleviate, or make better, the problem that has been restricting my movement and hence personal life experience. This holistic healing practice acts through carefully and intuitively considered non-invasive manipulation of the soft tissue surrounding our muscular structure. As a holistic therapy it believes that all ailments or dis-ease of the body are created through a complex of interconnected conditions that might block the flow of energy within and around it – a healthy body being one that allows its intrinsic processes to function at their own rate and in their own way. It aims not necessarily to specifically cure ailments but to promote conditions within the body that may enable self-healing, or at least transformative processes to occur – simple, well-intentioned pressure in a specific part of the body promoting a chain of events throughout its whole, which in turn will hopefully provide enough movement in the body’s energies to enable change. The process does not dictate a correct outcome, a right-way to be, although it may suggest means to promote fluidity and hence movement, it works simply on an assumption of the body’s ability to ‘heal’ itself. To accompany the gentle pressure applied during Bowen Therapy, it is also recommended that subjects drink plenty of water and move regularly to further facilitate the process.
Coincidentally, the practitioner I chose had previously completed a physics degree which, combined with the treatment being received, reminded me of the ideas of F David Peat (also a physicist) described in his book Gentle Actions, Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World[ii]. His theory, reached through personal and shared observation, is that simple well-intentioned social and ecological actions performed in a specific place may promote healing, while amplifying their repercussions around the world. Systems theorist Buckminster Fuller likened such dynamics to the trim tab, a mechanical device added to the rudder of large boats to facilitate changes of direction through minimal incremental leverage[iii]. These ideas were further explored in relation to Art, Environmentalism and Climate Change at a conference in Oslo in 2010[iv], and are evident in the Trigger Point Theory developed by Aviva Ramani[v] in which locations for restorative site-specific ecologically engaged action are identified through sensitively disposed cross-disciplinary analysis. While others (namely chaos theorists) entertain the plausible infeasibility of a butterfly softly beating its wings in leafy suburban England causing a hurricane in tropical Antigua[vi]!
Whether you believe in the efficacy of such treatments and theories or not, it cannot be denied that they provide rich metaphors for our potential actions as artists (or, more simply, communal beings) within society. And while such applied technologies greatly interest me in their efforts to resolve the immanent difficulties we are presently facing it is the open-endedness and non-prescriptive determinism of such actions and the philosophical position that they imply which I feel is most pertinent at this time. Such faith in the processes of nature to redress any damage that we may perceive to have made within our environment is maybe the only truly ecocentric[vii] position to adopt, as opposed to anthropocentric tamperings engendered in our efforts to ‘save ourselves’ from our own sense of self-importance and infallibility. Such guilt-ridden ‘fix-it’ motivated actions are doomed to failure until we learn to accept responsibility for our past misdemeanours. To see them as they are, and how we are, as imperfect beings in an imperfect world (or perfect beings in a perfect world!?) whose nature is to fumble through life seeking comfort and nourishment, in our efforts to survive. It can only be hoped that we might learn from our mistakes and move on, intrinsically inquisitive, endlessly meddling in our ways. We might, for example, just take a step back.
“We can receive only what we already have! We can become only what we already are! We can learn only what we already know! It is a matter of realizing potentialities. It is not a matter of ‘adding to’ but of ‘developing,’ of ‘evolving.’ We contain within ourselves a world of capacities, of possibilities, which the outer world summons forth, speaks to, releases. Perhaps this is why we learn most about ourselves through devotion to others; why we become joyful and active as we respond to the formative forces in the materials in our crafts: their potentialities call forth our own, and in the dialogue of which I have spoken,we discover our own inner vision by bodying them forth.” — M. C. Richards[viii]
So what are the implications to contemporary art practice of such open-endedness? And how might the elemental poetry of fluidity complement the specific but constantly evolving social, economic and ecological issues we are facing? Or more specifically what actions might we reasonably (or unreasonably) make to unblock the barrage of unfortunate misdemeanours for which we are apparently responsible?
For millennia religious practices, especially in the East, have adopted such policy towards harmonious relationship with the animate earth and ourselves, based in the understanding that nothing is constant but change (and that even change takes different forms throughout time), that only through careful and sensible consideration of all conditions present within a situation can suitable decisions and interventions be made. This does not however imply that such actions should be peaceful or gentle, merely that they are relative and appropriate to each individual circumstance. For example, Zen Buddhist traditions might encourage short-sharp shocks. A quick slap or poke with a stick (obviously within a intentional healing context!). Others, more elaborately inspired and motivated rituals to prompt movement within a situation toward a new more ethically affordable position. Unfortunately in this apparent civilization we have lost confidence in our intuitive abilities to make such decisions, both personally and communally, amid the turbulence of material insecurity and progress. It is therefore only through renewed experience that we might appreciate the full implications of our actions. Until then it might be hoped that quiet gentle actions may provoke enough reaction without further disturbance to the delicate intricacies of the natural world of which we are (presently) an integral part.
If nothing more art can maybe create opportunities for such experience, while also providing a flux in the ‘machine’, a means to lubricate our fixed perceptions, of moving-on our redundant behaviours through questioning its good sense, here and now. Furthermore, art may be seen as an amplifying force, a mechanical means to multiple the implications of our actions, to ‘communicate’ them within the arena of their intentional field, to repercuss our creative, well-meaningness within the dynamic disturbance to which we intrinsically contribute. Whatever the outcome we can be assured that we have acted out of an implied personal integrity, neither good nor bad but insistent. By not predetermining an ‘outcome’ to our work and actions, whether that is the making of art objects and performances or educational or experiential processes, we are simply encouraging the use of an audience’s (and our own) innate creative intelligences and adaptability to interact with any circumstance provided, through which we may identify and experience the confidence to use those faculties beyond the realm of the art experience.
While such practice either shows complete faith in the processes of nature, or a complete disregard and lack of responsibility towards our immanent ecology and ourselves, it has to be preferable to the plethora of scientifically imposed ‘solutions’ from who-knows-where that are constantly bandied about by the powers-that-be or any other hapless loon caught up in their own deluded self-importance. To see art as just that – a flux, a means towards a movement, or a movement in itself; or as water, an elemental agent of change, gently eroding the stultifying conservatism that epitomizes our age – allows us the freedom to not see it as the solution, but an ongoing investigation towards a resolution, an act of reconciliation with our nature and with nature itself.
FLUXUS manifestos, by George Maciunas, 1963, and Joseph Beuys, 1970[ix].
[ii] F DAVID PEAT; GENTLE ACTIONS bringing creative change to a turbulent world (Italy; PARI PUBLISHING; 2008)
[iii] What is a “trimtab”? Buckminster Fuller referred to the function of a trimtab in nautical design as a metaphor for how individuals could make a difference in the world and potentially change the course of humanity. A large ship moving through the ocean has great momentum. Turning the rudder changes the direction of the ship but with great effort. Using a trimtab — a small flap on the trailing edge of the main rudder — creates a low-pressure area next to the rudder allowing the main rudder to turn the ship with substantially less effort. In airplanes trimtabs are used in a similar fashion. They are often affixed to the wing and tail flaps to greatly reduce the control force required by the pilot to maintain position and stability. With respect to Buckminster Fuller Challenge, the trimtab metaphor is used tocharacterize a comprehensive strategy, that is conceived in such a manner and strategically placed into the prevailing system at such a time, in such a place, where its effects can be maximized, thereby creating the most advantageous change with the least amount of resources and energy on a relative basis.
Buckminster Fuller on the Trimtab Principle “When I thought about steering the course of the ‘Spaceship Earth’ and all of humanity, I saw most people trying to turn the boat by pushing the bow around.” “I saw that by being all the way at the tail of the ship, by just kicking my foot to one side or the other, I could create the ‘low pressure’ which would turn the whole ship. If ever someone wanted to write my epitaph, I would want it to say ‘Call me Trimtab’.” – From What’s a Trimtab?
“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trimtab.”
[iv] Climate Change responses: The Gentle Actions of the Trim Tab, by Karen O’Brien “… I will present some ideas for potential trim tabs, including the important role of artists in catalyzing creative change.” http://www.livinglearning.org/GA.htm
[vi] In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the theoretical example of a hurricane’s formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before. (Wikipedia)
It is not of blocks and forms that interests me
Nor the consolidation of tainted facts into such,
It is not of the past of nations or peoples gone
Of structures or wars between us all abound
Of lines or borders brought by empires’ might,
It is not of these that this now is, but this here now.
I long to unbind such stiff and fetid field
Cast out the cord that stifles all, that such words do grip.
So, of invisible threads and light and sparkling seems
I leap from spring to spring tasting of the rich scented blooms
Which leads elsewhere most freely and with fate beside
Like pounding wave and twitching branch that bows
We flow amongst and between and through
Barely touching but permeating this whole
This tentative linkage to the terrestrial home
And fluid as life’s fire in heaven’s hearth…
I find it not easy to make solid and firm that which is fluid and shifting, no matter how I might elaborate its form. In nature the ever-shifting tides of substance and perception, relationship and communication render such perfidy imperfect no matter what transitory perspective we might chose to observe from. As my inquisitiveness seeks and enjoys the adaptability of lateral and creative mind I struggle within a structure and intent long past. I shall not be tied to the spire to relish my singular power but shall work hard within this inadequacy, this never quite enough, this common communion of permissiveness and tacit irony.
So do not tell me it is otherwise – I have not heard it said in wind, in breath of beach and gull and blade of grass (although I am familiar with such certainty in eloquent tomes of mans’ adulation of himself). I shall swim for a while in intellects unfeeling fogginess. I shall not unthicken or stir until this grog and gloom do pass with fates sweet turning. I will simply yearn for friendship, for honesty and for love.
Around us it seems, and we are told, the world crumbles in our wake of wastefulness and greed, of miscalculation and underestimation of our success and desire for more. We struggle to reassess. We make repercussive plans and apologies in lieu of forewarned yet intangible destruction. What once seemed beyond limit has now found its full extent, and growth is no longer a possibility. So all is left is to diversify, to copy and to emulate, to transfix our petty minds with transition (in the name of survival’s genetic call) to resolve to be resilient in selfless insurance (despite some science saying not at all).
And for me that is incentive enough: to defy the masterful, the oh so jolly clever, the number crunching statisticians who deign to get their hands dirty for fear of change or challenge, or to face the filthy honest truths (and lies). I will whistle in the wind, dance to the tune of the dragonfly, illusory as a single drop, that feeds a single seed, that sheds a single leaf, to be washed downstream, beyond the weir to tidal calls and waders shrill and salty sea; I will fly as a cloud as this sun sets again…