[This is a slightly edited english translation of part two of a two part essay commissioned by Art Lab Gnesta / Green Lab in 2013. The essay’s full title is: “Sustainable Culture – Engaging with Environmental and Sustainability Issues as Arts and Culture Workers”. This part focuses on individual artists, part one focuses on institutions and organisations.]
[Hunger, by Tue Greenfort. Photo: Courtesy of Tue Greenfort and SKOR, Foundation for Art and Public Space]
The list of individual artists and artist groups working with environmental and sustainability issues can be made long. A couple of examples of well known, well established, and currently active artists are; Amy Balkin, Futurefarmers, Peter Fend, Tue Green Fort, Fritz Haeg, Natalie Jeremijenko, Marjetica Potrč, and Superflex.
Many of these artists reveal environmental and sustainability problems through their art practices. For example Amy Balkin’s Public Smog project brings attention to pollution and the complexities of emissions markets and Tue Greenfort’s work Hunger (2009) brings attention to how overproduction of grain in Europe leads to dumping of prices on the global grain market, which in turn leads to reduced incomes and starvation in poorer parts of the world. Other artists sketch on more or less utopian solutions to environmental problems. Peter Fend has for example proposed alternative scenarios for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China and the restoration of dried up waterways in the Middle East and North Africa. Still others implement projects that not only draw attention to problems or suggest solutions, but also in themselves attempt to be the change the artists want to see. Futurefarmers has developed infrastructure for cyclists in San Francisco, Fritz Haeg has dug up lawns in residential areas in North America and Europe and turned them into productive food gardens, Superflex have developed biogas systems for poor farmers in Africa, and Marjetica Potrč has constructed community gardens. Among the artists mentioned here Natalie Jeremijenko is closest to the environment modernists. She has developed projects that encourage experimentation with biotechnology as a hobby and developed technology to visualise environmental problems and promote interaction between humans and other animals. For instance, she has placed buoys in the East River and the Bronx River in New York which are equipped with sensors that measure water quality and detect when fish swim by. LEDs on the buoys light up when fish swim near them and by sending text messages to the buoys viewers on the riverside can get information about the water quality in the river.
[Edible Estates #14 in Århus, Denmark. Photo: Courtesy of Fritz Haeg and Marie Markman]
By changing organisations and systems that we operate within we change conditions for both ourselves and for others. Introducing a system for recycling trash or a policy to purchase organic and locally produced food in an institution or organisation has a greater impact than the corresponding changes at the individual level. Therefore, it is usually most effective to work at an organisational level. But this is obviously no argument against arts and culture workers reviewing their own practice with respect to the environment and to sustainability. Arts and culture workers often have good opportunities to improve their practices from an environmental and sustainability perspective, even if they are not working with environmental issues and sustainability thematically as the above-mentioned artists.
Many arts and culture workers live nomadic lives and maintain extensive logistics operations. Exhibitions, grants, and artist-in-residence programmes that create economic opportunities for arts and culture workers often require long distance trips and transportation–often by air, which is among the least environmentally friendly modes of transportation. Alternatives to long distance trips and transports can be to find opportunities to work locally, although it might mean collaboration with lesser known and less wealthy institutions. Travel and transportation is also often less necessary today, when it is possible to communicate globally through a variety of channels. In cases where travel and transportation is irreplaceable one can try to choose bikes and trains instead of cars and airplanes, and instead of transporting large and heavy work over long distances, produce works using materials sourced where the works will be shown.
Arts and culture productions often consume large amounts of energy, technology and materials. In many cases directly hazardous materials such as plastics and electronics. It is also common for artists to have workshops and studios with tools and equipment that are unused most of the time, from pottery kilns and looms to circular saws and soldering irons. Artists consumption is often limited by their poor economy, but their poor economy can also prevent artists from choosing materials and equipment that are more expensive but better for the environment. Material selection is a large subject and it is difficult to generalise because a material’s entire life cycle must be taken into account. However, a good principle can be to primarily reuse old material, as a second option use new materials made from recycled materials, and thirdly use materials that can be recycled or are biodegradable. A great alternative to having an own studio is to be part of communities where workshops and other resources can be shared. Services that facilitate lending and rental of tools and recycling of materials is an area that could be developed considerably, but while waiting for new services to emerge there are still many opportunities to borrow and recycle instead of throwing away and buying new things.
To conclude, “environmental” and “sustainability” are concepts charged with ideas of antagonism and cooperation between humans and nature, of individual and collective responsibility, of humans as producers and consumers, and of imminent downfall and the possibility of finding permanent solutions. What stories about the past, the present, and the future, that we consciously or unconsciously subscribe to affect what we consume and produce. To improve energy efficiency, recycle, produce and consume environmentally friendly products, and consume less is obviously not everything, but they are safe bets that seldom conflict with other commitments towards a better environment and towards sustainability.