2 Sep 2020

News

An article by Jenni Nurmenniemi

COMBUSTIVE ART

The accelerating pace of climate change and biodiversity loss constitute a massive calamity that is impossible for the human mind to grasp in its entirety. To tackle this crisis, a systemic approach to the workings of complex, entangled processes is needed alongside the focus on localized practices. There are many roadblocks on the paths to more sustainable futures. Chief among these are governments and mega-corporations with their fallacious assumption that economic growth can continue indefinitely, possibly even by capitalizing on ecological disasters.

This specious conviction is underpinned by the delusion that human activities are somehow exempt from the laws of life that govern Earth’s ecosystems. More astounding still, this condition of alienation from life-enabling ecosystemic connections is one of the key uniting features defining what are commonly deemed to be “advanced” societies – and, art, as an integral part of society, is no exception from the paradox. Conversely, in fact, the prevalent practices of contemporary art and related scholarship can be viewed as having evolved to a point in history where art is enlisted to uphold and perpetuate the separation between nature and culture.[1] Despite this, art can ideally choose a different path by opting instead to deconstruct artificial conceptual divisions.

For several years, my work as a curator and writer has been addressing how entrenched ways of making, presenting, experiencing and studying art have been based on the spurious logic of fossil combustion. My concerns have been revolving around the conditions, limitations and opportunities of ecological reconstruction in contemporary art and society. The term is borrowed from a working paper[2] published by the BIOS Research Unit in October 2019, but instead of focusing on energy transition and structural change in society, my work principally addresses the mental adjustments necessitated by the transitions to post-fossility, specifically the shifts in imaginaries, worldviews and consciousness required both on an individual and collective level.

In my work, I have sought to articulate the complexity of today’s ecological urgencies by linking post-fossil philosophy and feminist energy humanities with posthumanist thinking, because the ecological calamities of today are associated with various continuums of subjugation and exploitation, notably the legacy of colonialism. To address this complexity, I have sought to incorporate a more sensitive and better-informed approach to social injustices into my practice. In my previous work on art and ecology, I admit having failed to publicly condemn the fallacies of white environmentalist movements.[3] I owe a debt to intersectional feminism that critically reflects on differences and inequalities within the context of a broader inquiry into ecological change. Intersectionality is an approach that originated from black feminism and African-American feminist theory. Like intersectional feminism, eco-intersectionality endeavours to centre the knowledge and experiences of racialized and indigenous ‘others’.[4]

Intersectionality flags up the inherent inequalities of today’s eco-disasters. Approaches to ecology and sustainability that acknowledge historical and present-day social injustices can turn out to be revolutionary in opening up new ways of seeing the world, revealing the boundaries of “self” to be fundamentally unstable, and exposing how fossil-reliant societies are a bizarre historical anomaly.

 

Post-fossil praxis

In 2019 the artworld seemed to suddenly wake up to the gravity of climate change. So far, however, the chief focus of discourse has been on the harmful impacts of global mobility. Broadly-based dialogue around the topic of post-fossil praxes and what post-fossility might mean for various social agencies is yet in its nascence.[5]

My personal attempt at “post-fossil praxis” in 2019 consisted of my working chiefly from Finland, cutting back my flying to two round trips, and allocating funds for peatland restoration to offset my carbon footprint.[6] Even this was too much flying, but without having yet established a fully local curatorial practice, total avoidance of flying is difficult, especially since my career to date has chiefly been dedicated to promoting the international mobility of artists and curators. I have adjusted certain aspects of my practice, however. For instance instead of flying overseas for quick visits, I favour longer work trips, residencies, and involvement in dialogue on localized ecological issues. Between September and November 2019 I visited New York and Los Angeles to build up a collaborative research project. The examples below are from that trip.

I have been fortunate to have been involved in long-term, small-scale processes largely thanks to a combination of serendipity, generous work grants, and my privileged life circumstances. Indeed one of the salient insights I have gained during my years in this profession is how eco-crises are bound up with privilege and inequality – my experience has made me mindful of how inequities are exacerbated in crisis situations. Not everyone is equally responsible for the eco-calamity, not everyone suffers from it equally, and not everyone enjoys equal opportunities to take combative action. It is vital that we recognize these critical imbalances rather than just focus on keeping our own side of the street clean, for the solution ultimately lies in fostering equity and equality.

 

The deconstruction project

Tackling eco-crises also entails a process of “unlearning” and deconstruction. To address modern society’s alienation from ecology, concrete action is certainly needed, but so are thorough-going changes in how the world is perceived. People must abandon outdated beliefs and practices, learn to comprehend the precise environmental impacts of their choices, and organize themselves to work collectively rather than becoming mired in individual angst. It is time to critically reappraise dominant narratives about enlightenment, progress, economic growth, legitimation and justice – and to interrogate the legitimacy of the Western human being as the starring protagonist in these narratives. Being inextricably caught up as an agent in these narratives, art, too, has much to “unlearn”.

Los Angeles, November 2019
Decolonization and care – both are critical topics occasionally raised in dialogue around contemporary art, but the context of this particular dialogue is surprising: I find myself taking part in a panel discussing the topic of ‘Re-designing Los Angeles’. The city’s Chief Design Officer Christopher Hawthorne has assembled a diverse panel of voices[7] to discuss the future of Los Angeles. In his opening speech, he raises issues such as the need to dismantle social structures that are no longer sustainable, emphasizing how decolonization and care should be embraced as the guiding principles of urban development. After broaching the topic of land acknowledgement, he goes on to discuss various forms of inequality that are dividing the city. The panellists, who all come from different backgrounds, reflect on which elements of the built environment are worthy of care in the eyes of varied communities. Hawthorne observes that this is a project entailing the polyvocal dissection of painful historical continuums. To achieve ecologically sustainable change, the urban environment must be examined pluralistically, from as many angles as possible. The city has for instance launched a project advancing the idea that the right to shade is an equal rights issue. LA’s less advantaged neighbourhoods suffer more acutely from rising heat levels than privileged residential neighbourhoods. Over the coming years, LA therefore plans to invest in providing more shade in various parts of the city. Sacrifices will need to be made: some of LA’s iconic palm trees will have to make way for shadier tree species. A city that glories in its reputation for year-round sunshine now faces the predicament of figuring out how to protect its residents from excessive sun exposure as equitably as possible. This will necessitate visible changes in the cityscape. Perhaps the city will never achieve its lofty ambitions, but the discussion left me with the overall impression that the LA committee is on the right track.

What does urban planning in California have to do with the future of contemporary art? For one, the case of Los Angeles sheds light on how ecological and social issues are inherently entangled, while also underscoring the complexity of the polyvocal approaches that are needed to collectively prepare for the consequences of ongoing crises. These issues also apply directly to the resilience and future of art and the meanings associated with it.

 

The petro-paradox

The past few years have witnessed lively debate on how radically the fossil era has impacted Earth over the past 150 years, in tandem with discourse on alternative scenarios for handling the transition to post-fossility. For instance Energia ja kokemus (Energy and Experience), an essay by the philosopher-researcher-writer duo Tere Vadén and Antti Salminen, has been instrumental in driving this debate in Finland. Another influential work also published in 2013 is Niukkuuden maailmassa (In a World of Scarcity) by the philosopher and journalist Ville Lähde. The theories presented by these philosophers are closely linked to the ecological reconstruction project advanced by the BIOS Research Unit. The Mustarinda Association, which runs a residency in Hyrynsalmi, is in turn actively searching for practical strategies for accelerating the post-fossil transition. Working in collaboration with the HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme, Mustarinda has been running a related project since 2018.[8] All the above examples highlight the need for technological and infrastructural transformation, but also change on an experiential level.

In his writings in the emerging field of the energy humanities, the cultural theorist Imre Szeman describes how fundamentally bizarre modern society’s dependence on fossil fuels really is, and how the concealment of this dependency is a requisite condition for the continued functioning of modern society:

[…] Fossil fuel culture and modernity are one and the same; to be modern is, in part, not to know or understand this deep, dark dependence of the modern on the organic remnants of another era. […] [9]

Many experts on energy humanities and post-fossility theorize that societies have been able to perpetuate the delusion of endless economic growth and boundless prosperity only because fossil energy sources are so readily at our disposal. The superior ability of fossil fuels to store and release vast quantities of energy through combustion has made possible an anomalous set of historical circumstances. Today, as societies face a forced transition to post-fossility, we have no choice but to bid farewell to the ideas and practices that defined modernity. Instead, we must embrace a mindset of energy and material consciousness[10] and develop new framings of scarcity and abundance. The post-fossil transition means paying careful attention to the politics and geographies of accumulation, allocation, and accountability. This cultural watershed will inevitably also alter the practices and meanings associated with art.

 

Fossil art

Fossil fuels are inextricably linked to every aspect of our daily lives; nothing is entirely impervious to their influence, not even the notions of selfhood that we construct through our choices and opportunities. Without them, art would look very different, and what we recognize as “art” would be something entirely different – and this salient fact has been overlooked in art discourse. It therefore bears repeating: art comes into existence as part of a complex network. It involves the expenditure of energy and materials, at the very least during its interaction with participating bodies, no matter how ostensibly “immaterial” a work of art might initially appear to be.

Fossil modernity has created a framework for a particular mode of art praxis: the globalized artworld – with its mega-institutions, massive scale, furious pace of production, frequent flying, countless freight shipments, super-sized art fairs and biennials – is possible only because of the vast quantity of affordable energy that is readily at society’s disposal. The perpetual pursuit of novelty and the corollary phenomenon of throwaway consumerism are based on “fossil logic”, which is also an underlying cause of society’s collective experience of fatigue and burnout.[11] The effects of fossility are both direct and indirect: even when art is created without direct fossil mediation, fossility still forms the “energetic basis” of the reality in which art comes into being.

 

Post-combustion art?

The transition to post-fossility calls for sacrifices and limitations, and also the redistribution of scarcity and abundance, but it also presents fresh opportunities, as posited by Essi Vesala in her enlightening curating-themed thesis for the University of Stockholm, Practicing Coexistence – Entanglements between Ecology and Curating Art:

As the post-fossil paradigm and de-growth have strong connotations with the ethos of scarcity, and cutting down, refusing and so on, it is perhaps not seen as an overly inspiring way of looking at curating and art. Nevertheless, the ethos of scarcity and post-fossility can be turned upside down, not only letting go of old, familiar and harmful ways of doing, but experimenting with new possibilities that the paradigm opens up.[12]

What kind of changes might the new cultural paradigm imply for the artworld? Before delving deeper into this question, we should briefly review where things stand today: Contemporary art is generally regarded as being “up there” with the philosophical vanguard, but the artworld at large has been surprisingly slow to wake up to the magnitude of the eco-crisis. Ecological themes have only recently emerged as core thematic content in contemporary art, certainly far too late to exert any tangible impact on prevailing social norms. There are exceptions, of course, and it would be remiss of me to underestimate the artists and curators who have made a long-term practice of spotlighting ecological issues in their work.[13] Ecological thinking and activism has existed in art probably for as long as art has been around, but it has largely been relegated to footnote status in the canon of art history. Many artists and individual practitioners have called upon art institutions to adopt and support more ecologically sound practices. So far, however, official art institutions have been unresponsive if not outright deaf to the call for greater sustainability.

One possible explanation for art’s slow response is pragmatic: the mechanisms of international art networks are reliant upon mobility of a massive scale – mobility of artworks, people, and cash flows. International mobility – along with novelty value and volume – are the guiding precepts and yardsticks of what defines “success” on the art scene, but this regrettably comes at the cost of a massive ecological footprint. Biennials and major art institutions compete for top artists and big turnouts, and the top-billed works compete voraciously for attention. The biggest, most jaw-dropping, and most easily digestible (i.e. Instagrammable) visual spectacles usually emerge triumphant. It is eye-opening, therefore, to look carefully at who sits on the boards of major art institutions, and to note how many of those board members are somehow connected to the fossil economy. “Following the money trail” often exposes the inseparable entanglement between global art institutions and the logic of fossil combustion.

Art’s slow response to the ecological wake-up call is no doubt also linked to a lingering belief in the autonomy of art, and the (partly legitimate) fear of art being harnessed to serve as a mouthpiece for ecological enlightenment. Another plausible explanation is the inherent challenge of ecocriticism, i.e. the extreme difficulty of unravelling the complex, ever-changing interdependencies at work in fossil modernity.

 

Fossil-free art and the fallacy of scale

The field of art and culture encompasses a vast array of varied practices, and it would be erroneous to speak of this field as a homogeneous entity. There are many kinds of art fairs, auctions, biennials, mass events, museums, galleries, artist-run spaces, art forums, residencies, training programmes and people working within these contexts, and all have varied approaches – moreover, with various forms of cross-fertilization going on. The ecological footprint of different institutions and practitioners varies radically, and each one is handling the transition to post-fossility in its own way, at its own pace. It is therefore all the more vital to look carefully at the precise environmental impacts of different forms of artistic activity, paying special attention to where the money comes from, not to mention the “fossil complicity” of artworld mega-institutions.

The Finnish curator and climate activist Anna-Kaisa Koski has for instance pioneered the fossil-free art initiative,[14] which aims to shed light on complicit fossil connections. Koski hastens to add that art-making is by no means the most environmentally harmful activity in which humans engage on Earth, but concedes that certain entrenched institutional conventions tend to greatly increase the ecological footprint of certain practitioners. She uses the concept fallacy of scale to describe how critics tend to point the finger and berate the footprint of specific visible practitioners rather than attempting to collectively address the root causes and background culprits of environmental pollution.[15] My sentiments are aligned with Koski’s insofar as I would hate for art practitioners to succumb to despondency and give up art purely due to feelings of personal guilt. Instead, I hope that we can work together to find ways of influencing individual opinion as well as the policies of decision-makers, corporations, institutions and financing mechanisms.

 

Upping the complexity factor

The one thing I find truly depressing is the endless barrage of facile climate-cum-Anthropocene-themed art that is being churned out all over the world, which has precious little to do with genuine ecologically-driven art. There are inherent problems in the way that certain artists and art institutions attempt to reduce complex ecological processes into a trite, easily digestible package that lends itself to a nice “wow experience”. The project-oriented work culture that currently holds sway on the culture scene (dominated as it is by neoliberal values and governance practices) has driven many artists to adopt a result-centric “design strategy” in their work – simply because financiers and the general public recognize “designed” creations as “impactful art”. The art that seems to revel in the spotlight these days is the type that conveys a simplistic, easy-to-swallow message that chimes harmoniously with a universalized ethos.

Also in execution, much of today’s eco-art seems to contradict the very values that the artist purports to uphold. The most flagrant examples of this hypocrisy are massive environmental installations sprawling across thousands of square metres that require the use of helicopters, generators and dozens of kilometres of optic cable simply to “underline the beauty” of a landscape or natural setting or to “visualize climate change”.[16]

The ideal approach, as I see it, would be quite the opposite: complex and sensitive. Most environmental and land/earth art, both historically and today, persists in repeating the same old harmful and fallacious division between nature and culture, easily succumbing to oversimplification and othering. Even with the best intentions, such approaches permit artists to address only a narrow fragment of the issues they purport to be concerned about. What is more, art that superficially draws on climate change research regrettably succeeds in going no deeper than an anecdotal textbook illustration.

One key problem is that the ecological crisis cannot, in any meaningful way, be addressed purely as a “theme”. A genuinely ecological perspective entails a deep understanding of inter-dependencies, synergies, and cumulative effects, and genuine ecologically-driven art and curatorial practice should always somehow address the material and energetic processes that enable art and curating to go on in the first place. This is an enormous challenge – particularly in a culture that owes its very existence to the erasure of these processes.

The ethics and aesthetics of climate art: Ice Watch was an outdoor installation by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing displayed at London’s Tate Modern (11.–20.12.2018), for which 24 blocks of ice weighing between 1.5 and 5 tonnes were transported from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland.[17] Photo by Tim White. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

 

Ecological art-making and curating?

In my work as a curator, I have cautiously tried to move in the direction of “less is more” and “quality over quantity”. I have consciously sought to foster long-term working relationships and slowly evolving processes – processes that are sometimes difficult to even recognize as “art” in the conventional sense. Such an approach requires an entirely different skillset than the authority, expertise and control that curators are often expected to put into practice. I have tried to adopt a gentle, nurturing approach, and I have admittedly failed on many occasions.

Instead of travelling nonstop in a quick succession of visits, I try to build up longer-term connections and dialogues with specific communities. When I travel, I spend as long as possible at my destination. I try to plan projects with an eye to minimizing freight, ideally so frugally that everything can be packed in a single suitcase. I strive to avoid the use of virgin resources and single-use materials. I curate with respect for other-than-human agencies, and I try to navigate and experiment with new practices as far as possible within the confines of existing institutional structures.

Sometimes I have done a truly poor job at helping artists remain true to their ecological principles. Due to my approach, I have seen many doors closed in my face. I do not claim to be an exemplary curator, nor is my ecological footprint the smallest it could be, but I am committed to minimizing my harmful impact on the planet and hope, one day, to make my footprint carbon-negative.

I have found that eco-driven curatorial practices tend to be under-appreciated, or looked down upon as “less professional” or too risky. The ideals associated with curating are normally quite different. This is among the reasons why Vesala’s thesis on curating seems so refreshing: She describes eco-driven curatorial practice as a philosophical approach weaving together post-fossil, decolonial and feminist new materialist thinking. Vesala extols the merits of a slow, sensitive approach, proposing fresh alternatives to the usual “let’s take charge” style of curating. She boldly invites greater complexity. I feel privileged to have been one of the curators interviewed for her thesis.

I adhere to a policy of using the word “ecological” only to describe artistic and curatorial practices that conceptualize normally invisible interdependencies and cumulative impacts in a way that registers consciousness of the ethical and environmental consequences of engaging in any form of artistic practice. Compared with older, established concepts such as environmental art and earth/land art, I regard “ecological art” as highlighting the way in which technological, biological, economic and political processes “reproduce” one another.[18] Because this notion goes deeper than a simple update of systems thinking, the inclusion of decolonialist and feminist perspectives is integrally important for deconstructing tangled assumptions. Earth/land art and environmental art are good definitions for describing certain art practices, but they come nowhere near articulating the complex insight that is needed for comprehending the current situation. On the contrary, these older terms are easily associated with the notion of “nature” or “the environment” being a mere backdrop for human activity.

Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule—11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years (Triptych), 1992—96, 1992/2013. Chromogenic print, 36 × 36″ (overall). Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

 

Monuments to a lack of ecosystemic understanding

Despite possessing many undeniable merits, the majority of the environmental art, Earth art and ecological art that I have encountered over the years has either persisted in romanticizing the idea of “pure”, “unspoiled” nature, or has entirely failed to register awareness of the complex entanglements that influence the work’s process of becoming.

This impression was reinforced when I recently visited an exhibition featuring Tree Mountain by Agnes Denes, a pioneer of ecological art whom I personally admire. The work consists of a landscaped mountain planted with an estimated total of 10,600 pine trees in the village of Pinsiö, near Ylöjärvi, Finland.[19] Initiated in 1982 by the Strata Network, the project was completed between 1992 and 1996, with a forest of trees planted according to a mathematical formula devised by the artist. Occupying a former gravel pit, the mountain is elliptical in shape, 420 metres long and 270 metres wide. When viewed from the side, it resembles – typically for Denes – a pyramid.

I only recently formed a deeper acquaintance with this world-famous environmental art project at Denes’ amazing Absolutes and Intermediates retrospective in New York. Ironically enough, I formerly resided roughly 20 km from the work’s real-life location for many years. The irony was heightened by the fact that the long-awaited exhibition was held at The Shed in Hudson Yards, a visible hub of capital-driven urban development. In the video and photographs at the exhibition, I noticed that Denes’ Tree Mountain – which she designed to be symmetrical – was looking rather threadbare and lopsided. The accompanying panels explained that the forest’s patchy growth was attributable to the fact that Finland, like the rest of the planet, had not escaped the adverse impacts of climate change over the past few decades.

The Finnish artist Eero Yli-Vakkuri has worked on the conservation of Tree Mountain since 2013, along with another nearby environmental piece by Nancy Holt, Up and Under (1998)[20]. When I shared with him what I had read on the panel, he was not convinced. He pointed out that the forest’s poor growth stems from the fact that neither the artist nor the commissioner had any idea of what it involves to grow a healthy forest, added to which the local community lacked incentive to care for the forest because they had no personal bond with the artwork. Contrary to what the artist originally envisaged, it is impossible to grow a perfectly symmetrical monoculture forest on a steep gravel slope. Where the project does succeed, however, is in standing as a grim monument to humankind’s inability to comprehend or nurture ecosystemic interdependencies. The original plan conceived by Denes is undeniably impressive: her mathematical “planting formula” is visually striking, particularly from a bird’s eye perspective (see Tree Mountain on Google Maps). Had the artist worked together with the forest ecosystem as an agency in its own right, the work’s merits would be altogether different. According to Yli-Vakkuri’s conversations with Denes, however, the artist intended for nature to follow her formula as precisely as possible.[21] All told, the project is perhaps not the finest sample of Denes’ work, which often engages in a sensitive study of cumulative ecosystemic impacts and interdependencies.

 

Entangled art for a post-fossil world

In the post-fossil future, art can no longer persist in perpetuating a strict division between nature and culture. Everything is already way too entangled. The genre in which I have seen the most hybridized and hence sharpest approaches to ecological themes is performance art, or genre-defying work occupying a domain somewhere between visual and performance art. A good example is Toxinosexofuturecummings,[22] a performance staged in spring 2019 by Ana Teo Ala-Ruona & co. The piece expressed a register of entanglement highly befitting our damaged planet and the life that tenaciously struggles to survive in its toxic ecosystems.

Visual art seldom captures a comparable degree of porosity and entanglement. One evocative exception is the LA-based artist Candice Lin, who muddies and “stains” meanings in ways that dismantle conventional narratives about nature, race, gender and purity. Lin’s installations present historical events from unusual perspectives, through the lens of a specific plant or raw material, shedding light on how desirable commodities (such as poppy seeds, porcelain, or the carmine pigment extracted from the bodies of female cochineal insects) and the passions they stir have contributed to shaping world politics and power relation between cultures.[23]

Candice Lin, System for a Stain, 2016. Wood, glass jars, cochineal, poppy seeds, metal castings, water, tea, sugar, copper still, hot plate, ceramic vessels, mortar and pestle, Thames mud, jar, microbial mud battery, vinyl floor. Commissioned by Gasworks, London. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly (Los Angeles). Photo by Andy Keate.

I furthermore believe that art is no longer solely a domain reserved for human-to-human interaction but, as theorized by the authors of Taiteen metsittymisestä. Harjoitteita jälkifossiilisiin oloihin (On the reforestation of art: post-fossil praxes’, 2018), “ […] the role of the author or audience is to an increasing degree being shared with more-than-human agencies”.[24] This collection of essays edited by artist and writer Henna Laininen is the very first anthology of post-fossil artistic practices published in Finnish. In her essay for the same book, artist and researcher Saara Hannula points out that many contemporary artists are beginning to register a new awareness of the material and energetic basis of their art-making, and are thus striving to engage in “more open, processual and/or non-hierarchical practice allowing more room for the process or work to unfold on its own terms, opening itself to cues from the surrounding conditions or environment, to material or more-than-human agencies, to unpredictable and random events”. Hannula theorizes that multispecies co-creation, which destabilizes or possibly even negates the idea of authorship and authoredness, might help to dispel the myth of individualism that stubbornly lives on in the domain of contemporary art.[25]

Perhaps, in the future, we will see more projects initiated by localized transnational collectives such as the On-Trade-Off collective, which is active in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Belgium.[26] The artists in this group employ a variety of perspectives to reveal the social injustices associated with the global trade routes of lithium and its problematic transition to the so-called “green economy”. The project reveals how the minerals needed for manufacturing smart devices, electric cars, and solar panels necessitate an ever-growing volume of mining that holds disastrous consequences for human communities and broader ecosystems in the Congo region (a theme also relevant to Finland, a country eyed eagerly by international mining corporations as a future source of raw materials). The members of the collective rarely travel between Europe and Africa – most of their collaboration takes place in the form of exchange and sharing of information, photographs and video footage.

Maarten Vanden Eynde in collaboration with Musasa. Mine in Manono, D.R. Congo and ‘Ils ont partagé le monde’, 2017. Photo courtesy of the On-Trade-Off collective.

In lieu of society merely embracing a growing consciousness of its material and energy consumption, I believe that the very way we conceptualize energy and materiality is about to undergo a profound change in the near future. Our notion of what constitutes a “human” has already changed radically in the past few years: What we once thought of as an intact human body with clear boundaries has revealed itself to be a vessel for multi-species colonies of interdependent micro-organisms. The notion of agency has also changed drastically: The idea of human exceptionality has been destabilized by scientific findings revealing that plants and animals are capable of communicating and forming complex relationships. Not even “dead” things can be dismissed as mere inanimate matter, for they possess agency as critical enablers of human experience, for instance when converted into technologies. The special aptitudes of more-than-human agencies – such as the ability of plants to photosynthesize – might soon also finally receive recognition as highly advanced technologies.

The ecological art of the future will acknowledge and co-evolve with human and more-than-human technologies, without making any distinction as to whether a materiality or environment is “natural”. Most of this art will be created on digital platforms in urban settings.

Localized practice and a return to the rhythm of the seasons and movements of celestial bodies seems an equally relevant approach to challenging fossil logic and its force-fed notions about productivity. This mental downshift is well-aligned with the new theories presented by energy researchers, who advocate that society should adopt cyclic rhythms in the production, storage and consumption of energy. Indeed the entire concept of “productivity” is ripe for a wholesale critical reappraisal. We must question the idealization of over-exuberant efficiency and instead find new indicators of what constitutes “meaningful” activity.

In the near future, art will perhaps be viewed from a wholly new temporal perspective, too: no longer as something eternal, no longer as something judged on the merits of its novelty value, but on how well it carries significance from generation to generation. Transgenerational thinking is a concept connected to nurturing and passing on life-sustaining skills, both in art and in life. Borrowing the ideas of the influential thinker Donna Haraway, perhaps the art of the post-fossil future can be thought of as a rich, organic compost heap that is teeming with life.[27] In conclusion, I hasten to emphasize that none of the ideas shared above are, by any means, new – they have merely become relevant again as part of a cyclic movement portending the end of an historically anomalous era.[28]

 

Epilogue

This text was written in autumn 2019 with a grant awarded by the Kone Foundation for researching post-fossil, post-humanist and eco-intersectional perspectives on contemporary art and its curatorial practices. The above observations are also based on nearly a decade’s personal experience of engaging in thought-provoking clashes between ecological issues and institutional conventions in contemporary art.

My essay was originally published in the Finnish EDIT Media on January 8, 2020 – on the verge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between January and June, the pandemic ripped open a portal, a wormhole into new worlds.[29] Among so many other worlds, the globalized art ecosystem largely came to a halt during the spring months. Many aspects of the international art system that previously seemed as “normal”, or were taken for granted, became obsolete overnight or exposed their in-built vulnerabilities. In this abruptly altered situation, the need to radically reform the standards, operating models, and aims of cultural activities and institutions is even more acute than before. The need to foster just, inclusive and diverse forms of ecological practices (within and beyond the arts) is more pressing than ever. For some, the virus finally revealed the interconnectedness of all life and exposed the systemic injustices at the root of contemporary societies. Tragically, it also deepened existing political divides and social injustices. At the moment, the portal has opened into a world where billionaire wealth is booming, while unfathomable number of humans struggle to stay alive and to have enough to scrape by. However, the political transformation needed is not only about humans. I trust the following words by writer, philosopher and curator Paul B. Preciado are helpful in developing political strategies to deal with the virus and its ripple effects.

“The mutation in progress could ultimately catalyze a shift from an anthropocentric society where a fraction of the global human community authorizes itself to exercise a politics of universal extractivist predation to a society that is capable of redistributing energy and sovereignty. At the center of the debate during and after this crisis will be which lives are the ones we want to save. It is in the context of this mutation, of this transformation of the modes of understanding community (one that encompasses the entire planet, since separation is no longer possible) and immunity, that the virus is operating and that the political strategy to confront it is taking shape.”[30]

 

Jenni Nurmenniemi is a Helsinki-based curator of contemporary art, an art writer, and facilitator of multidisciplinary dialogues. With their educational background in the Arts as well as in Social Sciences, Jenni’s curatorial focus is on how different eco-philosophies and notions of sustainability (ecological and social) are approached in the Arts. In their long-term institutional position as a curator at HIAP –Helsinki International Artist Programme (2012-2018), Jenni curated many international exchanges and multidisciplinary cooperative projects such as ‘Frontiers in Retreat – Multidisciplinary Approaches to Ecology in Contemporary Art’ (2013-2018). Among Jenni’s latest projects as an independent curator are the on-line public program ‘Care Practice: Recipes for Resilience’, co-curated with Ceci Moss (June 2020), and the exhibition ‘Beings with’ as part of Fiskars Village Art and Design Biennale (2019).

jenninurmenniemi.net

©Translated from Finnish by Silja Kudel

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[1] Thanks for this observation are deserved by my first reader, curator Jussi Koitela. Further insightful views on this topic are shared by Sacha Kagan in ‘Art and Sustainability – Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity’ Bielefeld: transcript Verlag. 2013 (2nd amended edition).
[2] https://eko.bios.fi (accessed 2.1.2020).
[3] For instance certain segments of the so-called “deep ecology” movement, who disregard these historical continuums and the resultant inequalities, can at worst cross over into eco-fascism: https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2019/mar/20/eco-fascism-is-undergoing-a-revival-in-the-fetid-culture-of-the-extreme-right (accessed 8.1.2020).
[4] The concept of intersectionality became established after the American lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw published her essay ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’ (1989), but the same idea was advanced earlier by the American feminist writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde: “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle, since we do not live single-issue lives”. (See e.g. Lorde, A. 1984). Intersectionality began by addressing the experiences of racialized women. Among the recommended texts offering insights into how this concept might be applied to look at the causes and effects of eco-crises is A.E. Kings’ article Intersectionality and the Changing Face of Ecofeminism. Ethics and the Environment, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 2017), s. 63–87. Also recommended are essays by Kathryn Yusoff, Professor of Inhuman Geography, such as A Billion Black Anthropocenes – or None. An excerpt of this book is available here: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/97/252226/white-utopia-black-inferno-life-on-a-geologic-spike/ (accessed 2.1.2020). The art historian and cultural critic T.J. Demos also discusses the inter-linking of ecological and intersectional perspectives: https://thedistanceplanlexicon.org/ECOLOGY-AS-INTERSECTIONALITY (accessed 2.1.2020).
[5] Chayka, K. 2019. Vanity and Vapour Trails / Can Art World Kick its Addiction to Flying
https://frieze.com/article/can-art-world-kick-its-addiction-flying (haettu 2.2.2020).
[6] https://hiiliporssi.fi https://www.lentomaksu.fi
[7] 3rd LA (Re)designing LA: Amnesiac City – Bolstering Civic Memory in Los Angeles. Occidental College, Los Angeles. 4.11.2019. See also https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/01/us/los-angeles-shade-climate-change.html (haettu 2.1.2020).
[8] For further information on the project, see Nurmenniemi J. Going Post-fossil in a Neoliberal Climate. In (Eds. Elfving; Kokko; Gielen.) Contemporary Artist Residencies. Reclaiming Time and Space. Valiz, Antennae – Arts in Society. Amsterdam. 2018.
[9] Excerpt from Szeman’s response to a survey circulated by the Mustarinda Collective. https://mustarinda.fi/magazine/post-fossil-fuel-culture/post-fossil-fuel-culture (haettu 10.12.2019).
[10] The term is often used interchangeably with “resource consciousness”. I prefer “material”, because the tendency to perceive things such as ecosystems as exploitable “resources” is a big part of the problem. The terminology we choose plays a major role in shaping how we think and act.
[11] For instance artist Kim Modig and curator Marina Valle Noronha reflect on the physical and psychological stress of the prolific international visibility that is expected of artists in today’s fossil-based culture: https://www.aqnb.com/2019/06/06/am-i-living-like-an-asshole-kim-modig-marina-valle-noronhas-art-off-the-air-on-the-motions-emotions-of-art-that-travels/ (haettu 2.1.2020).
[12] Vesala, E. 2019. Practicing Coexistence – Entanglements Between Ecology and Curating Art. Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Culture and Aesthetics.
[13] For instance the art historian Professor Hanna Johansson has written about Finnish artists who have been addressing ecological themes since the 1970s. Johansson, H. 2005. Maataidetta jäljittämässä. Luonnon ja läsnäolon kirjoitusta suomalaisessa nykytaiteessa 1970–1995. Helsinki, Like Kustannus.
[14] Koski is a long-term activist who has been involved in campaigns such as Hiilivapaa Helsinki (Carbon-free Helsinki). In September 2019 she launched the Twitter campaign #fossiilivapaataide. Koski has compiled related comments and experiences on social media. https://hiilivapaasuomi.fi/helsinki/ (accessed 2.1.2020).
[15] Collated data on major polluters and their carbon footprint (up to 2017) can be found here: https://www.climateaccountability.org/carbonmajors.html A recent example from Finland: Saksalaisjärjestöt peräävät Suomelta valtio-omistajan vastuuta: Fortumin ostama Uniper päästää enemmän hiilidioksidia kuin koko Suomi: https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-11128400
(both accessed 8.1.2020).
[16] https://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2019/01/04/valotaiteilija-kari-kola-suunnittelee-gronlantiin-ilmastomuutoksen
https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-9956825 (accessed 2.1.2020).
[17] Tate’s text specified: “The estimated energy cost of bringing one of these blocks to London is equal to one person flying from London to the Arctic and back to witness the ice melting.” https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/olafur-eliasson-and-minik-rosing-ice-watch (accessed 2.1.2020). See also: http://olafureliasson.net.s3.amazonaws.com/subpages/icewatchlondon/press/Ice_Watch_London_Carbon_Footprint.pdf (accessed: 31.8.2020).
[18] Nor can they exist or function entirely separate from one another.
[19] Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years, 1992–1996. Pinsiö, Ylöjärvi. http://www.strata.fi/puuvuori.html (haettu 2.1.2020).
[20] Yli-Vakkuri, E. On Land and Environmental Art Conservation. In Laamanen, I. (Ed.), 2019. Crossroads – New Views on Art and Environment. Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and the Academy of Fine Arts at the University of the Arts Helsinki. 2019.
[21] Denes has stated that her goal was to create “a man-made virgin forest” that would be nurtured for at least 400 years. The title moreover suggests that the work is a “time capsule”, a summation of a particular way of seeing forests and nature that prevailed at the time of the work’s inception.
[22] Words Make Worlds: Ana Teo Ala-Ruona on the somatic possibilities of language and what is lost in translation across contexts. Ana Teo Ala-Ruona interviewed for AQNB (Steph Kretowicz).
https://www.aqnb.com/2019/12/10/words-make-worlds-ana-teo-ala-ruona-on-the-somatic-possibilities-of-language-whats-lost-in-translation-across-contexts/ (accessed 10.12.2019).
[23] Candice Lin’s exhibition ‘A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour’, 2016, Gasworks, London, is available on video: https://vimeo.com/192544862 (accessed 2.1.2020). Lin’s art is also discussed in a recently published book: Arndt, L.; Umolu, Y. Candice Lin – A Hard White Body. Reva and David Logan Center for the Art, distributed by the University of Chicago Press. 2019.
[24] Laininen H. (Ed.) at al. 2018. Taiteen metsittymisestä. Harjoitteita jälkifossiilisiin oloihin. The Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts Helsinki, Helsinki. p. 50. Working group: Saara Hannula, Henna Laininen, Isla Peura, Markus Tuormaa, Timo P. Vartiainen.
[25] Hannula, S. In: Laininen, H. (Ed.) 2018. Taiteen metsittymisestä. Harjoitteita jälkifossiilisiin oloihin. The Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts, Helsinki. p. 71.
[26] On-Trade-Off is coordinated by Picha (Lubumbashi, Congo) and Enough Room for Space (Brussels, Belgium), with the participation of Sammy Baloji, Alexis Destoop, Marjolijn Dijkman, Gulda El Magambo, Femke Herregraven, Jean Katambayi, Frank Mukunday & Trésor Tshibangu, Georges Senga, Rosa Spaliviero, Daddy Tshikaya, and Maarten Vanden Eynde in collaboration with Musasa.
[27] Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press. Durham and London. p. 32.
[28] Many post-fossil theorists argue that indigenous peoples – at least from the viewpoint of ecosystem vitality – are the only human groups to have shown any aptitude whatsoever for genuinely sustainable coexistence with other species. Post-fossil culture does not gaze at the future through a lens of techno-optimism, but instead – alongside fostering new technologies – searches for new ways of reconnecting with life-sustaining ecosystems on an experiential level. See e.g. McCoy, K., Tuck, T., McKenzie M. (Ed.) Land Education: Rethinking Pedagogies of Place form Indigenous, Postcolonial, and decolonizing perspectives. Routledge. New York. 2016.
[29] I am borrowing the idea of the pandemic as a portal from author Arundhati Roy. She discusses this, as well as possible pathways to the Global Green New Deal, with author, filmmmaker, and social activist Naomi Klein on the video ‘Global Green New Deal: Into the Portal, Leave No one Behind’
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0NY1_73mHY&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR0bzv_blucLP4SuYN2nzxwfnGTQL3rczrBSaJIWLwFZOG4PfKKOIv5b2Cg (accessed 26.5.2020).
[30] Paul B. Preciado, ’Learning from the Virus’ https://www.artforum.com/print/202005/paul-b-preciado-82823 (accessed 26.5.2020).