Conceived based on Darwinian principles, ecology was defined in the second half of the nineteenth century as the study of the interrelationships between organisms and the environment in which they live in the biosphere. Over the years, the concept has been expanded with numerous contributions and has now acquired sweeping ethical and philosophical significance. As Félix Guattari had already intuited, ecological thought today is not a notion distinctive of environmentalists tout court: ecology (ecosophy) is a philosophical synthesis of the profound values that affect human existence, understood in its totality of relations and dimensions, subjective-individual as well as social or environmental.(l)
The decision to propose a project that investigates the relationships linking art, ecology and sustainability implies awareness of two fundamental aspects. On the one hand, the conviction that ecology represents the chief domain in the analysis of contemporary reality pushes us to restore the complexity and urgency of the current debate. On the other, artistic research – while constitutionally independent – allows the aesthetic dimension to make a decisive contribution to our interpretation of the present, offering us other ways of understanding and then processing reality.
The world agenda has made note of emergencies such as severe climate changes, the impoverishment of resources, crises of ecosystems with the drastic reduction of biodiversity, widespread economic vulnerability and great social inequality, and in addition to these issues we must remember the vagueness of ideological and religious fanaticism, and the alienation of the media society. An analysis of these problems requires a profound point of view that can consider man and the environment in which he lives based on parameters capable of responding to the current crisis and can also provide appropriate and up-to-date instruments of evaluation.
The era of globalisation, a complex and ambivalent phenomenon, has seen the progressive growth of the indicators of well-being as an index of human development, life expectancy, grain yield and the spread of information technology.(ll) However, these traditional indicators are inadequate: they do not take escalating environmental and humanitarian catastrophes into account, nor do they include important data regarding both the reduction of biodiversity – viewed also in cultural terms – and damage to the environment, some of which stems from technological innovations and scientific experimentation whose long-term effects are still unknown.(lll) GDP (gross domestic product) does not describe the general quality of life in any way, nor does it indicate the environmental sustainability of the paths that have been undertaken.
New macroeconomic indicators respond to more widespread proposals of sustainable development: promoting progress based on the multiple dimensions of human well-being, sustaining a rapid transition to renewable energy platforms, equitably distributing resources and opportunities, protecting and recovering natural capital, and localising the economy.(lV) Evaluating these objectives means highlighting facts shared by international analysts and researchers, becoming aware of relevant problems.
COP 14 (the 14th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) held in Poznan (Poland) at the end of 2008, launched an imperative transition towards a new climate regime establishing international rules and instruments to prevent the harmful effects of global warming and the most serious consequences of climate change.(V)
On a worldwide level, a great deal of hope has been invested in relaunching the economy based on new green sectors. In the face of the current crisis and economic recession, both the European Union and the United States are relying on a possible relaunch based on green technologies and the ancillary industries created by sectors involved in the environment and ecology.
Given this difficult situation, the debate is proceeding rapidly, attempting to offer analyses and reflections that can respond to the complexities involved. Indeed, we cannot ignore controversial and contradictory aspects such as ecological fraud,(Vl) greenwashing(Vll) and pornecology,(Vlll) all of which are improper and illicit recourses pursuing the “ecological fad”.
While the American pragmatism of post-environmentalist thought put an end to traditional environmentalism, as the latter is inadequate for providing the answers needed today,(lX) more radical paths call for economic de-growth in favour of cultural and social growth. Other positions, such as profound ecology, instead question the anthropocentric vision in order to re-establish a more equitable relationship between man and the environment.
Many cultural and publishing initiatives have focused on the complex current reality in relation to the Man-Nature combination. First of all, we must cite the profound and constantly updated work of the Art & Ecology Department of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, with the fundamental publication entitled Land Art. A Cultural Ecology Handbook.(X) Secondly, there are also exhibitions and festivals specifically devoted to ecology, the environment and sustainability.(Xl) There are even artist residency programmes devoted to these topics.
Green Platform reflects this scenario, contributing theoretical, philosophical and social considerations regarding the current debate and the theories that permeate the works of many artists. The goal of the decision to structure a platform as an interdisciplinary instrument is to translate – on an operative level – a problematic vision and restore it in an attitude of open dialectic. The project includes a catalogue with international scientific contributions in various fields, an exhibition that examines the most recent generations of artists committed to engaging themselves with ecological urgency, a cycle of conferences, workshops, laboratory meetings and film projections, in collaboration with CinemAmbiente, thus dovetailing with the CCCS operating approach.
Green Platform combines a plan of global theoretical thought and meta-reflection open to the territory. Consequently, plenty of space has been devoted to numerous workshops that will accompany the exhibition from preparation to conclusion, and in the exhibition project preference has been given to Italian and foreign artists active in Italy, because in addition to responding to the principle of proximity, they can create an important rapport with the public and the area that is hosting them. The exhibition, which takes a critical look at the different approaches of artists committed to issues concerning the environment and ecology, has no intention of offering comprehensive views or definitive solutions to the problems being examined. It instead attempts to analyse some of the artistic expressions that bear witness to the debate underway, cross-cutting opinions and cultural reflections that differ from the prevailing ways of thinking. It also attempts to examine how various media and expressive orientations approach this topic: there are drawings, projects, sculptures, installations, photographs, video projections, documentaries, technological experiments, laboratories and examples of relational practices.
Naturally, the art viewed in this project differs from both Land Art and ideological or shamanistic practices operating along the lines sketched out by Beuys. The artists participating in the exhibition distance themselves substantially from the methods and assumptions that inspired the generations before them, and they do it from two standpoints: in terms of activism, ideological attitudes have clearly been abandoned; in the observation of nature, they have declined all poetic and emotional mimesis in order to observe the natural world with an analytical eye.
Katie Holten’s uprooted tree, virtually an overturned trunk, expresses all of its artificiality through the use of electrical tape, which binds these natural forms in its claustrophobic grip, the unmistakable metaphor of the worrying environmental crisis. Nicola Toffolini’s farming cells, made of solar panels and recyclable materials combined with waste collected from industrial processes, ponder the use of technology and man’s contradictory intervention in the environment.
Even in works showing great sensitivity towards nature and its cycles, such as Carlotta Ruggieri’s photographs and Christiane Löhr’s sculptures, the artists’ attitude remains analytical and speculative, without indulging in pathetic involvement. Indeed, they offer abstract analogies, essentially intellectual meditations – albeit aesthetically seductive ones – of nature, Ruggieri through serial images and Löhr with the geometric construction of forms.
Andrea Caretto and Raffaella Spagna instead take a more strictly scientific approach that interweaves their educational background with an artistic current active in relation to scientific discoveries – as in this case – or modern technologies. Human Microbiome is an enormous metaphor of the body that investigates the biological relationships between microcosm-Man and the countless micro-organisms that live there, from the standpoint of profound ecology.
Numerous artists cultivate botanical, zoological or anthropological interests that have led them to conduct field analyses, expressed in a documentary form in some cases and in an experiential aesthetic interpretation in others. One example is the Swedish artist Henrik Håkansson, who while staying in the Selva Lacandona (Mexico) recorded the song of the quetzal, the bird venerated by the Maya and the Aztecs with the name Quetzal, the plumed serpent. This mythical creature, which is now becoming extinct, is evoked exclusively through an acoustical experience, i.e. the sound of its song reproduced with the legendary Fender Reverb 65 amplifier. Julian Rosefeldt also bears witness to a highly critical aspect of Latin America: the deforestation underway in Brazil. To do this, he has created an enormous installation with a powerful sensory and emotional impact – both visual and aural – that, while representing the traumatic issue of deforestation, strives to interpret it on an existential level and not as mere condemnation.
Other artists express this naturalistic-anthropological approach with a critical anti-rhetorical attitude that traces environmental problems back to empirical evidence: Tue Greenfort installs glass copies of the mauve stinger (Pelagia noctiluca), a symbol of the contradictoriness and ignorance of human action and its consequences for the system, as has become evident in seas that have now been invaded by this once-rare species that loves warmer waters.
In general, these artists are expressing condemnation by activating cognitive processes. Also working along these lines are Lucy and Jorge Orta, who introduce the delicate issue of the supply of drinking water with Orta Water – Mobile Intervention Unit, and Dacia Manto, who visually proposes the surface of the South Pole, calling attention to the serious and progressive melting of the ice caps due to global warming.
Another important aspect is tied to activist practices designed to spread sustainable strategies, generally structured as collectives. This is the case with Futurefarmers and Superflex. The former, a group of Californians, promotes alternative forms of urban agriculture(Xll) based on shortening the production chain and employing eco-compatible practices; the latter group, which is Danish, has long used artistic practice as an operating tool that, outside the traditional museum-gallery-collector system, is called upon to influence reality with concrete planning. In the case of biogas, they designed a simple unit that uses natural biofuel and can meet the needs of a family of eight to ten people. In both cases, enormous attention is paid to the unique aspects of the place in which the artists work, in order to implement circumstantial practices. The Italian collective Alterazioni Video instead reinterprets the area around the Sicilian town of Giarre following completion of the first “Unfinished Park”. The operation to historicise an area whose identity is strongly conditioned by the presence of unfinished public works triggers virtuous and thought-provoking processes with which to examine the memory of places with an eye to a sustainable future. Incompiuto siciliano also becomes the topic of study and proposals in a workshop with the Faculty of Architecture of Florence University.
Dave Hullfish Bailey’s work is likewise tied to significant topical analysis, although in a different way. The small library established spontaneously in Slab city, a deteriorated Californian district that, for years, has been the destination of motorhome owners seeking peace and quiet, stimulates anthropological analysis that probes spontaneous ways of building and transmitting knowledge. California, the hub of artists and activists who are sensitive to environmental issues, is also the focus of Amy Balkin’s research. She is interested in public law, access to primary resources, territorial usage, pollution and speculation, and Balkin’s investigative journalism examines the problems of these parameters in the area around Interstate 5 connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Michele Dantini has also chosen an approach akin to investigative reporting, but he examines Africa’s contradictory reality. Through a newspaper and a video projection, he conducts an anthropological analysis of the construction of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline financed by the World Bank. This major project, which upset the balance of local ecological systems, did not help fund education and health in the country, as required by the protocol, but instead subsidised weapons and corruption in a milieu of guerrilla warfare, demonstrating once again the extent to which international capitalism forcefully interferes in local settings that are still based on small-scale economics.
Working on a strictly theoretical level, Ettore Favini’s documentary uses an interview with Gilles Clément to illustrate the philosophical importance of the concept of the third landscape, a fundamental repository of biodiversity selected spontaneously and outside the concepts of power. The tribute to the founders of ecological thought, along with the words of the French botanist and landscape architect, pushes contemporary man to arrive at a fundamental realization: a new political project is needed to achieve the realist utopia proposed by Clément.
Utopian thought also informs My Sunshine by Nikola Uzunovski, who proposes a relational workshop in which to present the progress of work to create one or more artificial suns in Lapland. This visionary work, in which the artist has been involved for years, will continue to be developed thanks to the contribution that Florentine designers and engineers will offer during the workshops held by the artist. Other artists will also make contributions in the form of workshops that are open to the public, as the goal of the platform structured in this way is to be an open reservoir full of intellectual, design and sensory stimuli.
Two-thirds of the exhibited works are new. With this substantial effort, which is highly unusual in Italy, CCCS has helped transform an exhibition project into an opportunity to support experimentation and new art projects. Thus, it has successfully inspired renowned artists who are present at biennials and shows around the world to produce works alongside artists who, while not as well known, are equally committed to high-quality research.
(l) F. Guattari, Les Trois Écologies. Editions Galilée: Paris, 1989.
(ll) J. Talberth, “The New Bottom Line for Progress”, in State of the World 2008. Innovations for a Sustainable Economy, published by the Worldwatch Institute. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 2008.
(lll) On the issue of the environment, see the fundamental work by Lester R. Brown, Plan B3.0. Mobilizing to Save Civilization, published by the Earth Policy Institute. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 2008.
(lV) Talberth, op. cit. Note that the use of the term “natural capital” brings in an anthropocentric viewpoint formulated in terms of the exploitation of resources, rationalised as it may be. This viewpoint is not shared by supporters of profound ecology or by the countless initiatives that defend a holistic conception of ecology, with practices such as permaculture, biodynamics and so on.
(V) The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which established the objectives for a first phase in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions produced by industrialised countries, ends in 2012.
(Vl) D. Paccino, L’imbroglio ecologico. Einaudi: Turin, 1972.
(Vll) “Greenwashing” is a neologism commonly used to refer to the appropriation of environmental virtue by polluting businesses, industries, administrations and organisation to “wash away” their environmental debts.
(Vlll) F. La Cecla, “Le tre ecologie più una: la pornoecologia”, in the Italian translation of Guattari’s Les Trois Écologies, Italian title Le tre ecologie. Sonda: Turin, 1991; pp. 49–71.
(lX) T. Nordhaus, M. Shellenberger, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2007), which is the follow-up to The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2004).
(X) Land Art. A Cultural Ecology Handbook, ed. M. Andrews (RSA: London 2006). The RSA’s activity can be monitored constantly at www.RSAartsandecology.org.uk. Other noteworthy publications include Ecological Aesthetics. Art in Environmental Design: Theory and Practice, ed. H. Strelow with V. David, H. Prigann (Birkhauser: Basel-Berlin-Boston, 2004); and Sustainability: A New Frontier for the Arts and Cultures, ed. S. Kagan, V. Kirchberg (Verlag für Akademische Schriften: Frankfurt am Main, 2008).
(Xl) In 2000 Ralph Rugoff and Lisa Corrin proposed The Greenhouse Effect, an exhibition held at the Serpentine Gallery and the Museum of Natural History in London. Five years later Beyond Green: Toward A Sustainable Art, a travelling show curated by Stephanie Smith, was co-organised by the Smart Museum of Art, the University of Chicago and ICI (Independent Curators International), New York, revolving around American art in this field. In 2007 the 7th Sharjah Biennial was devoted to Still Life. Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change, the topic selected by curators Mohammed Kazem, Eva Scharrer and Jonathan Watkins. In January 2008 the Edith Russ Site for Media Art in Oldenburg staged an exhibition of works by “ecologist” artists working with new media, titled Ecomedia – Ecological Strategies in Today’s Art, curated by Sabine Himmelsbach, Karin Ohlenschläger and Yvonne Volkart. Also in 2008 La Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin inaugurated Greenwashing. Ambiente: pericoli, promesse e perplessità, curated by Ilaria Bonacossa and Latitudes; the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) proposed Some Ideas on Living in London and Tokyo, curated by Stephen Taylor and Ryue Nishizawa, devoted to contemporary architecture, paying specific attention to urban, social and environmental aspects. This exhibition followed 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas (2007, curated by Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi) and Environment: Approaches for Tomorrow (2006, curated by Giovanna Borasi), both held at the CCA and examining pressing environmental issues. India has also shown itself to be sensitively up to date with Festival 48°C Public. Art. Ecology, held in Delhi in December 2008. Transmediale Berlin 2009, entitled Deep North, has devoted its agenda to the climate changes underway. In May of this year, the second Festival SOS 4.8 will be held in Murcia, Spain, devoted entirely to the concept of sustainability (http://www.sos48.com/en_2009/index.php). Rikrit Tiravanija was one of the artistic director’s of last year’s festival, whereas the artistic section is directed this year by Jota Castro. The Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation, Action symposium and festival was recently presented (March 2009) by the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and the Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston. The Symposium on Sustainability and Contemporary Art. Hard Realities and the New Materiality, conceived by Maja and Reuben Fowkes and organised in collaboration with the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy and the Centre for Arts and Culture of the Central European University, was held in Budapest on 26 March 2009. Lastly, in June 2009 an exhibition titled Art & architecture for a changing planet 1969–2009 will open at the Barbican Centre in London.
(Xll) Strange as it may seem, urban agriculture is also a resource for large metropolises such as Shanghai. The city council manages 300,000 hectares of urban and periurban farmland, where the city’s organic waste is recycled at night. With this organisation, 50% of the pork and poultry that is consumed, 60% of the vegetables and 90% of the milk and eggs are produced in the city and in the immediate vicinity. See Jac Smit’s article in the magazine Urban Agriculture, August 2002, note 53, p. 12.