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  Art Ecology Sustainability / 24.04 – 19.07.2009
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  Eco-aware, Eco-active, Eco-sustainable
Lorenzo Giusti
  Post-environmental theories have contributed decisively to orientating a significant part of the recent cultural debate about ecology. By critiquing traditional environmentalist methods, language and rhetoric, the writings of Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have attempted to define the standards of a new ecological philosophy that diverges from a perception of humanity and culture as an entity detached from nature and its system of relations.(l) Aside from the specific merit of the theses posited by Nordhaus and Shellenberger, still largely to be verified, the questioning of some of the key axioms of environmentalist thought, starting with the principle of de-growth, has contributed to the development of renewed ecological sensitivity that, on a theoretical level, is tied to reviving the holistic theories of Gregory Bateson, revolving around the idea of an “ecology of the mind”(ll) and the discovery (rather recent in English-speaking countries) of Félix Guattari’s ecosophy.(lll)

From an ecosophic standpoint, the global ecological crisis is defined as the manifestation of a general crisis that, while environmental in nature, is principally cognitive and social. The ecological issue raises a more pervasive problem with respect to the purely scientific one: how can our mentality be changed? How can we reinvent cognitive and social practices that will restore to humanity a sense of responsibility, not only towards ourselves but also the future of life on Earth?

From the late 1980s, when Guattari was writing, through today the plea from the art world to orient the progress of science and technology towards more human ends – ecological ends, in the triple sense that has been identified – gradually developed in a direction that was not so much a return to old lifestyles, but was rather a move towards pinpointing new ways of growth and coexistence. In recent years, in particular, the awareness of the fundamental role of ecology within the framework of human and social sciences has increased significantly, as has the desire to face the fatalistic passiveness of individuals and powers with regard to ecological issues. For a growing and increasingly aware group of artists, the ecological paradigm has come to represent the ethical grounds on which to reconsider not only the relationship between art and science, but – more generally – the set of relationships linking the aesthetic, social and cognitive levels.

Within the art system, critical debate has revolved chiefly around the subject of “sustainability”. The term “sustainability” was coined by the environmental sciences to indicate an ecosystem’s capacity to be regenerated. Over time, however, the word has acquired a broader meaning with a markedly social significance, emerging – according to the official definition – as humans’ ability to satisfy “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.(lV) What can art contribute to the cause of sustainability? This question seems to remain unanswered today, like others that inevitably arise when “sustainable” art comes to be viewed as a critical category. Design historian Victor Margolin has posed some of them.(V) Provided that we can talk about “aesthetics of sustainability” – as Hildegard Kurt has affirmed(Vl) – what forms must an art that wants to consider itself “sustainable” assume? In the context of a culture of sustainability, what distinguishes art from other disciplines such as architecture, design and graphics?

These questions, which – at least in part – have characterised critical debate so far, actually represent an obstacle to the development of truly sustainable thought. This is underscored by Margolin, along with other international artists, curators and critics such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Max Andrews, Stephanie Smith and Jeffrey Kastner. It is only through a holistic vision of the world, which thus encompasses art along with the other elements and that, at the same time, views art itself as a set of indivisible components, that ecological awareness – to cite Bateson – and a sustainable culture can gradually become established.

Separating art from the other disciplines involved in the development of a new culture of sustainability is paradoxical. The risk is that of creating a false cultural hierarchy. It is only by demolishing some of the old historical-critical categories that we can manage to establish a fruitful dialogue about aesthetics within a culture of sustainability. It is thus essential that artists embrace shared aesthetics that are able to go beyond the search for unitary forms and strive for possible interactions between different languages and practices.

The perspective of “sustainable art” must leave room for the circulation of a broader ecological culture that, first and foremost, is presented as an ethical-aesthetic shift promoted on an environmental level and, at the same time, on a social level and in terms of mental processes. Thus, an art determined to root its rationale in profound ecological knowledge will not limit itself to facing exclusively environmental issues, tied to the crisis of the ecosystem, but will endow itself with broader aspirations, perspectives and cultural meanings.

In the area of contemporary artistic production, different approaches, goals and modi operandi are gradually being defined. Several artists are distinguishing themselves through their adoption of virtuous practices intended to reduce environmental impact by using natural, perishable or recycled materials and sustainable execution processes. At the same time, growing numbers of photographers, video artists and multimedia artists are focusing their research on exposing social behaviours that harm the ecosystem. In general, these works do not seek to show a “right way” to solve the environmental problem, but limit themselves to providing alternative views of contemporary reality. Other artists have quite openly taken up the path established by Land Art, showing attention to the forms and rhythms of nature in an attempt to introduce change that is consistent with the specificity of life and the timing that governs it. There are works that use the methods of investigative reporting and others that deal with environmental topics while also embarking on essentially anthropological research.

Many artists use programmatic or relational approaches, examining the public sphere and proposing new alternative development strategies for society. Some of them wage a fully fledged ecological battle, working simultaneously in the areas of art and political activism. There are works that dialogue openly with science, imagining feasible paths of research, while others go from architecture to sustainable design. And we must not overlook works that, while not directly dealing with topics tied to the environmental crisis – such as global warming, pollution, hydrogeological problems, and the consumption of land and primary resources – proceed from the standpoint of “mental ecology”, working along the lines sketched out by Debord, Baudrillard, McLuhan and, more recently and in an applied form, by Kalle Lasn,(Vll) who launched a true “meme” war, guerrilla tactics of information intended to breach the authoritarian, unilateral and contaminating flow of advertising and communication in general.

It is important to emphasise that the various attitudes described here do not constitute rigid categories. Contemporary artistic research enjoys substantial programmatic and linguistic liberty that allows it to move away from the use of unitary styles or forms of expression. The experimental vocation, to which the works of the artists committed to ecological knowledge seek to remain faithful, entails constant research for new modes of expression and communication. This quest for the “new”, distinctive of the modernist and neo-avant-garde tradition, must necessarily be transformed into a search for “new possibilities”. To do this, we need a different mentality, an eco-logic, to borrow from Guattari, that focuses primarily on the modes of production of human subjectivity – i.e. knowledge, culture and sensitivity – and that works towards reconstructing relationships on all social levels, thus divesting “ecologists” of the image of a small minority of nature lovers or accredited specialists and relaunching ecology as one of the main political and ethical challenges of our era.


(l) The theories of Nordhaus and Shellenberger derive from the observation of the essential political failure of American environmentalist movements and their inability to promote appealing solutions to global problems. Cf. T. Nordhaus and M. Shellenberger, The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World, 2004 (; T. Nordhaus and M. Shellenberger, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2007.

(ll) Bateson uses the term “ecology of the mind” to define the complex system of relations that determines the processes of knowledge and links ideas. This is the same system that connects humans to living beings, and living beings to nature. For Bateson, ideas themselves are living beings that are subject to a peculiar natural selection, and to laws that regulate and limit their multiplication within certain areas of the mind. As such, ideas are born and die. The death of an idea stems from a lack of harmony with other ideas. This led to his proposal of an “ecology of the mind” as a science of the relationships between seemingly distant matters, such as – in Bateson’s words – “the bilateral symmetry of an animal, the patterned arrangement of leaves in a plant, the escalation of an armaments race, the processes of courtship, the nature of play, the grammar of a sentence, the mystery of biological evolution, and the contemporary crises in man’s relationship to his environment.” Cf. G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1972; G. Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Hampton Press: Cresskill, NJ, 1979.

(lll) F. Guattari, Les trois écologies. Paris: Editions Galilée, 1989
(eng. trans. London 2000).

(lV) The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), 1987. The Brundtland Report (named after the Committee’s chairwoman, Gro Harlem Brundtland) introduced the concept of “sustainable development” for the very first time. The definition establishes a general ethical principle that, in turn, contemplates two basic ecological principles: the preservation of resources and the environmental equilibrium of our planet.

(V) V. Margolin, “Reflections on Art and Sustainability”, in Beyond Green. Toward a Sustainable Art, catalogue for the exhibition curated by Stephanie Smith. Smart Museum Of Art, The University Of Chicago: Chicago, 2005.

(Vl) H. Kurt, “Aesthetics of Sustainability”, in Vera David, Herman Prigann and Heike Strelow, Aesthetics of Ecology: Art in Environmental Design, Theory and Practice. Birkhauser: Basel, Berlin, Boston, 2004.

(Vll) Kalle Lasn is one of the key figures behind the protest movement of the 1990s. In 1989 he created Adbusters, a magazine inspired by the Situationist reflection criticising the “society of the spectacle”; he is one of the founders of the Adbusters Media Foundation, an association that sets up campaigns to demand freedom of communication and fight manipulation and consumerism. His concept of “mental ecology” – not to be mistaken for Bateson’s “ecology of the mind” – identifies the action of cultural saboteurs against the imposition of what he calls the “meme” of culture by advertising agencies, big business and commercial media. K. Lasn, Culture Jam, New York: Quill, 2000.

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