Posts Tagged ‘environmental art’

In one of my former lives, I used to be an artist . . . My friends from CADRE New Media Lab asked me to contribute to {Greenify}, Switch magazine’s latest issue devoted to the intersections of green, new media art, and technology. I felt compelled to write about, “Moral Obligations of the Artist in a Global Warming World“. Here is the whole article:

Several months ago, I wrote ‘Who is Boss?‘, an emotional blog post about Richard Serra‘s work:

Today’s 3 Quarks Daily article about the sculptor Richard Serra, made me think about my not so long ago days as an artist. During my stint at San Jose State University, I spent many days at the foundry, casting bronze sculptures. One only needs to witness a metal pour once to realize how energy intensive the whole process is. One of the reasons I quit the art world, was my increasing unease with the idea of making the planet worse as a result of my artistic activities. I look at Serra‘s monumental steel structures, and instead of wonder, I feel outrage, and sadness. All I can see is one’s man inflated ego displayed on a monumental scale, a metaphor for how many amongst us, aim to show nature, who is boss.

Historically, object-making has been an integral part of the art practice. It still is, for many artists, and raises ethical questions from an environmental perspective. Which materials to use? Should art-producing activities be carbon-neutral? Why should the artist care if the majority of his fellow citizens don’t? How far is the artist to go in his or her environmentalism?

One extreme position challenges the legitimacy of the artist in a world where global needs are being re-evaluated. Last year, a prominent gallery owner pursued me to become the director of his gallery. Here is the argument I made to him, when I declined his very lucrative offer. Given the state of the world, I told him, I wanted to devote my time to activities that were going to make a difference. Business, technology, and policy are what’s going to save us. His point was, art is essential to democracy, and a society without art no longer has a soul. He is right, of course. And wrong also. Global warming has thrown us back down a few steps along Maslow’s hierarchy. Collectively, we are no longer at the apex of the pyramid, where the actualization of our needs for aesthetics and creativity becomes an end in itself. Instead we are to deal with more primitive needs, way at the bottom. The satisfaction of our needs for food, water, air, and safety, is being threatened once more, on a global scale. The very real anxiety I feel, as a result, has caused me to re-evaluate my actions, and to ask the question of, how can I contribute to the solution.

The artist as environmental activist has much to think about these days. It is not just a matter of minimizing one’s footprint, but also of how to best use one’s creative talents to serve the environmental cause. Does the artist have a role in a world in crisis, and if so, what is it? I am reminded of Neil Young‘s recent statement at the Berlin Film Festival, “I know that the time when music could change the world is past, I really doubt that a single song can make a difference. It is a reality.”

A year spent blogging about environmental issues, and engaging in cyber conversations with influencers from a wide range of disciplines, not just artists, has left me convinced of the special role to be played by three types of artists:

  • First, is the digital media artist, who can use his or her creativity and knowledge of digital technologies, to advance the climate fight. A big obstacle to the resolution of the climate crisis, has been the relative apathy of the crowds and the unwillingness of the majority to make behavioral changes or to endorse policies that require personal sacrifices. Internet social media tools such as YouTube, blogs, and wikis offer unprecedented opportunities for artists to get their messages out to millions of people. Sometimes the boundaries between business and art can be blurry, as evidenced by Do The Green Thing, a British Internet venture that combines performance, digital media, and advertising techniques to provoke its audience into making gradual life changes. Sounds a lot like art to me, although it never makes any such claim. 
  • Second is the performance artist, whose interventions can disrupt the status quo, and cause others to pause and reflect, leading then to become more aware. One such example is the practice of shopdropping, originated by Ryan Watkins-Hughes. ‘Shopdrop: To covertly place merchandise on display in a store. A form of ‘culture jamming’ s. reverse shoplift, droplift.’ There is also ‘Improv Everywhere‘, an art initiative from Charlie Todd, that aims to cause ‘scenes of chaos and joy in public places‘. All these performances benefit from viral spreading on YouTube. During the ten days since it was first downloaded, ‘The Day London Froze‘ video was viewed 559,000 times, favorited 3,715 times, and commented on 2,588 times. 
  • Third is the public artist, whose works can interrupt the public landscape and alter people daily’s sensory experiences. Research indicates over and over, that awareness of global warming is no longer the primary issue. What is needed instead, is a context to trigger behavioral changes. The Velib’ initiative in Paris and other European cities for instance, has changed the urban landscape, and gotten citizens interested in biking as an alternative mode of transportation. To that end, the public artist can collaborate with other environmental actors, urban planners, architects, designers, city engineers, transportation authorities, sustainability teams, utility companies, and others, to create compelling experiences for citizens. Rather than creating his or her own project, a la Christo for instance, a more effective approach may be for the artist to latch on to already planned projects, and to propose artistic enhancements. 

In all three cases, the artist serves as messenger extraordinaire, in service of the planet. 

For the artist wondering still, about his or her role in a global warming word, I would like to suggest the following code of ethics: To the best of my artistic abilities, I will question, provoke, engage, communicate, conserve in ways that cause my fellow citizens to take steps towards a more sustainable lifestyle.


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Who said environmental activism has to be serious? I just got this mail from Ryan Watkins-Hughes:

I just stumbled across your idea for Greendropping. Very clever. Below is information about an upcoming shopdropping project I’m doing. Please feel free to pass along to people you think would be interested. Thanks.


SHOPDROPPING.NET is now calling on artists, designers, media makers, and creative folks to purchase greeting cards and alter them in any way they see fit. Any form of commercial card, from wedding to graduation to birthday to bereavement, is eligible. But clever and witty will be given preference over easy and distasteful.

Please submit JPEG reproductions of the altered greeting cards to submissions@shopdropping.net with GREETINGS as the subject line.

All files must be sized to 1024 x 768 at 72 dpi. Each altered card must include the text “www.shopdropping.net” somewhere in the new design. It can be discreet, on the back of the card, and unobtrusive but it must be present.When submitting the cover and inside of the same card please indicate this clearly in the file titles (for example “cover.jpg”, “page2.jpg”).

The deadline for submissions is April 1st 2008.

Once all of the digital reproductions have been submitted, selected artists will be given the address of a fellow participant to swap cards with. The cards will then be shopdropped back into circulation and the digital reproductions will be featured on SHOPDROPPING.NET. Please do not submit digital files if you do not intend to follow through with the act of shopdropping a fellow participant’s work. The digital reproductions are a means to select and document the artworks, but do not replace the act of shopdropping the originals into unsuspecting stores.

I am on my way to the stationary store . . . Will you join me? Of course my card is going to have some green subversive message embedded into it. I urge you to do the same.

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