10 May 2014

Eco-Art Dialogues

 Revegetated clay waste-lands, Cornwall, 2013
Some preparatory musings, questions and themes - prepared in advance of my a-n Re:View conversations with Glasgow-based environmental artists, Tim Collins and Reiko Goto. Our time together will include a visit to their current main field-based project at the Black Wood of Rannoch. Our continuing dialogues will be documented via an a-n Artists Talking blog.


 - Sharing experiences of juggling with the complexities of trans-disciplinary art/science practice. When dealing with information and data, how does one address the constant pressure of information overload? With complex projects involving a variety of participants, how does one maintain the integrity of the core creative threads, whilst respecting and acknowledging all inputs from others?

 - Social engagement and community involvement. There is a constant need to revisit the possibilities and avenues for such interactions, in order to introduce fresh ideas and to optimise the experiences and legacies for all concerned.

- The nature of ‘artistic research’ - especially the areas of art+ecology field-based research and collaboration (with scientists, landscape managers etc.)

Taking this last point first:
Both of our practices occupy a terrain loosely termed ‘environmental art’ or even ‘eco-art’ ...(though I also nurture other terms such as ‘geopoetics’, ‘deep-mapping’ and  ‘intimate science’, or even ‘eco-land-art’)

To frame our dialogues, and to explore this terrain from within the contexts of our respective practices, I offer up an assemblage of overlapping exploratory questions or statements - a mixed bag, full of contradictions, polarities, spectra. This is no manifesto - but simply aimed at getting the ball rolling. I’m highlighting the central theme as ‘Environmental/Eco-art practice’ (or E/E-art, for short). Likely as not, this will all morph into something else as our discussions progress?

Reiko Goto: Eden3-Plein Air

In no particular order:

? E/E-art and artistic research
For me this increasingly popular term, ‘artistic research’ combines the experiential and cerebral (including academic scholarship). The combination, or juxtaposition, of imagination and eco-knowledge/data is what I personally might also call ‘geo-poetics’ - especially coming from a background in the geo-sciences. In some respects ‘artistic research’ could be said to offer counter-narratives in cultural knowledge-making?

? E/E-art and ‘landscape ecology/ bioregionalism/ sense-of-place’
(perhaps straying into rewilding, de-civilisation etc ?)
This topic has a host of antecedents, maybe ranging from Thoreau and Leopold across to the influential activities of ‘Common Ground’ to McHarg’s ‘Design with Nature’ and including the concept of the ‘genius loci’ beloved of landscape architects (the landscape architecture strand of my background is to the fore here). The essence is maybe the idea - and ideal - of site-specificity, and I would also include the multifaceted processes of ‘deep mapping’ and ‘land-art’ within this topic.

? E/E-art and its conflicted or uneasy relationship to technology and the digital realm.
Here we can also address the topic of ‘art and science’. Arguably most scientific practice and manifestations of E/E-art rely on industrially-based science and technology. The tensions arises because the destructive force of this juggernaut is what E/E-art then seeks to counter or reverse. Therein lies the dilemma, or the Catch-22?

? E/E-art and ecological 'intimate science'.
Roger Malina (of Leonardo) has described this as “helping to make science intimate, sensual, intuitive”, especially wrt to the sculpturally-mediated ‘translation’ of environmental data. The collaboration between environmental science and art is often over-simplified. For me it is more of a co-mingled, braiding or weaving of knowledges, with ‘success’ being dependent on long-term learning and experimentation. It is not - despite common portrayal - necessarily about matching up a scientist with an artist in the hope, or expectation, of a meaningful combo output or reciprocal influencing. Increasingly, there are ‘hybrid’ individuals or creative ensembles that combine within their make-up a deep understanding of both ecological and creative realms.

? E/E-art and art-science dialogues/differences.
Whilst there is much common ground, there are, I believe, some differences between what is central to artistic and scientific processes - including (as characteristic of art practice), a deliberate de-focussing (and re-focussing), juxtaposition, counterpoint/resistance, use of metaphor/ analogy/ imagery, meditation and embrace of chance/serendipity.
In this, I am reminded also of Eno’s methodology of ‘oblique strategies’ (a set of cards, each of which is a suggestion of a course of action, or thinking, to assist in creative situations); and of Sebald’s description of he who “always positions himself slightly to one side, the same manner as ghosts...known for their habit of observing life from their marginal position in silent puzzlement and resignation” 
Being an outsider can often involve having a uncomfortable, lonely, poetic perspective. This was addressed by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh in his work ‘Inniskeen Road’
“I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.”

? E/E-art, psychogeography and walking.
For this I again quote Sebald: “But then as you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons why I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian, which is in a tiny little museum somewhere, which you would never find in London. And in that you find odd details which lead you somewhere else, and so it’s a form of unsystematic searching, which of course for an academic is far from orthodoxy, because we’re meant to do things systematically.” 
In this vein I commonly use terms such as ‘turning over stones’, ‘casting the fishing net’, and more frequently - fossicking. Such investigations meander, are deflected and metamorphose, yet one is never completely without a rudder.
I would extend this topic into the realms of dada-ism, trickster-ism, (even shamanism?), which again exposes a gulf between artistic and scientific research. The very deliberate introduction of chance, disruption, discomfort - and juxtaposition - to open the door to a new influence?

? E/E-art and politics/ environmental justice/ idealism/ responsibility.
The sense of ‘mission’ in an eco-social sphere. The subversion of the dominant paradigm, and being a thorn in the side of ‘the machine’? The anti-commodification of the ecosphere. Liberation, resistance, disruption - these are terms often used in this regard, and not just for E/E-art, but for the whole project of contemporary art. As Professor Grant Kester (University of California) recently put it:
“....incubated within the far recesses of the self, the artist creates physical manifestations, works of art, designed to variously provoke, revel, expose and transgress” (2011)
E/E-art is often about engendering or shaping change; being a catalyst or a bridging element. Other analogies are used too - a ‘lens’; an ‘intermediary’etc.

? E/E-art and participation/social-engagement.
As a core driver is influencing ‘hearts and minds', the social involvements in a project's development are crucial. However, depending on agenda-setting and project commissioning, this can often be an overly narrow and forced process? For meaningful growth (of ideas, knowledges, sensibilities), there needs to be a high degree of flexibility in the definitions of engagement and involvement. The blanket ‘community involvement’ beloved of much public art funding needs to be addressed - and questioned - on a case-by-case basis. It is near to meaningless if it’s solely a numbers game. Stepping away from metrics, there may be deep contact with a very small ‘community of interest’ or - in some cases an individual. Durational relationship-building is a characteristic of resonant E/E-art projects that leave a substantial legacy.

? E/E-art and aesthetics/ poetics/ metaphor.
Ian Thompson has described landscape design as the combination of ‘Ecology, Community, Delight’ (2000). Focussing on the last - ‘delight’; this brings to the fore an aesthetic sensibility that is also to be found within science, but - unlike art practice - isn’t at the core of its thinking or ethos. I would also add to this a sensuous relationship to materials, their appearance, textures etc. Further stretching the gap between art and science is the use of materials as signs and symbols for complex ideas and situations. I favour the term ‘eco-symbolic materials’, and have incorporated (non-precious) materials such as peat, stone, flowers in site-specific circumstances, to help make some imaginative and perhaps subconscious leaps (whilst referencing myth, ritual, indigenous knowledge). There is some connection here to Beuys, and more contemporaneously, Jane Bennett’s ‘vibrant materials’, and Levi Bryant’s idea of objects being always split between two domains - virtuality and actuality. (Bryant also writes  about the concept of “bright objects,” by which he means objects that exert a relatively strong gravitational pull around them.)
This flows into the topic of site and non-site (after Smithson). The vitality of site-located work vs. the gallery. The resultant conflicts and challenges and how to deal with them? (including delving into ‘data-augmented spaces’?)

? E/E-art and process-based practice.
This is the embrace of temporality and the intrinsic value of the investigation experience itself. Not limited to E/E-art, this de-materialisation, de-commodification is also a resistance to the market and object fetishization. A celebration of the (counter-)mapping over the map. The verb over the noun. This is not to say that a physical manifestation is avoided; but just that it is not presumed, not pre-determined. The documentation may suffice - in whatever form is appropriate. The making, insofar as it is present is there for prompting a shift (in attitude, understanding, energy etc).
The integration of past, present and future is always there, but the last - the future, looms larger; there is constant speculation on future possibilities, trajectories, transformations.

E/E-art, ‘ecosophy’, the ‘Three Ecologies’ and collaboration.
These are terms of Guattari’s, but more recently re-activated by Dr Iain Biggs (unpubl.):
“For Guattari ecosophy refers to three interwoven dynamic fields or environments. These include the environment in the usual sense and our place in it. But also the ecologies of society and of self – that’s to say the specific ecology of our species’ socio-political environment, and the dynamic constellations that we habitually call our ‘self’. Guattari focuses on the dynamics of interactions, flows, and blockages rather than on ideas of essence, harmony, or equilibrium - something I think is particularly important for collaboration....Arguably the first practical step towards a genuinely ecosophical collaboration is to openly acknowledge the all-pervasive influence of possessive individualism on our professional lives. The most problematic characteristics of our disciplinary culture – its manipulative fragmentation of knowledge, its exclusivity, and its emphasis on hyper-specialization - are re-enforced by institutional pressures to over-invest in our professional identities – in ‘my’ scientific discipline, ‘my’ particular and exclusive type of art practice. When this over-investment blends with either techno-scientism or a free-floating aestheticism, our disciplines unconsciously turn into unquestioned, self-justifying secular belief systems. ‘Disciplinary agnosticism’ challenges this through a willed and conscious suspension of belief in the unquestioned authority of both our own discipline and, more importantly, of the disciplinary system as a whole. This is why, at the level of practice, willingness to empathize and multi-task outside our own disciplinary skill sets is so important to good collaboration.”

In speaking here of the ‘ecology of the self’, I will raise the question of the influence of ‘personal history’ and psychology (including trauma, ephiphanies etc) in the triggers and motivations for the work. These of course are important influencing factors, but to what extent are they overt?

? E/E-art, intimacy and my first meetings with Collins & Goto.
After a brief introduction at a water+policy seminar, soon afterwards we were able to spend two days as part of a research team exploring relationships, participation and empathy with ‘non-human’ realms. In our particular case the focus was water. For me this raises questions about ‘human-centered’ ecological management approaches such as ‘ecosystem services’. In all of this who speaks for/as the non-human environment...or a part of the environment such as a river?
In this vein, we may discuss Collins&Goto's work and writings on empathy/sympathy in relationship to E/E-art?
At our most recent meeting - the finale of the ‘more-than-human’ project - I was struck by a certain resistance of the assembled group (of social scientists, geographers and philosophers...) to welcome in or allow considerations of older/indigenous knowledges, in the context of human eco-sphere relationships?

Other possible topics and references?
Derrick Jensen: Endgame;
Monbiot: Feral;
Abram: The Spell of The Sensuous;
Kingsnorth: Dark Mountain;
Nature Deficit Disorder

" There’s hope for the end of the Darkling Age when the path to the future was unseen from the road of the past and smug cynicism spun a hopeless uncertainty around every clouded short term vision free anodyne."
David McMullen, 2010