Art History, Theory and Practice for an Ecological Emergency

Andrew Patrizio (Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh)
Lucy Whelan (University of Cambridge)

How can we align art theory, history, and practice with an ontology that refuses to see human life as fundamentally set apart from nature? Art historians have recently started to respond to global environmental concerns with eco-critical approaches. Yet with the effects of abrupt climate breakdown already apparent, art history can afford neither to repeat the theoretical debates over the representation of nature explored in literary studies since the 1990s, nor to conceive the ecological as a transitory ‘turn’ or an additional category of analysis. Instead, a global existential crisis demands a wholescale rethinking of how art historians and practitioners write, curate, make, and teach. This interdisciplinary session builds on recent work across the environmental humanities, in moving towards an integrated ecological art history that is oriented towards the future, even as it examines the past. Key questions we will explore include:

  • How might the reality of environmental breakdown provoke us to rethink our traditional aesthetic categories?
  • How might artworks enable their beholder to imagine more-than-human ways of seeing?
  • How do different artistic media offer crucial sites for thinking in, and with, the environment?
  • While some museums have recently divested from fossil fuels, how can art institutions go further in resisting norms that are damaging the planet?


Ecological Listening: Calder Harben’s Bodies of Water  

Chanelle Lalonde (McGill University)

In this paper, I investigate listening as an artistic strategy that brings us to intimately engage with geographically distant environments and nonhuman bodies. I consider how distributed sensors and sound technologies can elucidate the often-unperceived relations between terrestrial and marine environments, and how practices of listening otherwise can enable us to imagine more-than-human ways of sensing. I uphold that attending to such relations and nonhuman ways of being is crucial if we are to remain attentive to how beings disparately experience the effects of climate change and environmental degradation.

More specifically, I examine Calder Harben’s Bodies of Water (2017), a low-frequency audio installation that engages with the violence of ocean noise pollution. This immersive installation asks us to tune into unfamiliar soundscapes, and to embody marine species whose lives are dramatically disrupted by the noise produced by ships and vessels used for extractive activities, shipping commercial goods, and recreational purposes. Drawing on Brandon LaBelle’s Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (2018) and Astrida Neimanis’ Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (2017), I argue that that Harben’s sound installation, by engaging viewers in acts of listening that explore the thresholds of human perceptibility, help forge intimacies among humans and nonhumans that transcend seemingly enclosed environments and different modes of experiencing/sensing the world. Finally, listening is elaborated as an ethical mode of engagement with marine worlds that makes apparent our entanglement with soundscapes we do not inhabit and bodies that are not our own.

Fish Against the System: Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison’s Portable Fish Farm (1971)

Francesca Curtis (University of York)

This paper proposes the importance of systems art for an ecological art history. Popularised by Jack Burnham’s “System Esthetics” in 1968, systems art can be revived for an ecological paradigm exposing the biological and social relations upholding contemporary existence. To deconstruct this notion, I will analyse Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison’s Survival Piece III: Portable Fish Farm (1971). At the Hayward Gallery, London, the artists installed an aquatic ecosystem and served the fish to gallery visitors as part of a feast. Alongside a posthumanist reading of the ecosystem centred on Cary Wolfe’s interpretation of autopoiesis, I will analyse the artwork’s relationship to consumption as both a corporeal act and related to the monocultural farming systems in neoliberal society. The speciesism surrounding the public reaction to the artwork provokes an inquiry into the ways in which all life, human and non-human, is commodifiable and exploitable by late-capitalism. By reading the fish both literally and metaphorically, Jason Moore’s contention that nature works for capitalism becomes integral to an investigation into labour – a subject frequently absent in ecological theory. As a form of systems art, Portable Fish Farm not only illustrates the intrinsic link between medium and species ontologies but crucially integrates the ecological with the socio-economic through a logic of decentralisation. Such integration exists within a model of artistic operational closure that provokes a speculative imagination, prophesising how ecology can provoke anti-capitalist protest. Manifesting systems failure, Portable Fish Farm encompasses a revolutionary potential as the system is not only opposed but reformulated.

The Work of Art in the Age of Ecological Exposability

Lucy Steeds (University of the Arts London)

One response to our catastrophic ecological predicament might involve rethinking our bases for contemporary art’s evaluation. What would it mean to resist canonising artists for the territorial extent of their museum and biennial exhibition history; to refuse the scaling-up logic of maximal international circulation? In response, I propose a focus on what we might call art’s ecological exposability, meaning its capacity to root and blossom symbiotically within a context, while foregrounding the stakes for more than just human lives.

To examine the parameters and possibilities of this shift of focus, I will analyse Projeto Terra (Earth Project or Project Earth, 1981 and ongoing) by Brazilian artist Juraci Dórea. Reading this work within the Bienal de São Paulo of 1987, I will argue that if the installation of art in the massive exhibition that year had the ambition to transform the vast swirling modernist venue into ‘a space analogous to postmodernity’ (curatorial statement by Sheila Leirner), then Projeto Terra acted as a disruptive weed, pointing away from this self-contained cultural framework, towards an ecological space still profoundly marked by the global migrations of colonial modernity and by diverse ensuing sacrifices and survivalisms. This will be discussed as the exhibition-value of Projeto Terra in São Paulo in 1987 – that is, after Walter Benjamin, as its political functionality, as opposed to its auratic cult-value. This returns me to art’s ecological exposability, as a reworking of Benjamin’s concept of technological ‘exhibitability’ (Ausstellbarkeit).

Realism in Fragments: Wang Youshen’s and Birdhead’s Urban Ecological Mosaics

William Schaefer (Durham University)

Wang Youshen’s Mei pingmi (Per square meter) (2014) and Birdhead's Xin cun (New village) (2007) reconfigure urban ecosystems: Wang's artwork is made of grids of square photographs of collaged fragments of building materials, and landscape photographs overlaid with grids; while Birdhead composes photographs of details and structures of Shanghai ecosystems into collages and installations organized in formalist grids.

Neither Wang nor Birdhead consider themselves ecological artists. Yet these works focus on what ecologist Richard Forman calls land mosaics: ecological forms of patches, corridors, and matrices created by and determining interactions and flows of humans, other organisms, and physical environments. Forman conceptualizes landscape ecologies in terms of art media, drawing upon concepts of point, line, and plane which Bauhaus artists Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee had derived through study of natural forms, and likening the size and boundaries of ecological forms to analogue photography’s framing and focus, grain size and resolution.

Tracking circuits between land mosaics in Beijing and Shanghai and Wang Youshen’s and Birdhead’s processes of photographing and collaging into grids, I claim that their artworks explore relationships between art-making and urban ecosystems in which architectural and artistic forms emerge from and disintegrate into natural and human-driven processes of destruction and growth, disturbance and circulation. Photography, this talk proposes, is an ecological rather than realist medium: the materiality and forms of photographs are emergent from larger ecosystems of matter, forms, organisms, spaces, and light, making the medium itself a crucial site staging relations between culture and nature in the Anthropocene.

Material Communities: Living ‘with’ the landscapes of the Anglo-Scottish Borderland

Ysanne Holt (University of Northumbria)

At a time of much social, cultural and environmental uncertainty in the, mainly rural, border area of northern England and southern Scotland, a deeper understanding of the historic, present-day and anticipated future conditions that pertain here is crucial. This paper considers the potential role and contribution of art history in this regard.  How might the art historian contribute to a necessary reassessment of an arguably peripheral region where longstanding cross-border interactions have resulted in common resources and practices as well as shared identities and heritage, often overshadowed by national political differences? The contention here is that what can be termed ‘borderland’ communities have been formed through dynamic human and non-human interactions with their material resources, e.g. water, stone, wood, soil, and the production of commodities, e.g. timber, wool, food. A study of this kind, which advocates a process of ‘cross-bordering’, both conceptually and geographically, might offer productive and necessary new ways of understanding, experiencing and communicating landscape. Landscape is to be understood here as continuously ‘in process’ and formed from the over-layered and interdependent relations between nature and culture, the human and non-human. Through reference to particular past and more recent forms of artistic practice interacting with those material resources, the paper attends to the complex and intricate interconnections that exist across this mutually constituted borderland. In so doing it underlines a necessary ecological and environmental consciousness and points to the possibilities for a ‘border-crossing’ future of co-operation and collaboration of potential benefit to individuals and communities – one vital to the sustainability of this region.

Landscape Representation and Sublime in the Age of Anthropocene

Olga Smith (University of Warwick)

This paper proceeds from a conviction that, as a discipline concerned with the study of human visual culture, art history offers invaluable critical frameworks of visualising and confronting ecological emergency. I propose that art historical approaches to the study of landscape representation prove especially relevant in this regard. The aesthetic category of Sublime, based on a response to phenomena that exceed human comprehension (Edmund Burke, 1757), is invaluable in providing means of comprehending the immense scale of climatic, geological and technological entities comprising the Anthropocene. Through its connection with the psychological state of fear, furthermore, Sublime provides the basis for revising the relation between the human and nature as based on ‘Promethean fear’: a fear of taking too lightly our relations with nature (Raymond Williams, 1992). By placing these ideas in dialogue with contemporary artistic practices concerned with fictional visualisations of post-human landscapes by artists such as IC-98 and Jakob Kudsk Steensen, I propose to connect art historical discourses of the past with present attempts to anticipate and shape the future.