TO LIFE! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet

Linda Weintraub

Artist, curator, and author of TO LIFE! Eco Art In Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet
Lecturer at The New School, New York City

The urge to give visual form to personal sentiments, communal purport, economic conditions, spiritual beliefs, ethical values and institutionalized agendas originated approximately forty thousand years ago. Humans have been creating art ever since, continually inventing aesthetic devices that manifest cultural identity.

Contemporary eco artists are now expressing such artistic impulses with a mixture of exuberance and vengeance. Their contributions to this historic narrative chart the advancing course of art. Progenitors of today’s eco art movement and the more recent recruits are distinguished primarily by their shared commitment to environmental reform.

The elements that define today’s eco art first became palpable in the 1960s when European and American cultures split into two contrasting camps: “counterculture” and “culture.” “Counterculture” was a mélange of specialized oppositions to diverse concentrations of authority. White society was attacked by the civil rights movement, commercialism by a new spirituality, universities by student protestors, rationality by psychedelic drugs, patriarchal power by the women’s movement, and sexual restraint by the availability of birth control pills. Opposition to the stultifying conformity and spiritual vacuity of mainstream culture thus unified these diverse strands of radicalism. Underlying this litany of objections was concern for the environment. ‘Culture’s’ reliance on commerce and industry was viewed by members of the ‘counterculture’ as evidence of wanton abuse of nature’s systems and as exploitation of its resources.

Both ‘culture’ and ‘counterculture’ were undergoing precipitous changes during the 1960s. Which of the two can be described as a social ‘revolution’? ‘Culture’ sometimes claims this honor because of the introduction of the numerous innovations engendered by technology, investment and engineering. The rapid succession of new machines and gadgets that appeared on the marketplace included Valium, Astroturf, video cassettes, NutraSweet, soft contact lenses, bar codes, ATMs, robots, satellites, video games and artificial hearts. While each innovation was bigger, faster, lighter, tougher or more powerful than their predecessors, none shattered the existing armature of society, but instead merely bolstered existing social values.

The social movements that were introduced by 1960s counterculture were of a different order. They attempted to reverse the momentum of human dominance and convenience. Such innovations are in the process of reinvigoration by environmentalists across the globe. Zero population growth, voluntary simplicity, back-to-the-land movements, organic farming, vegans, birders, solar energy users, recyclers, alternative energy, sustainable land development, community-supported agriculture are all indicators of a new paradigm. These trends align human needs with ecological functions, establishing cooperative arrangements that comprise a new operating manual for humans. The profound shift in consciousness that they engender reverses the age-old course of human chauvinism and replaces it with willingness to share the resources of the planet with all other species.

Subjecting human interactions to ecological scrutiny requires a massive overhaul of existing norms of human behavior. Artists are particularly qualified to fulfill this function because they are self-selected for their ability to be creative, sensitive, communicative, persuasive, independent, etc. In all these ways, artists are primed to lead this revolution. As such, eco art resembles a crusade.

Eco Art Is

“Eco art is . . .” is an incomplete sentence that innumerable artists, art curators and art historians are currently attempting to answer. Yet the pursuit of a definition is not a chaotic scramble. Eco art shares many characteristics with the artworks that have earned enduring esteem throughout history: they are innovative, and the characteristics of artistic innovation correlated with the nature of changes occurring in society at that time.

How does eco art comply with these requirements?

Eco art perpetuates this pedigree because its media, processes and themes address environmental woes and humanity’s determined efforts to rectify them. Its innovations are correlated with the uncertain fate of life on planet Earth today.

Although some eco artworks promote sensory and emotive engagements, the clear functionality of much eco art introduces a particularly disputed form of innovation. Eco art tampers with the popular assumption that art can only engage the human spirit because it frequently seems indistinguishable from engineering, gardening, farming, etc. How can eco artists defend themselves against the accusation that pragmatic practices do not belong within the realm of ‘art’? They might note that past art has awakened devotion in times of spiritual unrest and it has aroused protest in times of suppression. In the current era, artistic innovation addresses the onslaught of environmental hazards regarding pollution, resource depletion, climate change, etc. Sometimes this involves utilitarian, problem-solving strategies.

In addition to defending its status as art, eco artists are often called upon to justify their adoption of the prefix ‘eco.’ They often satisfy this complaint by noting the shared goals of ecologists and artists; both actively strive to ensure the vitality of Earth’s ecosystems. Validating their adoption of this prefix ‘eco’ has introduced four new foundational attributes into the annals of Western art. One is thematic; it deals with the systems and cycles that account for life on Earth. Two are structural; they constitute the formal conditions of interconnection and dynamism. The fourth is ecocentrism; which reverses anthropocentrism, the privileging of human needs and wants. An inspiring profusion of artistic innovations are emerging from these intersections.

THEMES that apply to eco art comprise a vast spreadsheet of opportunities. Some are closely related to the rigorous methods of ecological science. Others originate in the subjective considerations of environmentalism. These concurrent sources enable artists to enrich any ecological topic by adding an overlay of intuition, opinion, emotion and interpretation. As a result, despite their common goal, there is little consensus among eco artists regarding strategies to protect existing resources or rectify environmental blight. For instance, some artists advocate relying on natural systems to reclaim environments previously contaminated by humans, while other artists promote technologically sophisticated strategies to prevent the contamination from occurring. An example of each of these approaches follows:
Artist Mel Chin’s remediation projects harness nature’s own healing powers. His Revival Field (1991–1993) is a landmark eco artwork in which Chin chose, as his sculptural medium, contaminated soil at the Pig’s Eye Landfill, a Superfund Site near St. Paul, Minnesota. Chin and his assistants received forty hours of hazardous materials incident response training before they began efforts to detoxify a sixty-square-foot section of this entirely un-picturesque 250-acre site that was marred by mounds of garbage, burning tires, and floating trash. Chin’s sculptural process involved purifying the soil using an innovative remediation process developed by the botanist Rufus Chaney. Instead of the conventional means of removing the toxic soil with front-end loaders, fossil fuels, and high-tech fixes, Chaney identified plants that were capable of withdrawing the heavy metals in the soil through their roots despite that fact that concentrations of heavy metals are fatal to almost all organisms.
Chin’s rigorous art project enlisted these botanicals as toxin cleanup crews. He explains how he merged art and science to accomplish a feat that professional bureaucracies had failed to accomplish: “If that (heavy metal pollution) could be carved away, and life could return to that soil, with a diverse and ecologically balanced life, then that is a wonderful sculpture.” [1] With each harvest, more toxic metals are removed from the soil. Eventually, these soils yield crops that are safe to eat.

For further information on Mel Chin’s work see:
http://melchin.org/oeuvre/revival-field

In contrast, artists like Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr place their trust in human ingenuity. Known as Culture & Art Project (TC&A), they established the first bio art research laboratory dedicated to artistic investigation of life sciences and biomedical technologies. Their art studio/science lab is situated in the School of Anatomy & Human Biology at the University of Western Australia in Perth.

The artists’ own description of this adventuresome frontier of art resembles a fervent manifesto: “Artists must immerse themselves in the dialectics of new knowledge and technologies. They must adopt not just a representational approach but what we refer to as ‘wet engagement’.” [2] Wet biology places artists in the midst of a fiercely contested area of scientific exploration known as tissue-culturing. It is distinguished from scientific experimentation that relies upon simulations and computer analysis.

Using this technology the artists produced Victimless Leather (2008), an artwork that consisted of living cells extracted from a mouse. They were kept alive in an incubator and fed a regimen of nutrients. As the cells multiplied, the artwork grew into a special kind of leather that was exempt from animal husbandry, slaughtering, and tanning. This leather grew directly from the mouse stem cells culture. The biodegradable polymer structure on which the mouse cells reproduced was shaped like a tiny coat, the perfect size for the donor mouse to wear. This ingenious environmental scheme avoids the environmentally damaging inputs and wastes associated with conventional leather production.

For further information on “Victimless Leather” see:
http://tcaproject.org/projects/victimless/leather

INTERCONNECTION is the inescapable law of links and relationships that govern all materials, processes, and events on Earth. Glossaries of ecological terms affirm the centrality of interconnections to this discipline. They reference system, network, synergy, co-evolution, community, commensalism, mutualism, symbiosis, competition, mimicry, feedback, succession, etc. The ecological axiom that no object is separate and no force is isolated has engendered many new disciplines that replace the separatist identities that formerly prevailed. A few examples include: behavioral ecology, urban ecology, social ecology, acoustic ecology, political ecology, industrial ecology, Christian ecology and media ecology. Oddly enough, the term most often used to refer to art that embraces the abiding truth of connectivity is eco art, not art ecology. Eco art manifests this principle by integrating the various influences of fluctuating humidity, temperature, sunlight, fungus, bacteria, mice, as well as humans themselves, into its material and conceptual components.

Terike Haapoja is a Finnish artist who replaces the unilateral aspects of conventional art with multilateral perspectives of eco art. Entities that are normally identified as separate from the ‘self’ are her primary focus, such as the multitude of microorganisms that inhabit our bodies. Haapoja creates opportunities to form affinities with these outcasts from common experience. She explains, “I am not as interested in the image as I am in these new relationships.” [3] Succession (2008) gently unhinges viewers’ self-orientations by connecting them to the vast populations of microorganisms upon which their life depends. In the process, she replaces traditional ego-centered privileges with new eco-centered respect.

For further information on Terike Haapoja’s work see:
http://www.terikehaapoja.net/succession/

Succession features trillions of invisible bacteria and parasites. They are shown in this single channel video projection reproducing and struggling to stay alive. This dramatic life/death scenario occurs with bacteria harvested from Haapoja’s own body when she rubbed her face with a small piece of canvas. She then recorded the invisible creatures until the last one died nine days later. The video, edited into a four-minute loop, provides irrefutable evidence that the ‘self’ consists of a multitude of microscopic species. It affirms that existence depends upon co-existence. Therefore, thinking of oneself as an autonomous individual becomes a misguided concept.

Haapoja comments, “This work can be considered a portrait because bacteria are part of us. …We are not individuals, but communities of species.” [4] Haapoja’s self-portrait, therefore, is presented in terms of the microbes that her body hosts. Some cause disease, but innumerable others are essential for her wellbeing. Both kinds derive nourishment from her cells and fluids and they depend upon her warmth.

Haapoja suggests that after mapping the human genome, the next great feat of science might entail mapping humanity’s micro-biome. She comments that less than 1% of species living in the human body are identified, which explains why she refers to the inhabitants of our body as a ‘wilderness.’ [5]

DYNAMISM acknowledges that anything occupying space also transforms through time. Eco works of art that incorporate this attribute submit to the perpetual permutations that account for life on Earth by melting, evaporating, growing, mutating and dying. While flux is inevitable, its tempo is variable, determined by the inherent responsiveness of a medium and the intensity of surrounding influences. Some artists choreograph this dynamic duet so that it proceeds according to plan. Others allow their works to yield to conditions they do not predict or wish to control.

Tomás Saraceno provides a vivid example of the latter. He may employ standard photographic components such as focus, aperture, shutter speed, metering and filters, but he departs from tradition by inviting non-human forces to dictate how his camera operates and what images it records. The resulting images provide evidence of the formative roles that environmental conditions can play in such human-centered activities as art making.

Girasol (Turning Sun) (2009) is the product of an inventive photographic process in which the sun fuels the camera and the wind determines exposure, framing, and shutter speed. As a result, representatives of three mighty forces that shape the Earth converge to create this artwork: chemical power is exemplified by the sun; mechanical power is embodied by the wind; and humanity’s intellectual power is represented by the ingenious use of chemistry and mechanics.

For further information on Tomás Saraceno’s work see:
http://www.lindaweintraub.com/artist-index/item/tomas-saraceno

An isolated flower serves as the hub where these grand forces convene. Saraceno chose the sunflower because it stands high in the garden. It not only resembles the almighty sun, it is genetically programmed to follow the sun as it sweeps across the sky each day. Botanists refer to this sun-tracking action as heliotropism.
By attaching a tiny still camera to the flower’s head, Saraceno recruits these wide-ranging forces to create time-lapse photographic images of the sun. He is as dependent upon the sunflower to direct the photographic process, as the sunflower is dependent upon the sun to dictate its movements. The camera does not record what the photographer is looking at. Instead, it registers what the flower ‘sees’ as its ‘face’ rotates in pursuit of the sun.

Furthermore, Saraceno enlists flowing air to press the shutter for him. A large wind turbine creates the electricity that powers the camera’s shutter. [6] When the day is windy, many pictures are taken. When the air is still, no pictures are taken. When there are gusts, the tempo is erratic. These pictures are delivered to a computer laptop installed in the gallery, which in turn is powered by the wind turbine. Because all these elements are visible to museum goers through a window in the gallery, they may easily discern that the footage on the computer is a product of the force and frequency of the wind blowing outside and does not reflect the subjective editing style of the artist.

In all these ways, the sun, the wind, and the flower are granted creative decision-making powers. Saraceno sacrifices his artistic control to achieve parity with non-human forces. His photographic process presents a model for a culture-wide reform of human behaviors. He explains, “I try to see an ecosystem working. Everything is codependent. You rely on everything. You are imbedded in cycles. In this work, you can rethink your relationship with human beings, animals, plants, and the planet. We must stay flexible.” [7]

ECOCENTRISM refers to the principle that habitats and systems are more important than their occupants, including humans. It is the opposite of ‘anthropocentrism,’ which interprets all reality from the vantage point of human values and experiences. Societies founded on anthropocentrism focus on human constructs, not natural systems. They cultivate the ‘humanities’ and honor ‘humanitarian’ efforts that privilege the welfare of humans over other living entities. The ‘ecocentric’ worldview aligns humans with broader environmental directives. James Lovelock, the renowned independent scientist and author, introduced this notion in 1979. Lovelock evoked the Gaia hypothesis, named after the Earth goddess of the ancient Greeks to represent interdependence and mutuality. One way that ecocentric artists have manifested this theory is via the creation of art that benefits non-human living entities and their habitats.

Jae Rhim Lee embodies the new eco centrism by reversing the association of humanity’s ‘impact’ on the environment with destruction, occupation, waste, and pollution. Instead she is undertaking improvement schemes that are so elemental, all people can adopt them. N=1=NPK=KIMCHI=N (2006) capitalizes upon the simple fact that everyone urinates. While urine is typically associated with waste, through her calculations it is recalibrated as a vital life-enhancer.

This work of art consists of an experiment that Lee conducts within a mobile living unit she installed in a gallery space. The unit consists of a urinal, urine processing system, Napa cabbage growing in a liquid nutrient solution, sprouted cabbage seedlings, a kitchen table and a foam bed cut in the shape of Lee’s body as she lies on her side.

For further information on Jae Rhim Lee‘s work see:
http://www.lindaweintraub.com/artist-index/item/jae-rhim-lee

She explains: “In April 2006 I sent my urine to a floriculture lab and learned that it contained all the nutrients required for plant growth, just not in the optimal concentrations. Using diet-planning software, I developed and followed a vegan diet that transformed my urine into a more ideal nutrient solution for plants … I ate lots of spinach, tofu, and nuts; collected and processed my urine; grew Napa cabbages hydroponically with the urine, made Kimchi from the Napa cabbages, and served the Kimchi to the public.” [8]

This action demonstrates the ability of humans to enhance healthful nutrient cycles instead of perpetuating a pattern of abuse. By perfecting her urine, Lee channels one of her body’s life processes so that it functions as a vitalizing substance that resembles the ‘elixir of life’ that ancient alchemists sought by converting dross. She explains, “I synthesize concepts of the self-body, narcissism, death, and ecology to arrive at a methodology for the long-term preservation of the self and the planet.” [9]

The burgeoning arena of contemporary eco art encompasses artists who contribute their attitudes, opinions and priorities to the verifiable information provided by ecologists. These eco artists convey their perspectives on the Earth’s systems by celebrating its splendor, healing its wounds, bolstering its resilience, managing its resources, mimicking its efficiencies, lamenting its infirmities, and by summoning the many alternatives evoked by the human imagination.

References

1. Revival Field, Art21.org. http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/chin/clip2.html (accessed november 4, 2013).
2. Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts, “Big Pigs, Small Wings: On Genohype and Artistic Autonomy,” Culture Machine, Vol 7 (2005), http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/rt/printerFriendly/30/37 (accessed November 4, 2013).
3. Terike Haapoja, Interview with the author, (July 13, 2010).
4. Ibid.
5. SELF-PORTRAIT, (December, 2011), http://www.terikehaapoja.net/exhibitions/selfpotraits.htm (accessed November 4, 2013).
6. It was located on the terrace of the Walker Art Center in Minnesota where the artwork premiered.
7. Tomás Saraceno, Interview with the author, November 15, 2010.
8. Jae Rhim Lee, Thesis, Department of Architecture, Master of Science in Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006, p. 1, http://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/37269/86109832.pdf?sequence=1 (accessed November 4, 2013).
9. Ibid.

Bio

Linda Weintraub is an artist, curator, educator, and the author of TO LIFE! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet (2012), the first eco-art textbook for college art and environmental studies students. She is also the author of the series Avant-Guardians: Texlets in Ecology and Art (2006 – ongoing) and founder of Artnow Publications. Other popular texts include In the Making: Creative Options for Contemporary Artists (2003) and Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary Society (1995). Weintraub served as Henry R. Luce Professor of Emerging Arts at Oberlin College from 2000-2003. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Rutgers University. She is currently developing a homestead where she practices permaculture strategies of food production and lives in a sustainable dwelling she designed and helped construct.