Sustainability in Art: a mere Subject?
The fact that artists have made sustainability a subject of their work has become rather common. Numerous not only talk about it but criticise wasteful behaviour or offer alternatives. They put the topic at the heart of their creation. They raise awareness of the urgency of this matter. But are they also sustainable themselves? Do they ‘walk their talk’?
A current article of Julia Meyer-Brehm in her column DienstArt sheds light on the growing criticism of contemporary art by drawing an contradictory picture of the 2019’s Biennale in Venice. The Biennale’s Golden Lion was awarded to a performance that highlights climate change: Sun & Sea (Marina), a nominated opera-performance of the artists Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, Lina Lapelytė from the Lithuanian Pavilion.
The aim of this piece is to highlight the fragility of planet Earth represented by the fragility of the human body.
It shows a typical modern scene at the beach. Kids playing ball or building castles of sand while the adults are on their smartphones or read a book – AND they sing. If you are curious have a look at it; you will find a Youtube video at the bottom of this article.
What is so contradictory about it, you might wonder? In Sun & Sea (Marina), the performers sing about the extinction of species and the deterioration of biodiversity; a danger that is (also) boosted by excessive travel and consumption. While over 600.000 visitors, art experts and collectors – many jet-setted to Venice – attended the vast exhibition grounds, the streets of Venice were flooded. The water rose so high that the Biennale even had to stop operations temporarily.
The Art Industry’s Footprint
The ecological footprint of an event as the Biennale or a large scale exhibition is immense. Not only audience and artist mobility but even more the transportation of the artwork and the set-up and maintenance of the exhibition space, which requires a very specific air-conditioning system and extensive lighting, is significantly bringing CO2 emissions to a peak.
Presenting artwork that highly criticizes climate change in fully air-conditioned exhibition halls is like selling reusable cloths of beeswax in single-use, non-recyclable plastic packaging.Julia Meyer-Brehm
The contradiction is blatant. Many artists have begun to take measures to reduce their footprint such as choreographer Jérôme Bel, for example, who now refuses to travel by plane and thus holds rehearsals via Skype. Jérôme Bel has already enjoyed an international career and performed all over the world; he is an integrated part of the international performing arts scene. Does this make him be entitled to request new frameworks against the odds of ‘old’ standards? What about young artists that ‘need to be seen’ to claim their spot in the art world? The question is if refusing to fly and refraining from attending at major events is impeding the artistic career?
This is a valid and considerable objection that is discussed in the German theatre podcast of Deutschlandfunk Kultur: just banning traveling altogether, for example, cannot be ‘the only solution’ to fit it all. It is a complex issue that needs consideration of the context. Yet, it is certainly a good start … but a lot more needs to happen in order to reach the ‘disruptive action’ that is demanded to not exceed 1,5°C.
Calling for a Liaison
Artists cannot stand alone. For some, like Jérôme Bel, it does work somehow but the effect is rather occasional and isolated. Art institutions and decision-makers in national, not only cultural, policy frameworks need to join the ride and take on governance. Top-down needs to meet bottom-up. Without the frameworks, change can only be brought about to a certain extent. But we need fundamental, systemic change.
In Germany, a lot is being discussed and examined in the state-funded cultural sector but active implementation still lacks (or takes a long time to become effective). One reason could be the centralized administrative management body with a stagnant decisions-making processes and broad master plans – the ‘killer’ to innovation and the ‘evil uncle’ of agile business management approaches and time-efficient, tailor-made solutions. Art institutions cannot even measure their energy consumption themselves. They are pooled with the local police and fire brigade, at least in Berlin this is true.
You can’t manage what you don’t measure.Peter Drucker
Therefore, German art institutions want to take control of their protective activities. In November 2019, this had been clearly expressed in an open letter to the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Mrs. Monika Grütters by renowned nationwide museum directors. Many artists and scientists actively support the letter.
Their claim: a Green New Deal for museums!
They demand a dedicated task force that ought to consult, formulate specific goals and develop an implementation plan for a sustainable cultural sector. They demand to loosen the tight administrative structure to allow a more autonomous decision-taking. They want to find solutions that match their needs and ambitious climate goals. Certificates for sustainable practice of a museum (similar to the EMAS – Eco Management and Audit Scheme – certificate issued by the EU) were requested to control and monitor further activities. They are convinced that:
With its innovative strength, art can become a real resource in the fight against environmental degradation.from the open letter to Monika Grütters
Sun & Sea (Marina) belongs to many artworks that deal with climate change, criticise human behaviour and wish to raise awareness. The eco-art movement started years ago, parallel to when the first scientists specified the devastating consequences of our growth focused, industrial nation societies. Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Eichen (7000 oak trees) can be considered a starting point of the environmental movement in Germany in the 1980s. In the United States of America it can be even dated back to the 1970ies when ‘the Harrisons’ – Helen Mayer Newton Harrison – began their work as environmental and ecological artists. Together with Agnes Denes – a concept-based landart artist well-known for her project Wheatfield: A Confrontation carried out in Manhattan, New Work in the 80ies – they are amongst the leading pioneers of this eco-art movement. Since then, many artists of different artistic backgrounds have joined efforts and engage in art that works FOR our planet. In one of my last articles, On the Rise of Environmental Art, I have introduced you to Zaria Forman already. I am looking forward to introduce you to more inspiring artists in the coming weeks on my blog.
It does not require an artwork to do a first step into the right direction. What of your everyday culture such as behaviours that developed into habits can you change today that has an effect tomorrow? I would like to close by reminding you of one of my favourite quotes from Dr. Jane Goodall which calls out:
Remember that you matter and that your life makes a difference. You make a difference every single day and you have the choice what kind of difference that is!Dr. Jane Goodall