The rising tide of art and ecology

Artist Bram Arnold writes for newstatesman.com on the growing links between art and ecology

Something has been stirring in the wilderness for some time now, lurking on the peripheries of our collective vision. It has been growing and evolving in strength and form. Occasionally it leaps to the fore; Simon Starling wins the Turner Prize or a wooden elephant strolls through the streets of London. And these apparently disparate events can be drawn together under the banner of Arts and Ecology.

The scientific revolution was a great pinnacle of man’s achievements but its ultimate outcome is, for society, the segregation of thought and feeling. A schism between scientific rigour and artistic tenderness. There is now a growing concern in certain artistic circles to reconnect, to heal the divide that separates science from philosophy and art, and - through diverse media - to reinterpret our existence on this planet and invigorate it once more.

In this time of critical and irreversible change science seems to be inclining its head welcomingly towards the arts, if with a slightly bemused look on its face. In the wake of the year that finally put climate change on everyone’s lips, seems pertinent to throw Art & Ecology together in the mainstream.

The RSA recently held a conference on Arts & Ecology entitled ‘No way back’ and similarly themed conferences have cropped up in Canada, China and Dartington in Devon where the annual Desire Lines symposium is in its second year.

The roots of the Art & Ecology concept can be traced to a couple of art movements from the 60’s and 70’s - Conceptual Art and Land Art, along with a nod and a wink to the Fluxus and Situationist International groups.

The ‘Ecology’ spoken of is an extension of its conventional definition to deal with the various human dilemmas facing modern civilisation. From the actions of multinational corporations to the decline of traditional practices and from global warming to inter-cultural relations, these situations have changed the nature of the artist’s role, from the lone ranger of old, busying himself in a disused warehouse studio, to an interactive media savvy collaborative figure who roams between situations and organisations facilitating occurrences that would otherwise never have been considered as possible.

This presents society with the ready made weapon of ‘that’s not art’, the process of art’s evolution having sped up along with the rest of society we have very rapidly leapt from pictures on walls to prize winning artists who very rarely produce anything that could be called an object let alone an art work in the Constable, Turner, Holbein sense of the word. The artist has instead become the facilitator of projects. Gone are the days of presenting the world with future or past utopias, today it models, in real time, ways of being in the present world.

The artist is becoming an important figure for his ability to perceive paths where before there were only the segregating walls of a society bogged down by its own specialisms. Such perception is an important skill for the conditions in which we now live where collaborative interdisciplinary work may well hold answers unattainable to segregated disciplines.

One of the artists to speak at the ‘No way back’ conference in London was Brazilian born artist Maria Thereza Alves who is currently based in Germany.

At present she is working on a project called ‘Wake’, a project that began in Germany and is spreading now throughout Britain but one that has links to the majority of the globe and more than a fair chunk of human history.

In collaboration with German botanists Alves extracted all the seeds from a square metre of soil in the grounds of a plot in central Berlin that was currently being redeveloped. The seeds were then exposed to the necessary conditions for germination to take place and the results led to the exploration of the various histories of the location, its cultures and place in society.

Seeds have the capacity to lay dormant for hundreds of years and plants native to places as disparate as Argentina and China sprang up out of this ground below central Berlin. The continuation of this project in Britain takes the form of an exploration of old ballast dumping sites around the ports of the UK. Trade ships transporting goods would collect ballast from their destinations abroad only to dump it in Britain for it to be used in land reclamation, bringing with it all manner of plants that have lain dormant for hundreds of years. This simple gesture leads to an opening up of forgotten histories and a very different approach to the idea of native ecologies, as well as requiring the advice and assistance of various branches of society thereby encapsulating one of the many approaches within arts and ecology.

Simon Starling was a little known artist in this country before winning the 2005 Turner Prize and has a different approach. Throughout his work he has been interested in looking again at hither-too unconnected objects and the possibilities that conjoining these may bring.

Combining a bicycle and a chainsaw in 2003’s ‘Carbon’ created a moped. When parked you can remove its engine – the chainsaw – to cut timber. Then, strapped to the moped, the wood can be can be taken home to be used as fuel. It’s an example of how Starling looks at the multiple possibilities of individual objects.

Finding a disused shed on the banks of the Rhine he reassembled it into a boat and used the boat to float him and the rest of the shed down river to a gallery in Basle, Switzerland where the shed was reassembled in the gallery.

Both of these artists can be linked by a fascination with the reinterpretation of place and situation utilising perspectives that are not viewed through the eyes of conventional society.

So what of the wooden elephant that walked around London last May?

A performance by French street-theatre company Royal de Luxe, it brought a feeling of community and sense of wonder.

The performance broke down the barriers inherent in the ecology of communities like nothing else could, one did not require a ticket, an invitation, or a wealth of ‘high art’ understanding. One simply had to be there.

Art & Ecology is currently still a mystery wrapped in an enigma, requiring as it does the reconstruction of many of society’s current conventions, but the subject can only flourish from here. The litany of artists with an interest in science and scientists with an interest in arts is growing exponentially and this is reflected in the number of courses cropping up across the UK from Carlisle to Dartington and Manchester, and across the world. With its roots firmly embedded in long accepted artistic movements and its branches reaching out to many of societies’ common problems, at both a macro and micro level, it can but only become an important pedestal. Whether we all sit on it one day is up to us.

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.