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 New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times