The second conference on Art, Nature and Environment organised by the RANE research cluster at University College Falmouth took place recently.
We can no longer ignore the mass of evidence from around the globe that points to a catastrophic future for humanity unless we change our ways pretty fast. I won’t go into detail. We have all heard the rumblings about massive extinction of species; vast areas of the earth rendered uninhabitable, pollution, famine… in short, a pretty tough time all round. This conference at Falmouth centred on the ecological crisis that threatens us today, and the artist’s role in facing the situation, and encouraging desperately needed changes in lifestyle and behaviour.
The keynote speaker, Dr.Hildegard Kurt, spoke about her current research project ‘ Concerning the Spiritual in Sustainability’. “Our western industrial lifestyle is killing the world, and what we think of as growth is, in fact a death process,” she said. “Without death there is no transformation, but not every death is transformative”.
She spoke of a lost balance – of ruthless and relentless chopping of trees; of monstrous agricultural practices that do not care whether sufficient time is being left for new humus to form. We need to let go of our current mindset… but also take in new ideas and possibilities.
What values are important if we are going to survive among other species? And how can we use artists? Linda Weintraub, author, artist and curator, and a prominent figure in the field of art and ecology, reminded us that artists have always challenged norms – it is a measure of their greatness. And today, they are ideally placed to play the role of ‘free radical’ and thus facilitate change…
Humans CAN revitalise the land. Linda Weintraub spoke engagingly of a piece of land she bought some years ago, mainly for the beautiful view, and finding it, in fact, derelict – she set about bringing it to life again, regenerating the ecosystem, until today it is abundant with life, and pretty well supporting her entire family of several generations.
Here is a selection of the speakers, who together, reflected the immense range of approaches and practices within the field of art and ecology.
Alan Boldon, Director of Arts & Ecology at Dartington college of Arts, reminded us that when artists are working well, they become indistinguishable from their environment. Artist, material and surroundings become one. He encouraged collaboration, and a deep listening and close attention to place.
Brandon Ballengée, an artist whose practice explores the boundaries between art, science and technology, spoke of his work with amphibians, illustrated with exquisite prints from his researches. He showed how amphibians are disappearing around the world, and in those that are born, deformities are increasing at what seems like a phenomenal rate.
Dave Pritchard, an influential arts and environment specialist, talked of his recently published National Review for the Forestry Commission, in relation to their policies on arts involvement – advocating a more cohesive and interdisciplinary approach to their environmental policy and action, and that artist should be an assumed component of this.
Vicky Long (manager) and Max Eastley (sound artist) gave us an insight into the Cape Farewell Project that has led five expeditions of artists, scientists and educators into the High Arctic. We heard the haunting sounds of wild creatures emerging out of Arctic silence. We were reminded of the necessity to look and listen, and to re-imagine our relationship with nature.
Andrej Zdravic, film maker and sound artist, talked of beauty and sustained attention to detail. We cannot preach ecology through words alone, he said. His films have no narrative: nature itself is the story. Zdravic’s work is about the state of nature and the mind, and we were swept away with the overwhelming power of nature in a screening of ‘Riverglass’. The film took four years in the making.
Many important philosophical and practical questions were raised by other speakers: How do we inhabit our senses? How big is ‘here’? Who is art for? Interdependency, and what is the most important thing the artist can do now to heal the whole? I, for one, was left with a massive amount of new material to think about and digest, which will strongly influence my output from now on.
There seemed to be two main threads running through the conference: questions concerning introspection as opposed to activism… and questions about what exactly it means to be an artist in these ecologically critical times.
A number of speakers stressed the need to slow down, for deep listening and reflection. Against this, artist and activist John Jordan (co-founder of Reclaim the Streets) urged radical activism: “The question of art is no longer one of aesthetics, but of the survival of the planet”. I felt less than comfortable with remarks such as this, for several reasons – but I certainly did see what he was getting at.
A quote by Alan Boldon, from James Hilton, the renowned psychologist, stuck in my mind: “Beauty astounds and pulls the heart’s focus towards the object, out of ourselves, out of this human-centred insanity, towards wanting to keep the cosmos there for another spring and another morning. This is the ecological emotion, and it is aesthetic and political at once.” That made sense to me.
Words, more words, definitions and quotes – about art, science, technology, contemplation, activism – they are all interesting and useful. They help us figure out what we are dealing with, and map out the terrain – but the map is not the territory. We are all working in the field in our own way, and it seems to me there are two absolute essentials: close and sustained attention, and the ability to respond fluidly, moment by moment, to whatever the situation demands. Artists and creative practitioners of all descriptions are particularly well-skilled in this, and have a crucial role to play. Who else would have launched the famous and influential ‘Reclaim the Streets’ campaign? And who else, as one of the speakers, Alan Sonfist did, as a very young man 40 odd years ago, would have approached the Mayor of New York, and persuaded him to make a forest in the middle of the city. (‘Time Landscape’, eventually realised in 1978.)
“The truth lies within yourself, and can only come through you. Position yourself where you feel comfortable in order to bring forth your truth.” Alan Sonfist.