Art Professionals

Demo Eco MO

(Demonstrations of Ecological Modes of Operation for Art)

by Linda Weintraub

as published in the Fall 2009 issue of the CSPA Quarterly

My goal as a curator was the earnest pursuit of environmental responsibility. I invited ten artists to boldly break the conventions of art display and production that arose during the first flush of industrial productivity.  We pledged to scrutinize the innumerable aspects of creating and exhibiting artworks that are still ignored by many art professionals.  We vowed not to take abundance for granted, nor tolerate waste, nor disregard the contaminating effects of our    efforts.  The artists fulfilled the mandate imbedded in the title of the exhibition: “Demo Eco M.O.” (Demonstrations of Ecological Modes of Operation).  The exhibition opened on July 18, 2008, at NURTUREart, a non-profit art gallery in Brooklyn.

Instead of protesting against the environmental ills that are still rampant in the art profession, we attempted to set examples of responsible behavior by conserving resources, minimizing waste and energy use, and avoiding harmful by-products.  This mission determined every component of the exhibition, including the opening night refreshments.  Guests ‘ate local’ by sipping filtered rainwater collected from the gallery roof and nibbling on sprouts grown on site.  

Such unconventional materials, tools, and processes became the norm for this exhibition.  Each artist assumed the role of art eco-crusader.  Their fervor for environmental reform entailed minimizing art’s footprint upon the          environment while maximizing art’s mark upon the culture.  Despite this challenging task, each managed to preserve humor, commitment to community, and generous offerings of good will.  Together their contributions could constitute a hand-book of eco-alternatives for artists, gallerists, art supply manufacturers, and other art professionals. 

Writing this essay relieves the one regret that lingers, regarding this project. The most ground-breaking innovations were not visible to the visitors.  They occurred behind-the-scenes during the weeks preceding the opening.  That is when the artists and I discussed ways to emulate the interdependencies, interconnectedness, and efficiencies that characterize vital ecosystems.  Our spirited exchanges resulted in the artists reformulating their art practices.  Instead of behaving as independent creators, they performed services for each other.  As a result, all the pieces in the       exhibition were linked, comprising a network of connections. Consider the following

  • Mediums were traded among the artists. One artist’s material excess fulfilled another artist’s needs.
  • Tools were fabricated and shared.  One artist’s ingenuity provided another artist’s means.
  • Exchanging these tools and mediums between the artists’ studios, and delivering artworks to the gallery were   conducted in the basket of a bicycle driven by one of the artists.
  • General maintenance regimes were designed into some participants’ contributions. 
  • Illumination of each artwork was provided by one artists’ light sculpture. 

Meanwhile, the network of interactions expanded to  include members of the gallery staff.  They participated in the material exchanges and scrupulously applied  sustainable criteria to the production of the exhibition catalogue,   invitation, and wall labels.  Even members of the board were enlisted to supply components of works of art.  As the weeks progressed, opportunities multiplied to be a recipient and, simultaneously, to serve as a contributor.  In all these ways the rigid borders that isolate artists in their studios and separate professional roles dissolved.  It was   replaced with a dynamic multi channeled arena of participation that avoided redundancies, reduced consumption, eliminated waste, and conserved energy..

The contributions of the individual artists demonstrate the environmental advantages of such cooperative behaviors: 

Carol Taylor-Kearney applied her creative and aesthetic ingenuity to fabricate art-making tools.  By lending them to other artists in the exhibition she helped reduce unnecessary expenditures of material and energy associated with manufacturing, packaging, and transporting art tools. 

Christina Massey gathered unsold and rejected works of art donated by the other artists and utilized them as her   medium.  She not only avoided purchasing new art materials, she helped other artists reduce the material and energy costs associated with storing and preserving art. 

John Day offered artists and gallery visitors alternatives to purchasing newly manufactured art mediums by focusing on the formal qualities of society’s discards.  The waste stream became a site of enticing aesthetic opportunities. 

Tamar Hirschl methodically inventoried neglected resources and documented the new contexts and uses for these items that she initiated in her artwork.  Visitors were invited to help themselves to these items, providing a record of their      intentions within the gallery, and then sending the artist reports about how the material was utilized.  In this manner she not only exemplified responsible engagement with material, she provided an opportunity for the visitors to join her. 

Joyce Yamada and Joanne Ungar’s sprawling installation anticipates the particular effect the collapse of eco-system functions will have upon art.  The consequence of ignoring their warning is not a pretty sight. Yamada and Ungar       assembled an array of decrepit artifacts from our misbegotten culture to convey the specific scarcities, infirmities, and  dilapidations that will befall artworks and artists if we don’t shed our complacency, stifle our indulgence, and temper our greed.  Viewers are jolted by an uncompromising accumulation of grisly details – giant rats gnawing hungrily on stained and torn plastic wrappings meant to protect rolled canvas, pigeons trapped in the toxic fluid leaking out of a sculpture, a protective shelter for art hastily constructed out of branches and shreds of plastic, tools crudely configured from smashed plastic bottles and metal debris, a food processing rack where a few pathetic vegetables are drying and some radishes are making a valiant attempt to complete their life cycles in plastic bottles. Joseph Cornell’s “Hotel Eden” a masterwork that addresses a longing for a lost paradise, appears aged and crackled in this work.  The artists offer a a dire warning when they state, “The dream of Eden is a dangerous fallacy. Nature is neither benign nor stable. We ignore its true functioning at our peril.”

Gunter Puller demonstrated the full cycle of disintegration and creation by dismantling multiple outdated Yellow Books and then exposing them to the sun and rain.  As the pages decomposed, they transformed into a growing medium for seeds that travelled in the urban air and settled there by chance.  

Lynn Richardson reduced the electricity used in galleries by creating a sculpture that consists of light fixtures and surveillance technology.  The light from her sculpture was designed to illuminate the other works in the exhibition, but only when they are being viewed.  Thus, electricity was drawn only when it was needed.

Scrapworm performed on-site narratives that revealed the recent and historic manipulation of Williamsburg ecosystems.  The performance aspect of her contribution avoided the ecological costs of material fabrication, display, transport, and storage of art, while it magnified the ecological history of the ecosystem within which Nurture Art is located. 

Anne Katrin Spiess provided a low carbon dioxide emissions alternative to motorized transportation of mediums, tools, and art works.  She performed these art pick-ups and deliveries on her bicycle wearing an official uniform to draw       attention to her performance.  Photographs and a video documented her contribution. 

Patricia Tinajero established a functional reintegration between the gallery and its ecosystem by collecting the rainwater that falls upon the gallery’s roof.  This free resource supplied gallery visitors with water to drink and it was directed to sprouts that were served as refreshments throughout the exhibition.  She thereby severed the gallery’s   dependence on municipalities to provide water for business and life-supporting activities.  Furthermore, she demonstrated that even     galleries are capable of sustainability by generating their own nourishment and beverages. 

The spirited conviviality that developed among the participating artists originated in pragmatic environmental concerns.   It culminated on the roof of Scrapworm’s Brooklyn studio on the night before the opening.  As the sun set over Manhattan, the artists and I gathered to revamp the wasteful conventions of art catalog production.  We engaged in a communal book-binding party by assembling a great heap of binding materials gathered from our respective waste streams and using them to playfully assemble the pages that had been printed as sustainabily as we could afford.  The covers were supplied by Patricia Tinajero who made the richely textured papers by using rainwater run-off from the Nurture Art gallery roof, and scraps from the gallery’s waste bins.  Between sips of wine and bites of pizza, we braided, sewed, theaded, and           embellished several hundred catalogs. Each was unique, a testimony to a reassuring truth – respecting environmental    constraints can liberate the imagination.

The most significant aspect of “Eco Demo M.O.” was to expand the application of environmental considerations far beyond artists’ choices of medium.  The  artists in this exhibition demonstrated that their footprint can also be reduced during exhibiting, transporting, storing, and maintaining art.  Artistic collaboration emerged as the core to achieving ecological ethics.  It enables artists to activate roles within systems of exchange by sharing resources and providing support services to each other. In these ways the artists contribute to contemporary culture in a manner that far exceeds the limits of their profession. They demonstrate principles of sustainability for all human behaviors. Such art asserts that artists’ responsibility to the environment begins with a thorough review of its own professional practices.  Hopefully, it exists without an ending.  Such art can ripple through society as a model of sustainable behavior.   

Submitted by Linda Weintraub, guest curator gallery@nurtureart.org www.nurtureart.org

Seminar/workshop | Nations in the age of global economic meltdown

Call for participation
Nations in the Age of Global Economic Meltdown
International Seminar/Workshop for Contemporary Art Professionals:
November 10 – 11 2009

Muzeum Sztuki
Lódz
Poland


Guest speakers: Marina Grzinic and Jens Haaning.

Muzeum Sztuki in Lódz, in collaboration with Public Preparation, an
international platform for knowledge-production and networking, is calling for applications to participate in a two-day seminar/workshop dedicated to the critical exploration of interconnections between nationalist ideology and the capitalist economic system.

Amongst other groups, the contemporary art community is witnessing growing tendencies toward nationalism, which in the most radical cases take the form of violent intolerance, racism and xenophobia. With the very recent appearance of the global financial crises, protectionist policies have emerged, re-gained in popularity and started to play a central role in the emergency plans for economies directed by national governments. Capitalism forms a fundamental part of modern economies and, having developed hand in hand with modern nation state apparatuses, recent changes in the global economy and the revival of nationalism force us to recognise, discuss and examine, the changes in relations between these two super-forces which drive the world. In focusing on the symbiotic link between nationalist ideology and the neoliberal capitalist order, we would like to invite art professionals, especially curators, theoreticians and artists, who have been dealing with this issue and related topics in their prior practice to participate, to share their knowledge, experience and ideas during “Nations in the Age of Global Economic Meltdown”.

The questions that might be addressed during the two-day seminar/workshop could be articulated as follows: How are national values and traditions used as an excuse for economic activities and corporate politics? How is capital used as a tool of power to fulfill nationalist-imperialist policies in particular regions? How might the return to protectionist politics influence nationalist movements in contemporary Europe during this crises of global capitalism? How do they deal with migration and transnational identity? Why do nation-states behave like companies and companies act like nation-states? What is behind states branding themselves and using marketing tools and companies becoming multinational empires with their own rules and regulations? How is art and culture  instrumentalised for the sake of strengthening national identity and promoting the nation?

The seminar/workshop consists of a seminar and a screening open to the public plus discussion on November 10, 2009 continuing with closed workshops on November 11, 2009. The workshops will be held by Marina Grzinic and Jens Haaning.

We greatly regret that Muzeum Sztuki and the Public Preparation teams cannot provide accommodation and travel grants, but  we are able to provide supporting letters for funding organisations and assist with individual fund-raising.  And of course we are happy to advise on budgeting options such as good value accommodation.

The seminar language will be English.

If you are interested in taking part in the workshop/seminar, please email:opencall@publicpreparation.org

The deadline for the application is 1 October 2009.

For further information, please, contact the Public Preparation team viarael@publicpreparation.org

About the Public Preparation platform:
“Nations in the Age of Global Economic Meltdown” will take place within the framework of Public Preparation events. Public Preparation is an international platform for knowledge- production and networking. First and foremost it is a space for international collaboration focusing on the current practices of critical thinking and production in the field of contemporary art. The main agenda of Public Preparation is to concentrate on questions linked to the concept of an artist as a citizen. Contemporary art is a crucial part of the public realm, exhibition spaces are places for open discussion and artists have the power and responsibility to be actively engaged in the process of examining, imagining and changing social reality. The current phase of Public Preparation activities deals critically with the growing tendencies of nationalism in contemporary Europe, aiming to envision alternative ways to think about the global community. More information about Public Preparation project can be found at www.publicpreparation.org

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The Unsustainable Art Market Bubble

The contemporary art bubble will surely go down as the vanity and folly of our age” was the concluding claim on Ben Lewis’ charming BBC4 documentary about the notoriously secretive artworld market. 

But before writing about last nights TV, I want to say that the inflated bubble refers to the private international contemporary art market, not the whole of contemporary art. It is a good thing that gallery attendance is at an all time high and more people are making and creating things in their spare time. But as Lewis said, ‘Billionaires are effectively hijacking art history’, or at least they were…

He explained that the art market has increased 800% in the last 5 years, it is largely unregulated, which allows collectors to monopolise certain artists’ work and price hiking is driven by a small number of dealers. So when the rest of the economy crashed ‘one bubble kept growing because billionaires turned it into a game that only they could play’. Last night’s TV show was a welcome addition to the small amount of material that introduces the private art market to the public. If you’re completely unfamiliar with the international artworld market, and would like to hear the sound of your jaw hitting the floor, it is worth reading anthropologist Sarah Thorton’s Seven Days in the Artworld or get a taste of the hard-edge glamour of the auction rooms in her recent posting on the Artforum’s scene and herd (the artworlds favorite gossip column).

Art professionals rarely talk about this publically, so it is left to anthropologists and occasionally critics to report on these dealings.  Although a mischievous artist made a promotional postcard for London’s 2006 Frieze Art Fair, that stated: ‘Art fairs are good places to meet retired arms dealers’.

So while government ministers expenses are eclipsing more rational discussions of democratic accountability, it is worth stating explicitly that media sensationalism is one of the reasons that arts professionals (a majority of whom don’t profit from this bubble) don’t point out the follies of the uber-rich in the art market –  because to flag up how bizarre the system is substantially distorts what people think art is for.*

The beliefs around the social value and economic value of the arts are messily intertwined. To put it simply(ish): focus on the artworld market portrays art as primarily existing to grant social status with unique art objects regarded as tangible assets. The counter position is that contemporary artists’ create provocative works that are of aesthetic and social value for whoever engages with them. However, to dismiss the arts because of distaste for one or other of those apparently contradictory understandings of art – social well-being verses objects as social status – throws the baby out with the bathwater.

Personally, my frustration with the art market, in its current form, is that it keeps the art system deliberately elite. The current system does not enable art to fulfill it’s potential role of being a fully engaging site that celebrates human creativity in the broadest terms. I am not making a purist anti-market point, I am making an anti-mega-elitism point. Like many others who work in this field, I am passionate about the arts and celebrating creativity (in all fields), which is why I think there needs to be more rational and open discussion of how art systems operate. 

Lewis’ programme concluded by reporting that the contemporary art bubble burst over the last few months and the artworld market is falling faster than any other, including loses of $60million by Sotheby’s. But as with the other major crisis and crashes at this time  – this dramatic shift also has the potential for transforming how the art system functions and opens up timely questions about what responsibilities artists and art professionals have in setting the arts agenda.

For a substanial account of the character of economic bubbles, check out the RSA event with Kevin Doogan , or read his article Not All that is Solid.

*Addressing Ben Lewis’ early criticisms of the art market in 2008, Jennifier Higgie, co-editor of Frieze magazine said: ‘Lewis seems to think that the art world is a single glitzy, corrupt entity inhabited solely by Damien Hirst, a few lucrative galleries and the auction houses. He doesn’t mention the hundreds of artists who work hard every day, often for many years, and barely manage to scrape a living. He doesn’t mention the myriad non-profit art spaces, run by sincere, informed people, whose only aim is to expand and explore art’s remit in contemporary society. He doesn’t mention the countless talented writers who work tirelessly, and often for little reward, simply because writing and thinking about art are integral to who they are… Lewis is simply perpetuating the kind of anti-intellectual resentment against art that is usually to be found in the tabloids.’ Discuss. 

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