(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 email@example.com www.nurtureart.org