Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Creative and Green: Art, Ecology, and Community

by Sarah E. Graddy


This is part of the Toolbox for Communities

This thesis takes a takes a thorough look at several innovative projects in the United States which combine art and ecology in a community context. Creative thinkers, working with organizations or on their own, have created unique programs and artworks that show the potential art has to creatively transform problems into opportunities.

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1: Art in Waste Management and Recycling Education
Chapter 2: Art in Land and Water Remediation


This thesis explores the role of art in encouraging ecological awareness and activism in members of the public. Art is examined as a problem-solving process that can facilitate a positive shift in the relationship Americans have with ecology; six different case studies (organizations, programs, and long-term projects) are used to illuminate ways in which this change can take place.

Chapter 1: Art in Waste Management and Recycling Education, analyzes SF Recycling & Disposal's Artist-in-Residence Program in San Francisco; the Twenty-Seventh Avenue Solid Waste Management Facility and Recycling Center in Phoenix; and Art From Scrap, a materials reuse center in Santa Barbara.
Chapter 2: Art in Land and Water Remediation, analyzes AMD&ART, a nonprofit organization in Vintondale, Pennsylvania; three artworks by Patricia Johanson; and Beneath Land and Water, a public art project in Elkhorn City, Kentucky.


In the catalogue Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies that accompanied an exhibit by the same name at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center in 2002, Sue Spaid writes that "the term ecovention (ecology + invention) describes an artist-initiated project that employs an inventive strategy to physically transform a local ecology" (1). But simply transforming a local ecology is not enough -- we must work to transform our relationship to ecology. We are accustomed to thinking of (and idealizing or demonizing) nature as separate from us, but we are a part of it. In the United States, and in many other industrialized countries, we live in a society where most of us do not grow our own food, we don't make most of what we wear or use as furniture, and we drop our trash into bins without thinking about where it goes.

Ecology is the science of systems-how natural systems work, how living organisms interact with their environment, how organisms interact in relationship to other organisms. Every organism on the planet is a part of an ecological system, and humans are no exception. We just don't pay attention to how we fit into the larger scheme of things. Sometimes we notice -- perhaps when a ship full of trash is turned away from a port because the people who live there no longer want to accept the burden of other communities' refuse, or in other extreme situations. But mostly, we are content to live without thinking about the real impact of our daily actions. Most of us understand that we are in danger of using up all of our natural resources -- forests, clean air, freshwater, fossil fuels -- but find it difficult to know what to do about it.

In this era of widespread budget shortages, environmental policy regressions, ever-expanding bureaucracy, and special interest influence, it is unlikely that the U.S. government will soon begin to aggressively encourage, promote, or sponsor ecologically forward strategies for new development, building renovations, public space, and waste disposal. Our government is already a disappointment in conservation -- cars are not required to be fuel-efficient due to automobile manufacturers' lobbies; the United States remains the only industrialized nation (besides Australia) to refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which will limit worldwide greenhouse gas emissions; and U.S. national forests are quickly being sold off to paper companies. The planet's climate is changing rapidly and disastrously, and numerous animal and plant species disappear every day.

"It has fallen to local people to protect local places," Lucy Lippard writes (The Lure of the Local 170). Ultimately, the burden of addressing enormous ecological problems has been ceded to our local communities. While local efforts can be limited -- it takes billions of dollars to restructure a car-centric city around public transportation, for example -- they can make inroads to changing citizens' perceptions about the use of space and resources in their communities. As their perceptions change, these residents will begin to incorporate more sustainable practices into their daily lives. We need creative solutions to these problems that implicate us all, solutions that change the way we see the world so that we can understand the impact we have on it.

Art-making has always been a community endeavor -- and it still is, in many societies. Ellen Dissayanake, exploring the "ethology" (the evolution and development of behavior) of art-making, gives context for her work:

The majority of preindustrial societies do not generally have an independent concept of (or word for) art -- even though people in these societies do engage in making and enjoying one or more of the arts and have words that refer to carving, decorating, being playful, singing, imitating. (What is Art For? 35)

That is because what we call "art" is a part of most, if not all, aspects of people's lives all over the world; it is not considered a separate behavior or occupation, whereas, as Amy Lipton and Patricia Watts write, "Western culture has inherited a belief system which places art and the artist in a position of uniqueness, separate from the rest of society" (90). Intricate ceremonies, songs, and decorated objects are closely associated with homemaking, eating, hunting, harvesting, birthing, and marriage. Dissayanake avers that art-making, a uniquely human behavior, comes from the need to "make special," where the everyday is made important, or "what may be called such things as magic or beauty or spiritual power or significance" (92). "Making special" is a way of ascribing meaning and order to the world. Because, from this viewpoint, art is a fundamental and universal human behavior -- like speech and play -- it follows that involving the public in the "making special" of the materials involved in everyday behaviors can be a way to bring unfamiliar concepts to the community. In other words, if it is up to communities to alter their own environmentally destructive habits, art can be a way to help make these changes, by enabling people to see all everyday acts as worthy of special consideration. Lippard puts it another way:

Art itself, as a dematerialized spark, an act of recognition, can be a catalyst in all areas of life once it breaks away from the cultural refinement of the market realm. Redefinition of art and artist can help heal a society that is alienated from its life forces. ("Looking Around" 126)
Recognizing art as a useful and necessary behavior is a way for us to understand humanity's relationship to the rest of the world, and to attempt to restore our role in the cycles that envelop us, unrecognized, all the time.

Certain progressive institutions and individuals have begun this process of incorporating art into their approaches to ecological preservation and restoration. By utilizing art as a problem-solving perspective and process, these nonprofit organizations, city governments, or private companies are helping to instigate an enormous shift in public consciousness about and interaction with the ecological systems of which we are a part. The programs, organizations, and projects discussed here are disparate in their scopes, agendas, sizes, and even sectors but can all be looked to as models for creating a powerful nexus of art, ecology, and community that can change the world -- one acre, institution, family, or city at a time.

The following are the criteria for the subjects of this paper's case studies: 1) If an organization, its primary focus is on creating ecologically-minded activities or space for the general public in which art is an important component (or it has a specific program for this purpose, in which case the program, and not the organization, is examined); 2) If a project, it must be long-term (defined here as several years in duration or longer), and once begun, does not rely on the specific intelligence, input, or creativity of any single individual; 3) Whether an organization, program, or project, it must be designed with the intention of involving the general public in ecological awareness and/or activism in an effort to influence behavior.[1]

We cannot continue living the way we do now indefinitely: drastic change is needed. Art is an effective and powerful way to bring ecological education and awareness to the public. As Heike Strelow asserts, "It is essential for artists and other culturally creative individuals to be drawn into social discussions and design processes if there is to be a theoretical and practical change in the search for a viable future" (13). If creative members of society can participate meaningfully in realms with which art seems to have little to do, we can change our destructive practices and begin to see resources in a new way.


1 A common association of ecology and art is what is commonly called land art, earthworks, or environmental art. This work, created mostly in the 1960s and '70s by such artists as Robert Morris and Robert Smithson, tends to be large-scale, static sculpture; artists such as Christo and Andy Goldsworthy also make what is sometimes termed environmental art. Readers might note that other artists, such as Helen and Newton Harrison, Krzyzstof Wodiczko, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Buster Simpson, Stephen Sonfist, Jo Hanson, and Dominique Mazeaud, make or have made works that touch upon many of the same themes that I explore in my thesis.
This thesis does not include these works for one or more of the following reasons: they tend not to engage with the ecology (the trophic, or solar energy-based life cycles) of a place but instead typically highlight some aspect of the environment, usually largely aesthetic; are traditionally completely dependent on one person's particular vision; do not, in general, encourage or inspire wide-spread ecological awareness and activism; and are often temporary, or exist only hypothetically. Although several artists are included in this document, their work is examined for its larger social and ecological implications, not for its aesthetic qualities.
This document does not look at art as a product to be evaluated, but instead as a process intrinsic to the human perspective, and ultimately one that belongs in all aspects of our lives. Some readers might take issue with what I have chosen to include and exclude; here I would like to point out that I offer this document not as a complete survey, but instead a preliminary exploration of what is possible in ecology and community when art is involved, and what we can hope for -- and work toward -- in the future.
Creative and Green: Art, Ecology, and Community:
NEXT: Chapter 1: Art in Waste Management and Recycling Education
AFTER THAT: Chapter 2: Art in Land and Water Remediation
Copied from: http://greenmuseum.org/generic_content.php?ct_id=238
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