The artist as climate advocate: defending the right to be heard
Online version. Unabridged version is available at LSAD-TUS, Clare St. Campus library, Limerick
Today, in the heating atmosphere of the climate crisis, the voice of art, which engages with climate change and sustainability, chimes loud and clear as never before. In its mission to steer ecological consciousness, such art may take up an activist position. Even though distinct parallels can be drawn between art activism and art that addresses environmental concerns, not all such art is activist. It also does not aim to challenge the aesthetic norm of ambiguity of postmodernism. Instead, it diplomatically negotiates the space between the interpretative value of art and the pragmatically didactic narrative of activism.
It is hard to argue with Marina Abramovic’s definition of artists as the oxygen of society, but just how far reaching and clear is this oxygen? While elitist obscurantism may remain the comfort zone of the highly manipulated, profit-driven high-end art industry, unambiguous, uncompromising artist-led initiatives and collaborations emerge as a separate cast the more they refuse to - as Grayson Perry would put it - suck up to the academic elite. The need for clarity in contemporary art is not new. In 1992, Professor of Art History Patricia B. Sanders wrote in her essay 'Eco-Art: Strength in Diversity':
Deepening environmental and social crises are causing more and more artists to knock down the last “no trespassing” signs of modernism, detachment, and ambiguity, in order to address issues of vital concern with a clear voice.
The balance between clarity of voice and purpose within an ecological narrative, and the interpretative space created by the artwork will be investigated in this essay through analysing two projects; the 2020 collaboration of the British artist Fiona Banner with Greenpeace and the 2009 interactive installation Natural Fuse by Usman Haque. Both projects deal with environmental concerns, even though their creators can be described not so much as environmental artists but as sharp observers who embrace new challenges arising from environmental anthropocentrism.
Fiona Banner and Greenpeace: the campaign on preventing illegal bottom-trawling in the UK’s marine-protected areas
In 2020 Greenpeace-UK launched a campaign for the prevention of illegal bottom-trawling in the marine-protected areas (MPA) in the Dogger Bank area of the UK’s North Sea. The government has the duty and responsibility to police their MPA legislation in all 371 marine-protected areas of the UK’s waters, but illegal bottom-trawling continues to thrive in those areas. With its heavy fishnets, dragged along the seabed, bottom trawling is indiscriminate to species, inadvertently trapping and mutilating such mammals as seals, sharks and turtles. Bottom-trawling is devastating for marine ecosystems. It drastically reduces the capacity of the ocean to absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere.
On a side note:
According to Marine Conservation Society out of all the UK’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), just 5% currently ban bottom trawling. Continuing to allow this fishing method in protected areas is equivalent to bulldozing a national park on land.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) conservatively estimate that: 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are left in our oceans each year. 25,000 nets in the northeast Atlantic were recorded lost or discarded annually. 870 nets recovered in the US alone contained more than 32,000 trapped marine animals.
For this campaign, British artist Fiona Banner created three boulder sculptures, each weighing more than a tonne. One sculpture was deployed in front of the government building where the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the UK (DEFRA) is housed. Two others were deposited in the Dogger Bank region to add to the underwater boulder barrier previously created by Greenpeace-UK activists. The boulder-lined area, stretching for almost 80 square kilometres, forms a bottom-trawler exclusion zone and is the only physical measure preventing bottom trawlers illegally operating in that area. For years DEFRA had closed their eyes to the problem, but in February 2021, following the Banner-Greenpeace pressure, Boris Johnson proposed to ban bottom-trawling in four MPAs of Dogger Bank.
The Banner-Greenpeace collaboration can be considered an example of where the interpretative language of art is combined with the clarity of the activist demand. It is interesting to observe this particular relationship in terms of its potential to enhance the overall impact of art and activism without compromising on either the elevating power of the artwork or the clarity of the environmental message.
Probably the most ambitious Greenpeace campaign to date originated from the need to make the government finally enforce their anti-trawling legislation in MPAs being dredged by bottom-trawling. Banner’s “installation” in Dogger Bank, constituted just one area in the wider project where Greenpeace activists are trying to stop destructive bottom-trawling across 98% of British MPAs. One sculpture - titled Klang Full Stop - was placed in front of the DEFRA headquarters, while the other two were taken on board the Greenpeace ship Esperanza (meaning The Hope) and delivered to Dogger Bank on the same day. From there they were added to the protective barrier.
Petitions and open letters rely on the power of language, but that alone falls often on deaf ears, so here art and activism joined forces in a desperate attempt to be heard, deploying language in both a narrative and visual way. Language is simultaneously a great enabler and a source of frustration. By transforming this failing verbalism into a solid form the artist creates a physical objection, akin to blackballing. The sculptures reference full stops from different fonts: Klang, Peanuts and Orator. They are symbols of language on the precipice, blown-up, made physical and confrontational, they symbolise an impasse and crisis in language. Symbolism aside, it is interesting to investigate these art objects’ transformation from symbols to physical obstacles, capable of protecting the ecological treasure which is the bottom of the sea. All three ink-black sculptures look as if they are carved with minimum intervention into the material – inert granite originating from the North Sea - perhaps referencing how humanity should have treated the planet and its pillaged resources.
While the other two sculptures on the seabed are stationed to serve a utilitarian purpose, Klang is presented as a black spot at the DEFRA doorstep (image above). What does this abstract obstruction want? There is no message on the stone itself, but the demand it represents is clear for the intended recipient. The clarity comes from the activist part, enhancing this rock’s impact and illuminating its purpose. The humble noticeboard nearby (image below) acts as an advocate of this artistic intervention.
Silent and monumental, the three-dimensional full stop is neither cordoned off, nor mounted on a plinth, nor embedded into the pavement. Slightly elevated off the ground it is ready to leave its post with dignity, to be removed only by an even more stubborn force. The sculpture is made of granite – a primordial rock formation predating humanity by millions of years. Its natural origin is juxtaposed to the man-made concrete monolith of the government building; an impenetrable anthropocentric fortress. In the weeks leading up to this symbolic statement, Greenpeace informed DEFRA about the intention to line the protected marine area with boulders to stop the illegal fishing. DEFRA was also made aware that Greenpeace would lift all the boulders off the seabed as soon as the government made a credible commitment to… ban industrial fishing from Dogger Bank and all of the UK’s offshore MPAs. Though DEFRA was not rushing to bring a full stop to the illegal bottom-trawling, it was very quick to have Klang removed the same day, leaving no chance for Londoners to engage with the artwork and the message behind it.
Out of sight, not out of mind
Klang has never joined its siblings in the sea. Instead it is still serving its purpose on land where it is available to the viewer. Through Klang the spectator is given the opportunity to engage by proxy with the other two pieces that they cannot even see. This is what the artist says in her email to the author of this essay about the current situation with the sculpture:
The sculpture is at Phytology - a green space, that is community led, in the urban landscape, situated in a densely populated multicultural area of east London. I am hosting a number of podcasts in the vicinity of the stone, exploring ideas of art, activism and ecology. After Phytology it will be moved somewhere else. It will remain a radical object… It will not be sold, or placed in a conventional art collection.
Questioned about the response from DEFRA after Klang was removed, the artist elaborated: ‘...they engaged in discussion, but ultimately did not change their minds about operations in Marine Protected Areas. This might still happen.’ The only measure the government did take at the time was to update the maritime authorities on the location of the Greenpeace boulders.
Peanut and Orator have nautical coordinates of their exact location engraved on the tombstone facades. While these sacrificed sculptures are serving their crucial sub-marine mission “their currency is not found within the normal art systems of exchange but in their potential to act as agents for change”. Whether they are retrieved one day or end up serving at the bottom of the sea for months or years to come is not the matter of importance. These ink-uniformed soldiers were not created to become a national treasure or boost the artist’s ego in a rarefied gallery environment. They were sunk together with the hundreds of generic boulders to protect the real treasure - the bottom of the sea and its vital ecological function. Taking Peanut and Orator out of the art market and placing them in the natural environment only deepens their authenticity and non-monetary artistic value. Should Full Stops be eventually lifted, the viewer would be granted access to art objects with a truly profound meaning. Even while serving their utilitarian purpose at the seabed, Banner’s ellipses are not robbed of artistic qualities. The activist journey of Full Stops holds an important message – art aesthetic does not have to be tied to an art object but, as in this case, it may lie in the very ritual of burying a man-made treasure for a bigger, altruistic cause capable of making an eco-tangible difference.
Echo of Clear Voice
Five months into the campaign the illegal bottom-trawling is still in operation. De-jure, Boris Johnson pledges to protect the UK’s environment and states that the UK government is "absolutely committed to tackling the global problem of biodiversity loss” and that UK’s action on biodiversity must be immediate. De-facto, DEFRA’s concrete walls remain impervious to the combined efforts of art and activism, proving to be an entity as inert as the granite from which Klang is carved. As a result in January 2021 Greenpeace UK are petitioning again.
Critics of art activism could rush to conclude that using art in a campaign to appeal to the government is destined to fail. A tradition of the critique of art activism, outlined by Boris Groys in his essay On Art Activism, theorizes that “aestheticization” and “spectacularity” of art lead art activism to failure:
...art cannot be used as a medium of a genuine political protest—because the use of art for political action necessarily aestheticizes this action, turns this action into a spectacle and, thus, neutralizes the practical effect of this action… the art component of art activism is often seen as the main reason why this activism fails.
Even though this path of reasoning could be used to theorize why Full Stops could not trigger the expected response from DEFRA for months, it was not a case of tension between art and activism. The powerful machine of Greenpeace had started communicating with DEFRA through open letters and petitions far in advance of Banner’s intervention but to no avail. Historically, it is only through sustained and repeated action that the voices of activists resonate with higher echelons of power. After Full Stops had been deployed, this campaign received the deserved publicity in the media. And it may have worked. The Guardian reported on 2nd February 2021 that the UK government developed a proposal to stop bottom trawling in four MPAs of Dogger Bank. Four out of three hundred and seventy one MPAs that still need to be patrolled may sound like a drop in the ocean, but it is an example of when using clarity-charged art in a protest does bring victory.
Natural Fuse. A dialogue between selfish and selfless
While Banner’s sculptures represent a clear demand, Usman Haque’s Natural Fuse (2009) project can be examined as a psychological experiment testing the fear of accountability for the lack of environmental consciousness. Without any straightforward demands he conditions the participants by establishing a set of rules. The participant is engaged in a game of “actions and consequences” directing them to reassess their impact on the remote environments.
The birth of Natural Fuse
In 2008 Usman Haque developed a web-based platform – Pachube - which connects various physical and virtual urban environments. Natural Fuse was conceived to test Pachube's ability to connect people and electronic devices through the internet across remote locations (“the internet of things”). The essential premise of the Natural Fuse was to challenge users to re-examine their understanding of how their everyday consumption behaviour affects others and the environment, by building a network which drives its users to be carbon neutral in their power consumption (it should be noted that the original idea of the project was to test carbon sequestration opportunities of interactive architecture systems within a participatory environment). The conceptual inspiration for this project came from the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh and their poverty-eradicating microcredit system requiring not collateral, but communal solidarity. The solidarity system encourages the entire community to step in and work together in helping the defaulted member of their community to repay his or her loan. As a result of mutual actions and interpersonal support, everyone in the community benefits from such solidarity. This is how the Natural Fuse website describes the environmental implications of the project: "Natural Fuse is a micro-scale carbon dioxide overload protection framework that works locally and globally, harnessing the carbon-sinking capabilities of plants. Generating electricity to power the electronic products that populate our lives has consequences on the amount of carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere, which in turn has detrimental environmental effects. The carbon footprint of the power used to run these devices can be offset by the natural carbon-capturing processes that occur as plants absorb carbon dioxide and grow. Natural Fuse units take advantage of this phenomenon.
Natural Fuse consists of a fuse unit (three plants in the pot, two water bottles, and a vinegar container), an appliance (lamp, fan, or radio), and the internet cable connecting the unit to the monitoring platform. The project participants communicate through the community website - naturalfuse.org – acting as a social network that shows the capacity of the entire system and the status of each Natural Fuse unit within the system.
During the research and development stage, the artist’s team discovered that it takes 420 Piece Lilly plants to offset carbon dioxide generated as a result of the production of electricity to power a single 50W light bulb. (Haque does not specify the length of time the bulb is on in order to require 420 plants. Even if it means for the bulb’s lifespan, the point is made that an impractically large amount of plants is required to offset our needs). Since even a low-power lamp generates more carbon dioxide than a single Natural Fuse unit can offset, it takes a large network of interconnected units to balance the power consumption within a connected environment. The only way to achieve it is to distribute multiple Natural Fuse units among multiple participants and assume that not all the devices (lamps, fans, or radios) powered by those units would be switched on simultaneously.
Simple rules, complex dilemmas
The project website makes it clear for the participants how their decision-making on electricity consumption will affect the others: "rather than just having an "on/off" switch for your appliance, you are provided with a "selfless/selfish" switch. If you choose "selfless" then the unit will provide only enough power that won't harm the community's carbon footprint. But, if the carbon sequestering capacity of the community is currently low, the electricity may switch off after a few seconds - though it could be on long enough for what you need to do".
Selfless vs. selfish: empathy or fear?
The control panel on the Natural Fuse looks deceptively simple. In fact, it challenges the behaviour of the participants labelling their consumption intentions as “selfless” or “selfish”. Borrowing the piece, the user may not realize, it is not just a fun experiment, but an inevitable dilemma unfolding before them.
The function of “selfless” mode is to mitigate the network overload if all units are used simultaneously, but it only keeps each device switched on for 10 minutes a day. The website clearly communicates it to the participants ‘you can find out who has been "selfish" or "selfless", who has killed whose plants and you can also download the complete research report and instruction manual.’ In the best traditions of biblical narrative, Natural Fuse offers freedom of choice, but warns about the consequence. With “selfish” mode on, the user of the appliance can have it switched for as long as they need, but this will absorb the whole carbon dioxide allowance in the network and lead to total breakdown. The “sinner” in this biblical allegory (who may just be the victim of circumstances, which made them keep their device switched on for longer than 10 minutes) will be confronted by an email and is expected to explain themselves before further reparations are considered.
The putrid smell of accountability
Each participant was made aware that they could use their device of choice for as long as they want (“selfish” mode), but in this case someone else’s plant in the network would inevitably die by exposure to lethal injection of vinegar. Since there are three plants per Natural Fuse unit, each unit has three “lives”. After a “selfish” culprit kills someone’s first life, they receive an email from the “victim”. In this email the guilty party is given an opportunity to explain or justify themselves and remedy the situation. In this case the price for “selfish” use of a natural resource comes in the form of accountability.
Most participants of this experiment tended to be “selfless” throughout the period that they had the plants (usually about 3 months), even if it meant they could use their device for no more than 10 minutes per day. It may imply that the fear of being confronted and held accountable could well be conducive to conscientious use of a precious resource. In the very beginning of the project, when a Natural Fuse appliance was set up in one of the gallery shops, it was almost always left on 'selfish' mode. Haque infers “it was due to the fact that gallery employees thought they could be “selfish” without repercussions. It resulted in removal of this unit from the wider network.” Utilizing the idea of being confronted or held accountable, the artist ultimately encourages people to be eco-smart, interacting with their spaces.
Facing the consequence
Natural Fuse introduces the element of semi-anonymous peer pressure by making participants engage in communication with each other should one of them become “selfish” and threaten a “life” of another participant’s plant. This way the project encourages communal responsibility between the participants and re-assessment of their relationship to their devices - how much power are they using and how it affects everyone else. This is how Haque reflects on “one of the key elements of the relationship, which Natural Fuse generates”:
Networking together joins up the consequences as well as the actors. That is to say, if we do something that affects the environments of others, it also affects us, and so we have a more direct responsibility for the consequences of our own actions. In giving each plant three 'lives', Natural Fuse also gives a “selfish” participant the opportunity to explain their actions to others, which I believe is one of the most important parts of the project.
The case with the gallery employees only confirms the general attitude to the environment and abuse of natural resources in the current epoch of the selfish Anthropocene. Based on the observation of how humanity tends to misuse natural resources, it could be theorized that the behavioural responses within the Natural Fuse network were largely guided by fear of accountability, rather than by empathy or altruism. It does not eliminate the possibility that the awareness of the consequences of one’s actions on the remote environments could also provoke ecological empathy. Ecological consciousness may remain dormant until one begins to think of their home as part of the planetary ecosystem. It could come from simple realization that every time someone turns the central heating on, it adds to the melting of an Arctic ice cap.
From gallery to home
As an interactive installation Natural Fuse begins in the gallery setting but unfolds in the visitor’s home. At the same time, from home it expands globally, creating a new concept of eco-neighbourhood. Through the museum/gallery framework, units are distributed among a total of 150 participants in London, Dublin, New York, San Sebastian, Sydney, and Seoul. The recruitment of participants is left up to the host organization. The artist would only set up a “shop” from which visitors could rent the units. Gallery visitors could rent one Natural Fuse unit for up to three months for 50 dollars. This amount did not cover the production cost but seemed reasonable enough not to deter potential participants off. Since recouping money was not the aim of this installation, participants were also offered an option to pay in kind with just three houseplants in lieu of the money. Each participant had to register with their email and home address on the community website before they took the unit home. Only ten plants were killed during the project. After the project finished, the units were returned to the artist team’s studio. The plants were distributed to friends and associates for planting at home.
Natural Fuse shows us that the environment is something we create by our way of living in it. The interactive technology behind Natural Fuse merges different environments into a single networked environment and demonstrates that we are all in the same boat regardless of our geographical location. It is not uncommon to think that environment is something we cannot change or create; something distant, existing by itself; be it melting Arctic or desertifying Aral Sea shores. Natural Fuse offers a different perspective on this perception by proving that the environment we find ourselves in is only dependent on our behaviour. The challenge still remains of how to harness the “prisoner's dilemma” to enable people to productively cooperate rather than compete, which is, unfortunately, the norm.
Forward-thinking is not something about which humanity can boast. From primordial times human civilizations have been reactive, rather than proactive or preventative towards threats; be they pandemics, wars, or climatic extremes. It is widely accepted that more than one civilization has fallen due to delayed response to environmental aberrations.
When we excavate the remains of past civilizations, we rarely find any evidence that they made any attempts to adapt in the face of a changing climate. I view this inflexibility as the real reason for collapse.
In the undeniable reality of climate crisis the burden of ecological awakening still lies on the acute consciousness of the concerned ones. The trite formulas of the Save The Planet narrative have framed environmentalism as an act of altruism towards the planet as opposed to an act of self-preservation. And while the climate change deniers continue to shy away from the uncomfortable truths, environmentally informed artists and activists continue their crusade, bringing the unvarnished message out. As Los Angeles Times reporter Julia Rosen observes in her article about eco-grief artist Daniela Molnar:
Refusing to feel the emotional costs of climate change is just another insidious and socially sanctioned form of denial, one rooted in the classic psychological defence of compartmentalization… There’s one part of yourself that knows perfectly well that climate change is happening and another part of yourself that really doesn’t let that penetrate. It doesn’t really ever get into your heart. The split is reinforced by society’s tendency to see climate change as a scientific issue, rather than a cultural and political challenge that demands our full humanity — the kind more often explored and addressed through art.
It is hard to say for sure what has a stronger impact on public consciousness – matter-of-fact climate science data or the power of art to penetrate at a deeper level. However, it cannot be ignored that in less than a year a humble Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg with her sincere and straightforward message has perhaps achieved more than the most sophisticated environmental art in terms of bringing the climate crisis message out and shifting the ice of passive observation. It does not mean that we need to render art vestigial and divert all our energies into activism. But maybe it is time to challenge the high-modernist love affair with obscurantism and argue that complexity and clarity are not mutually exclusive. The depth of the artist’s engagement into the subject does not have to be measured through the difficulty of understanding the artwork. No matter how much the art world elites revere the obfuscation of meaning, the majority of us continue to resist “pseudo-profound bullshit”.