Position and Scale: eco, art, Scotland
I’ve been asked the question “Does ecoartscotland mean that there are lots of eco-artists in Scotland?” Of course that’s the wrong question. The name ‘ecoartscotland’ positions this project as a node or hub within a network which includes greenmuseum, ecoartspace, ecoartnotebook, ecoart center, the now defunct arts & ecology at the RSA, as well as ecoartnetwork (which is a ten year discussion taking place through a listserve). These are very small organisations or clusters of individuals.
Ecoart is a neologism bringing together two words: art and ecology. David Haley, co-editor of this issue along with Anne Douglas, reminds us that ecology is the study of organisms in relation to each other and their surroundings, and that one of the roots of the word art encompasses the way that the world makes itself continually and virtuously.
But the question “what is the relationship between Scotland and ecoart?” is a useful question, and is answered by more than just an idea of nodes in networks, or by unpacking the linguistic roots of the component terms.
The aim of ecoartscotland occasional papers is to create a structured and open platform, alongside other more informal aspects of ecoartscotland, through which to develop the discourse on practice and research in the field. To achieve this without homogenising practice and research, or the many different trajectories through the arts and ecologies, requires that the format of ‘papers’ may be limited by technology, but will not be constrained by the editorial approach. Each issue will comprise a multivocal editorial introduction and several invited responses. The issue will then be open to submissions. Submissions can take two forms: comments made on existing submissions, and new submissions. Both are peer-reviewed before being published on the site.
Position and scale
This issue is focused on questions of position and scale. Ecoart is a positioning in practice and thought. Scotland is a positioning in space and thought. They both imply ideas of scale. Scotland is a useful scale: it is a scale on which it is possible to grasp the complexity of issues that are implied by ecoart. These might include artists practices, biodiversity, energy (on the one hand fossil fuels and on the other renewables), planning (including the relationship between the urban and the rural as well as the in between issues), water, agriculture, and the roles, rights and responsibilities of inhabitants and communities, human and non-human.
In addressing the question of scale we might usefully take on board Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s ‘starter for ten’ questions “How big is here?” and “How long is now?” The Harrisons work combines the visual and the poetic to create a new perception of place. The Harrisons use these questions as a starting point for projects. For them these questions are both ‘art questions’ and also ‘ecological questions’. Whilst it may be self-evident that these questions are relevant to ecological concerns, defining the scope of a bioregion in terms of area and timescale of change, these questions are also rooted in an art practice. These questions are framing devices. They are central to the process of composition. Whether in terms of a ‘traditional’, painterly, judgement of space, or in relation to the dramatic unities of ‘time’ and ‘action,’ questions of scale are artistic concerns, though not traditionally directed towards the ecological. The stories, regardless of medium, that develop from asking these questions are stories of new futures characterised by eco-cultural well-being.
In what senses might we want to explore Scotland as a scale? The Scottish Government’s Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 set out a series of targets for moving to a low-carbon economy. These targets are ambitious: 80% of electricity produced from renewable resources by 2020. An 80% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. And of course this is fantastic news. Scotland has set targets that lead the world. But this requires an even more clear focus on a series of cultural issues. Can we simply overlay another phase of industrial development on Scotland’s land- and sea-scapes with wind, water and tidal power stations and carry on ‘as normal’? The re-engineering of the energy supply will be an enormous achievement, but the underlying, culturally driven, growth of energy consumption is one dimension of a wider cultural challenge that extends to land use, food production and distribution, water, transport and our assumptions about all of these everyday needs. The challenges of social and environmental justice are complex. After all Scotland has one of the highest levels of fuel poverty, as well as some of the most significant health problems, in the developed world. But when the island of Eigg switched on its renewable energy system a couple of years ago the news made a big play of the move from diesel generators to wind and photo-voltaics. They omitted the most important part of the story: social justice is built in – each domestic and business supply has a built-in ‘cut out’ so that no one person can be greedy with what is a limited resource – limited at any one point in time, although renewable over the duration.
One might therefore understand the scale and complexity of Scotland’s field of play in relation to energy to include the Scottish Government’s ambitions for a low carbon economy juxtaposed with the challenges of poverty, and encompass understanding the importance that learning from the remote and rural such as the inhabitants of Eigg.
David Haley, in his introductory essay Ecology in Practice, reframes the questions of complexity as central to his art practice, arguing that uncertainty and indeterminacy are to be embraced rather than overcome. Complexity is central to thinking about position and scale from an ecological perspective.
The question of how to learn from the many examples of practices, all creative even if only some present themselves as art, is a challenge.
Whilst the underlying model on which the arts operate values uniqueness and individuality, and protects these with copyright and as intellectual property, many ecoart practitioners would place higher priority on addressing the challenges of environmental crisis manifesting as climate change, food security, peak oil, resource wars and so forth.
There are many modes of learning, many pedagogies that might be relevant, and there is no question that there is a radical pedagogical thread running through the fabric of these practices, from Hans Haacke and the Harrisons as progenitors of the field right up to date. For example, PLATFORM who weave together art, research, campaigning and education and whose course The Body Politic is delivered with Birkbeck. For example, Fritz Haeg‘s Sundown Schoolhouse, or the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, or Center for Urban Pedagogy, Temporary Services, Center for Land Use Interpretation, Experimental Station, or Cittadelarte.
Anne Douglas, in her introductory essay Learning from Experience, focuses on the question of learning and highlights the particularity of the ecoart field where the explicitness of learning and the value placed on it is distinctive. She goes on to ask a series of questions about how to draw out learning as a key aspect of ecoart practice, radically repositioning it as a counterpoint to the values of individuality and consumerism.
So we invite you to respond to the issue of positioning and scale and perhaps to think about the ways to share your experiences so that others can learn from you, not by how-to instructions or unacknowledged copying, but rather by understanding achieved through the generous sharing of ideas and experiences offered in structured forms that provoke rather than limit.
Chris Fremantle, May 2011