At Carrying the Fire, which was held at Whiston Lodge last year, Dougie Strang had asked me to contribute to the discussions, and I read a section of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s Lagoon Cycle (1985). The poem evokes the world-wide changes resulting from the increase in heat and consequent decrease in ice. The text ends,
And in this new beginning
this continuous rebeginning
will you feed me when my lands
………….can no longer produce
and will I house you
when your lands are covered with water?
So that together
we will withdraw
as the waters rise?
The Harrisons combine poem and image in artworks that speak to eco-cultural well-being: social and environmental justice. A larger part of this poem and the associated image, a world map where the seas have risen as a result of total ice melt creating a coastline redrawn at the level of 300 feet, is here, and the whole of the book of the Lagoon Cycle is here.
The Dark Mountain project, of which Carrying the Fire is a Scottish branch, seeks ways to speak about collapse: the collapse of our civilisation, the fragile world we live in, the need for a different type of civilisation. And whilst that collapse might seem distant living in Scotland, it is a constant state for people and ecologies in other places (in the last ten years, Haiti, New Orleans, New York, Fukushima, Sri Lanka and the Philippines to name but a few).
Dark Mountain publishes edited volumes of writing and visual material, providing a space for thinking and speaking about collapse, not hysterically, but thoughtfully and with care. Charlotte Du Caan has joined the Dark Mountain project as Arts Editor and asked in an introductory blog and call (current deadline 6 Jan 2014) for visual works for the next two editions, “Is there an aesthetics of uncivilisation?”
This is not simply a question of the aesthetics of desolation, of abandonment, an aesthetics well explored particularly in photography. Perhaps what we are looking for is a wider aesthetics of a different future. The Dark Mountain project, a project of uncivilisation (a term it seems they coined), suggests that it is precisely the thing we normally call civilisation that needs to be called into question. The civilisation being addressed is that which separates us, makes us think we can control and consume the ecological systems that we are in every conceivable way part of and from which we are literally inseparable.
Firstly we must understand that the aesthetics that Charlotte and the Dark Mountaineers are calling is a new sort of aesthetics, not an aesthetics of decoration, or of ‘form following function’, but an ethical-aesthetic dimension added to the fundamental characteristics of sustainability, of doing nothing that diminishes eco-cultural well-being for future generations (of all living things).
The idea of an ethical aesthetic relationship with all living things is developed by the Collins and Goto Studio in their current project The Forest is Moving. The Black Rannoch Woods are the southern-most significant remnant of the Caledonian Forest which used to cover Scotland. Black Rannoch is an incredible complex ecosystem from the bugs to the granny pines, but it is also culturally significant as a future indicator as well as a remnant of the past. It could get larger, it could join up to woods in Glen Lyon and further across Highland Scotland. This revitalised Caledonian Forest could provide a different form of landscape experience for people in Scotland. It could inform and address urban challenges such as nature deficit disorder. But the Collins and Goto Studio are also provocatively interested in technology and their other recent project Plein Air uses a range of sensors to enable us to experience trees breathing in a gallery space mediated by audio driven by complex algorithms.
A key aspect of the aesthetics we might be looking for is focused on reconnecting with nature. Charlotte Du Caan highlights the work of artists including Richard Long, who makes art from walking, art which is not first and foremost about ownership. In fact Long’s fellow walking artist Hamish Fulton says, AN ARTWORK MAY BE PURCHASED BUT A WALK CANNOT BE SOLD. Charlotte cites Derek Jarman’s Garden near the nuclear power station at Dungness, as well as jewellery made from lost keys found on the banks of the Thames, furniture made from scrap metal, but also artists who focus specifically on the detail of plants and patterns of growth. It’s an eclectic mix which might or might not sell and be collected, but speaks of deep and personal explorations of the interrelations of the artist and their environment(s).
Another quite different aesthetic might be exemplified by the recent action by Liberate Tate, a group of activists and campaigners for divestment from fossil fuels by the cultural temples. Liberate Tate have been campaigning for the Tate, the national museum of contemporary art in the UK, to cease to take sponsorship from in particular BP, but more generally from the fossil fuel industry. This work builds on PLATFORM‘s compelling analysis of the ‘social license to operate,’ the oil industry’s programmes to ensure that they can continue to do business regardless of the environmental and social destruction.
On the reopening of Tate Britain’s galleries of British Art, a large group of activists created an unofficial performance, Parts Per Million, of real power and affect. Dressed in black, as attendees at a funeral, they “performed rising carbon levels to the chronology of the Tate Britain re-hang” sponsored by BP, paralleling the history of British Art with the increasing level of CO2 in the atmosphere. The performance started in the ‘1840’ room, representing the period when the CO2 generated by the Industrial Revolution in Britain started to make a measurable impact on global CO2 levels. Characterised by choreographed movement reclaiming public space, voiced in the same manner as the Occupy mic-check (one person says something which is then repeated by the collective), but with the absurdity of being nothing but numbers in galleries of the greatest art. This work speaks directly to our relationship with Nature. It disambiguates the historical as well as contemporary connections between art and industrial culture.
The final aspect that might be relevant to an aesthetic of uncivilisation is the work of Penny Clare – Chris Dooks drew attention to her work and has included it in his forthcoming Phd. Penny’s photographs are taken by her in bed in the darkness. The text that goes with the images on the Pheonix Rising website says,
I was mostly confined to bed in a dark room – for years, and years, and years. At some point, in this isolated sea, I started taking photos. From my bed, in the dark. And my relationship to my illness and circumstances took on a different meaning and found creative expression. It was my way of creating movement.
They are not only very beautiful, but also represent an interesting point, being works made with very low energy, in her case low energy resulting from a severly debilitating and exhausting illness, but perhaps indicating that low energy might be an interesting wider experience. Penny’s specific condition as well as other conditions such as ME/CFS are forms of personal collapse and Penny’s response is a clue to a wide society experience of low energy or collapse.
All art is a form of mediation and also transformation of the artists’ experiences. We need to be careful in assuming that art has some special ability to bring us closer to nature. In the first instance it brings us closer to art. Some art succeeds in renewing our senses, making us look at the world around us anew. Some art can reframe our experiences and reconnect our emotions to our understandings. One characteristic of an aesthetic of uncivilisation might be that it incorporates a new sort of ethical dimension, not necessarily in a simplistic or didactic way, but fundamentally in the interrelation between people, art and environment.
The aesthetic of uncivilisation might also take up some of the characteristics that Suzanne Lacy attributes to the work of Allan Kaprow. He emphasised the importance of process as the “product” of art. He was interested in the meaning-making between people more than the object or activity that is usually identified as ‘the work’. Ambiguity and questioning are central to the structure of his works, and for Lacy this is a way to balance dealing with prominent issues and distinguish art from politics. Finally, the blurring of art and life in its various manifestations denies the artist recourse to the assumed authority of talent, or recourse to claiming value simply because it is art.
I hope this last point might be a defining characteristic of the aesthetic of uncivilisation.
Another trajectory across the question of aesthetics comes from a decolonial or postcolonial perspective and you can find a series of essays on that subject here http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_topic/decolonial_aesthesis/
As Grayson Perry said in the Reith Lectures 2013, there are only two schools of art: commercialism and nepotism.
The visual arts, as with literature and music, as with nature, has been reduced to a commodity.
We are reducing diversity and heading towards a monochrome world of bleak greys, where everything is controlled by global corporations, who dictate what we eat, what we buy, how we think. Totalitarianism of the worst possible kind.
Unless something can be bought, sold, exploited, it has no value.
Parts Per Million performance in Tate Britain
Kahsatstenhsera: Indigenous Resistance to Tar Sands Pipelines
Dreams from endangered cultures
A room with a view
Through the looking-glass
The Dark Mountain Project