Art and ecology: how far can you go?

A conversation with Sue Spaid

Place: Brussels
Date: October 26, 2017
Travel time: 5 minutes walk
Meeting time: 2 hours
Reading time: 40 minutes

Fifteen years ago, in 2002, American curators Sue Spaid and Amy Lipton organised an exhibition in Cincinnati for which they invented the term “ecovention.” Today, in 2017, Sue Spaid produced a new exhibition for De Domijnen in Sittard (NL) called “Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017.” The new title says it all: the focus is regional, on Europe. It shows the artist as an engaged citizen: what can art do for ecology? It is historical, going back sixty years to a time when the word ‘ecology’ was not as widespread as it is today. Joseph Beuys is one of the key figures here. The dictum attributed to him, “Everyone is an artist”, says a lot about his working method. Beuys makes social art, engaging his audience to become part of his work: sweeping paths through a small public forest in Düsseldorf threatened by the planned expansion of a tennis club, planting seven thousand oaks in Kassel and other European cities,… It shows one of the central ideas behind Ecovention Europe: none of the artists in this exhibition (and in case you missed the exhibition: in the accompanying book) work alone. Pleasure is an important incentive to make people work together. One of my favourite artists in Ecovention Europe is the very young and very contemporary Cecylia Malik from Kraków. In her social art she also shows herself as a master of social media, gathering crowds to join her in works that focus on the changing ecosystem in her hometown. As an answer to the dark and often paralysing question of guilt behind many discussions on ecology, her contagious optimism is best summarized in her mantra to “defend beauty with beauty”. What becomes also very clear from the actions of Malik and the other artists in this exhibition and book: any ecological turn starts here and spreads from there. These actions are modest in size, but their ideas are ambitious, which may explain why neither the map on Sue Spaid’s book cover nor the Harrison Studio maps in the exhibition, exhibit borders. These maps show only places, linked by the land in between them. Another peculiarity is the use of original names of places instead of English translations throughout the exhibition and the book. The final limit, the final frontier of Ecovention Europe is the limit of self-criticism: how far can you go in organising projects around art and ecology? How necessary is this exhibition and this book? Sue and I went for a coffee in Brussels and this is what we discussed.

How did you get involved in art and ecology? You probably were interested in the topic long before you coined the term ‘ecovention’.
Oh well, my interest in ecology comes from eons of scouting. I was a girl scout from the age of five to eighteen. The basic rule of the girl scout is to always leave the place as you found it. You don’t alter it.

Did they use the term ecology back then?
Maybe not in these terms. But sure, ecology was big in the seventies.

That’s where it starts, with the report of the Club of Rome in 1972: limits to growth. Was that part of your concern?
Sure. In high school I was on the debate team where we discussed scarce world resources. It was before we had the concept of nonrenewables. We talked about metals, oils, medical technology, things with limited distribution either because people can’t afford them or because they’re in limited supply. I was always on the negative side of that debate and I never knew what was going to come at me so I had to be prepared to mentally argue “yes these things are scarce resources.” After that I went to engineering school with the plan that I would go to law school afterwards with the fantasy that I would be defending nature against oil companies and corporations. In university, I took a class called ‘Engineering in the Legal Environment’. That’s when I realized that the only thing lawyers did was defend the corporations, not nature, not government, not people. The other thing I learned at university is that lawyers don’t care a thing about truth. They care about winning cases. That was a huge shock and that was when I realized, I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I thought that I should become a philosopher, since philosophers are primarily interested in truth. If you’re not interested in truth, don’t do philosophy. I think there are a lot of philosophers who don’t believe in truth. But in the system I was trained in, I was trying to find the truth, not obfuscate it. So those are three fundamental situations: Girl Scouts, high school debate team and deciding against law school. There was definitely a core interest from very early on. In retrospect, I’ve found a way to advocate for nature by working with artists who inject these ideas into the world much more rapidly than some lawyer defending all these cases, which I think is a really slow process.

Next thing was your coining the term ‘ecovention’.
Well, I have this friend Amy Lipton, who is also an art curator. She’s mainly involved in eco-art, while I’m all over the map. My favourite thing to do is a survey of art. I got an invitation from a gallery to propose a seventies show. That’s when I went home and talked to Amy, with whom I was sharing an apartment, and she says “what about all the artists from the seventies who did ecological art?” And I was like “well, that’s really interesting.” I knew the artists, but I didn’t know the particular works that she showed me. What I found really interesting was that all these works were functional. And yet no one talks about their function. They only talk about land art, in general, but they never talk about what land art is actually doing. So that’s what I proposed to the gallery. It didn’t work out then. But when I got the job in Cincinnati in 1999, they agreed to do the show, so that’s how it happened. We started with the historical figures and added like fifteen more contemporary artists. We showed a history of artists thinking about ecology.

But when did they start using the term ecology?
Agnes Denes claims to be the first person to use the term ‘eco art’ to describe her outdoor performance in 1968. She called it an eco-logic action. She claims to be the first person to really pinpoint this approach. You have to take her at her word.

Sure, I can believe that. But it’s not because one person uses it that it’s really an idea that artists are working on.
Well the word ecological definitely existed. It’s from the nineteenth century. The first references are from a 19th century scientist Ernst Haeckel. The extremely famous American scientist Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to earn a Chemistry degree and be admitted to MIT, also talked a lot about ecology. But she likely got it from Ernst Haeckel.

The interesting thing when I see the exhibition is that I see a lot of land art, more social artworks, and other art forms with different names, and that you and Amy Lipton are the ones to bring them together under this idea of what you call ‘ecovention’.
I agree. I have this view of curating, wherein what curators do is offer audiences a new lens. One artwork can be in fifty different shows, and many of them with competing arguments. Take Joseph Beuys. Hardly anyone knows anything about Beuys and ecology. I learned this when I was discussing his work with other people. Everyone thinks everything he did was symbolic, or metaphorical. But he actually did real things. He selected particular plants, because he knew they had particular properties. So there’s already a misunderstanding. There are clearly competing views on how to interpret Beuys’ work. I would love to meet Caroline Tisdall who worked and travelled with Beuys for many years and wrote many books. But the point I’m trying to make, in trying to understand what was at the root of Beuys’ ecological works, is the following: was it really ecological or was it just me, a bodacious curator? I really believe that the best curators give the work the meaning that it should have. I’m only making exhibitions for artists. I want the artists to say to me: this was a show that I really wanted to be in and I really felt good about it. That’s all that matters to me.

Beuys is an important historical figure in Ecovention Europe. You kind of open the show in Sittard with his work.
What I learned about Beuys is that he grew up in Kleve, Germany, a very watery, wetland-rich place. It still is. So the people in that community have a real value for wetlands. On the other side of the border, the Dutch have turned it into farmland. But the Germans kept that landscape. From a very early age, Beuys was living in this environment. When he goes to Scotland, he recognizes that same landscape. He sees it in its original form and that’s when, in 1970, he made that video that is in the show in Sittard. It’s actually a really boring movie: The camera simply pans the landscape for thirty minutes. And if you don’t know what you’re looking at, it has no value. This is why I’d like to talk to Caroline Tisdall: to make a thirty minute boring movie about a landscape, there has to be a reason. The only reason I can think of is that he knew that there’s a fairly good chance that some developer could come along, fill in the water with dirt, and build a housing development on top. That is what was happening in continental Europe, and he was very angry about it. He wrote a lot about the destruction of the wetlands. It is true that Beuys wasn’t discussed very much in ecological terms, yet I really think that I could do a show on him that shows his work as eco-art and it would fill up several floors at the Tate Modern. It would be the perfect place to do that show, because Tate has a lot of really important works. I don’t understand why they have never done an eco-art show with Beuys when they have all this stuff. I could not do it in Sittard, because I was working with an extremely low budget. You can not ship anything from Beuys for under 5.000 euros. I wouldn’t want to do it by myself either. I would like to use my awareness of eco-art and mix it with someone who was a Beuys scholar and we could really make some powerful stories.

Museum De Domijnen, Sittard, NL, Econvention, september 2017.
Joseph Beuys, Rannoch Moor, 1970, video, filmed in Scotland, UK. Joseph Beuys grew up in Kleve, DE, an unusually wet region, sandwiched between Nederland on the north and west and der Rhine on the east, where bogs, ponds, streams and biodiversity are especially abundant, even today. Rannoch Moor was Beuys’ first film, a 31′ meditation on a wetland presented during Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch), his performance at the 1970 Edinburgh International Festival. The next year, he enacted Eine Aktion im Moor (Bog Action), for which he notably romped in one of the last remaining swamps near Eindhoven, NL.

This idea of working together is very important in your work on art and ecology. Ecoventions are never made alone. Same thing goes for curating. Listening to all these stories, you say that curating is about looking, about interpreting and presenting. It means curating is not only working with artists, but also with an audience.
I like to use the model of a touchstone that has many different aspects and each exhibition highlights certain aspects, which the audience discovers. And when you juxtapose multiple artworks, their display prompts viewer thoughts. That’s what curating is, provoking thoughts by guiding audiences to make particular connections.

So then, all your questions are related to the role of art and ecology. What can art do for ecology? One of the first things I noticed, entering the exhibition, with the historical figure of Beuys, but especially with a very contemporary and very young artist like Cecylia Malik, is that these artists offer a totally different view, a more creative view on ecology. So this is what I wrote in an article on your exhibition, that …
… defending beauty with beauty.

Yes, that’s what Cecylia Malik said. But the idea of guilt that is often linked to ecology, when one uses the term anthropocene for instance, you say that …
… we’re causing it.

Yes, but then the question is “who is we?” I think many human activities are causing ecological problems. But there are also a lot of humans who are not part of the cause of the problem, but who have to carry the consequences of it. So then anthropocene is a much too general term to use. There are alternative terms already circulating now, like capitalocene that looks at the corporations and companies you were talking about earlier as the cause of climate change. But what I wanted to say is that this feeling of guilt that is often – in a more or less paralyzing way – linked to actual discussions on ecology and climate change is not very present in your exhibition. Instead, the first thing I noticed entering the exhibition is the pleasure – which is a much more empowering sentiment – that comes out of a lot of works, especially with Cecylia Malik, but also with Beuys.

Museum De Domijnen, Sittard, NL, Econvention, september 2017.
Cecylia Malik, Installation Shot “Ecovention Europe,” 2017
Realising the urgent need to protest Polska’s environment minister’s misguided idea to log the beloved Puszcza Białowieska in order to  stop a naturally-occuring beetle infestation, Cecylia Malik invited fellow citizens to create forest-inspired mandalas and to present an Oratoriaum on Saws and Happening with Forest Mandelas.  In collaboration with her sister Justyna Koeke, Cecylia Malik organised workshops for 500 people to make wearable butterfly wings that they sported to protest the development of the Zakrzowek reservoir (outside Kraków, PL), which is situated directly on Europe’s Blue Butterfly’s migration path. They caused such a media frenzy that the developer ended up deciding it was no longer financially viable. On June 7 2017, Polish Mothers of the Felling hand-delivered a scientifc report to Pope Francis to inform him about the Polish Catholic Church’s role in supporting the state’s destruction of Polska’s forests and urban trees.

You made the point, the pleasure is teamwork, the pleasure is working together.

Yes yes, that’s my next question (haha). But I think this pleasure is very important to engage people, and of course, once they are engaged, they will work together.
Régine Debatty also commented that this is the first time that she felt that humans aren’t toxic animals. Anyway, I want to be clear about something, two points. I think that I’m very critical of the other kinds of art and ecology shows, that are more what I call “catastrophe art”, since they’re based on the model of natural disasters represented by disaster films and horror novels. That’s how most people begin to approach these questions. And the number one theoretician behind all this, Timothy Morton, comes from gothic horror. So most people have come at this point from horror to look for art works that are equally horrific. That’s the model upon which they base their idea of dark ecology. I come from science and art and I’m only interested in invention. If someone would ask me if I would do a show about the future, I would do an art-historical show that demonstrates how artists have predicted every aspect of the future, from 1850-1950. There was something in their artwork that anticipated something that was real, that leapt from the artist’s imagination to society. Since I really believe in artists’ imaginations and think that’s where the solution to a lot of issues lie, I can’t just do a show about horror because I don’t believe there’s horror. I believe that people are working really hard, thinking about these issues and coming up with these solutions and options that we need to take very seriously. And so, I’m happy to hear that there’s pleasure. For me it still seems a little dry.

But this is probably also budget related, yours is often a more documentary show.
Budget, but also resistance. It’s crazy for me to realise that I had less resistance in 2000 than in 2017. You would think that there would be greater acceptance of artistic interventions 15 years layer, yet back in 2000 in Cincinnati, which is in the middle of nowhere, the educational level of the people in the community was at an infinitely higher level in terms of ecology. So I was able to commission nearly twenty in situ projects. You must know that 9/11 happened in 2001, and my exhibition in 2002. And right next to our museum was the Federal Reserve Bank of Cincinnati, which had closed its public park in 2001 following 9/11. But when we asked them if we could use their park to install an urban farm that would be visible from the museum window, they said “oh yeah, no problem.” They opened it back up. In the US, if an artist says “oh there is a problem, I would like to do that”, everyone says “oh wow that’s so great. a) we wouldn’t even have thought of it, b) we don’t have the money, c) we don’t have the time, and d) now you’re going to solve it.” Today, when I consider my experience in Sittard, it was the opposite. My farming and technology conference was cancelled probably because they’re afraid that artists’ inventive solutions actually reveal problems. This experience has been so weird for me. In my first show, we had no resistance and we had only a slightly larger budget, but almost all of the artists made work to demonstrate their work. It didn’t have to be documentary. But when you have so much resistance, it’s very difficult to actually make works in situ that demonstrate ideas.

It shows the peculiar ecology of the art institution.
Yes, but this is an institution that is doing eco-art show after eco-art show. Anyway, I think that this resistance largely comes from a lack of imagination. That’s what resistance is: it always comes from a lack of imagination. If someone tells you an idea, and you can visualise what they’re talking about in your head, then you’re almost always going to say yes. I never heard of anyone having such a terrible idea that you wanted to run away.

Lack of imagination, sticking to the rules of the museum: it all comes together in the broccoli plants of Vera Thaens, installed under the stairs of the museum, hermetically sealed off as if it were an illegal weed plantation – which it actually was: Thaens reacting against Monsanto’s having secured the patent for broccoli plants.

Museum De Domijnen, Sittard, NL, Econvention, september 2017.
Vera Thaens, Lost Common Sense, 2014/2017, Broccoli plants and grow lights
Keen to alert citizens, Vera Thaens’ seedy, illicit broccoli plantation hidden under the staircase reflects the toxic nature of Monsanto’s owning the patent for most of the broccoli eaten by Europeans, as well as the threat posed by zero broccoli diversity.

They’re gone! She had to take the plants out because they found some butterflies. But that’s normal for this time of year. The plants would come with eggs and the eggs would hatch into caterpillars, and the caterpillars would form chrysalis, eventually sprouting butterflies. For most people, butterflies are totally harmless. And the caterpillars weren’t leaving the plants because that’s what they eat… so anyway, they were furious, and she finally had to take the plants out. And she left the rest of the installation and nothing is affected. So anyway, that doesn’t matter.

Again it raises the question on how far you want to go, talking about art and ecology.
I don’t think all artists need to be involved in this subject, I’m not an ideologue about it. If an artist says I just want to make paintings and sell them to rich people and have dinner at the finest restaurants in Brussels, I would say: more power to you. Because for me the most important thing is to know what you want and figure out how you can get it. To me, all the artists out there that don’t want to show in galleries but really do, I really feel sorry for them. You really have to own your desires, how obscene or unpopular they might be. The art and ecology link is coming from people who are looking for a way to create their studio outdoors: they want to do something unusual. It’s the opposite of the mechanism of school, with indoor studios, where one always thinks about presenting indoors. So there’s another reason why the show is rather documentary. A lot of these artists are in there naissance in learning how to work outdoors, while thinking about what they could later exhibit indoors. And their primary motivation to exhibit indoors is that they finally have an opportunity to exhibit indoors. With my first exhibition, I strongly encouraged artists to make something that demonstrates their inventive approaches, instead of showing documentary works. But we didn’t have sufficient resources and time to inspire artists to produce new works.

The role of art for ecology is then to find new ways of looking. There again Cecylia Malik is a good example, engaging through pleasure, showing an alternative way of dealing with a problem.
Yes, I think her role is to bring attention to the issues.

And to gather a community around her to support her enthusiasm. But when you say that there is no horror in the exhibition, then I have to think about the images of deformed frogs by Brandon Ballengée.
Okay, yes, but I’m not playing on the horror.

But it clearly shows that one can not talk about ecology without having the horror there.
Well, I don’t consider it catastrophe art, despite the catastrophic results of Ballengée’s amphibian survey’s results in Sittard. As previously mentioned, most eco-art exhibitions appropriate the model of disaster movies, because in fact, human beings crave disaster movies. They are huge blockbuster movies. People love to be scared. So you can make a movie that follows that model, or make an exhibition, but I reject this model since it leaves viewers’ culpable, while stripping them of agency, which seems counter-productive. With the social emphasis, one feels guilty, but one also feels very powerless. I want to present an exhibition that makes one feel like one can do something. There are things in people’s lives that they can change. I guess in fact there’s a lot of disaster, though not catastrophic horror. But for instance, when you watch the video of Cecylia in her boat on the river, she’s passing parts of the river that’s really disgusting, that’s really horrible. But I think that it’s not horror for the sake of horror, all those things are true. That makes it different. It’s not fictional horror, it’s real horror: that’s the point. Hollywood plays on the fiction of the horror.

Museum De Domijnen, Sittard, NL, Econvention, september 2017.
Cecylia Malik, 6 Rzek (6 Rivers), 2011-2012,  Kraków, PL. Over a two-year period, Cecylia Malik rowed across six Kraków rivers in her handmade canoe, documenting each river’s condition along the way.

There’s this kind of innocence in Malik’s work, even when you see her in her boat on the river between all the plastic bottles.
This image says it all: it’s about wanting to have anything. She deserves a solo show.

So, through her, we come to this second topic of gathering, of working together – a topic we already touched on earlier in our discussion. When I first read the title of the exhibition – ecovention – I thought it had to do something with a convention. I don’t know if you did it intentionally?
Originally it was a combination of ecology and invention. I never thought of convention, but I’m also a native-speaker, so I’m not reading it differently.

This is one of the important ideas in your book also, that artists working around ecology never work alone. Therefore this idea of the convention.
Oh I see, that’s an interesting… I accept.

Bringing people together. Creating a community.
I must be very interested in this idea, because in my Green Acres book, I make a distinction between farming and gardening. And I’m trying to get rid of the term gardening. Everyone loves gardening because they think a farm is a big thing and a garden is something you do personally. But in Green Acres I claim that one person could create a garden for his/her own benefit, but you can’t make a farm for the benefit of oneself. The minute you start farming, even if it’s in your backyard; you need to think about who’s going to eat it. Jane likes pumpkin and Jerry likes …

And everything comes at the same time so you have too much pumpkins, you have too much carrots, which you cannot eat all yourself. You need a system to share the harvest.
To me, this is why I try to take back farming. Everyone else got rid of farming because they think of it as industrial, they thought that gardening gave it a more personal touch, but I said no, “farming is always a group activity.” I’m really interested in participation. I’ve already been doing exhibitions that encourage participation for twenty-two years.

This idea of group activity makes me think of the idea of the thing with Bruno Latour that gathers people, that brings people together. It is about agency. You have a lot of things in the exhibition, a lot of objects, like the water canister from South Africa, the Hippo Roller. These are all intriguing things that make you look at objects differently and want to talk about them, and to figure out what they are.

Marjetica Potrč, A Hippo Roller for Our Rural Times, 2005, Utilitarian object and printed drawing.
Eager to bring attention to the difficulties faced by people the world around when accessing potable water, Marjetica Potrč exhibits “Power Tools,” one of which is the Hippo Water Roller, a drinking water collection and transportation device  (90-liter water barrel plus shopping cart) . Invented in South Africa to aid remote African villagers, this “Power Tool” increases the amount of water an individual can transport at one time and decreases the amount of energy and time required to do so.

I’m only interested in the practical solutions that the artist comes up with. Not because I’m only interested in practical things. But because some of these ideas could find application across disciplines, far beyond the artworld. For example – I’m off topic but I’ll tell you anyway – I was reading this article about some of the wealthiest art collectors in California. They’re also in the almond and pistachio business, and their farms consume as much water as the cities of LA and San Francisco combined. They’re not only in the almond and pistachio business, but they are in the water and fruit juice business. They have Fiji water, and I thought to myself: this is really a role I could play, I need to introduce them to Debra Solomon, who could propose to an artwork for one of their orchards. She could build an agro-forestry ‘test orchard’ on their land to experiment with ways to grow nuts with far less water. They are so rich that they have never had to think differently and then they have the balls to say, because they are so good at marketing, the demand for their water-intense nuts is increasing all around the world and now we have to access even more water. So now I want to propose to them, as an artwork, that Solomon get involved, so that she can test whether nuts could be grown with less water, which would totally transform how farmers the world around produce nuts. It might take fifty years to change the system. I don’t really care how long it takes. The point is that I like to think about how real situations could be vastly improved, even if there is no real urgency to do so. But because they’re interested in art, maybe I can intervene.

It’s interesting that you say that they’re so rich that they don’t have to think differently. It brings us back to what we were talking about before. Ecovention is linked to a much more social thing …
… well I don’t know about social, I think well-being is a better term, I really hate ‘social’.

I use ‘social’ to make the distinction between rich people and poor people. It’s often poor people who have to be inventive to find a way to do things that cost less. So it’s they who come up with this Hippo Roller.
Anyway, it’s funny because the other day I was having a discussion with my friend who was blaming Ryanair for making all the flights so cheap so that people are going all around the world. But I would imagine that people on corporate jets, on independent jets and flying first class have a way higher combined tourist ecological footprint than the millions flying Ryanair, who tend to use public transportation, sleep in buildings built ages ago, bring their own linen, and eat modestly. Even if Ryanair adds 102 million people to the air for very cheap, I don’t think the damage of people paying 30 euros to fly to places is greater than people paying 25.000 or 20.000 or whatever. Anyway, that’s a whole other topic. I’m definitely far more afraid of the impact of luxury tourism on natural, as well as urban infrastructure.

But this is what Ryanair is contributing to, no?
It certainly contributes to tourism, but less so the ‘tourism industry’, because its consumers are primarily low budget, using airfare to access existing structures. It’s very different from building new buildings and removing nature with the arrival of hotels.

What can art do about that?
Art opens up the space. One of the biggest problems is, I think, people don’t take artists seriously. If people don’t take artists seriously then it doesn’t really matter that artists have interesting ideas that could be tested. That’s what I’m trying to do, to bridge that gap between people who think “oh artists, aren’t they cute”. Most people think of artists as harmless, but when they realise artists actually expect their ideas to be implemented in the greater world, then they’re considered harmful. I’m trying to bridge that gap to make people understand that artists’ strategies are helpful, not harmful. And society could benefit by taking their ideas seriously, even though they are not scientists. This attitude is slowly changing, considering the fact that Switzerland invited George Steinmann to be one of three delegates to COP23. This shows that they value his contribution as an artist.

Maybe I’m not using the right word when I talk about the social. It’s about environmental justice: who is the cause and who is the victim here? And then you will see that the cause is very much linked with the luxury you were talking about and who the victims are…
… well, unfortunately, usually the people who are the causes are also immune to the effects. I mean, one of the things I found writing my book was when Uriburu started looking at trees, he realised that all of the developed nations take all their resources from the developing nations that are so poor that they are selling their resources. The rich ravish a whole country that’s far away from them and they don’t have to live with the consequences. They don’t really care that the Amazon is harmed. They only care about what they can take and use in their own country. So then Uriburu changed his entire program from one about rivers and trees to one about advocating for the developing world and showing this. When he was in Japan, he realised that the chopsticks used there actually contribute to the destruction of forests in South America. And no one ever put these two things together. So I think environmental justice is a huge issue and the sad thing about it is that the people who do the damage don’t see the effects of their actions.

Nicolás García Uriburu, COLORATION OF THE GRAND CANAL-VENICE, 1968, Photograph. Courtesy Azul Garcia Uriburu. Collection Nicolás García Uriburu Buenos Aires, AR. © Nicolás García Uriburu, reproduced with permission. Keen to share a shamefully-serene Biennale di Venezia, Nicolás García Uriburu dumped fluorescein into Canal Grande in the wake of May ’68. Over the next 45 years, he repeated this action in scores of cities across four continents.

That’s also because it is a very complicated thing to talk about, as soon as you use the term ecology, you’re talking about a system that we can only know fragmentary.
There really is no precise ‘bubble’ as an ecosystem because you can never measure it. Ecosystem implies that you know all your inputs and you know all your outputs. It’s so reduced that it is rather a fake term.

It’s not because it’s a fake term that you can’t use it. I have a similar problem with your exhibition and with your book: it presents so many things and it is so difficult to get everything. But still I think it is very useful.
Sure, I don’t expect anyone to get everything, that’s why I have an index. I only expect people to get what they want. I don’t even know everything myself. I have to look things up all the time. I actually wrote the book for myself so that I know where to find the things I’m interested to find. And I know there’s a lot missing, we make the joke that we need to make a new book next year that’s called “Everything that should’ve been in Ecovention Europe but wasn’t”. I don’t make any claims that it’s the last word, I hope that it’s the beginning of the discussion. I’m not like those people who when confronted with problems don’t respond, or say, “I’m not interested.” Bring me the problems, I want to see the problems.

I think it’s the right way to approach art and ecology. I’m sure this exhibition will trigger new approaches towards art and ecology, like it did with me.
Hopefully the chronologies will get some art historians interested. In the States we have some PhD’s on Smithson or land art. One art historian, Emily Scott has focused a little on ecology and art. She was once a forest ranger, so she brought a totally different perspective to land art history than someone who went to art school or through the art history system. The primary problem is that you need an engine, like you have an engine for artists like Picasso. Hundreds of people did their PhDs on Picasso, adding new insight all the time. Most museum curators come from art history. So if they didn’t take a land art class in their PhD program that focused on eco-art, they won’t know anything about it and they’re not going to learn about it in the museum. It’s one thing to miss the Cézanne lecture, since when you get to the museum, you will get all the Cézanne information that you need. But if you didn’t get the eco-art classes, there’s no making up for it. This is an institutional problem. This book is meant to make it look more real, hopefully inspiring some people in art history classes to do more work in this field. It would be great if someone did their PhD on Beuys and ecology. All they have to do is to take the outline from my book and do more research. It would be fantastic and I would be grateful.

At the same time, one could easily get the impression that there’s an inflation of programs on art and ecology today.

Kaaitheater, for instance, decided not to continue with Burning Ice, their program on climate change. The first reason is that ecological themes recur more often in their regular program. Which means that the role of the festival as stimulator is played out. Another reason is that the emphasis shifts from an interest in climate change to a much needed system change. That will be the focus for the future. This gives me the feeling that the art and ecology link will become less explicit.
I don’t have the impression that there is an inflation. Until Tate Modern or MoMA or some major museum does a blockbuster show on ecology I’m going to assume it’s a very small topic in the art world. I think the art world is very clear that it only likes things that it can sell. If I could take a booth at an art fair and show all of my services that I’m doing as a consultant then I think they’d be very interested. Maybe I should get funding to do this. It might be fun, you know what I mean. Do it as a prank, not do it for real, because I’m not in the business of selling artists services. But that would take us a lot farther I think, because the art fair audiences, that’s where you really attract resources you need to do anything in this world.

It’s the complete opposite of what you’re doing in Ecovention Europe, because there everything is real.
You know the Yes Men, right? They claim that when they do a hoax, they always tell the public within an hour that it was a hoax. They are not interested in lying, they’re just doing it as a hoax. So I would do it as a hoax or a prank, not as a lie. The real game is to find out who the potential supporters are. Hopefully exhibiting images and videos that demonstrate artists’ inventive approaches to ecological problems would generate a greater interest in their practical actions.

Sustainability is a topic that sells. I learned that from the fashion students I’ve been working with over the past two years.
Yeah, they have to destroy the luxury of the brands market. Stella McCartney, isn’t she supposed to be the most sustainable? Out of all the luxury brands, she’s a vegetarian, she doesn’t use leather…

Even H&M has a recycling program. To green up the brand is a marketing technique. This is also what I’m afraid of in the art world that there is this idea of greening up. Fake ecology.
Okay, I don’t disagree with that but that’s why you have to look at what these things are doing. Are they real or are they for show. That’s the point.

Really real or fake real. It also has to do with the way you do things. That’s the interesting thing, your book starts with this list, inspired by Sara De Bondt, about ecological design, and ends with the designer explaining how you actually worked on this and previous (and future) books.
And what do you think when you read that? You think that’s helpful, that it’s insightful? Or do you think that it’s unusual?

It is rather unusual, but it’s certainly helpful. I already sent it to the designers for our book for Imagine 2020.
What I’ve realized, just recently, is that 90% of what passes for criticism or new thinking is really self-reflection. Self-reflection used to be all that we did. Whenever you did something you reflected upon it and you were like how can we make it better. And then something got lost. People stopped doing self-reflection but started criticizing other people. Do you understand?

I see what you mean.
A good example is all the people that are now claiming that humans aren’t the centre of the universe: the anthropocene critique. But the idea of humans not being the centre of the universe is the Copernican revolution of the 17th century. Somehow, this Copernican revolution lost it’s impact enough to the point that people stopped thinking that humans weren’t the centre of the universe. But then you’re like that’s already been said, it’s been three hundred years. I don’t really understand how universities can be focused on this problem. The problem is that people stopped being self-reflective.

Yes, but the critique on the anthropocene goes further than that. It also offers alternative terminologies like capitalocene (TJ Demos) or chthulucene (Donna Haraway). In a way you do the same thing by including the text of the graphic designer: you give an alternative, you talk about a solution, to make a book in a more ecological way. But you also raise the question “how ecological is it to make a book” and how ecological is it to make an exhibition?
Well I can tell you, I didn’t build any walls and I only painted two so I think I tried to be ecological. We used everything pre-existing. You may not be able to tell but the only thing that was built for the exhibition was the shelf for Koen Vanmechelen. Everything else was re-used from previous exhibitions. Those pieces of wood were purchased for the exhibition, but hopefully those can be made into firewood. I mean, the company won’t take them back, but they could be sliced and used in the fireplace, I think.

Which is actually not very ecological. Burning wood releases quite some particulates. This is the problem: where does it start and where does it end, to be sustainable? But to stay with this idea of self-criticism, or of auto-critique as they said it so nicely in the sixties of Jean-Luc Godard and the Groupe Dziga Vertov: it is part of the book, but also of the exhibition, where you end the circuit with Kinga Kielczinska’s Reductionist Art Manifesto and the image of the two people in front of the white wall with nothing on it. This is where you ask yourself, ending your tour of the exhibition, is it really necessary to make this exhibition? This is the question you send people – or me, at least – home with.

reductionist scan015
Kinga Kiełczyńska, Reductionist Art Manifesto, 2009
In 2009,  Kinga Kiełczyńska created a manifesto for her generation. Although it echoes earlier calls for consuming less by living imaginatively, she implores artists to go even farther than most are prepared to go. It is the first image feature in Anton Vidokle and Pelin Tan’s video 2084 (2012)

It’s interesting you bring this up. I had a similar conversation with Søren Dahlgaard, one of the artists in the exhibition. He said, that in fact as an artist, you should think ecologically, but you should never cut back, you shouldn’t hold back just because there are ecological questions. I was kind of surprised by that. His work consists of an inflatable island and a caravan. He doesn’t ship the caravan: he ships the island which fits in a suitcase and then gets a different caravan wherever it is. I’m not an artist, but if I were an artist, I would propose that all the walls built that year by museums throughout Europe be shipped to documenta 15 and stacked up. No one has a clue how many resources museums waste over and over. It’s imperative that people consider how best to use spaces; this is part of being resourceful. That’s for me also part of being sustainable and ecological. If your building has really tall walls, you owe it to the architect and the space to engage it on the level it demands. Don’t just put a little picture there and ignore it.

It’s a matter of taking care of the environment, of accepting the environment as it is.
Yes, I totally think it is imperative that curators are able to adapt to the space and not force the space to adapt to them. People who build walls all the time are people who don’t want to adapt to the space. It’s a lot easier to start with a blank piece of paper and build your system and then invite the carpenters and then make your show. It’s a lot more difficult to say okay this is the space, this is what we’re limited to. So the exhibition is also an exhibition about being ecological, even if I don’t think that’s so visible.

No, I was thinking that’s maybe something for the next book, “Everything that should’ve been in Ecovention Europe but wasn’t”. The question is there, but the solutions that you use aren’t always visible for someone who doesn’t know the museum. That is a good thing of course. I told you when we were there that I had a very good feeling with the exhibition design. It is very organic, let’s say.
I address this in the book. There is one part where I talk about how people say you shouldn’t do ecological exhibitions. That’s TJ Demos’ argument. For him ecological exhibitions are totally fake because in fact the minute you do an exhibition is the minute you aren’t being ecological. Well, I think that’s extreme. That’s maybe an excuse to not do an exhibition. But for me the more interesting challenge is to see how you can do it in the least harmful or least invasive way, in the girl scout way: to leave things as you found them. The thing that makes art so unecological is storage. And no one ever talks about that. I talk a lot about it in my book. It’s like everyone wants to fill the museum, but no one ever thinks about storage, and everyone is storing everything because they have this fantasy that they’re going to be famous. The artist who made the necklace I’m wearing is the most genius because she uses and reuses everything. She could never have a survey because she’s constantly taking last year’s work, adding new stuff and totally changing how you engage it. And it’s all made of recycled materials. She’s one of the few artists that I’ve ever met who doesn’t need storage because she has figured out how to make art by remaking it. 3D printing could be, in a weird way, the solution. You could print anything and then you could melt it all down because you could reprint it. And then in fact you could have your survey, because when it’s time for your survey, you pull out your files and reprint everything. You show it as it was when it was first exhibited and then after the show you just melt everything back. I love this idea.

Renzo Martens actually put your idea in practice when he decided to scan the sculptures from his art centre in Congo and then 3D-print them in Amsterdam in chocolate. That is the immaterial way he transported it from Africa to Europe. It’s a small idea that makes a huge difference.
Well, on the topic of scale, I actually think small things can make a huge difference. A good example of this that hasn’t been proven but has been speculated by American artist Aviva Rahmani. She takes the east-coast of the US, going from Maine to Florida. Her theory is that all of the wetlands have been destroyed, but you would only have to fix the wetlands maybe a hundred kilometres here and a hundred kilometres there and then they will eventually grow together. If they’re not fixed, there will remain nothing to grow together. She has the same view on rivers. That instead of looking at all the rivers of the US that are polluted and thus destroyed, yet we don’t have the resources to fix them all, she has the view that if you only fix ten percent, that it will flow, distribute the work and take care of itself. I don’t know if it’s true. But it’s worth trying, because everything else is daunting. When you look at the magnitude of the oceans and how polluted they are, it’s daunting. When you hear these stories of birds in plastic, it’s overwhelming. Plus, how do you get to the ocean. It’s not a place you can easily access. So the answer is, think in smaller scales.

But how then are we going to stop climate change? Don’t we need a system change? Isn’t it time to move beyond the small steps? The idea of the local is very important in Ecovention Europe. That is where artists like Cecylia Malik, Vera Thaens, Lois Weinberger or Joseph Beuys make the difference, engaging people in their work. That is where your book and your exhibition are very convincing. But how much time do we have to keep working on that scale?
I’m glad that you mention ‘scale’ in relationship to climate change. Despite this issue’s vastness, the climate change sections are oddly smallest both in the book and the exhibition. I imagine that this problem’s scale proves so overwhelming that most artists can’t pretend to combat it, let alone defeat it. I wrote this section last, so I could reiterate how “nearly every ecovention [already discussed] doubles as a vital tool for combatting climate change,” though on the local level, as you say. To my lights, climate change is first a local issue. Yes, we as a planet are monitoring “global temperature increases,” but we are doing so country by country, with each having committed to do its part to prevent further warming. Individual communities actually have way more agency and move a lot quicker than corporations or governments. Ordinary citizens can (and routinely do): plant as many trees as possible to make rainfall renewable and stormwater capturable, fix damaged groundwater catchment systems to ensure rainwater’s capacity to refill aquifers, farm using carbon-absorbing regenerative soils, reconstruct wetlands, implement systems that neutralise the effects of greenhouse gases, and discourage new housing developments. The knowledge is everywhere…there just needs to be more local initiatives on a grander scale. Perhaps the biggest issue of all concerns time and convenience…Those who earn more money tend to view their time as extremely valuable, giving them license to purchase time-saving services such as Uber, food delivery or online shopping. If we’re truly serious about thwarting climate change then such conveniences prove counter-productive.


Bert Janssen took these installation shots of “Ecovention Europe” at De Domijnen in Sittard. Their image captions come from Sue Spaid’s book with the same title.

‘Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017’. Until January 7, 2018 in de Domijnen, Sittard. Tu-su, 11-17u. The book with the same title is published by the museum. ISBN 978-90-75883-56-5.

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