From Eco-Art to Biopolitical Struggle on the Eve of COP21

The timing of this questionnaire is canny. It appears at a moment in which we are witnessing the daily intensification of climate crisis, the strengthening of the climate justice movement, and the radicalization of artists in the orbit of insurgent political formations over the past few years including Occupy, Rising Tide North America, and Black Lives Matter. In just a few weeks, thousands of activists will descend upon the streets of Paris to antagonistically highlight the limitations of the UN’s COP21 and advance visions of what Naomi Klein calls a “just transition” from carbon-fueled capitalist growth to a planetary commons for all informed by principles of racial justice and climate reparations. Artists will have substantial presence in these mobilizations, ranging from the neo-Situationist street tactics of Climate Games to the launch of a new coalition that includes the Natural History Museum and Liberate Tate targeting art institutions as sites for an emerging “cultural divestment” front, which in tandem with the broader fossil-fuels divestment movement recently made inroads with universities, churches, and municipalities.

Climate Games, preparatory sketch of Tools for Action deployment at COP21 Summit, Paris, December 2015 (image courtesy of Climate Games)

From the perspective of art history we have arguably reached a metabolic rift wherein ecology cannot be considered as one among other topics with which art might seek to engage (as was long the case with the subgenre of “eco-art”). As intimated by the questionnaire’s reference to Murray Bookchin, ecology should be rethought in terms of a general biopolitical struggle against capitalism, setting the horizon for any possible avant-garde concern with art and life. Here is some strategically condensed historical background intended to clarify the stakes of where we are at present in contemporary art:

1. In the Global North, a self-conscious concern with environmental degradation among artists begins in the late 19th Century. In England, John Ruskin, nostalgic for the medieval era, moralized against industrialization, while his favored artist J.M.W. Turner hallucinatorially envisioned the capitalist metropolis as a ruin-in-advance wherein any distinction between naturally-given atmosphere and the fossil-fuel particulates is impossible to discern (the invisible effluent of carbon dioxide only now comes into relief with the frame of climate change). Later into the century, William Morris forwent any nostalgia, translating his early concern with pre-industrial craft into a visionary post-capitalist, eco-socialist world of “communal luxury” inspired by the Paris Commune. Meanwhile, in the United States, what William Cronon has called the mythical “wilderness ideal” of sacred, untainted nature, was canonized in literature by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. In subsequent decades, the wilderness ideal was intertwined with the erasure of Native American populations, bound with techniques of settler-colonial resource management—an ethos that underlies the photographic oeuvre and conservationist advocacy of Ansel Adams.

2. Pre-war avant-gardes largely bracketed “nature” in terms of the organic environment, except when understood as an object of conquest (think, for example, of the ecstatic montages of mining and agricultural mechanization in Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera). In response to ecological crisis-conditions, two artistic figures in post-war United States ushered in their own version of a post-Wilderness artistic imaginary: The first was György Kepes at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, who along with Buckminster Fuller, called for artists to cultivate a newly sensitive “ecological consciousness” to spiritually supplement the cybernetic modeling of populations, resources, and environments by technocrats such as the Club or Rome. Secondly, at the end of his life, Robert Smithson, articulated an overtly ecological concern with remediating sites marred by industrial dereliction, such as abandoned strip mines, oil derricks, and garbage pits, yet envisioned working with corporations and governments rather than social movements.

3. In the seventies, the genre of “eco-art” coalesced, largely informed by a eco-idealism aiming to reintegrate humanity and nature into a homeostatic equilibrium, cosmic unity, or managerial stewardship, as in the case of Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison or Agnes Denes. Oftentimes this impulse was combined with so-called new genre public art, emphasizing principles of civic engagement but appealing to a model of harmonious community cleansed of political antagonism and blind to matters of race and class.

4. In the aftermath of the alter-globalization protests in Seattle in 1999 against the WTO, a new generation of media activists and experimental ecological researchers emerged. Most famously would be the Yes Men, known for their “identity correction” campaigns impersonating corporations, oftentimes in collaboration with the work of broader environmental justice campaigns. This period witnessed the series of climate encampments in Europe (including at the COP20 Summit), as well as the emergence of varied art practices with a self-consciously politico-ecological orientation as documented in T.J. Demos’s forthcoming Decolonizing Nature ranging from Subhankar Banerjee, to Nils Norman, to Amy Balkin.

Flood Wall Street graphic by Seth Tobocman; Flood Wall Street action in Financial District, September 2014 (photo courtesy of Spencer H. Johnson)

5. As I argue in my forthcoming book Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition, Occupy ushered in a new era of movement-based creative direct action in which artists have played an essential role. Exemplary in this respect are groups like MTL, Not an Alternative, Rolling Jubilee, Occupy Museums, Illuminator Collective, Global Ultra Luxury Faction, and People’s Climate Arts. Though ecology was not a prominent part of the populist antagonism staged by Occupy between the 1% and the 99%, the “climate strike” of Hurricane Sandy literally shut down Wall Street and devastated low-income communities of color in coastal areas like the Far Rockaways. Beyond immediate emergency relief, long-term grassroots climate organizing emerged from the disaster, bolstering both the 2014 People’s Climate March, and its radical supplement, Flood Wall Street (a day-long shutdown of Broadway in the financial district organized around an iconic image by Seth Tobocman of a people’s storm inundating the symbolic epicenter of capital) The action proved to be galvanizing for climate activists, bringing the spirit of what Naomi Klein calls “Blockadia” to New York City and anticipating the upcoming action-landscape of Paris in December.

For some on the more insurrectionary end of the spectrum, actions like Flood Wall Street have been taken to task for their alleged adherence to “political priorities and techniques that have literally been left behind by reality, by the new common in which we find ourselves.” Rather than mediagenic protests and coalition-building efforts, they call instead for the revolutionary communization of territories, resources, and skills in the face of real-time ecological disaster. At odds with this disposition is the accelerationist tendency, which decries the supposed “folk politics” of both protest-oriented direct action and small-scale projects of communization, which they caricature using Jodi Dean’s quip that “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens.” They instead offer a counter-hegemonic populist program involving visionary demands for post-work development, universal basic income, and the repurposing of large-scale infrastructural technologies (including energy and food systems). Meanwhile in the left nonprofit world, the New Economy Coalition is gaining traction, dovetailing with contemporary art projects like Solidarity NYC, the Real Estate Investment Cooperative, and the emerging world of “platform cooperativism.”

Finally, a crucial point of reference is the tradition of black radical economics and the discourse of reparations informing Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s Jackson Plan in Mississippi, coinciding with the liberatory vision of Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is especially important to consider in the context of this questionnaire, given the invisible dynamics of white supremacy that have long marked discussions of ecology—including, in many cases, the universalizing narrative of the Anthropocene.

Installation detail of Natural History Museum exhibit, American Alliance of Museums Conference, Atlanta GA, 2015 (image courtesy of Not an Alternative).

It is within the mesh of these variously competing and synergizing discourses projects that we should situate the intellectual questions posed by this questionnaire about art and social ecology. Whether one thinks of MTL, the Illuminator, or the People’s Climate Arts network, much of the most dynamic contemporary art takes place beyond the confines of art institutions, while others—such as the Natural History Museum—are doubling back upon those very institutions as platforms of organizing in their own right. The imaginative potentials and sensory forms of art are increasingly woven into the fabric of biopolitical struggle, making ours a period of both great excitement and great risk.

Contributor

Yates McKee

Yates McKee is an art critic and PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. His work has appeared in venues including October, The Nation, and Grey Room. He is the co-editor of Sensible Politics: The Visual Cultures of Nongovernmental Activism (Zone Books, 2012), and in 2016 has a forthcoming book from Verso Press called Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition.

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