Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology: An Interview with TJ Demos
This interview took place in Oslo on Saturday 5th April (2014) following the seminar, CURATING AND POLITICS: IN THEORY. Art historian and critic, TJ Demos, was one out of four academics that presented a diverse range of research in relation to curating and politics. Heidi Bale Amundsen and Gerd Elise Mørland initiated the event in collaboration with the Seminar of Aesthetics and Henie Onstad Kunstsenter.
Among the other speakers were Reesa Greenberg, Gabriel Rockhill and Cecilia Sjöholm.
Liv Brissach: Firstly I wanted to link up with what you were talking about in today’s seminar, in relation to dOCUMENTA 13. Thinking about large-scale exhibitions and perennial shows in general, and as a particular example, the exhibition RETHINK: Contemporary Art and Climate Change which took place during COP15 (2009 UN Climate Change Conference), do you think these events have the capacity of providing a valuable critique of the political ecological status quo?
TJ Demos: ’RETHINK’ during COP15 is a great example of an art exhibition occurring alongside a major UN summit on climate change, which poses the question of what such an exhibition might add to the debate. I’ve researched it, and also contributed an essay on “the politics of sustainability” to the magazine that ‘RETHINK” ended up producing. However, I wasn’t able to come to COP15, but heard a lot about it and read several reports. From what I understand, the RETHINK exhibition wasn’t so successful in creating a context where one could engage with the political stakes of ecology and the threat of climate change. As a group exhibition that occurred in multiple venues in Copenhagen, it offered an artistic presentation that related in some ways to nature and the environment, but in quite an abstract, mediated way—more about contemporary art in the gallery environment than the politics of climate change, which was happening on the streets at the time. Nothing in the exhibition really addressed the urgency of the debate in the UN meeting, which was criticized as being orchestrated by developed countries in a very anti-democratic way, while there was much protest by social movements on the streets arguing for greater democratic participation in terms of how the environmental crises should be addressed. One of the groups that was invited to RETHINK was the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, and they decided to mount a Bike Bloc protest, with creatively remade cycles designed for heightened visibility and greater activist mobility. They prepared the cycles in a collective way, but were basically evicted from their base of operations, at one of the RETHINK’s participating art institutions (the Nikolaj Centre for Contemporary Art), because the venue apparently couldn’t commit to or be seen to support that kind of radical political interventionism. The LII ended up going to elsewhere to build their bikes and prepare for the protest. The example shows you some of the contradictions involved in art and ecology when it’s taken up by dominant museum or gallery institutions, which can’t go very far in addressing the stakes involved or the necessary means of intervention (as it might, for instance, put their funding in jeopardy), which is in general better taken up by social movements and environmental activists. Still, the exhibition, even if on some levels a failure, still poses the question how might activists and artists build an alliance with institutions to forward a progressive agenda around the politics of ecology. We’ll have to wait for other opportunities to see how this potential arrangement plays out in more positive ways.
LB: In the special issue of Third Text dedicated to contemporary art and the politics of ecology, which you guest edited, you mentioned the collective called Liberate Tate, and also the Word of Matter and the Otolith Group. Do you think these groups provide radically different and more activist strategies that are more valuable to the kind of projects that you are engaged with?
TJD: Yes, although within those three groups that you mentioned there is quite a bit of diversity in their approaches. The Otolith Group isn’t exactly activist. But they make work that addresses some of the contemporary crises in direct ways relevant to activism. For example, take their film The Radiant, which addresses the recent Fukushima meltdown and the disaster in Japan in relation to what they call the “necropolitics of radiation” (referring to the government-corporate nuclear agenda and its willingness to sacrifice life to achieve their profit goals), and also in relation to the activists’ response in Japan. While the film works from quite an aestheticized, conceptualist approach, it’s successful in opening up speculative thinking around the ideas of eco-catastrophe and post-human extinction, which we can find not in some sci-fi future, but in our very present. It points to the way art can intersect with political ecology on the level of discourse, theory, and representation. Liberate Tate is the more activist model. They are not an artistic organisation per se, but are engaged as social activists trying to disrupt the funding streams that come from sources like British Petroleum that fund cultural initiatives like Tate Modern in London. They’ve done a number of really interesting performative and theatrical agit-prop events that try to dramatize the conditions of climate change, and also, that bring up the paradoxes and contradictions of philanthropy resulting from the oil industry’s support for cultural activities. They are also a research organisation and publish texts that are freely available online, which investigate the conditions of oil patronage and climate change, what it means for an oil company to support the arts, where it’s less the oil company that is supporting Tate’s activities than Tate that lends publicity and cultural legitimacy to a major fossil fuel corporation responsible for catastrophic environmental transformation. The Tate provides a service to British Petroleum, basically propagandising its activities, which, one could argue, contributes to the destruction of life as we know it on planet Earth. World of Matter, by contrast, can be positioned somewhere between the two. They are engaged in more of a direct way with political ecology than the Otolith Group, but they are not exactly an interventionist collective like Liberate Tate. But World of Matter is really interesting in that they insist we have to look at an expanded geography if we are to consider ecology and the crises that we face today. We have to look at places like Bangladesh and the Niger Delta in relationship to sea level rise, or Brazil and Ecuador in relation to deforestation and the conflicts over land use between multinational corporations, cattle farming, agribusiness and tribal rights, for example. Or we have to look at land use in Ethiopia, in relation to the conflict between chemical agriculture and local subsistence farming. World of Matter is a collective of individual artist-researchers, and they have different projects that address these different geographies from various aesthetic positions. Also, importantly, their research is made available as an open access research platform, their online website is freely accessible, offering an important development in contemporary media ecology (going beyond the rarefied, often exclusionary conditions of art galleries). Their model attempts to be more inclusive, free, democratic in that sense, and addresses these different uneven economic and social inequalities in places that stretch between the developed north and the global south.
LB: If they’re using a kind of media strategy to show things that mainstream media is not able to show, and to show trans-national connections that politics aren’t able to relate to, where does this place the viewer?
TJD: That’s a good question. First of all we would have to address what these groups are doing differently in relationship to ecology, which distinguishes their analyses from mass media or government publicity. One crucial area of concern is how nature is conceptualized and valued. Within governmental discourse worldwide, and within corporate discourse around climate change, it is generally accepted that the only way out of this present crisis is through the market system. It other words, in order to fix climate change, mainstream commentators propose that we have to value nature in economic terms so that we know exactly what, for instance, a forest, or a river, is “worth,” or what the value of bees is worth to agriculture worldwide. This approach of “true costing” is supported by the World Bank and the UN, and by many governments. Once we can put an economic value on nature, so goes the logic, then we can proceed to talk about how to protect it, and how to charge corporations that pollute it. This is the basic starting point of most mainstream discussions on how to fix climate change right now—that is, through the so-called free market. However, this poses the question, is it right to value nature in an economic way? In fact, for many activists, indigenous groups, and social movements, that approach simply continues the basic problem of seeing nature as fundamentally a human resource and source of financial gain. Others would object: Isn’t nature something that is intrinsically valuable, that has nothing essentially to do with economics or profit or financial speculation? Rather than financializing nature, others argue, we should figure out new and different ways to value nature without reducing it to money and profits. And there are resources for how to do this, mostly coming from indigenous customs and traditions, where nature is part of a worldly episteme that supports life itself, never reduced to an economic calculation. It’s religious, cultural, and social. It’s political and economic as well, but it is never reducible to a stand-alone economic quality. Artists like World of Matter, for example, argue for a profound questioning of this way of monetising nature. And they insist that we have to open up the question in a speculative philosophical way, to consider how we want to live and what significance we extend to nature and our environment. The crucial element here is that art offers viewers creative alternatives to forms of thought otherwise unrepresentable or invisible, yet often automatically accepted. If viewers take this work of art seriously and think about it, they’ll be encouraged to ask these kinds of questions themselves, and that can, I think, help add to the discussion of what other, sustainable ways of life can be, how we can invent life today outside of the basic premises of neoliberalism, ways of life that might offer some hope in the face of catastrophe. The World of Matter group is also investigating developments in law that are really fascinating in terms of the “rights of nature.” There are countries like Ecuador and Bolivia which have written “the rights of nature” into their constitution, so that nature can’t be considered merely an object of human exploitation. These rights are not economic, but actually arise in the form of political agency. So, nature can be protected, legally, as it has the right to exist and continue its intrinsic form of biodiverse ecology. This is a very significant development, offering another resource through which we can move away from the economic-centered, industrial exploitation of nature. There is one member of World of Matter, Pablo Taveres, who’s a Brazilian researcher investigating the context of Ecuador and how indigenous activists there are bringing the Texaco oil corporation to trial for crimes against the environment. In this regard, artists, as well as activists and researchers in different fields like Wild Law or Earth Jurisprudence, are opening up the discussion in very creative ways about how we might conceptualize nature differently, and that has the potential to strengthen social movements that will bring about political change. Such discussions offer viewers more worldy knowledge and political agency that they can develop in their own environments. For instance, what would a consideration of the “rights of nature” discourse offer to the discussion of oil politics and climate change in Norway? Such questions are very timely.
LB: To relate back to the first question about bigger institutions and large-scale exhibitions, do you think there is a potential for them to grapple with these ideas, or are they doomed because of their historical and economical connections to capitalism?
TJD: Large scale exhibitions, international biennials and Documentas, can indeed address these issues in critical and very interesting ways. But ultimately the very structure of these exhibitions, their funding systems and ecological impact in particular, may significantly limit their contributions. One might ask, if they can’t be considered ecologically sustainable, then how can they positively contribute to the politics of ecology? Thinking critically about ecology will, I think, force us to question the fundamental assumptions of such mega exhibitions. Can we have an exhibition that addresses the radical proposals of de-growth economy and de-globalisation—what some (such as Chris Williams, Richard Smith, ad Naomi Klein for example) consider to be necessary measures to prevent disastrous climate change—while at the same time that same exhibition relies on a model of growth and corporate globalisation? The paradox may simply be too great. If those are the most radical suggestions on the table for how we might confront the pressing crisis, large-scale exhibitions might not be the best place to address them, and we’ll need to look elsewhere, at creative experimental institutions, and innovative artistic proposals, for more credible and sustainable proposals for how to reinvent the world.