What is Environmental Art? A strategy for re-cognition, orientation and implementation/
  • Co-Gen Magazine 2003

    The concept of environmental arts has become much more acceptable in the public psyche in recent years. Since the emergence of the ubiquitous sculpture trail, art-in-the-park initiatives and the general acceleration in public art commissions across the UK, the public seem to have mellowed their reception toward what were once considered by many as 'blots on the landscape'. However, the diversity of environmental art forms and their intentions still remain an anathema to all but those most closely involved in its practice; confusion setting in once beyond the literality of figurative sculpture.

    In order that some clarity may be brought to what continues to be 'muddy waters' as far as the consuming or commissioning public are concerned, I propose three strands, or orders of distinction that will hopefully categorise environmental art practice and clearly establish its aims. Further more I will make the claim that all environmental artists are, in some way or other motivated by education and restoration of and about the natural environment, and that this is their uniting denominator.

    The three strands (or orders of distinction) of environmental arts that I propose are as follows:

    • Art which observes and interacts with the (usually natural) environment.

    • Art which reclaims or improves physical environments in the tangible sense.

    • Art which engages with the social environment with pedagogical and/or activist intent.

    Kastner and Wallis (1998) succeed in dividing what they identify as 'land and environmental art' into twelve segments, but neglect to include a significant body of work that falls under the third strand described above; that which involves engaging the social element of environment. This is possibly due to a weighty concentration on visual artists, and their decision to separate themes by method rather than motivation. I see this as the significant shift of approach in the model I propose which will do the latter.

    My aim in providing this framework is generated by what I see is a need for a broader understanding of the claim made by advocates; that the environmental arts hold great potential as tools of environmental education and restoration. This may be the case, however it is my belief that the success of these projects largely relies upon the motivations of the implementer. This suggests that the placement of 'appropriately motivated' artists within these various environmental contexts is a vital component in ensuring the desired impact is realised. I will extend this theme later, when discussing the characteristics of the third and final strand of environmental art proposed in this paper.

    • Interactive Observation:
    The first strand of environmental art observes and interacts with the environment; we shall call this interactive observation as it absorbs what Kastner and Wallis call their integration and involvement categories, yet emphasises the artist's motivation to observe nature through various acts of interaction.

    It is this category of work that has become synonymous with the popular understanding of environmental art, and as such has done much for its advocacy. Current British artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Chris Drury, Richard Long, and David Nash are all good examples of artists who have developed an ethereal approach to working within natural landscape settings. Location and found material often determine the production of site-specific works of mainly sculptural form. Wood, stone, earth, ice, flowers, trees and leaves for example are manipulated to form subtle signs of human intervention the temporal nature of which becomes a part of its statement. The 'here today, gone tomorrow' art of these interactive observers has had a positive effect on those non-arts organisations such as Forest Enterprise, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, and the Countryside Agency for instance, who may previously have been wary of allowing artists to experiment within sites of natural interest.

    One could describe these works as temporal environmental commentaries that draw attention to the qualities of the natural raw materials employed, and their relationship to place. Other temporal commentaries that fall into this category are the documented walks by artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. These literally involve the artist recording their own sensory experiences during a journey on foot, as their art. These walks are recorded via a procession of verbs describing the experience of being, or a collection of objects/artefacts found along the way. Photographic diaries and maps also form a significant part of communicating differing aspects of the literal and the spiritual qualities of these works.

    This type of environmental art is motivated by the artist, who desires the personal and spiritual experience of nature as much, if not more than they wish to share it with others. But share it they do. According to Carl Jung (1966) Artists translate abstract ideas by giving them recognisable form, so that we the viewer can digest and be inspired by what may normally be passed by. The artist in this instance becomes interpreter presenting information not via explanatory or informative panels, but in a way that captures our imagination and heightens our own ability to understand-on our own.

    • Implementers of Ecovention:

    The second strand of environmental art which reclaims and/or improves physical environments in the tangible sense, has a wide spread of interpretation. It has to include artists such as Hans Haake, Joseph Beuys, Robert Morris, Alan Sonfist, Mel Chin, Agnes Denes and the Harrison partnership. (This list is by no means exhaustive, but intends to demonstrate a cross section of working approaches.)

    These environmental artists orientate their work around the reclaiming of degraded or threatened environments in the physical sense. In contrast to the ethereal nature of the 'interactive observers' discussed in the previous section, these artists are activists: Landscaping post industrial sites, cleaning up rivers, planting forests, cleansing toxic soils, and reintroducing indigenous eco-systems were they have declined. Kastner & Wallis describe these artists as implementers not satisfied to engage with natural phenomenon merely as a reporter; these creative individuals aim to engage with problem sites in order to make a difference. Education through example follows once projects enter the public domain.

    Spaid (2002) Describes this work as Ecovention; (ecology and invention) 'an artist initiated project that employs an inventive strategy to physically transform a local ecology.' Here the motivation is clearly superseding any preoccupation with the method of production. Spaid reiterates this point by making a distinction between the art historical term Earthworks and the notion of Ecovention. Earthworks mostly relating to sculptural forms, sometimes within reclaimed post industrial sites, but still primarily drawing attention to, and passing comment on, rather than restoring. Robert Smithson most famed for 'Spiral Jetty' was motivated by exposing human interference with the landscape, calling them 'sites of time' rather than engage with a healing process. Ecovention on the other hand is about repair, restoration and conservation. It is less concerned with form than with function.

    As many ecoventions deal with brown sites, mining sites, quarries, watercourses and forest planting, the scale of these projects can be considerable, and as they are usually initiated by artists, collaboration becomes key to success. Lengthy periods of research and consultation therefore become necessary during the developmental stages of projects. Scientific and engineering expertise often need to be called in as project partners. On the other hand however the reclaiming of a river may be a quiet and solitary vocation that takes one individual a year, through the generation of a peaceful daily ritual removing the detritus of waste products that have become commonplace.

    • Agents of Perceptual Change

    The third and most challenging strand of environmental art as I see it, is the art which engages with the social environment with pedagogical or activist intent. Neglected by Kastner & Wallis, Spaid uses the terms community action and agents of perceptual change to describe the 'interdisciplinary and participatory works' of artists who by their own volition remain unknown outside their field. This way of working is by its nature non-spectacular. It is primarily concerned with the changing of perceptions from within community groups. This is implemented through artist led participatory communications, that utilise a creative language to observe, question, debate, try out, and develop action-solutions.

    It is most importantly motivated by a drive to change social attitudes and inspire environmental improvement.

    Barber (2000) presents a table of oppositions to illustrate the differences in approach between exemplary/strategic 'action' and intervention/instrumental 'action' these oppositions representing the beginnings of what I consider to be the central characteristics of socially engaged environmental art. Barber suggests that '[the] oppositions represent the general differences between two types of political action protest [and] resistance' This is a valid consideration, as the politically activist art of the 1970's and 80's had developed into protest art; provocative in content, but questionable in its validity as a tool for actually changing social opinion. By way of a contrast, socially engaged environmental art combines the instrumental action of resistance with the concept of 'communication action' Here Barber extends his ideas, taking in those of Jurgen Habermas regarding his theory of the way in which individuals are motivated politically. Habamas claimed that the nurturing of conversation through 'cooperative achievements of understanding' is crucial to the success of changing attitudes and motivating action. Barber does not use the term 'environmental art' in his text, but his use of the terms 'littoral'(constantly moving coastal margin) and 'intervention' under the umbrella of conceptual art, concurs with much of the interdisciplinary work which occurs under the environmental mantle.

    Most typically these projects begin with open community consultations, and arts workshops. The work is not art-product driven, so often little in the way of visual arts can be traced. The aim of projects vary, and may include actual environmental action, awareness raising, or community development, or all three. Some artists choose to work more within the margins of social exclusion and even healthcare. What seems most challenging with this strand of environmental art is its intangible character. 'Process-based' planned collaborations between interested parties that utilise dialogue as artform; integrative and meditative in quality, non-provocative, reflective and non-spectacular. Interestingly this strand of environmental art is becoming almost institutionalised by its growing popularity with government agencies who support initiatives that take this approach. Bottom-up direction. ensures projects remain the property of the participants, with collective understanding rather than individual success as the goal.

    The unpredictability of this potentially dynamic situation determines the need for a creative, non-dialectical intervention that stimulates the bonding act of Habermas's communication action. The character and temperament of the artist is suited to this phenomenon. Dacey and Lennon(1998) argue creative individuals are more tolerant of ambiguity, able to visualise relationships between dissimilar objects/issues and retain a 'total' picture, resisting the temptation to narrow ones view and become bogged down with detail. They are also more open to experience and unafraid to fail as it is in their character to experiment, learning from failure rather than seeing it as a negative end. To place these individuals into this highly explorative environment can only be exciting. But it is not every artist who would wish to work in this way, without authorship, and immersed in a highly unpredictable setting. It therefore becomes vital that when projects such as these are initiated by anyone other than the artists themselves, great care is taken when appointing artists for this role. Not-for-Profit artists agencies are becoming more active in pursuing what is often recognised as a new and rich seam of employment for artists. Caution may be called for however as stories of 'walk outs' begin to echo from administrative corners when artists cannot cope with the mitigation of private authorship and acclaim.

    Whilst these three strands or motivation-based categories of environmental art hopefully clarify their individual positions as tools for environmental education and restoration, there are of course always those who bend the rules. Points of cross over do occur between these strands, providing particularly vibrant results. For instance the Nine Mile Run Greenway Project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, (1996-Present) has been a large scale collaboration between artists, academics, scientists and industry. The aim of the project which focuses on a 240 acre post industrial brown-site, was to claim back the site as a public space restoring it aesthetically, culturally and ecologically. The methodology took approaches from all three of the motivational strategies suggested above; Tim Collins founding researcher and co-initiator of the NMR Greenway Project believes change 'has to be strategically identified, relentlessly pursued, and rationally enabled' He and his team have a holistic zealousness that attributes equal value to all aspects of the rounded term 'environment'. Taking what might be mistaken for a Zen Buddhist stance the NMR Greenway Project extols the appreciation of small steps; human endeavour, and the 'ecological value of a post industrial ecosystem.

    It is sometimes difficult to accept those concepts which challenge generations of teaching, especially if the concept is plastic in its form and inspired by entropy. The multiplicity of environmental art, whilst retaining a polarized identity in one sense resists the temptation to become confined by labels. This is arguably its strength, and whilst it may provocate some, appearing polemic to the traditional notion of art as far as modernist Greenbergian theory dictates, I would suggest more rationally it is nothing more than an extension of the perceptive and inquiring mind of the creative artist.

    1. Kastner J. & Wallis B.,Land and Environmental Art, (1998) Phaidon Press Ltd.
    2. Jung C. G., The Spirit in Man, Art & Literature (Vol. 15)(1966)Princeton University Press. Ch.IV Pg. 82
    3. Kastner.j & Wallis B. op. cit.
    4. Spaid S., Ecovention; current art to transform ecologies (2002)Co-Published by: The Contemporary Arts Center/Ecoartspace/Greenmuseum.org
    5. Shapiro G., Earthwards; Robert Smithson and Art after Babel, (1995) University of California Press: Pp. 113-152
    6. ibid pg.49 & 61
    7. Barber B., The Gift in Littoral Art Practice (2000)Paper delivered @'Chimera' Symposium, ChristChurch, New Zealand Nov. 10-13 Conceptual Art Online www.imageandtext.org.nz/print_bruce_gift.html pg.5
    8. ibid
    9. ibid pg.6
    10. Barber B. Op cit. pg.6
    11. Dacey J.S., & Lennon K.H., Understanding Creativity the interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors, (1998) Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco
    12. Collins T., 3 Rivers Π 2nd Nature: The River Dialogues (Art and Planning)(2001) Un Published Draft Paper Prepared for Malcolm Miles, University of Plymouth
    13. Collins T., Interventions in the Rust Belt: The art and ecology of Post Industrial Public Spaces, (No Date) Un Published paper provided by the author: Pg.8

    Rosi Lister is currently the Director of Tees Valley Arts; a not-for-profit cultural education agency specialising in socially engaged art, in the North East of England. In 1997 she developed and taught a unique Environmental Art degree programme in association with the University of Lincoln. This degree programme was specifically designed for countryside rangers. Rosi’s current research interest relates to how the environmental arts can contribute to pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.

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