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networking the arts to save the earth

First appeared in the Irish Visual Artist’s Newsletter, July/August 2011

A rural based Irish experimental filmmaker/ visual artist, Cathy Fitzgerald, reflects on the value of online technologies for the development and visibility of cultural activities in the art and ecology field, sustainability in the wider cultural sector and her own practice

Save the Humans, Photo: Martin Salinas 2010Photo: Martin Salinas Save the humans (2010) Flickr – creative commons

Despite vast amounts of scientific evidence gathered over the last few decades indicating the serious effects the globalised industrial age has had on the ecosystems that support life on earth; and the almost total scientific consensus on climate change evidence revealing alarming biosphere instability – it has to be said that the mind-set and practices of a great many artists and cultural institutions have been surprisingly slow in addressing these realities for themselves and their audiences.

The reasons for this situation are complex – and realistically beyond the scope of this article. However, there are small but growing numbers of cultural practitioners and organisations engaged in these concerns – both in terms of practical and conceptual activities. Such endeavours are at times building on artists work who focussed attention on our relationship to the land, as in the Land Art movement that arose 30 years ago alongside the beginnings of the environmental movement. Yet, much contemporary art practice concerned with ecology and sustainability find itself relegated to the margins of contemporary cultural discourse and arts education, as its practitioners are effectively working against or outside of current cultural trends.

The stark reality is that scientists estimate that we have four decades – at most – to make planet-wide changes to live sustainably on this one finite planet (culturefutures.org). This fact has reinvigorated cultural activity in this area, which can be loosely grouped under the heading of ‘art and ecology’. However, the knowledge of the urgency and scale of change needed has not been communicated or understood in the wider cultural sector.

Professor Maziak writing in the leading art and science journal Leonardo, has strongly argued that “the strengthening and coordination of this movement has never been more urgent, and its reinvigoration by the critical mass of scientists and artists has never been more sorely needed … understandably, scientists and artists may be the least willing to be involved in politics, and many, rightly so, consider such involvement to be a distraction from creativity and inventiveness. Unfortunately, the luxury of devoting one’s whole self to probing into the wonders of science and the arts is one we can no longer afford. Neither art nor science can thrive in an unstable, depleted world” (1).

The use of internet technologies such as web-streaming, tele-conferencing, podcasting and online social networks have emerged as a very important means to both rapidly share knowledge; and provide the means to reduce the art worlds carbon footprint. In terms of my own research and practice I am the web administrator for the global culture and climate change initiative and network, culturefutures.org. Other examples would include, RANE – Falmouth University’s Research in Art, Nature and Environment group (rane.falmouth.ac.uk), which features a growing online audio archive of visiting leading art-ecology-science practitioner’s talks.

Last year the UK Open University created an iTunes podcast series of free downloadable talks, entitled Mediating Change: Culture and Climate Change. Similarly the international labforculture.org’s website has organised a section on their site to display online video interviews from curators and leading arts practitioners engaging with climate change – giving those working in the area a valuable means to further their understanding and connect with leading artists and curators working in this area. I recently joined a web-streamed online conference, held by the UK Arts Catalyst organisation (artscatalyst.org) reflecting on recent art and science projects that reflect on climate science and then later joined the conference conversation on Twitter – connecting with practitioners and others that I have been following in this area.

Web technologies offer a relatively simple, low cost and significant means to connect with others, side-stepping the high ecological costs of air travel. Cultural practitioners engaging in ideas of more sustainable futures frequently recognise that their own actions – especially travel – must be examined. Cornelia Parker, a leading UK visual artist and one of the first to respond to Oxford scientists’ call for the culture sector to conceptually engage with climate change in 2005, recently commented on the leading UK culture sustainbility website Juliesbicycle.com, “I think it’s essential with the rapid expansion of the contemporary art world globally and with more and more people travelling from one art fair, biennial or exhibition to the next, that we examine our behaviours more rigorously… on a larger and more philosophical scale I have been questioning the amount I travel internationally both in accompanying works and also in terms of committing to exhibitions abroad.”(2)

Cultural sustainability sites and networks such as juliesbicycle.com, and culturefutures.org are valuable resources detailing information, arts policy strategies, ideas and inspiration from leading cultural practitioners. Also there is a growing realisation that globally, the cultural sector will have an exciting, diverse and vital creative role in envisaging sustainable lifestyles – engaging audiences, which scientific and political sectors have so far struggled to connect.

While online art /ecology / sustainability websites can be a very useful means to quickly gather and absorb some of the key thinking in this area, the recent development and availability of low-cost customisable social media networks has further allowed those working in this area to create artists’ networks specifically on these topics. Members of such networks can view others work and upload their own ‘rich media’ content (video, photographs, audio etc.) to share knowledge of their practice, enter discussion forums, form subgroups and post event notices to others across the network. Such networks are forming important, participatory knowledge-banks of contemporary artists practice and ideas, in a context that acknowledges that culture itself must sustainably re-invent itself.

Online social networks have also considerably added a new dimension to the very limited number of text publications that have been produced over the last decades on art and ecology practice and themes. Such networks and interactive website blogs have given practitioners with relatively basic online skills, the means to self-publish their activities instantaneously. Suddenly these interactive networks and sites have made visible growing numbers of practitioners, projects and programmes engaging with these concerns.

Many working in this area have found, perhaps for the first time, that they are not so isolated and now have relatively easy tools in which to connect and share with others’ practices and experiences. The grassroots, informal and more non-hierarchical nature of social networks appears to have been particularly popular with artists working in this area, as many of these practitioners would not subscribe to the dominant structures and themes of the art market, art education institutions or trends in contemporary curating. The ability to connect with experienced practitioners working in this manner has also been greatly improved. Increasingly art / ecology / sustainability practitioners and organisations are recognising the popularity and power of online network platforms, using them in preference or in conjunction with static information websites or more interactive blog sites.

However, while initial benefits from online art and ecology social networks have been encouraging – with cultural practitioners enthusiastically having added their profiles, links to their own websites, uploaded photos, videos and articles on their work – what has resulted on some less strategically managed networks, are little more than informal online directories of artists. In some cases network administrators and / or network members seem unaware or lack the network skills to see the potential to transmit their ideas, knowledge and new practices across such networks. Often, after initial interest, activity in some networks has fallen away. This maybe also be due to users informal experience of other social networks sites, such as Facebook, that encourage only shallow and short interactions. Many have not considered that an important part of their practice may now encompass online networking that may include forming their own special interest subgroup(s) on such networks, leading or actively participating in online discussions, sharing knowledge and experience or more widely distributing their work or writings through such networks.

Recently I have undertaken a comprehensive review of online activity in the growing numbers of art and ecology networks that have formed worldwide and have offered observations and strategies from other fields to explore these under-realised aspects of these social network technologies. I have also examined new ideas about how and why these networks work and the often-overlooked high energy costs that these technologies themselves use.

Personally, online art and ecology networks have offered me very useful platform to showcase my own work and an important means of keeping in touch with people who I have met in the field and with others that I have never met but with which I share common interests. Some of the networks have in varying degrees brought examples of leading and current art and ecology practice to my desk in rural Carlow; and in return I have seen my ideas and artworks, from blog posts to short films, travel and engage with others in many other parts of the world.

My website posts have recently been syndicated with the US Centre for Sustainable Practice of the Arts (cspa.org), allowing my ideas and the slow art practice where I focus on filming experiences of small backyard sustainable permanent forest, to connect with larger online audiences in North America and beyond (3). There has been a certain freedom and power to ‘self-curate’ my practice online, responding to ideas and practices that are happening now. Relatively quickly, and outpacing most institutions and printed publications, these networks are beginning to create an important sphere of globalised activity, in an area where there is much co-ordinated potential to be realised. While many may see activities associated with online social networks as trivial, the rise of ever more web-fluent users and audiences and their role in affecting real change as witnessed in the middle east in recent months, may help us collectively work together to imagine ecological futures, that in the end might help ‘save the humans’ too!

Notes
1. Maziak, W (2006) On the Verge of Avalanche, Leonardo April 2006, Vol. 39, No. 2: 95–95, LEONARDO THINKS 1968 – 2011 Contemporary Opinion by Wasim Maziak.
2. Commenting on the well regarded UK arts sustainability resource site www.JuliesBicycle.com
3. Cathy Fitzgeralds’s research paper ‘networking the arts to save the earth‘ (2011) can be downloaded at www.ecoartnotebook.com This site also has a comprehensive listing of art and ecology networks on the resource links page. Cathy is a PhD researcher at GradCAM.ie/NCAD and her initial research on experimental artists cinema and ecology can be found at www.ecoartfilm.wordpress.com

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Cathy Fitzgerald
Cathy Fitzgerald is a rural-based experimental filmmaker / visual artist with a background in research biology. Born in New Zealand she has lived in Ireland for 16 years. She is presently a Visual Culture PhD Scholar at the National College of Art & Design (NCAD), Dublin, Ireland. She is looking at experimental film (practice and theory) and ecology in this age of biospheric crisis. Her research work can be seen at www.ecoartflm.com
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