Emma Ridgway

Emma Ridgway is curator at the RSA Arts and Ecology Centre, (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce) and was previously at Serpentine Gallery, London. She edited the book Experiment Marathon (Serpentine Gallery and Reykjavik Art Museum, 2009) and curated Beings and Doings at the British Council (New Delhi, 2007). Recent talks include Zones of Conflict, Rethinking Contemporary Art in a time of Global Crisis, Tate Britain; Art and Politics, Chelsea School of Art; Green Talk, Barbican Gallery.

RETHINK: A New Improbable Form of Life

We are as gods, we have to get good at it… The planetary perspective now is not just aesthetic. It's not just perspective. It's actually a world-sized problem that will take world-sized solutions that involves forms of governance we don't have yet. It involves technologies we are just glimpsing. It involves what ecologists call ecosystem engineering. Beavers do it, earthworms do it. They don't usually do it at a planetary scale. We have to do it at a planetary scale. A lot of sentiments and aesthetics of the environmental movement stand in the way of that. Stewart Brand, August 20091

We humans are as gods because we now affect the chemical composition of the planet earth. The environmentalist attitude of scorning industrialisation because of the unintended consequences of environmental damage will contribute little to generating the new approaches we need now. The message that human progress has damaged nature is holding us back — we have become an integral and powerful part of nature — it is an uneasy responsibility. So how can we get good at being as gods? How can we become enlightened enough to generate technologies, behaviours and ways of thinking that will be adequate responses to the changes ahead of us? And what role might art play in this necessary rethink of our relationship to our world?

Images can be powerful. The early photograph of planet earth taken from the outer space shifted peoples understanding of the world from a national to a global perspective. Nasa’s now-famous Apollo images were not Stewart Brand's yet public when environmentalist Stewart Brand successfully ran his public campaign, "Why haven’t we seen a photo of the whole earth yet?" in 1966. He was led by his belief that it would be socially beneficial for humans to see the earth as one whole.2 It was a revelation, a revolutionary aesthetic intervention. The aesthetics of the environmental movement, from activism to gallery works, were and are often explicit in addressing the subject of nature and the environment. As art historian TJ Demos asserts elsewhere in the catalogue to the RETHINK exhibition, "To contribute to the ongoing public engagement with the politics of sustainability, to advance creative proposals for alternative forms of life based on environmental justice in a global framework… these are the imperatives for a contemporary environmental art."3

In the late 1960s a number of artists inspired by the environmental movement began to focus on ecology, rather than interpretations of nature that had gone before. The artist regarded as being the most influential in his active engagement with environmentalism was Joseph Beuys. He believed that creativity is brought into being by social and political action, to express what he considered universal human concerns. His work was largely based in process and interaction. Works were generated from his charismatic performances and participatory projects, such as tree planting, 7000 Oaks (1982 – 1984, Kassel).

Artists Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison take a range of environmentalist approaches and continue to promote concepts of sustainable living. Since 1969, their work has employed the structural language of minimalist art with the additional inclusion of live ecosystems: growing vegetables, plants or fish. They have also made explicit pedagogic exhibition displays such as Greenhouse Britain: Where the loss of land due to ocean rise is first expressed (2006).

More recently organisations have begun to platform, commission and debate contemporary artistic responses to environmental change. In the UK, The RSA Arts and Ecology Centre was initiated in 2005 at The RSA, a 250-year-old organisation that encourages the development of a principled, prosperous society and the growth of human potential. The project Cape Farewell began in 2003 and takes artists on expeditions to see first hand the effects of environmental change. And TippingPoint brings together artists and scientists for in depth workshops about climate change.

A majority of works engaging with climate change draw directly on the language of environmentalism. But there are increasing concerns that the approach and narrative of the environmental movement inhibits the depth of fresh understandings that people need to develop pro-environmental behaviours. Writing on environmental aesthetics, Timothy Morton argues profoundly that concepts such as "nature" (as something separate from us), or romantic conceptions of self (the beautiful soul syndrome) as well as depictions of climate change through apocalyptic imagery (as a teleological endgame) are not only misleading and essentially dubious, but are damaging our capacity for ecological thought.4 Examining the environmental movement directly, the report Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity5 employs social and psychological research to evidence the need for the eco-campaigns to appeal more positively to meaningful human values and complex identities, rather than for modest changes to behaviour by organisations and consumers.

While it is important that artists engage with environmentalism, it is vital that the sole professional responsibility of artists is to make good art that has integrity. As Cornelia Parker said recently, "I don’t think we have to make big bombastic statements about climate change in our art. I think every single person is a creative being and it is all about unlocking the inner creativity in everyone in terms of applying it to this task."6 By considering works that explicitly address nature and the environment as ecological art, are we missing an opportunity to amplify the most potent aspects of contemporary art?
There is a tendency to split art into political art and not so political art. But tangible questions, sensational questions (in terms of our senses), neurological questions, cognitive questions can be very political as well. Political in a social, ethical and environmental ways, if you want. What does it mean to have a body in the world today? How do we actually have an impact? What does it mean to have an impact? Why does it matter that I actually live in this world? Olafur Eliasson, January 20087

Visual art can change how we think. Contemporary artworks often have the experience and cognition of the viewer as a key component from their conception. For The Weather Project, (2003) Olafur Eliasson created a temporal artificial sun for the Tate Modern’s vast turbine hall. Eliasson’s interest is in how we, as individuals, experience the world around us; these are philosophical concerns that have implications for how we act socially. As environmental issues have come to the fore in recent years, his work has been drawn into the discourse of climate change. This poignant change in context magnifies the pragmatic implications of his work in a way that resonates with Brand’s scientifically-led call to think expansively and ambitiously about the future that we are creating. The environmental movement talks of measuring human impact through gas emissions, carbon footprints and the destruction of nature. Eliasson’s installations offer potentially enlightening experiences of being immersed and energised by our relationships to world around us.

Returning to the example of Nasa’s Apollo image, the photograph was not transformative in and of itself, but it was revelatory. The whole earth image enabled us to recognise what we had already become (a planetary species), and the limits of the planet (we only have one). What it means to be Earth by nighthuman, in relation to society and the environment, changes continually. We don’t recognise those changes while they are happening because we are not necessarily conscious of the shifts we make in our ways of life. Art, culture, and science retrospectively identify what we have already become. Art and ideas are not timeless, they are historically specific. The uneasy realisation of our current situation is that we are part of an ecological system that we influence more than we previously thought was possible. We are not outside observers, we are participants; we engage and affect systems whether we intend to or not.

The equivalent perspective shift in visual art could be Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). His work is not environmental, but is an exemplary case of the power of recognising who and what we have become in a given moment. It is a demonstration of how contemporary, conceptual, aesthetic judgment functions. Fountain was a urinal signed by a fictional artist, positioned with the plumbing facing front so that urinating into this particular pissoir would cause you to piss on yourself – you get out what you put in.  Behind that punch line there are two constituent parts that nominate the meaning of an artwork: the intention of the artist in addition to the thinking and understanding of the viewer. The work is also a joke about what designates an object as ‘art’, namely authorship and the frame of the gallery. Fountain was a profound art joke. Duchamp’s mischievous provocation marked a key moment in avant-garde art because it decisively shifted the premise of art from telling people what to think to making an appeal to people to think for themselves. Contemporary art is perhaps the only area of visual cultural life that is premised on critical and creative thinking as ends in themselves (unlike fashion, design and advertising). Once you begin to enjoy Duchamp’s point you can no longer think of art as iconic, heroic and separate from us. A perspective shift has taken place. One can no longer think, believe or behave as before; this brings with it unfamiliar responsibilities.

As the anthropologist Mary Douglas suggests, "Aesthetic pleasure [has] something in common with the joy of a joke; something which might have been repressed has been allowed to appear, a new improbable form of life has been glimpsed."8  This joy is the brilliant moment of revelation. Today, our new, improbable form of life has already appeared: we are the co-creators of our environment. Yet we do not yet fully recognise ourselves as such. This is a revelation awaiting to be fully explored through the arts.



1 We Are As Gods And We Have To Get Good At It, Stewart Brand Talks About His Ecopragmatist Manifesto, http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/brand09/brand09_index.html accessed 20 August 2009.
2 On the Waterfront, Interview By Edward Lewine, New York Times Magazine, 15 April 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/magazine/19wwln-domains-t.html accessed 1 May 2009.
3 T. J. Demos. The Politics of Sustainability: Art and Ecology in RETHINK – Contemporary Art & Climate Change. Ed. Sune Hede and Anne Sophie Witzke. Originally published in Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969 – 2009. Ed. Francesco Manacorda and Ariella Yedgar (London: Koenig Books, 2009) p 28. 
4 Timothy Morton. Ecology Without Nature, Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2007).
5 Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser. Meeting Environmental Challenges:The Role of Human Identity,
http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/meeting_environmental_challenges___the_role_of_human_identity.pdf accessed 8 July 2009.
6 Cornelia Parker in An Arts and Ecology Conversation on World Environment Day between Jeremy Deller, Gustav Metzger, Cornelia Parker and Emma Ridgway at Whitechapel Gallery, London. 5 June 2009
7 Olafur Eliasson in Rules of Engagement: Can Artists Be Activists? Presented by Cornelia Parker. BBC Radio 3, 13 January 2008. (Just Radio, London).
8 Mary Douglas. Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London: Routledge, 1993, 6th ed) p 94.


This article is also published in the RETHINK exhibition catalogue which can be purchased at one of the four museums or at the Alexandra Institute. For mail order, please contact Lene Mortensen, bGVuZS5oLm1vcnRlbnNlbkBhbGV4YW5kcmEuZGs=.