Considering issues of sustainability for art in a digital environment
Sustainability is not often thought about in relation to art making or exhibiting, for example, I was shocked recently by the large amount of good quality material that was simply thrown away by a gallery after an exhibition had finished and the installation taken down, and what questions are asked about the impact of using digital tools to create and present art?
For some this may seem an unimportant issue but as the use of flat screens, projectors, computers and other power hungry devices increases it is important that this area is investigated.
This mini project will require you to engage with the issues of sustainability both in the theoretical research you do and also in the way you do the research. Therefore the learning will come both from what you find to present to the wider group but also through the actual tools used to create and share your findings.
Sustainability in art has always been an issue, even before the digital era. There are numerous cases of ancient art and artefacts which were destroyed either during their times or centuries later – some even deliberately. And till now, the search continues for some missing works of art.
One would think advancement in technology and from past experience, we would have learnt to better preserve and pass on today’s art, but this is not always the case. That’s why it’s especially commendable the efforts which Ben Kacyra and his team have put into sustaining art from all over the world. http://www.ted.com/talks/ben_kacyra_ancient_wonders_captured_in_3d.html
Everything created can be destroyed. But sometimes, even in that ‘un-creation’, a new creation is made. Case in point is the way some guys decided to creatively re-create their 404 pages. A page for work that had either been deleted, moved, or for some reason or the other could not be found, is turned into a creative platform for the brand to express themselves.
Let’s un-create and re-create by breaking codes. We’ll be taking a jpeg image, breaking the codes which come together to form that image, then re-arranging those codes to form a new image. A file with all the codes that come together to form that image will be sent out and everyone contributes in shuffling the arrangement of the codes like a pack of cards. Randomly changing the position of any code would affect something in the image. Moving all the codes about would change the placement of every single element in the jpeg. After everything has been processed, the final output is the same jpeg, but a totally different image.
Thus everyone has a part to play in un-creating and creating because for every code you move, you change the original image and for everyplace you drop the code, you create a new image.
The internet never forgets, this has been especially true on social media sites as Facebook where deleted photos and other content (until recently) stayed accessible through direct URL’s. In 2010 The Scottish artist group FOUND created the installation The End of Forgetting to highlight the issues of lack of online privacy.
The basic idea is to take file junk, put it into a blender that outputs everything in its raw binary state, and use that data mashup as the source for something new. Producing the new from the old would be done by passing the mashup through a software application that makes sense of it as a visual / audio feed which can then be presented somewhere before the data is discarded permanently.
This webpage contains an app written by Ryan Westafer that converts binary files into images:
I suppose its important to consider the difference between Sustainable art as a movement, and sustainable art as a trend – one group might only share an ideological goal of making art that doesn’t create friction with the global ecosystem, while the other might also share visual and cultural references and goals.
If you look at the development of the idea of sustainability it has usually been tied to the ecology / green movement – its only in the last few years that the dreadlocks have been cut off. So many global brands are now aiming to reduce their carbon footprint, clean up their chemical use, and re-naturalise their production processes – Nike, Ikea etc. The global produce-and-consume culture is slowly moving in that direction – in business, in advertising, and in art.
What makes something ‘sustainable’ or not? Is it only about energy-efficiency? What about use of toxic chemicals, the distances travelled by component parts, purchasing materials from eco-rogue brands, promoting an alternative to consumer culture etc etc. There are so many aspects and points of view – it isn’t possible to satisfy everything.
Very many of my friends work in fields relating directly to creating sustainable brands and products and all of them agree that you have to define your own version of sustainability – set your own criteria and succeed within those parameters as best you can. They all agree that small brightly coloured labels that say for example ‘Made with Happy Trees’ are not particularly useful and are simply a marketing gimmick – but I believe it is important to make it as easy as possible for an audience to quickly understand the bespoke sustainability goals and successes of a product / event / brand. Interestingly projects that promote a more eco-minded culture often do just as much damage to the environment as the standard approach – like r.Smithson’s Spiral Jetty which caused considerable disturbance to the surrounding area despite his eco-minded philosophy.
Is Jason Taylor‘s Silent Evolution a sustainable success or failure? It creates a new habitat for corals, with the intention of relieving stress for natural reefs from underwater tourism. But it uses concrete and fiberglass to achieve its goals – two famously eco unfriendly materials with production processes that ultimately creates a massive carbon footprint for the project.
One question that interests me is this – does everything sustainable have to have a hint of hippy? Or could I create a super cool, technological, cultural artifact and at the same time be sustainable?
Fowkes & Fowkes explain three different ways that contemporary artists are using the notion of Sustainability [based, to some degree, on Felix Guattari’s 1989 book The Three Ecologies, which outlines means of “registering” ecological concerns.]
1] Ecological Impact. Artists are focusing on the life cycle of artwork, considering the “material burden” of the pieces they produce and the resources they use. The emphasis is not only on decreasing [or eliminating] material waste and potential damage to ecosystems, but also on rethinking the complex implications of packaging, transporting, storing, publicizing, and showing artwork. There is a move away from the production of objects, toward more process, action, or performance-based work. This is, probably, the most standard definition of “Sustainable Art.”
2]. The Social Dimension. Contemporary artists often deal, reflexively, with the ethical and social implications of work they produce and Fowkes & Fowkes suggest that notions of sustainability heighten this sensibility. Artwork might deal with an awareness and analysis of the context in which it is shown, ways in which it is portrayed in the media, and an ongoing debate about whether artwork in general “empowers or alternatively objectifies living subjects.” Fowkes & Fowkes note a move away from a 1970s-era Land Art, which they describe as “anthropocentric” — treating the land as canvas, and bull dozer as brush.
3] “Mental Ecology.” Fowkes & Fowkes write: “Sustainability, in its corporate and ‘green capitalist’ guise, is in danger of taking on some of the negative characteristics of an ideology, and in this way, of contributing to the problem of ‘mental pollution’…that is arguably as important an ecological factor as the poisoning of the rivers or the consumption of carbon.” Contemporary art has an established legacy of confronting and critiquing the implications of global capitalism and perhaps the most radical manifestation of Sustainable Art will be in the development of this line of thinking, working, and making.