lucas venting at the abc
Lucas at ABC radio studios, picture by Louise the Intern…

Media begets media. It’s the truth, sad as it may be. Given that my project’s “materials” include media such as blogging (amongst other things), the Environmental Audit blog gets requests from time to time from other media folks. In this case, it was the Radio National gang from the ABC, who asked if I’d like to do a segment called “The Vent”.

Actually, the story goes further back – there’s a thing coming up later this week called “Tipping Point“, focussing on the connections between art and climate change – and I’ve been invited to speak briefly at the launch. And it was because of THIS that the ABC got in touch.

The concept of The Vent segment is that one person speaks continuously for 5-10 minutes on a subject of his/her choice. Particularly something that gets their goat. In my case, it made sense to speak from the position of having been doing the audit for the last 4 months (it’s now coming to its end, folks!). To tell you the truth, I struggled a bit to come up with a rant – I’m actually feeling pretty positive right now… or at least I was a week ago when I recorded it!

Anyway, here it is, in all its nerdy splendour.

And, below the line here, you can read the transcript from my Vent…
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Greenwash / Audit

greenwash thumnail

Meg Ulman of The Artist as Family has written an article in the Greenwash series about Environmental Audit and some questions it raises (so many questions, Meg!)

If you click on the above image, you can see the article in your browser window. Or you can read it over at Trouble Magazine, here.

At the end of her article, she writes:

I asked Ihlein if, at the close of the In the Balance show, he would be decreeing a verdict, either yay or nay, as to whether the show was worth it. He said no, he wouldn’t be, and I was glad. It means his audit is not about having a final say, about reaching one definitive conclusion, but about highlighting our methods and processes, our ability to speculate and question, and our obsession with cultural objects that for too long we have prized, but not prised open.

star asterix

If you want to read the full text of the article, I’ve pasted it here below:
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In the Mailbag

This week I’ve received some emails from university students keen to discuss the Environmental Audit for assignments they’re working on.

One of these students, “M.” is studying for a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing.

Here’s her message, with my response below…

Hi Lucas.

I have been following your Environmental Audit online and at the MCA and I’m captivated by the self-referential nature of your work — something which I believe is vital for eco-artists.

I am a Masters of Arts Student and I have chosen to do my ‘open-essay’ on eco-art and public action. It’s a small piece worth 1500 words and will be shown to the class, in a workshop, and to my convener.

I wanted to know:

  1. Are your works meant to be a catalyst for debate? Or, for change? This is particularly interesting to me because of their interactive nature. Are you seeking to enter your audience into discourse about environmental concerns and into a dialogue with each other?
  2. In other words, do you intend for your audience to enter into discourse about the use of energy/resource in the exhibition and eco-art movement? Or is there a desired path-of-action you wish to catalyse?
  3. Is provoking thought, and creating conversation/discussion, enough for our planet?
  4. Do you feel that your project ‘belongs’, in some manner, to society because it engages with the public sphere, with issues of the public and of their space?
  5. Is your work — conceptually and physically/technologically — accessible?
  6. Does environmental art need to be self-referential, and exhibit an acute awareness of medium and sustainability, to hold any value in the enviromission?
  7. If eco-artists don’t specifically intend to activate change in their audience, then is environmental art essentially ‘art for art’s sake’ where the creators simply leach off of the green franchise?

I look forward to hearing from you.


Thanks M. Some of these are big questions. Let’s see how I go.

With regard to your first 2 questions, I think that catalysis is not a bad metaphor. A catalyst increases the rate of change in a chemical reaction. With my Environmental Audit project, I’m hoping to do a similar thing. But rather than accelerating chemical change, I am hoping to accelerate social change.

This sounds lofty and ambitious and a bit pretentious. However, I should follow this statement with the understanding that I am not actually in a position to persuade anyone into changing anything (and I think this is probably pretty clear to anyone reading this blog). I am neither particularly clever, nor exemplary in my own lifestyle. And I don’t hold a position of any power to execute decisions affecting anyone except myself.

What I can do, though, is to publically examine myself, and the very local situation in which I find myself: an environmentally-themed exhibition at a contemporary art gallery. The players in this game are the artists, curators and gallery-workers, visitors and blog readers; and the set of relations between them, the organisations we belong to, and the materiality of the planet we’re a part of.

I have the privelege of spending 3 months of my life dwelling on (and in) this situation. I also have the luxury of operating out of a highly visible piece of real estate (on the third floor of the MCA), and these things may amount to some degree of power to activate change, under the (possibly erroneous) equation “visibility is relevance”.

So I am hoping that my extended, open-ended, publically visible examination of this situation might lead to something shifting. But I have no fixed goal or particular idea as to what that shift might be.

To answer your third question: clearly, no. Provoking thought and discussion is not enough for our planet. We’ve got to actually do something too, something practical and something physical. The fact that endless discussions are not held to be enough is clear from the widespread derision which followed Julia Gillard’s pre-election announcement of a citizen’s assembly to discuss what to do about climate change.

But what to do, of course, is the question? How to do something when big changes seem to be in the hands of large corporations and governments? What do we do with our sense of impotence around this? In the first instance, we think and talk about it a lot. Then we start to group ourselves together and make small changes. None of these small changes (using energy saving bulbs, making compost, installing dual flush toilets, switching to recycled paper, planting vegies, keeping chickens, chaining oneself to a tree, voting in a federal election, writing a blog, blah blah blah) is going to “save the planet”. But I reckon that what we’re doing, when we make them, is preparing the soil for the big top-down changes to properly take root when they’re finally planted.

Question 4: Yes, the project “belongs to society”, in two ways. First, it takes place in society: its site is the public sphere itself (an online project unfolding over time, as well as interactions taking place in the semi-public sphere of the gallery). Second, its subject matter is specifically the social: How do the structure of our societies create situations which make large-scale environmental action difficult?

With regard to Question 5: perhaps you (and other readers) can answer this better than I can. All I can say is that I have attempted to be as clear as possible, within the project, about what the project is about, and what it is trying to do, and how – as well as to articulate my own limitations. I deliberately set out to avoid obfuscating and mystifying (and I am aware that contemporary art is often accused of such crimes). There are, of course, barriers to access: my project only uses English language; you have to be able to access the internet, and to navigate your way around a blog (and I know some older folks will have difficulty with this)…

Question 6: Not all art is overtly self-referential, nor does it need to be. That just happens to be the method of my own project right now. However, I think wilful naivety is going to be viewed more and more critically in years to come. By this I mean projects which don’t seem to have any awareness of the embodied energy and pollution inherent in their own materiality. (On the other hand, there is always the opposite possibility, where the mindless race towards armageddon may accelerate itself, as in this micro example from The Artist as Family’s Meg.)

With your seventh question, I see what you’re getting at but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Intentionality is not the ultimate criterion by which we judge an artwork. Sometimes the artist’s intention can be completely superseded by the way an audience member might interpret or use it for a different purpose. So we have to zoom back a bit and see the work of art as a series of relationships which is far more complex than even the artist can know.

On utilitarianism

abc tv shoots the audit
[Lucas all teachery-like with the ABC TV crew, in front of the Environmental Audit blackboards, at the MCA…]

In the week following the exhibition opening at the MCA, there’s been a flurry of media attention for the show (at least on good ole Aunty). (And The Artist as Family’s Food Forest has generated its own flood of media.)

Why? Is it because “the environment is so hot right now”? Which makes me wonder: how long will it take for the media to get “climate change fatigue”…?

Here in the photo above, I’m chatting with Fenella Kernebone from ABC TV’s Art Nation. I think her short piece on In the Balance (also featuring Diego Bonetto, Lauren Berkowitz, Rachel Kent, Future Farmers and Janet Laurence) will be broadcast this coming Sunday.
[update – watch Fenella’s TV spot online here…]
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“I, Pencil” 2.0

Pat, my good colleague from Big Fag Press has been helping me with the scanning and pre-press for the very first prints which are on their way to the MCA.

The first diagram shows all the “ins and outs” that I could summon to my mind, of the process of making, funding, organising, delivering, exhibiting, and maintaining an artwork in the museum. It’s a schematic chart (rather than being specific to any particular artwork or museum).

An early draft of the diagram is here – the new version has been enhanced, it’s heaps bigger, allowing me to squeeze in many more ins and outs, and it’s printed in blue and red. I’ll post up a photo of it soon, I’m pretty excited about it!

While we worked away, scanning and photoshopping, Pat observed that this process of trying to come to terms with the resources consumed in the making of a particular activity (and the products generated as a result) reminded him of an essay he read some time ago. The essay is called “I, Pencil”, by Leonard E. Read. I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a great read.

The essay is narrated from the point of view of a Pencil (hence “I, Pencil”). Here’s an extract:

My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!

On one hand, Pencil just wants to be better understood. It’s a humble, simple Pencil, right? No moving parts, no fancy upgrades year by year. Over time, the pencil remains the same. And yet, an incredibly complex confluence of skills, chemistry, forestry, and industry make it what it is. In this sense, Read’s essay (perhaps like my recent search for the origins and manufacturing methods of the paper I’m using for my prints) calls for deeper intimacy with the very materiality of the world around us.

On the other hand, “I Pencil” takes quite an interesting turn towards its end. Pencil argues that because of all the radically distributed contributors to its manufacture, no individual can ever understand how to make a pencil. By extension, nor can any government body can ever oversee every aspect of the process. It is only through the exchange of goods and services on the free market that something as miraculous as a pencil can come to be.

The moral of “I, Pencil” is thus that industry and commerce should be free to exercise their “creative freedom” unfettered by regulation and top-down control:

The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Pencil’s manifesto is a capitalist-utopian lesson, linking human ingenuity with the natural forces of creativity . But, written in 1958, the blind spot in this analysis is the finitude of the natural resources upon which all these creative forces depend: clean air, water, minerals, forests…

An updated version of “I, Pencil” (“I, Pencil 2.0” ?) would have to take these things into account. But what would encourage Pencil’s beloved unfettered market economy to actually do this?

A Paper Chase

“My husband will drive miles for a cheap tank of petrol”.
– (something I overheard in the late 1990s…)

The prints that I will be producing, week-by-week, for the In the Balance show at the MCA will feature diagrams – some by me, some collaboratively drawn with other artists or museum workers.

They’ll be printed on the Big Fag Press – our salvaged offset-lithographic proofing press which now lives in Woolloomooloo. I’ll report more on the operations of the Big Fag soon enough. But today, my adventures were about paper.

What paper should these diagrams be printed on?

Obviously recycled, right?
And unbleached and so on.
And preferably made locally, rather than shipped halfway around the world.

Aesthetically, I have been thinking about a particular kind of paper called “bulky-news”. It’s like newspaper, but thicker and rougher. So it’s substantial, but it still has that scrapbook feel about it. And it’s greyish rather than pure white. I reckon this sort of thing would be good for communicating the “provisional” feel that I hope my printed diagrams will bear. Like, you could pick up a texta and start amending them, rather than feeling intimidated by the “fine-art”-ness that a more expensive-looking paper could communicate.

So today I headed out to the north side of the Harbour Bridge, to visit S&S Wholesales, who I’d been tipped off as a good source of bulky-news.

It turns out that this adventure was a bit of a wake-up call for me. At first, the nice ladies in the office-warehouse didn’t know whether their bulky-news was recycled. They looked it up, but there was no info to confirm nor deny. Nor was there anything in the documentation about where it’s made. One of the ladies offered to contact the supplier for me, saying she’d pass on whatever she discovered. But she warned me not to believe everything I hear about recycled paper. Sometimes, she said, it involves the use of more resources and energy than good old-fashioned straight up Paper.

Standing there in the paper warehouse, I felt a bit foolish – like my belief in the virtues of recycled-everything were somehow naïve… like it was a marketing ruse that had been sold to me and my do-gooding friends.

Whether or not this challenge was well-informed; whether or not my easily-crumbling confidence was too fragile, I don’t yet know. But it did make me realise that I need to do a bit more research about where paper comes from, and what’s involved in its manufacture. It did occur to me, too, that from a business perspective, S&S could probably benefit from thinking about the marketability of the widespread desire for “recycled” stuff. As I told her, folks are usually happy to pay more for it (even if we’re totally ignorant of the real story).

Incidentally, one of the artist groups that’s exhibiting in the In the Balance show is the Euraba Papermakers from North-West NSW. They’ll be in Sydney for a few days after the exhibition opens, running some workshops down at the Redfern Community Centre. I’m pretty sure their stuff is made out of offcasts from the cotton industry. Here’s a great yarn about how they got started up:

We thought: “Let’s make our own paper. It can’t be too difficult.”

We set up a back yard mill. In half a forty-four gallon drum, we cooked everything from scotch thistle to sunflower stalks.

On the verandahs of my house the women loudly pounded the washed cooked fibres with the amputated legs of old school chairs. Our vat was my infant daughter’s baby bath and we couched onto merino wool blankets (an engagement gift from my marital bed). After a homemade pressing, with river rocks and human bodies providing the pressure we dried the sheet of paper on the clothesline. The papers were cockled and attacked by curious Lousy Jack Birds.

Our first papers were chunky shingles, veggie felts formed with a production motto of “if you can’t see the fibre the sheet won’t survive.”

Paul West 2001

I guess the thing I love about this Euraba story is that it reveals the sort of intimacy with materials which comes from making it yourself, or at least knowing what went into its making. Whereas my warehouse experience was about something quite different: shipping goods around based on product codes rather than any kind of knowledge.

So anyway… having made the effort to go all the way to the S&S warehouse, I did buy some of their nice (but probably not recycled) bulky-news.

However, my quest for the perfect paper continues.

How the Audit fits in (and how it doesn’t)

rough sketch of my installation?

Here’s a rough sketch of what my contribution (in the physical gallery space) might look like when it opens at the MCA towards the end of next week. (My bit is the dark shaded bit).

In a bold and curious curatorial move, my work will be placed in the “resource room”. This room, at the top of the stairs on the third floor, is often used as a place for browsing books or watching documentaries: supplementary material about the exhibition, within the exhibition.

Here’s a sketch of the whole show, with the location of each artist’s work indicated by their name in black:

mca floor plan for enviro exhibition

Several weeks ago, when Glenn first told me that I’d be in the resource room, I was a bit resistant – I thought that my Audit project should be allocated its own “legitimate” space within the show.
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Nutrient Flows

nutrient flows

Where I’m sitting in the MCA offices is quite a good spot for “intercepting nutrient flows”.

I was trying to explain this to Jo, who manages the Generation Next programme (groovy activities for highschool students), after she walked by on her way to visit the design department.

Precisely because of my allocated position within the office (at a junction between the water cooler, the registration/conservation gals, graphic design, the preparators and Dee from Human Resources) I am able to nod and chat to a whole bunch of people walking by.

If I were a convenience store, I’d be happy with my real estate situation.

This morning, on one such drive-by, I intercepted Ian and Dan, two of the members of Future Farmers, an American artist group who have just arrived and are participating in the upcoming exhibition. They told me they are planning to construct some sort of alcohol still for the production of biodiesel, using found fallen fruit. I think that’s correct, I could be wrong. They’re going to use old bike parts and other dinky bits and pieces to make this contraption.

As a result of this chance encounter we were able to ascertain:

-That they’re looking to meet Sydney locals who have their own backyard distilleries or biofuel production facilities (I’ve put them in touch with my friend Rohan, a denizen of such extra-legal tinkerings);

-That they need to source an old bicycle for their work here (I’ve offered a spare bike which lives under our house, belonging to my neighbour Ricardo. In true Duchampian tradition, it’ll imminently be transformed into Art);

-That they want to print a FutureFarmers poster for the show (Big Fag Press might be able to help out there);

-And that they’re happy to work with me to audit their own production processes in the making of this new work (Dan and Ian said that the FutureFarmers is often held up as an example of a “sustainable” art group. This is a claim they are uncomfortable with, and they’ll be keen to debunk it by taking stock of all the inputs and outputs of their practice here in Sydney).

Here are Ian and Dan, posing in front of the MCA’s mobile PA system, which they seemed rather fascinated by:

Dan and Ian from Future Farmers


strangler fig roots

Lizzie and I have just completed a whole week not working on our computers. For an umbilically cabled-in fellow like myself, this in itself is something of an achievement. But we had the added bonus of spending our unplugged time wandering through the Daintree tropical rainforest in Far North Queensland.

Now back in Sydney, sitting at my laptop with a million ‘things to do’ buzzing around my skull, it’s hard to reconnect myself to where we just were. All this busytown stuff seems to not matter at all, when you’re standing in the middle of a forest dripping with humidity and ferns and vines and fungi and cassawaries and strangler figs. The rainforest and its inhabitants seem like a throwback to pre-historic times. The sense of disconnection I feel right now between the modern city and the rainforest is so dramatic.
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Bona Fide Credentials?

audited stamp

Yesterday I was in at the museum, picking the brains of Amy and Flora about their Great Photocopy Audit (more on that soon). We were sitting at a table in the middle of the large admin area of the MCA offices. It can be hard to concentrate on the task at hand when everyone wants to say a friendly hello as they walk past on their way to the photocopier or the tea room. During one of these drive-by salutations, Chief Operating Officer Euan bailed me up:

“You’re gonna have to get yourself some ESD Credentials soon!” he declared. “You can’t just log on every day and spend your entire blog postings pondering over your own incompetence!”

I grinned and nodded agreement as Euan strode off down the corridor. Then I turned to Amy and Flora and whispered, “What does ‘ESD’ mean?”
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