Glenn’s Questions

I’m at the very beginnings of my project, Environmental Audit, for the MCA exhibition In the Balance.

Ever keen to get down to business, curator Glenn Barkley sent me a slab of questions to consider. I’ve posted them below, interspersed with my answers. But first, this punchy little quote Glenn sent through from inventor Saul Griffith:

I know very few environmentalists whose heads aren’t firmly up their ass. They are bold-facedly hypocritical and I don’t think the environmentalism movement as we’ve known it is tenable or will survive. Al Gore has done a huge amount to help this cause, but he is the No.1 environmental hypocrite. His house alone uses more energy than an average person uses in all aspects of life, and he flies prodigiously. I don’t think we can buy the argument anymore that you get special dispensation just because what you are doing is worthwhile.

– Saul Griffith from the article “The Inventor’s Dilemma”, New Yorker, May 17, 2010 (some comments on that article here…)

GLENN: In the Balance is an exhibition that concerns itself with environmental destruction, global warming, climate change and all this entails. It is broad in its approach, including work at a local, national and international level.

Although well intentioned, the questions that must be asked when putting together such an exhibition are these:

What are the ethical and environmental considerations that such an exhibition should itself consider? What are the sustainability issues that such an exhibition may bring to the fore?

LUCAS: I presume (without evidence at this stage) that the main “message” that the exhibition will deliver is that global warming poses an unprecedented threat to humanity; that the various artists whose work is represented in the show are involved in campaigning, in one way or another, to stop this race towards self-destruction; and that the MCA’s audience should join in this struggle. In this way, the museum aligns itself with the environmentalist movement, albeit filtered through the frame of aesthetic practice.

To pick up on from your quote from Saul Griffith above, in pursuing such an endeavour, the MCA risks being accused of hypocracy. The questions that will be asked of it are: if the MCA is going to put together an exhibition about the environment and climate change, well then, how much carbon (etc) did we chew through in delivering this message? I believe that’s where my project comes in…

GLENN: Is it possible to expose the machinations of the museum and its explicit role in terms of environmental responsibility?

LUCAS: I have no idea. It depends on so many things. How openly the organisation can approach this process of self-enquiry is a big one. Will employees be able to look at their workplace and their daily professional practices without fear of incrimination, without despair and self-flagellation? Will I be able to draw something interesting and problematic from my interactions with artists and museum workers? Do I have any idea how to conduct an environmental audit?

GLENN: Are the days of flying artists in, freighting artworks from across the globe and dropping them into venues which chew through air conditioning, power and resources coming to an end?

LUCAS: Geez, I hope so. As someone who’s worked in museums and galleries quite a lot, I’ve witnessed the vast resources that are deployed to schlep enormously heavy, or ridiculously unwieldy objects halfway around the world, only to be reconstituted as a rather underwhelming “art for art’s sake” at the other end.

I do feel that this kind of practice is on its way to being replaced by a new consciousness of what’s involved in bringing art into being. In the atmosphere right now (besides excess carbon dioxide) is the dawning awareness that there are more factors to be accounted for than just the financial cost of things. The quantifying – the auditing – of carbon means that we are having to weigh up the cost of an object or event in a much broader ledger. We have to consider where things come from and where they go to after we’ve finished with them.

GLENN: Regardless of an artist’s good intentions in drawing our attention to various political and environmental crises, is the very nature of contemporary art inherently irresponsible and unsustainable?

LUCAS: Both “responsibility” and “sustainability” are pretty tricksy words. I don’t think art in its nature is irresponsible, although it can sometimes be misguided or naïve, or it can prioritise “ends over means”, resulting in some pretty wasteful practices. “Sustainable”, unfortunately, has become one of those words that’s repeated so often it’s almost meaningless: a product adjective on washing up detergent to make us feel less guilty (or happy to spend a few more bucks to assuage our guilt).

If you believe that it’s in the nature of humans to make art (or culture or music or whatever is in excess to “mere survival”), then it would be silly (unnatural, even?) to abolish art altogether, as an extreme method of saving the planet. We’ve invented some pretty sophisticated tools and tricks over the milennia – the last thing we should do is throw them out. We just need to hone them some more, and direct them towards this particular problem situation…

GLENN: How should an exhibition that seeks to look at a whole raft of issues in terms of the environmental crisis not become unconsciously cynical and even naïve?

LUCAS: What this exhibition definitely doesn’t need – what won’t be useful at all – is despair. It should reveal new ways of making do, and carrying on regardless, although we know there’s a shitstorm brewing on the horizon. And it should to begin to look at everything it does (not just art) from a more integral perspective – binding together means and ends.

GLENN: Lucas, your project for In The Balance looks at the exhibition – and by extension the museum and what it is doing, can do or isn’t doing in terms of environmental sustainability. In this brave new world, what can the gallery and museum sector do better in terms of its carbon footprint?

Can your project, which combines both old-fashioned printing with social media through blogging, provide a model of institutional critique that both delivers on the MCAs good intentions whilst also exposing areas where it can do better?

LUCAS: Glenn, let’s be honest: we all know that I’m not a proper, bona-fide Environmental Auditor. There are trained professionals out there who can do a much better job than me at tallying up all the carbon emissions of the museum’s operations. So what’s my role in all this, then?

I am an enthusiastic amateur, no holier than your ordinary bicycle riding, compost-making suburban do-gooder. I want to do my bit, but I don’t really know how. I install a half-flush toilet, I get energy saving bulbs and sign up to “green power”, but I don’t really understand whether I’m making any difference at all, or just making myself feel marginally better.

So I hope that doing this project between now and November will help me get a bit smarter about all this stuff. I’ll blog about my progress, and I’ll produce some prints which I hope will synthesise some of the complexities of balancing the environmental ledger… and maybe some folks will feel moved to join me for the ride…

4 thoughts on “Glenn’s Questions

  1. Saul Griffith seems a bit like someone who starts out with “I’m not a racist but..”

    You only ever get accused of hypocrisy if you are being effective. Most accusations of hypocrisy are just concern trolling, people pretending to be on your side while slyly digging the knife in.

    More importantly the real sustainability issue is not whether this exhibition is sustainable, nor even whether museums with programs like the MCA are sustainable, it is how we can move away from the corporatist model of culture which the MCA and Biennales embody to a local, personal, open sourced model of culture.

    Lucas, at first I didn’t like the sound of your project (you know what I say about how artists now subscribe to a sort of Duchampian model where they seek reward for doing badly in galleries what other people do well out in the real world) but doing an audit that is an investigation of how people might do an audit is a great idea and one with some real world potential. I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

  2. Thanks Ian. Your comment is rather astute.

    I’ve been grappling this week (to some extent, behind the scenes) with the realisation that my project is inevitably going to get me into trouble… (I’m equal-parts thrilled and chilled by this idea…) Exactly what kind of trouble, I can’t yet know for sure…

    I get the sense that the very nature of the way organisations (like the MCA etc) do stuff depends on a “constant growth” model with a publically-visible increase in production as the necessary basis for further funding and investment. This is, naturally, an unsustainable model as its imports and exports are not in stable balance with each other.

    My usual way of dealing with things of such enormity is to go and hide away and pursue my own little projects with my own little groups at a local scale.

    Of course, museums are soft and less culpable targets compared to, say, oil companies, but they are “peak bodies” of a sort for the things we do, so it does behoove us to get stuck in, to make them move in the direction we prefer. So if – as you say – we really want those organisations to move to a different model of activity, we might just have to bite the bullet and join the team (or at least do something more active than just mutter into our beards from the sidelines)…

    Your final paragraph is my favourite – indeed, my head’s been spinning all week about the ins and outs of what in the world an Audit could be – and the craziness of the human tendency to quantify every damn thing we do!

  3. You are right, there is no alternative but to join in – I might make a lot of purist statements but I’ve never been too purist in action, everything is done incrementally and you have to be where the real decisions are made if you want to have an effect. And it is important to change the institutions that are nearby, that you can get access to, and for us artists that is the infrastructure of the art world, its marketing, publicity and distribution systems, the way history is dealt with, the corporatisation of culture, the ideological hijacking of creativity and natural cultural evolution.

    Re audits, you can do qualitative as well as quantitative analyses in an audit, that’s why the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis is such a ubiquitous business tool, because it combine the two together.

  4. Another quick one, sorry for commenting too much but you are touching on all my favourite obsessive issues here.

    Re the institutional model, one aspect of it is the constant growth undoubtedly and for that reason the actual “art” is irrelevant, it is just museum fodder and can be almost anything as long as it conforms to the correct formula – a bit controversial for publicity purposes but never so controversial that it scares funding bodies, a bit of novelty, lots of colour and movement, not much political content, etc. It’s basically about as profound as television and closely related which is why I expect the big Biennales to eventually be bought up by the entertainment multinationals like Disney, Fox etc.

    So then the question becomes is large scale public spectacle entertainment sustainable?

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