This diagram shows the way that Environmental Audit has developed over recent months. The way I see it, the project has evolved into three parts, in terms of its working methods: blogging, printing, and (for want of a better word) “experiencing”:
…and in this next diagram, the audit is again shown to have 3 bits, but in different way. It focuses on the trio of areas to which I’ve been bringing attention: the MCA, the In the Balance exhibition, and my own working methods:
One of the things I’ve been struggling with – as I find myself becoming more and more confident in this field, is that every meeting, every encounter opens up a whole new can of worms – and I just don’t have enough time to follow each worm to its compelling wormhole.
And so these diagrams helped me realise something that had been rattling around in my head for a little while. That the scope of this project is actually a bit too large for one single fellow to handle. I think, if I were to do another Environmental Audit like this one, I’d plan in advance to have 2 full-time helpers working with me.
This is quite challenging, and humbling. And I simply need to accept that I don’t have infinite time, nor infinite resources – and there’s actually not much I can do about it, but take a deep breath and let those extra things slip through my fingers.
I suppose, if I put a positive spin on it, I could propose the project as a sort of “pilot” study of how an artist could do this sort of thing, and a way of pointing towards how it could be done better.
The second of the two diagrams above shows how one of the three major parts of the project involves the organisation. Certainly, the exhibition is the reason I was invited to do the audit in the first place. Without art, without exhibitions, there would be no MCA. And yet, particular exhibitions come and go – but the organisation itself – how it’s run, how it works, how it transforms itself over time – that, for me, is some real meaty stuff.
When I’m hanging out in the audit office in the MCA gallery, visitors often ask me about the organisation of the museum itself. They like to hear about how it’s all run, and to a small extent, I can offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse. Questions about lighting systems (“Why do you still use those power hungry old-fashioned halogen lights?”), or the new building extension (“What do you mean the extension will not incorporate solar panels?”) inevitably lead to a discussion of the obstacles which stand in the way of making such changes.
In talking to the public, I’m aware of my strange hybrid role – half in, and half out, of the organisation. I am not an official representative. I’m not even an official consultant. But I try to weave a balanced and straightforward – but not apologetic – tale about what obstacles slow down such an organisation’s self-transformation. Actually, not being directly blocked by them myself, I think the obstacles are juicy and fascinating!
Nearly always in these discussions, significant financial constraints arise. In the case of the transition to low-wattage LED lighting, waiting another 12 months for a better-functioning, cheaper system which will last for the next 20 years seems to make total sense (even if this means burning up tonnes of carbon dioxide with the old-fashioned system in the meantime). LED is a new technology in rapid development right now, and those organisations that buy too soon might be left holding a white elephant.
And with the solar panel situation – government regulations make it difficult to obtain ROI (return on investment) in a timeframe that makes any sense. (Of course, one could argue that there are ways to think about “investment” other than straight-up finance… )
So it might seem easy to accuse the museum of dragging its heels, or of not prioritising environmental concerns above the production of “high art” events. But I can tell you, if you’ve actually met and chatted with the folks involved in making those decisions, it’s not quite so easy to play the role of Mr High-and-Mitey. Members of the community which constitutes the MCA (the workers, at every level) strongly feel the need to make changes, but also experience deeply just how damn difficult it is to transform things.
But what about these changes? What would they look like?
Well, some of them could be as simple as this suggestion from Alana the Visitor Services Officer to change the way that paper is used in the process of creating reports. Or the notion of using a worm farm for the staff kitchen foodscraps. These are (relatively) easy plug-in solutions which link into the daily life of employees, but don’t need major infrastructure investments.
At the other end of the scale, consultations between Euan the Chief Operating Officer with the engineering firm Steensen Varming has generated a 35 page report recommending such innovations as a sea water heat exchanger to cool and warm the building. This will involve a large initial investment via a major engineering project, but potentially could save the MCA thousands in electricity bills (and reduce emissions of course) – not to mention putting the musuem “on the map”, if the project is marketed well. (I’ll go into more detail about Steensen Varming’s fascinating recommendations in a future blog entry…)
On Friday I caught up with Chief Preparator Tony, and we talked about all this stuff. One of the most exciting pieces of news to emerge this week is that the MCA’s Environment Committee is officially happening! It was announced at the all-staff meeting last Wednesday. I reckon this is a big step – employees who are keen to get involved in the committee can check in with Dee in Human Resources, who is co-ordinating its formation.
While I was chatting with Tony, I drew up this diagram to try and come to grips with the challenges that will be faced by the new committee:
It strikes me that this committee – composed as it will be of these two ends of the spectrum (top-down and bottom-up) has the potential to transform not just what things get done (should we use recycled toilet paper? should we install solar panels etc) but also, the way that things are done. How are decisions made? Who makes them? And who implements them? What systems of feedback inform us whether our new policies are working? And so on.
At stake here is the opportunity for a deeper integration between the everyday routines of work life and the way those routines are linked in to the world around us. It warms my utopian heart just to think of it…
This â€˜Auditâ€™ really is gaining some traction!
Iâ€™m enjoying the relationships between drawing and thinking which all the scribbling associated with â€˜Environmental Auditâ€™ is generating. I can see why you need the latest diagrams to provide some focus in what has become a deep and wide project. I am wondering how much consideration you have given to the exhibition reviews, however. After all, in art world terms, reviewers are the original â€˜auditorsâ€™. The blog is headed â€˜resources usedâ€™ and â€˜cultural good?â€™ and your audit methodology does incorporate outside â€˜specialistsâ€™.
I appreciate that most reviews and potentially the most reflective will be published after your tenure concludes but in your second diagram you do point to questions concerning the â€˜value of the exhibitionâ€™.
thanks for your suggestion! I love the idea of art critics as the original auditors, especially since judgement and evaluation are among the key issues that my project tries to account for.
I have been mulling this over myself, since the John McDonald review in the Herald last weekend. Your comment spurs me to tackle it as a specific focus, which I’ll do when I get a moment.
In the neo-capitalist spirit of the auditor ‘outsourcing’ some of this work (given that i’m a bit stretched) – would you like to kick us off? Do you have any thoughts yourself about the McDonald review – or other media reviews you might have seen so far?
I have made a start but please keep in mind that I wonâ€™t get to see the show â€¦â€¦ â€˜Environmental Auditâ€™ has really highlighted for me how the kinds of criteria used to evaluate exhibitions is expanding and that this question is being more widely explored by the art world. The environmental implications of an exhibition joins a growing list of concerns such as its aesthetic attainment, attendance, the maturing of its artists, and its contribution to institutional capacity building.
Historically, everyone was expected to apply the same criteria as the exhibition reviewers and people were much more deferential to them. Today the regard that reviewers enjoy follows on from their demonstrated leadership of the conversations around art. Now that the types of people who exhibit in, visit and contribute to galleries is so much more diverse, we can no longer assume that everyone is using the same criteria to determine the value of an exhibition. Some criteria are also much more useful in some situations than others and new approaches to presenting exhibitions are generating different requirements for criticism, commentary and review.
When exercising judgement you have to acknowledge the factors being taken into consideration. This approach is not only more inclusive and civil but by scrutinising the evaluative process one is honing oneâ€™s assessment. I note, for example, that the banner on your blog has some links related to â€˜blogging as artâ€™ that provide background for readers about what you value as a participating artist.
Of course, the perspectives and techniques that are used to assess an exhibition, are not necessarily complementary and how you rank them says a lot about who you are. Perhaps then, in the terms of your blog, an exhibition might be accorded particular â€˜valueâ€™ if it engages a reviewer or other exhibition participants to think about the way they configure their particular set of criteria?
Lucas – would it be possible for you to scan in the newspaper reviews that Jasmine refers to, for those of us who have not read them? I feel I’m weighing in without doing my homework here.
Nonetheless, I like Jasmine’s generous comments about how shows like ‘In the Balance’ might help us reconfigure our criteria for judging environmentalist art…. let’s face it, eco-art has been around for nearly half a century, & of course, much longer when you consider Indigenous and western landscape traditions. Yet, while many Australian audiences now appreciate contemporary art that integrates instrumental and affective realms (burning-off and dancing, for instance; or art projects incorporating scientific tabulation, weeding, painting and singing), art criticism has found it hard to reconcile seemingly ‘instrumental’ outcomes with our traditional aesthetic vocabulary.
I haven’t read John MacDonald’s review, but I value thoughtful critical judgement and, let’s face it, it’s really difficult to critically evaluate eco-art. Like motherhood, it is both ubiquitous and automatically considered to be a good thing. At its worst, however, eco-aesthetics has excused scores of banal, greening-the-mall public art projects. It has also coloured elegant but insipid gallery installations a topical green, and helped to sell shoddy work on the Indigenous art market. Unfortunately art history and criticism have often added to this anaerobic compost heap. That’s why Jasmine’s comments re valuing creatively â€˜greenâ€™ art historical and aesthetic responses make so much sense.
For me, the most interesting dimension of ITB was precisely its attempt to generate such affective and instrumental connections. eg. gallery work making activist connections, or at least documenting their history. It was a start, though a bit fragmented, perhaps.
In museums like the MCA, it’s largely been Indigenous artists and curators who have helped the gallery system remain politically relevant as a platform for ecological communication. For instance, touring shows like ‘Saltwater’ fully exploited the aesthetic power of formal gallery installations and the cultural power of the museum sector to educate and authorise connections between indigenous art, custodianship, land and sea rights. They have done this through connecting the high-end, aesthetic hang with community based art production, land custodianship and the political realm of environmental decision-making. It’s a case where beautiful artworks, cleverly curated, pay political dividends in the green audit.
With this in mind (without wanting to sound like a John MacDonald apologist) I disagree with those (largely Euramerican) ‘deep green’ critics who’d wipe traditional western aesthetics to create a â€˜clean and green slateâ€™. Jasmine’s comments remind us that there can be no a priori ‘green critical framework’. It’s about strategic “ranking” (Jasmine’s term) and connecting a variety of criteria, in tandem with specific art projects, participatory actions and campaigns.
thanks for your considered thoughts. I hope to come back to you soon when I get a sec for deeper reflection – but just off the cuff, it does strike me that a lot of the discussion about “green” art echoes the debates surrounding the quality (aesthetic value, instrumental effectiveness) of so-called “political” art.
Here is that article. It’s a pdf version.
I asked Amy who is collating all the media at the MCA, and it seems that besides the John McDonald review posted above, there aren’t any critical evaluations of the show yet. Mainly just “media release re-hashes” and interviews with the artists and curators etc.
However, I googled around and found the following. Catriona and Jasmin, here are a few more reviews of the show for your perusal:
To Keep Your Balance You Must Keep Moving by Elliot Shields
In The Balance by Genevieve Barry
A belated note of appreciation to acknowledge all the contributions to ‘Environmental Auditâ€™s attention to the processes of exhibition review. I must note that I was not responding to John McDonaldâ€™s review. Rather, I was reflecting on your need to contain the potential scope of the project given the time and energy available.
As you deliberated about what could still be covered, while allowing space for new issues to arise, I needed to put my hand up and stress that the issue of reviewing should not be left out. This is because, as you have stated, the broader philosophical question of how value is ascribed to human endeavours underpins all your auditing activities.
Also, while the presentation of exhibitions is related to, it is not the same as vital activities such as specific art projects, participatory actions and campaigns which Catriona refers to. Exhibitions have their own protocols for reviewing which are interweave all gallery-sited relationships. I have appreciated the opportunity to think about how these inherited â€˜auditingâ€™ processes relate to emerging approaches to evaluation and assessment of which Environmental Audit is an expression.