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Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art
Sarah Rich, 17 Jun 07

Most of the time when we cover art on Worldchanging, we focus in particular on critical and activist art -- work that the artist utilizes as a vehicle for cultural commentary and sometimes a call to action, art which is socially engaged and even participatory. Artwork that doesn't do these things, in artspeak, might be called discursive -- ambling around pointed issues, provoking dialogue, but ultimately yielding no useful result, as suggested in Victor Margolin's opening essay. The obvious counterargument is that art by its very definition need not be useful; utility emerges from other creative fields like design and architecture and even landscaping and urban planning. But as social and environmental issues become more and more pervasive in cultural conversations, and sustainability becomes everyone's concern, the lines between these fields start to blur -- practitioners of "fine art" no longer stand isolated in a realm of reflection and suggestion, and specialists in other disciplines often undertake projects that gravitate towards and into the art world.

This evolving hybridization has invited visual art out of the gallery and museum, and into public and unconventional spaces. Most of the art we talk about is not only critical, but also usually situated outside of traditional art venues and often in site-specific circumstances. Does that mean that "activist" art has exited the building for good, leaving only "inactive" works inside? Can socially-engaged, participatory and interventionist art retain its impact within the walls of a museum? Stephanie Smith, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Smart Museum of Art, has proven that indeed, this work still does have a place in a museum setting. Smith is the curator of Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art, a traveling exhibition of contemporary artists who address sustainability, activism and the future through their work. The exhibition has also been turned into a book by the same name, which showcases the works, essays and artists' statements of the thirteen artists and artists' groups in the show. In her introduction, Smith describes the multiple cultural phenomena and developments in design and art theory that have led to "this holistic, ethical, pragmatic and wildly inventive" artistic practice, and she explores the changing relationship between traditional exhibition spaces and non-traditional art.

For museums to remain relevant, they must make space for projects that productively explore the tensions between the world "out there" and the protected precinct of the museum through works that provide rich experiences for visitors. In all its hybridity and occasional messiness, such work extends the boundaries of contemporary art in important ways. Museum exhibitions provide a means of introducing this work to wider audiences and, with luck, of securing a place for it within official records of art history.
Museums can themselves be strengthened by stretching to accommodate such art. Practices that perforate the boundary between the museum and the rest of the social sphere can make even the famously difficult white cube more responsive to current art and enticing to visitors of all kinds.

The exhibition itself was also planned and executed with sustainability as a priority. As stated in the foreword, "Organizing a traveling exhibition that addresses the intersection between sustainable design and contemporary art poses particular challenges: how to be thrifty and environmentally conscious in presenting, interpreting, packing and shipping works of art. This problem would be germane only to those of us in the business of art exhibitions if it did not also speak to the ways in which we as a society and as individuals consume resources in an increasingly globalized sphere of interactions."

I've not had a chance to see the show, which first exhibited at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art and is currently at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, but I've just read the book and found -- perhaps even more than I expected to -- that Beyond Green captures an incredibly diverse range of expression, media and subject matter within the realm of sustainability. The selected artists and groups display radical creativity, innovative thinking and deeply considered relationships with the issues they address, all of which is brought to bear through a series of interviews conducted by Smith. Some of the artists will be familiar to Worldchanging readers, such as Amy Franceschini and Michael Rakowitz, but most haven't been covered here before. Three that particularly caught my interest were People Powered, Marjetica Potrc, and WochenKlausur, each of whom I've written a bit about here. Even if Beyond Green will be visiting your city, it's worth looking through the book, which the Smart Museum has [smartly] made available as a free, downloadable PDF. As the title affirms, this is not your stereotypical "green" take on artistic expression; it's a truly rich, relevant, boundary-pushing collection that can't help but accelerate the forward momentum of sustainability-related art.


People Powered

Kevin Kaempf is People Powered, a one-man Chicago-based organization established as a framework that could contain and define Kaempf's interest and involvement in community-building, bike culture, environmental activism, design and art. In Beyond Green, People Powered is exhibiting Transport I, which is a mobile display unit designed to showcase two other PP projects, Soil Starter and Loop. Both are art projects-cum-product lines designed to help urbanites lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Kaempf launched Soil Starter as a service system in which he collects yard waste and kitchen scraps from neighbors, turns them into compost, and returns it to the original providers in neat little packages, ready to nourish urban planter boxes and house plants. The service acknowledges that many city dwellers want to compost but lack motivation and adequate space, so it removes the burden from households while still putting organic waste matter to good use.

wemove.jpgPeople Powered's other project, Loop, is also a service design that allows individuals and families to live more responsibly without added hassle. Kaempf started collecting partially-used paint cans from the dusty corners of households that always intended to use them or dispose of them properly, but never did. He mixes the leftovers to create new colors and repackages them in Loop-branded cans. As Loop travels from place to place, Kaempf uses Loop as a way to engage the local community in advance of his arrival.

All of the venues presenting this project are encouraged to save their leftover paint for a period of time leading up to the exhibition and to collect additional paint from other people and institutions in their communities. Following Kaempf's instructions, each venue may then mix this paint and use it to make a site-specific wall painting. The painting is then adorned with color swatches from each color of donated paint: stand-ins for the individuals -- or at least, the individual colors -- that have created this new hue.

People Powered is also working on a micro-urban garden project and a bike lending program for the city of Chicago that will salvage and restore old bikes and make them available at transit hubs (much like Barcelona's Bicing). Kaempf emphasizes that developing these projects as an artist allows a valuable degree of distance and freedom from the constraints of their more related fields that enables greater innovation and spontaneity.


Marjetica Potrc

My initial reaction to Marjetica Potrc was not necessarily eloquent or inspiring, but it is true: Potrc is cool. Upon further investigation, I discovered that behind the first impression of her work are numerous projects related to or directly involving other organizations and topics we've previously covered, including Rural Studio, Barefoot College, temporary shelters, dry toilets, and the list goes on. She's also collaborated with another artist about whom I recently raved, Tomas Saraceno.

Potrc's portfolio is teeming, and would be impossible to sum up in a short review, so we'll look specifically at one of her projects from Beyond Green and urge you to check out the other works included in the show, as well as her website to learn more about her deep involvement on a creative level with some of the most practical and essential humanitarian work of our time.


Rooftop Room is a site-specific work Potrc carried out in Istanbul during their 8th Biennial, upon the provocation to create a work entitled Poetic Justice. She chose to create a functional private space, in part because of her views of public space as an eroding and increasingly privatized territory at odds with fundamental ideas of democracy.

By making a project in private space, I pointed to the ongoing process of the privatization of public space but did not waste any energy criticizing it. At the same time, I pointed to individuals -- the people who make up a city. If public space thinks of citizens as a group, my project attempts to think of citizens as individuals.

Potrc found a family in Istanbul with a flat-roofed, one-story house on top of which they planned to construct a second floor. She proceeded under the assumption that although her "installation" was temporary, it would ultimately remain where it was. Her assumption proved correct. She created a large tin roof and from it she hung "walls" made of blue plastic. She furnished the space with the typical plastic furniture used in Istanbul homes. When the biennial was over, the family maintained the space, performing some light upgrades. It remains there today.

This was a public project in private space. In creating it, I diverted money from art to life...By making a temporary project that became permanent, I pointed to the legitimacy of so-called temporary architecture, which is, I believe, the most permanent aspect of contemporary cities.


WochenKlauser identifies itself as a collective with a constant turnover – a small group composed and recomposed through a rotating series of 8-week residencies. During each, the group "leverages the resources of art world institutions -- museums, for example -- to devise concrete means of addressing specific social problems." Their first project took place in Vienna in 1993 when they created a mobile medical clinic to serve the city's homeless population. They subsequently worked with government and social services in Zurich to establish a hotel for drug-addicted women, and from there their presence and influence snowballed as art institutions across Europe solicited (or commissioned) their work.

Fantastic, everyone would agree, but how is this art?

WochenKlausur often faces questions about why our projects should be considered "art." In what many people understand to be traditional art, a great diversity of materials are formed and manipulated. Marble, canvas, pigments, and other materials have been points of departure for many kinds of creations, and through these media, the artist's imagination takes a tangible shape. In activist art, sociopolitical relationships take the place of those material substances. As with marble or the painting surface, this substance is not infinitely malleable. In order to transform existing circumstances, the limits of variability must be recognized just as they must be in traditional art. This means that the hurdle -- the envisioned transformation -- must be carefully set: it must be realistic but also high enough that one can speak of a noticeable change. The goal is to design a recognizable and sensible change and then accomplish it.

That's how.

Using their interest in materials as a point of departure for their Beyond Green contribution, WochenKlausur decided to find a solution to the wastefulness inherent in creating temporary sets and structures to display art exhibitions by creating a system to network art institutions and help them upcycle used materials and restore their functionality. The solution took several forms, both physical and virtual. They created local connections within Chicago between art institutions and community service facilities such as homeless shelters and thrift shops that provided a number of items on the recipients' wishlists. They also developed prototype furniture with discarded material that are traveling with Beyond Green.

Best of all, they developed a means of putting these networks into ongoing relationships by creating a non-profit called Material Exchange which is housed online as a hub for coordination and organization of those with excess and those in need. Naturally, the model could be replicated in any local area, like a focused Freecycle.

Clearly all three of the selected artists mentioned here focus more on facilitating fruitful relationships and establishing equity through community action than on producing art pieces in the conventional sense. It's not surprising that these were the Worldchanging picks, given our proclivity towards networked services and thoughtful interventions as models for change. But this is one of the first times that we've encountered these models in the context of traditional art. It provokes some interesting considerations about the shifts taking place across creative disciplines, and the deeply creative process of inciting change. WochenKlausur made a comment that serves as an appropriate closing thought:

When obvious deficiencies in the social sphere await action, and when their solution does not require years of training or special experience, one has a responsibility to participate in finding solutions outside the framework of official directives and organizational structures. Clearly, when these activities are carried out by artists at the invitation of art institutions and are recognized by a community as art, then they are art.

Image Credits:

People Powered 3
People Powered (Kevin Kaempf)
Soil Starter, 2002 (detail)
Organza, printed tag with instructions and compost
Courtesy People Powered

People Powered 2
People Powered (Kevin Kaempf)
Loop: Multipurpose Coverall, 2003 (detail)
Quart can, printed label, and 100% postconsumer recycled paint
Courtesy People Powered

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Is "Art" a noun?

Posted by: David Foley on 18 Jun 07



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