From Below: A Visual Arts Reflection on ArtCOP Scotland, Part II
The final instalment of a two-part series written by Moira Jeffrey on ArtCOP Scotland as she travels throughout Scotland, visiting galleries and organisations participating in the two week long event.
Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich: The Conch [Sound Studio] 2010-11.
I take part in an event organised by Creative Carbon Scotland and the Scottish Contemporary Art Network
(SCAN). The artists, Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich, talk about their projects including their work with a games designer and a change consultant in Orkney looking at the local response to the renewables industry, which has not always been welcomed. Bromwich explains that their concern with participation and engagement has its simplest roots in the fact that they make art together rather than alone. “If you work in collaboration your thoughts naturally turn to wider issues.”
The year is very old and everyone is very tired. It’s late. We talk about what difference SCAN might make and it is apparent that many of the artists, curators and educators present are already trying to reshape the landscape they live and work in. Many of them are actively modelling the future they want to see. The writer, Rebecca Solnit, argues in her essay Revolutions per Minute that such transformation is all around us, but sometimes it is hard to see. We must slow down to understand the shift in the tenor of our times.
The revolution is in part against the very speedup that has made us all busy, distracted, anxious, and unable even to perceive the tenor of our own times. So it is a revolution in perception and daily practice, as well as against the concrete institutions that spell the misery of everyday life for too many and the destruction of the Earth for us all.
Some of us imagine what slow art might look like. It would model the world differently from the compulsive models of western economies, the economies of consumption and of boom and bust. It would realise that sustainability is about just that: about sustenance and it would; therefore, believe in long and deep investment in art and artists, stepping away from short termism and frenetic funding cycles. It would recognise waste: needless competition for certain limited resources, the thoughtless replication of tasks and functions. It would stop asking the arts to publicly perform their productivity, breaking the economy of presenteeism, but it would replace it with the politics of true and meaningful presence.
I think slow art would recognise that art communities are like ecologies, and acknowledge that their knowledge and experience is, like terroir or provenance, unique to a place or time, to intellectual environment and cultural climate. Encouraging specificity, rather than the sprawling globalised uniformity of world-spanning cultural agro-business. It would recognise and encourage sharing and generosity, not the accelerated sharing economy of precariousness, but genuine generosity across institutions and between sectors.
There are things art needs help with: buildings that must be reshaped, rebuilt or rethought for sustainable purpose rather than show, a development of models that are less reliant on air freight or energy intensive technology, a shift in a compulsive cycle of short term exhibition-making to longer and deeper support for artistic practice and a break in our habit of compulsive travel. But as healthy ecologies often need migratory species, art needs travel and conversation and we should find more sustainable ways to make sure that conversation can continue.
The truth is that for all our earnest anxieties about doing the right thing, the art world is largely a low carbon environment. We know that the transformation needed to halt climate change is on a global scale and it is to governments, corporations and global polluters we must address our demands. It is systems and systemic failures we must attend to. In Huntly, Ian Findlay, a longstanding climate change activist, quoted Buckminster Fuller: “If you want to change the system you just make it irrelevant.”
How do we begin?
We can begin from below. By leading symbolic and practical changes in the way we think, talk and do.
I’ve learned much of what I know from artists and what they have taught me above all is the idea of practice: the small routines and habits that over a lifetime become a way of doing and seeing things differently. The choices and private sacrifices made for a productive public breakthrough. The little daily labours that result in big changes. The determination that one day looks like contrariness and the next turns out to have been foresight and vision.
Thomas Butler’s “Anthem” workshop part of ArtCOP Scotland
Art has also taught me that art is at its best when it understands that it alone cannot change the world.
When art serves only an agenda and not the artist it is no longer art but something else. Art is a small community in itself, but it is not one of conformity or consensus: what it has always done best is to speculate and to argue and to think aloud by doing.
In Huntly, I meet a sociologist, Dr Liz Dinnie, from the James Hutton Institute. She is part of an international research project looking at the community projects that are tackling climate change. She tells the meeting: “Often what motivates people to do things is not just necessarily addressing climate change itself. Because climate change is a massive problem, it’s huge; it makes me feel very insignificant when I think about it. But addressing a problem that is real for them, that is local for them.”
Exhaustion is major factor in community projects. Later, over a bowl of beetroot soup, when I ask her what single factor best ensures the success and survival of such community activism, she answers in a single word: “leadership”.
The artist, Ellie Harrison, is dressed in a boiler suit. She exudes energy and action. She is at CCA to launch a new project The Radical Renewable Art and Activism Fund, “it aims to be a real working funding scheme for artists, but in the way it is set up it is also a critique in the existing funding structures. It aims to support more radicalised and politicised forms of creativity.”
Ellie Harrison at the RRAAF Launch
Using a crowd-funding scheme, Ellie has commissioned a preliminary report from Community Energy Scotland, a registered charity that provides practical help for communities on green energy development and energy conservation. She plans to support her fund through the generation of energy through renewables, issuing money to artists so that they can work without institutional compromise. She quotes one of the RRAAF founders, Chris Fremantle, ecoartscotland, “This is a great initiative to use the production of one sort of renewable energy to support the generation of another sort of energy.” “As an artist I’m interested in systems,” she says. “Whether it’s political systems or economic systems.”
I’m late. I, who prides myself on meeting deadlines, have missed this one. Sometimes I’m a slow thinker. Tomorrow will see the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year. Ian Findlay told the Huntly audience about Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, the Swedish doctor and cancer scientist, who founded the international framework for sustainable development known as The Natural Step. Findlay had once asked the doctor what kept him awake at night. His response was immediate: “Loss of stories of meaning.” Robèrt meant loss of culture, loss of knowledge.
The White Wood in Huntly
I think back to the lesson of the White Wood. It might not be in the oaks that will eventually stand there. It might not be in Ben’s story, even if it is still told three centuries hence. I think it is in the rocks that will push up through the soil. The modern word sustain comes from the French soustenir: to lift from below. I like to think that of that slow lifting, that rising from beneath. Every tiny movement is cumulative. I think how it might become a mighty push.
With thanks to the artists, curators and organisations who met with me and hosted me throughout ArtCOP Scotland.
Images courtesy of Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich, Thomas Butler, Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund and Deveron Arts.
Read Wallace Heim’s Reflections on ArtCOP Scotland.
Moira is a journalist, art critic, editor, teacher and broadcaster. The single thing that brings her wide and sometimes rather chaotic freelance career together is visual art. For the last 15 years, she has written reviews, interviewed artists, talked about exhibitions on radio and TV and written essays for artists publications.