Climate Change: Art as Social Practice

C. Travis Webb

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0089   |   September 16, 2019

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Climate Change:
Art as Social Practice

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Contemplating the consequences of climate change is not only the purview of scientists. Artists are also helping to imagine the contours of a warming planet, as well as re-imagine what possibilities might emerge from this global crisis.

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C.T. WEBB: 00:19 Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening and welcome to The American Age Podcast. This is C. Travis Webb, editor of The American Age. And I’m speaking to you from sunny Southern California.
S. FULLWOOD: 00:30 Hi. This is Steven G. Fullwood. I’m the co-founder of the nomadic arc of this project and I am sitting in Harlem. I think it’s about 76, 77. It’s kind of cool and nice out.
S. RODNEY: 00:41 Hi. I’m Seph Rodney. I am a senior editor at the Hyperallergic arts blog and recent author of The Personalization of the Museum Visit. I’m speaking to you from the South Bronx.
C.T. WEBB: 00:55 This is to remind our listeners that we practice a form of what we like to call intellectual intimacy which is giving each other the space and time to figure out things out loud and together. And we’re continuing our conversation about climate change. We haven’t really chatted directly about how many more we’re going to do. We can do that after the podcast. We may be transitioning out of this onto a new topic which we’ll introduce, but possibly do one more wrap-up episode because we tend to like to do that on the longer conversations.
C.T. WEBB: 01:25 But today, the topic is climate change in the art world. You’ve heard us talk about this on previous podcasts. Obviously, this is definitely in Seph’s wheelhouse being an art critic, so he’s going to lead us through the discussion. And without further ado, Dr. Rodney, take us away.
S. RODNEY: 01:46 I love that. I want to be called Dr. Rodney more often. Let’s start talking about–
C.T. WEBB: 01:52 I put it on my hotel room reservations now. At least this person at the front desk is going to have to say Dr. Webb. No one else will call me that.
S. RODNEY: 02:00 Right. So one of the things that I noticed in reading the article that I sent around to you, and I’m referring to the New York Times’ piece that featured 12 artists that deal with the issue of climate change. There are a couple of things that jumped out at me. A lot of them do things that are – surprise, surprise – very visual. They are paintings and drawings and a few people did, sculptural pieces. I think Bharti Kher does– what work was featured in the piece is sculptures of sort of these hybrid creatures. Lots of photographs and posters. Dear Climate, the group, the work that was featured in the piece was a poster that they developed.
S. RODNEY: 03:00 Now, personally, I’ve seen the work of Mel Chin. In fact, I’ve written about Mel Chin’s work and I saw the Unmoored piece which was set up in Times Square about a year ago maybe. It felt like it was last year. And I remember being really kind of amazed by it because with my phone, looking through my phone. And once you have the phone, interpret the QR code through this particular app, I could see Times Square through my phone as this kind of underwater seascape. It was kind of astonishing. And I saw ships go by me above my head, other kinds of vessels move towards me. It was otherworldly and it was immersive and beautiful. To be honest, it didn’t really evoke much else in me besides a sense of wonder.
S. RODNEY: 04:06 And this is my problem with the drift of these pieces generally. Again, the ones that were featured in the New York Times article is that there’s too much emphasis on the visual and not enough of the sort of practical, long-term view. How do we deal with this crisis? There were two people who stood out to me. Mary Mattingly. And not the piece that they talked about in– but the other piece that they referred to which is the Swale piece which is the floating food forest. That piece is amazing. Yeah.
S. RODNEY: 04:45 So I looked this up and apparently, she started this in– I think it was 2007 or 2008. And it actually was this forest installed on this barge that was, I think, situated on the east river. It’s an edible forest garden. And basically was a place where the intention was to provide– it was a project that was intended to provide people with free, healthy food and to exist at that intersection between public art and public service. And that, for me, was really–
S. FULLWOOD: 05:31 Affecting?
S. RODNEY: 05:32 Yeah. And compelling. I’m being reductive when I say this and probably unfairly so, but more than pretty pictures or compelling imagery. It was a project. Swale is a project that actually allowed us to meet the consequences of climate change head-on. To be fair, I know that Mel Chin has also done work like this because he was involved in this really complex project where he got recycled plastics from Flint, Michigan where they had the water crisis. The water crisis is still on-going. But managed to get the gathered recycled materials to a plant, I think, in South Carolina where they were transformed, changed chemically, made into clothing material, threads. And that material was then sent to someplace, I think, in Flint, like a halfway house where women or men who were formerly incarcerated or were going through programs that prevented them from– that provided–
C.T. WEBB: 06:59 Were trying to reintegrate.
S. RODNEY: 07:01 Right. Or as I said, an alternative to going to jail or to prison. Would use this material to make clothing. There was a designer who was also brought onto the project to make the designs. And so at the Queens Museum a couple of years ago for his big show Mel Chin: All Over the Place, they showcased this project. It sort of had videos of people gathering the recyclables, had mannequins with the clothing on them, had accounts of people working in all these different spaces. So those kinds of projects, for me, are really impressive in their ambitions–
C.T. WEBB: 07:45 Yeah. He’s phenomenal.
S. RODNEY: 07:46 –in their scope. And they do more than essentially try to prick our conscience. I’m not really interested in work in terms of climate change that tries to make us aware that the forests are going away. Okay. But what are we doing to deal with the consequences now? And Mary Mattingly and I think Mel Chin and possibly Eve Mosher who I may talk about a little bit later are doing those kinds of projects.
C.T. WEBB: 08:17 And to actively engage in expanding the realm of what is possible, right? That’s what those two projects are doing is to stretch the current shape of things into new and unknown places that we haven’t imagined or seen before. Yeah. I mean, obviously, the Swale piece is in the article that you sent around. Yeah. That’s provocative, and engaging, and motivating, and inspirational, and a whole host of other things.
C.T. WEBB: 08:55 The thing that first came to mind when you were gently criticizing some of the other approaches was it reminds me of sort of Stephen Dedalus’ reflection on the purpose of art in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s first novel which essentially talks about the difference between pornography and art. The pornographic is something that inspires acquisition and becomes inquisitive, whereas the artistic is something that suspends action and opens up kind of a transcendental experience of the object.
C.T. WEBB: 09:34 I’m not going to bat for that in a flat-footed way. All I mean to say is that unless art is expansively imaginative, what you end up with is a kind of stasis. Maybe a sort of lightweight awe. Oh, this is really interesting to imagine boats in Times Square. And I saw this scene in the last Spielberg film. That sort of application of the visual – I don’t know – leads to new possibilities the ways that the other pieces you described did.
S. FULLWOOD: 10:24 So two things ran through my mind. And one was give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Show a man how to fish, he’ll live forever as it relates to the kinds of more complex art projects that you’re referring to Seph. When I read it, I read about these people, I was like– one of my questions – and some of the time it was answered, sometimes not – was how public accessible? Because I do think the imagination needs to be stoked in very basic places. I wonder how many of these artists were simply talking to each other in terms of– and so that kind of made me– I didn’t have a lot of time to read this, unfortunately, but I wanted to ask those kinds of questions because I felt at the very least what these 12 people did for me was remind people that the artificial argument that art isn’t political is just art for art’s sake. No. It can be this. It can be this. And it can be really wonderful.
S. FULLWOOD: 11:21 I wouldn’t say it should be. It’s kind of like the preferential thing, but I like it when art is not only moving the needle but– just because you didn’t get it, doesn’t mean that the person standing behind you won’t or be inspired by. Less about knowing but more about just being– and I keep thinking about how ideas– we don’t think that ideas, in general, can happen among crowds. We think about crowds speak and bandwagon, that kind of thing. I’m thinking no. That one kid could be that kid that does the one thing which feels very fantasy-based and all of that but they’re– I don’t know where imagination is. I think it’s everywhere. That’s my thing.
S. RODNEY: 12:02 So I want to go back to something you said, Steven, about work that is sort of visually enthralling but is about artists speaking to other artists and work that is more public-facing. So there’s one artist in the piece, Xavier Cortada, whose work was about yard signage indicating Miami’s potential to drown–
C.T. WEBB: 12:34 Oh, I was going to bring this one up. I had this one marked. Please, go on. Yeah, yeah.
S. FULLWOOD: 12:40 It’s a good one.
S. RODNEY: 12:41 Right. Very public-facing. Actual yard signs around a particular community neighborhood. So it’s an interesting one because partly, I like it because it has that ambition to be public-facing and to alert people to what this crisis actually means. Literally, your house is going to be underwater in X amount of years, right? But at the same time, part of me is like, “But are people really going to pay attention to that?”
C.T. WEBB: 13:14 So I actually found that one somewhat provocative. It was easy for me to imagine my neighbors where I live in Orange County being provoked by something like that. And certainly, depending on where you want to place them politically, maybe irritated. But moving, agitating, and sort of creating a space where it’s not just a– you can’t just change the channel. You drive by this house, you see this sign. Just like you see the for sale sign every day, you’re reminded. It’s an adjutant in the imagination. I liked that one. Not liked. I thought that one was evocative for me. I thought that could possibly do something– certainly, not as ambitious as the other two you described earlier in the podcast, but something that could create a different kind of space around it.
S. FULLWOOD: 14:18 I think it hits at the economics of it. The implications of it in that way. People who want to keep their property or to bequeath their property, maybe they would be among those people who would be provoked, who would be agitated.
S. RODNEY: 14:33 I think we’re all sort of in agreement that the projects that are most compelling are the most imaginative– the strongest projects in short-hand are the ones that begin to move towards a kind of sense of public service. I think that’s the key. Because Cortada does that with the yard signage thing. He’s actually poking his neighbors essentially in their eyes every day, and getting them to think about the financial consequences of being where they are and having their political leadership not take climate change seriously. So this is the thing though. There’s an ongoing conversation in the art scene about– what’s it called? Why am I blanking on this term?
C.T. WEBB: 15:34 Social engagement?
S. RODNEY: 15:35 No, yeah. It’s called a variety of things. Social practice. Social practice. There are artists who basically engage with their community in making work that doesn’t necessarily end up being a kind of highly anesthetized object in a white cube somewhere. I actually didn’t have much of an opinion about social practice. I’ve written about it a bunch of times, but I wouldn’t say that I’m someone who carries a flag for that movement.
S. RODNEY: 16:08 Having looked at this work, I have a newfound respect. Is there a stronger word than respect? I really am moved by the work of Mattingly and Mel Chin. I should mention Eve Mosher who has done this piece in 2007 where she took a baseball field chalker and tried to chalk a 70-mile line around the city of New York to indicate where the waters would eventually encroach on the city. And I thought, it’s kind of ineffective because I’m sure by the time she got to the first mile, half of it was erased behind her. But I still like the gesture.
C.T. WEBB: 17:05 That’s a lot of chalk.
S. RODNEY: 17:06 It’s a lot of chalk. It’s a lot of walking, right? And so there’s something in that sort of social practice in that, the conversation, the story that is being told about this woman doing this thing must’ve generated, again, some sort of sense of, “Whoa, why is this person expending so much energy doing this? This ineffectual thing.”
C.T. WEBB: 17:31 Yeah. I think it doesn’t have to be one thing, right? Art doesn’t have to adhere to a social praxis ethic. It doesn’t have to adhere to an aesthetic ethic purely. The only thing I would say is that it’s probably– if we had more time to delve into it, I would say it’s probably a false distinction because it’s still a social practice. Going to a museum, belonging to a museum, having a life structured in such a way that entering a museum is pleasurable, or having a life set up in such a way that you feel like that is an activity one should engage in. It’s something you should care about, right? Just like you should care about the climate. These are all social practices.
C.T. WEBB: 18:19 Now, certainly, levels of refinement and degrees, and I don’t want to say that there isn’t a real value in the museum space and sort of the quiet contemplation of things. I have personally been moved in those space and I know other people have been that I care about, and so I value that experience. That doesn’t make these other incredibly ambitious and sort of laterally conceived art projects less valuable or less provocative or less worthy of engagement or critique and vice versa from the other side if you were coming at it from a far-left political perspective like a socialist read on artistic practice like tear the museums down. They’re all bourgeois constructions. Of course, I don’t agree with that either. So anyway, to engage with what you were saying about that sort of argument in the art world.
S. RODNEY: 19:26 Sorry to interrupt here. I just want say quickly. What’s great is that you’ve articulated really well precisely the tensions around the discussion of social practice right now. Those are the arguments pro and con, exactly.
S. FULLWOOD: 19:43 Wow, wow, wow. The only thing I was going to add to that was that I think the distinction between the two or the three or whatever kinds of practices whether art is important or not isn’t a question really. It’s who’s looking and who’s valuing and who’s doing these sort of things, right? Because we have movements that may start out organically then become institutions, right? So I was thinking about the hunger for– I don’t have time for your airy-fairy stuff, Travis. I don’t have time for it. I need some concrete action that Seph is saying. These kinds of artworks. Do you know what I mean?
S. FULLWOOD: 20:22 It’s funny. I was graduating undergrad and my father drove past an art museum which had a new building that looked really– it was out of the ordinary for Toledo or– maybe not for New York. We looked at it and my father goes, “Do you like that?” And I was like, “Yeah. It’s okay.” And he goes, “See, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I was like, “I didn’t even say anything.” You don’t know what you’re talking about because that’s art. It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, but that’s art. I was like, “Dad, I don’t have time.”
S. RODNEY: 20:52 That’s funny. That’s profound. Your father’s like, “Look, your little sense of aesthetics does not even approach the level of the sublime that you’re unable to grok because you don’t recognize what sublime is, buddy.”
S. FULLWOOD: 21:16 And he’s totally making fun of the idea. It was a really well-wrapped joke. I was like, “Oh, okay. Cool. Thanks. Thanks, Mr. Louisiana-Arkansas man.”
S. RODNEY: 21:30 You say, I was reading [Cont?] the other day. And let me tell you something about [the conscience?] of blind which you didn’t know, youngster.
S. FULLWOOD: 21:36 Clearly, I wouldn’t have said this. Yes.
S. RODNEY: 21:40 Yeah. Well, the idea that there’s this realm of sophistication, aesthetic sophistication that is above us that we should just sort of kowtow to is kind of ridiculous. Part of the reason why we’re laughing is because we’re laughing at that. And this is, I think, why social practice has started to have more currency in the arts scene is because we recognize the bankruptcy of that position of the notion that there’s– and a lot of that position was championed by the big, very intellectually formidable white men in the 50s, and 60s, and 70s who kind of dominated the discourse in the west.
C.T. WEBB: 22:30 Yeah. Just to toss into– these pieces, this floating barge and stuff like that. Who paid for that? Who bought all that chalk? I bet you a museum sponsored those pieces. I bet you charitable art foundations that are institutionally supported paid for those activities.
S. RODNEY: 22:52 No. Absolutely. And this is a problem with taking the sort of position that museums, and galleries, leftover bourgeois, edifices, institutions that we should just get rid of, the problem is that it’s really hard to crowdsource work of an artist, especially when the artist herself does not know how to work will turn out. Can you imagine someone coming to you five years ago and saying, “I’m thinking about getting this barge and I’m going to install a forest on it and it’s going to be a garden.”
C.T. WEBB: 23:29 Yeah. What does that GoFundMe page look like?
S. RODNEY: 23:32 Exactly. I’m going to feed people and it’s going to be a healthy alternative. And the barge is going to keep going around the city. It’s going to be great. You walk away. You back away, actually. That’s the problem, I think, with that sort of out of hand dismissal of what institutions can do and what can support. So this has been really useful for me reading this stuff. Thank you for suggesting this, Travis. And it’s odd that we ended up– I didn’t anticipate getting to this place in a conversation where we’d be talking essentially about the sort of tension between the artist and kind of rarefied space of engagement. And art is like a place of communal hand-holding.
C.T. WEBB: 24:32 I think it ties pretty readily back to the larger issue of climate change and engagement and what to do about it in that we need institutions to help deal with this problem. Just relentlessly vilifying the corporation or relentlessly vilifying a government is just not helpful. It’s just not productive. There’s work to do. We have work to do to actually address– the one that I– I’m sure we all have aspects of climate change that are particularly anxiety-provoking for us. And for me, it’s water shortage. That’s one that scares me. You’re talking about very, very large population centers that are running out of water. Food is one thing. You can go without food for a pretty long time. That’s really as imminently critical as having– you’re done. You don’t have access to water? You’re done or you’re on the move. And millions of people on the move is a terrifying thing.
S. RODNEY: 25:50 That’s right. If they think that the migrant crisis in West Asia and in Europe now is serious, wait, just hold on until Mumbai gets so hot that it’s basically uninhabitable. That is no joke.
C.T. WEBB: 26:12 Steven, did you want to walk us out?
S. FULLWOOD: 26:15 I like that stark image that Seph just threw out there, so I’m going to leave it at that.
C.T. WEBB: 26:20 All right. So do we want to do– I guess we could do this on air. I guess we could maybe have– are there any other climate change topics that we wanted to talk about that we didn’t get to?
S. RODNEY: 26:33 I think we just should do a summary. I always like the habit we’ve stumbled into of, “Okay, this is what we’ve found out. This is what we’ve figured out.”
C.T. WEBB: 26:46 Yeah. I’m with that. I’m with that.
S. FULLWOOD: 26:47 Okay. Cool.
C.T. WEBB: 26:48 Okay. All right. So next week we will summarize thoughts, feelings, impressions, and new directions, hopefully, for some of us. And then we’ll talk about what we’re going to move to next which I think there’s some agreement on. So we’re looking forward to that conversation as well. So as always, thanks everyone for tuning in.
S. RODNEY: 27:08 Sounds good. Take care.
S. FULLWOOD: 27:09 Take care.

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**No references for Podcast 0083*

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First referenced at 08:55

[/et_pb_text][et_pb_text _builder_version=”3.19.15″ max_width=”50%” module_alignment=”center” link_option_url=”” locked=”off”]James Joyce

“James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) was an Irish novelist and poet. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde and is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century.” Amazon[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][et_pb_row _builder_version=”3.19.15″][et_pb_column type=”4_4″ _builder_version=”3.19.15″][et_pb_divider divider_style=”outset” divider_position=”center” divider_weight=”2px” _builder_version=”3.19.15″][/et_pb_divider][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section]


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