I’ve been laid up in bed with COVID-19 this last week, but within my inability to do much physically, I’ve been thinking a fair bit about how, as an artist, I can practice sustainably and ethically. Not just environmentally, but socially too. And where it’s not lip service.
I personally know of artists who say they practice ethically, but scratch a little under the surface and you realize that its simply empty virtue signalling, an illusion to give them some kind of social or moral ‘credit’ with their peers and commissioners. You see that there’s no real genuine commitment to anything. We live in a really performative age, which is part of the problem. If you’re seen to be taking a stand or having a progressive moral stance and shout about it loud enough, or make a big display of easy wins, then you’ve earned your eco-social credentials… even if you don’t follow through on things or make any meaningful impact. These easy wins and empty actions don’t actually change anything systematically or structurally. You see it everywhere you turn.
We often think of massive corporations as being guilty of greenwashing or bluewashing or pinkwashing… but we never really consider that artists can be just as guilty of it too?
I always think of Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Ice Watch’ work an extreme example of artistic, performative greenwashing. Greenwashing that is actually very extractive, and sponsored by massive art institutions and global organisations like the UN. It all makes me angry. In short, he shipped massive ice blocks from the arctic and plonked them in the middle of urban areas to ‘raise awareness of the melting ice caps’. Which he did a few times across a number of years all around the world. And then at these sites, everyone gawped in horror at these things melting, took some selfies with it for the ‘gram *sad emoji* and felt a bit sad about the poor polar bears for a bit. The result? Everyone feels good about themselves for feeling moved for five minutes, everyone looks good to everyone else, the artist and the sponsors/funders look like they care about the planet, which raises kudos or support or profits as it’s a trendy current issue and then everyone carries on with their consumptive lifestyles that contribute to the actual melting icebergs.
Now, I know there’s an argument and a nuance around ‘well, sacrifices need to be made to raise awareness so more people take action’. But it’s not a very strong argument, in my opinion, because there are other ways and means to communicate the same message that are more sustainable that would have the same, or better, impact. There’s also the argument about art being ‘limitless’. Yes, agreed – art should be free and expressive. But more often than not, it seems to me to be more a question around a choice of materials and sourcing, instead of the artwork itself. It’s a matter of ethics, of thinking beyond the superficial.
Firstly, how dare he remove precious ice from the ice caps, even if they had already sheered off and begun melting into the sea. It’s not his to take. Secondly, how much oil was used to sail to and collect these ice blocks from the arctic? How much energy was used to power the tools used? Or to keep the sailors warm? How much energy was used to power the freezer containers used to ship around the world? How many valuable resources were used in making these industrial scale freezers? Where are these freezers now? How much oil was used to move these blocks over land and sea? What impact did this ice block removal and subsequent transportation have on wildlife? What about all the cumulative pollution that this artwork produced?
Am I the only one who see’s this as a completely hypocritical, self-defeating farce? I can’t even argue that it was a product of it’s time and culture… because it’s literally from the last 5-8 years in my own culture. How is ‘Ice Watch’ any different to bringing awareness to deforestation by chopping down a tree and burning it in a gallery? It’s bonkers.
It frustrates me that this is a well-established artist making decisions like this. Eliasson isn’t the only one, obviously, so perhaps it seems that I’ve unfairly targeted him. To be hoenst, the bar about what is acceptable ethically appears spectacularly performative and superficial, which is astonishing when you think about how progressive and liberal creatives tend to be. And what are organisations thinking, sponsoring things like this? I’m happy that Arts Council England are bringing in environmental values into their commissioning process, but how far is that taken in reality? And how are they discerning between actual sustainable practice and greenwashing for the sake of applications?
Listen, I know full well that just 90 companies are directly responsible for 63% of worldwide global emissions, that the concept of a ‘carbon footprint’ was made up by companies to shift responsibility onto individuals although they have no real influence or impact. There’s a lot of pressure on businesses to work more ethically and sustainably, and absolutely so they should. But aren’t freelance artists business owners too?
Anyway, we can’t just shift all blame onto massive corporations and take no responsibilities ourselves – we have to live for the lives we want to have. At the end of the day, we’re the ones who buy into these companies, we’re the ones who both contribute to and find ourselves trapped an extractive and exploitative societal system, we’re the ones who automatically consume consume consume. Even if the personal impact is small, by behaving in a more sustainable way we reframe the way we navigate throughout the world, think deeper about materials and resources and labour, and learn how to tread lighter upon the Earth.
This was meant to be a post about how I could practice more ethically and sustainably as an artist but ended up as a virtue-signalling angry rant, didn’t it? Ah, I don’t give a damn. It’s perfectly valid. I don’t pretend to be perfect, or be as lightly treading upon the Earth as I’d like to be as a human or an artist (frustratingly, I need the cash to!), but I feel it’s a really serious issue that just isn’t discussed? Why isn’t sustainable practice included in art school curriculums?
I think I’ll write the thing I was intending to write as another post now…
Image: Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch at the Tate Modern