“Ecological turns”

Filipa Ramos / The Editors

View of the Orto Botanico in Palermo, during Manifesta 12, 2018. Image courtesy of OMA and Manifesta 12, Palermo.

January 25, 2022

Among the functions of a critical publication is constantly to refresh the language that supports contemporary art. Not to reduce art and its transformations to words, but to make it possible for diverse audiences to conceptualize, experience, and discuss it; not to tie work to terminologies, but to liberate it from obsolete categories.

In conversations at the turn of the year Julieta Aranda suggested a series revolving around the various “ecological turns” in contemporary art of recent years. So, with the above in mind, we approached Filipa Ramos, a previous editor-in-chief and a passionate investigator of what “nature” means, to help us convene a thread of texts by authors working in different fields of the ecological discourse. In each case they will be invited to consider their knowledge in relation to the work being made and displayed today.

This relationship is not new, of course. Artists have always looked for new ways to experience, represent, and engage with “nature.” Yet even the scare quotes we feel obliged to add to the previous sentence speak to how dramatically perspectives have changed in recent decades, and how much this has transformed the way we speak about, more scare quotes, “culture.” As the way we conceive of the world changes, how should this be carried into the way we make and interpret art?

As with any shift in the language, the blanket application of terms borrowed from other disciplines can be bewildering, pedantic, and even actively misleading. That the anthropologist Anna Tsing set up a five-year research program to consider what we mean by the Anthropocene, and how useful the word might be in helping people to reimagine how and where they live, illustrates that the most widely adopted concepts carry meanings, associations, and controversies that are often elided by transfer into the art world’s argot. In other contexts, the frequent citation of terms like “care,” “solidarity,” and “engagement” by parties that do not practice the ideas underpinning them shows how quickly language can be emptied out by its overuse (to quote Julieta in the aforementioned conversations, “greenwashing is the horrors”).

The purpose of this new thread of reviews, short essays, conversations, and case studies, then, isn’t so much about defining new ideas as testing them against the objects and experiences that artists produce. These applications can help to give theories the traction that carries them beyond their source discipline. It is a reciprocal relationship, too. Art not only illustrates but also embodies and expands the concepts and agendas emerging from schools including anthropology, biology, and neurology.

Among the questions to be broached are: How to recognize the scale of the crisis without succumbing to despair? How to move beyond anthropocentrism in the Anthropocene and decenter the human from the humanities? How to reform the canons that dictate how the world should be seen and what matters within it? How to define what we mean when we say “we”? How to move from ways of seeing to ways of experiencing the world that are multisensory and challenge a single, unified perspective? How can an “ecological turn” be more than a fashionable subject and become embedded in daily life? How can environmental responsibility, more than a rhetorical commitment, be compatible with the art world’s impact on the environment?

These aren’t questions we are capable of answering. By asking them, we rather hope to draw attention to some of the ways in which people are telling new stories about the world, how these might generate new ways of thinking and acting, and how the language of art criticism might change to reflect and implement them. The series begins next month with a response by novelist and historian of science Daisy Hildyard to the work of Anicka Yi: we hope you enjoy it.

Nature & Ecology, Posthumanism
Environment, Climate change

Filipa Ramos cares about art and animals. She is Director of the Contemporary Art Department of the City of Porto. She leads the Art and Nature seminars of the Master in Fine Arts of the FHNW Academy of Art and Design, Basel.

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January 25, 2022

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