Part 1: Sighting a geologic turn at the 2011 Art + Environment Conference

By Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth

The Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, NV, held its first Art + Environment conference in 2008.  In the three years since then, planetary-scale events, both “natural” and human-made, have triggered irrevocable environmental consequences that will ramify into deep futures.  Arguably, participants at this week’s Art + Environment Conference were gathering within a global environmental context palpably different from that of 2008—one that pleads for the invention of radically different aesthetic works and practices in response.  

The 2011 Conference convened in the wake of events neither fully absorbed nor fully played out.  One after another, presenters’ words and images referenced history-making oil spills, earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear disasters, exponential increases in hydraulic fracturing across the U.S. and exploitation of tar sands in Canada, volcanic eruptions, alarming signs of climate change, highly stressed urban environments, and continued increase in world population (now nearly 7 billion).  They also referenced efforts by contemporary artists to access the pace and nature of environmental change now bearing down on human daily life.  Their approaches ranged from “working with rivers, not against them” (architect Richard Black and artist Patricia Johanson) to creating mythical artificial landscapes that are eerily familiar enough to even further confuse “natural” and “artificial” (Landscape Futures panel discussion).

The inaugural Art + Environment Conference of 2008 was designed around the premise that new, contemporary takes on “environmental” or “land art” were needed, and those new angles remained deliberately, and productively, undefined.  At the close of the 2011 Conference, it is still not clear what art + environment might come to mean.  But one thing is unmistakably clear:  the “environment” in “art + environment” is changing—drastically and alarmingly.  Sometimes on its own, sometimes at the hands of humans.  The changes are global in scale and unprecedented (for human history at least) in speed. 

And the “art” in “art + environment” is changing too.  To be an artist engaged in the version of art + environment that emerged from this week’s Conference is to be a human engaged in making creative responses to rapid, monumental changes in the earth’s geo-biological materialities, dynamics, forms, scapes, and habitats.  Summarizing moderator Bruce Sterling, the land artists of the Anthropocene no longer have the luxury of practicing the finer arts.  They are practicing triage in hard hats and hip boots.  They are compelled by the speed and scale of environmental change to invent art practices capable of engaging the nuclear, the microbial, the digital, the macro and the micro, and what is no longer fictional in science fiction.

It is this context of rapid change on a global scale that drew us to attend.  We came to see what this conference’s presentations and geographic context might offer to those of us whose thinking and aesthetic work have begun to take a “geologic turn.”  We looked and listened for evidence to support a hunch:  that a turn is taking place—a turn toward the geologic as a source of information, explanation, inspiration, and motivation for navigating (conceptually and physically) forces and scales of change that all humans live within today.  

Across popular culture, contemporary philosophy, journalism, and art, it seems that “geologic” is taking on an expanded meaning.  Many are referencing the geologic not simply as rock strata or minute changes in the earth’s forms and substance over millenia. The geologic seems to be becoming a way to make sense of and work within the conditions of contemporary life.  Impacts of geologic events on urbanized humans who live on precarious geographic edges are escalating. Understandings of how the biological and the geological are intertwined are deepening.  Oil extraction, refinement, and depletion is now being seen as one (geologic) force majeure driving another—climate change (see The Harrison Studio). Technologies to visualize earth dynamics across time are proliferating.  All of this is intensifying the significance of the geologic in daily human life.  It is becoming ever more difficult to ignore the fact that speeds and scales of geo-bio change, from the minute to the monumental, are fundamental drivers of our evolutionary histories—and futures.

At this year’s Art + Environment Conference, presenters made one point palpable, over and over:  “the environment” is glo-cal, undergoing rapid and irreversible change at all scales, and is a highly intertwined complex of both the geo and the bio. We came away with ample evidence that, in 2011, along with the biologic, the geologic is being recognized as an intimate, active force of environmental change in the lives and practices of artists.  Conceptions and images of “the environment” forged in the 1970s are no longer limited to the biosphere—those thin green and blue layers above our heads and below our feet.  What we take to be the environmental conditions of daily life has compounded.  “The environment” is being experienced as a geo-bio complex. At the Conference, the geologic was invoked and repeatedly asserted as a condition not only of contemporary life—but of creative practice as well.  

smudge is a collaboration between Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth, based in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Their current project meets sites and moments where the geologic and the human converge.
They creatively respond to the complex of forces we encounter:
the natural, built, historic, social, strategic and the imagined.

They are the co-authors of the Friends of the Pleistocene blog. Current projects include the recently released Geologic City: a Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York and they are co-editing a collection of essays entitled, Making a Geologic Turn (forthcoming).

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