To The Mountain

May 8, 2024

Last year I was asked to contribute to the Serpentine Galleries’ Infinite Ecologies Marathon, a prelude to their Inifinite Ecologies programme, with something that expressed what I thought was missing from most discussion and practice of what we might call ecological art.

Over the last few years, I’ve been concerned with what might broadly be called a new crisis of representation when it comes to ecological work. This awareness stems from my own practice as well as wider concerns.

One place in which it is expressed is in Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement, a text I return to often. In it, Ghosh argues that capital-L Literature is unfit for engaging with climate-scale issues. The global ecological crisis is simply too vast in scale and complexity to be captured adequately by human-scale fiction, and thus cannot be meaningfully acted upon it. (I could write a lot more about this: Ghosh is concerned mostly with the bourgeois novel, rather than, say, speculative fiction; I would argue that in his own fiction he disproves his own thesis through his use of multiple narrators, including non-human ones; and the book is about much more than this, but anyway.)

My own journey to this crisis point comes through the technological art which was my own main preoccupation for more than a decade, centred on issues arising from networked systems, the materiality of contemporary technology, and its political effects. I found, in particular, that most art work about, say, surveillance (and now AI) which described itself as critical (including my own) mostly just reproduced the structures and mechanisms of the things it was critiquing, and thus normalised it. This is as true of the Snowden leaks as of critical tech art. Art which just does more surveillance, however transparently, or just maps out the existing structures of technological control (Look! A datacentre! Behold! A dataset!) is more likely to dazzle, frighten, and ultimately turn off an audience than to spur them to action; to make a change.

We can see parallels to this in what we might call the empathy crisis in media and humanitarian work: we know that just showing pictures of terrible things happening far away doesn’t do anything (at best) or actively turns viewers away (at worst) – but we keep doing it, for lack of better ideas (and lack of actual power and agency).

One result of this, in turning to ecological work, was to insist on what I call “works that work”, or “works that do work”: pieces which function both as artwork and as engines of ecological intervention, however minor. Hence: windmills, solar panels, self-built architecture. Not always achieved, not always achievable, but necessary. There’s no point making work about climate change. You have to do the work. This is a whole book; it might be in time.

As I couldn’t be present for the Serpentine event, I sent a short film in my stead. And for this, I focussed on the other component that I feel is central to ecological work – to art, to life – the part I feel less confident speaking about, the more personal, the often unspoken. And yet: without it, we cannot conceive of being ecological at all. And so: to the mountain.

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