University of Guelph
“Ecological Postures For a Climate Realism”
The ways we imagine and respond to ecological crisis are centrally bound to acts of representation that condition perception. In turn, the honing of vision plays an integral role in shaping the course of ecological knowledge. Currently, this aesthetic activity is occurring at precisely the moment when scientific knowledge of climate change is hotly contested by corporations, governments and the general population alike. Moreover, the material terms of perception have been called into question by the radically alien perspectives on which we must now speculate: the micro and macro scales of anthropogenic change, from geochemical and atmospheric transformations to epigenetic metamorphoses. Thus, a constellation of new ontological and epistemological demands is putting the previous ground of the life sciences in an “objective knowledge” through its paces. Climate skepticism occurs in conjunction with a heterogeneous climate realism.
In many respects, the disputes over knowledge-claims produce a delusional condition: even as there is a collective demand to pay attention to ecological crisis in its varied forms, entrenched forms of political resistance dislodge the underpinnings of this attention in order to maintain existing infrastructures that subtend the prevailing economy of knowledge. This is especially true as the location of ecological crisis becomes “climatic”; of the air, atmosphere, and in seemingly ungrounded and immaterial phenomena. The tension between a growing popular knowledge about climate change and the inhibition of political action produces a kind of cultural spasm, in Felix Guattari’s terms: a painful and compulsive mobilization of nervous energies that are both symptomatic of an intensified, excitable discourse and an exploitation of those energies for the preservation of the social body. The question becomes, then, how do we disengage from this refrain of continually “reading signs” of climate change and then being discredited as illiterate?
I will argue that contemporary art provides an alternative ground on which to experience and make claims about the realism of climate change and its impact. I will chart a trajectory that begins with an originary form of ecological denial, the political “cover-up,” common in the late decades of the 20th century when governments tested chemicals in depressed cities across North America and then denied the physical effects of their slow violence. This overt denial became an integral facet of the more recent and culturally distributed forms of denial that accompany climate change-related catastrophes. Importantly, I will chart this course through the lens of conceptual artists. Thus, my ambition is not merely to provide an environmental history, but also to show how artists present ecological crisis through alternative sensibilities that attempt to ease the spasmic refrain that patterns the battle over the truth about the climate, and resolve it into a re-syntonization of bodies, knowledge and exchange. I consider how art accomplishes this through propositions of moods and modalities that open the possibilities for navigating the new terrain of climate realism. I will examine four works of art: Tony Oursler’s 1993 video, Kepone; Mel Chin’s Operation Paydirt (2006-ongoing); Mary Mattingly’s Wearable Homes (2004-ongoing), and Ganzug Sedbazar’s “Aya Khai” (2015).
Amanda Boetzkes is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Guelph. Her research and publications focus on the intersection of visual and creative practices with the biological sciences (particularly ecology and neurology). Her first book, The Ethics of Earth Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), considers the development of the earth art movement, focusing on how ecology transitioned from a scientific discourse to a domain of ethical and aesthetic concern. She is co-editor, with Aron Vinegar, of Heidegger and the Work of Art History (Ashgate Press, 2014). She is completing a book entitled Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste, which examines the interplay between the aesthetics of contemporary art, global systems of energy-use, and the life cycle of garbage. Boetzkes has published in the journals Postmodern Culture; Art History; Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture; RACAR; Antennae: The Journal of Nature and Visual Culture and Eflux. Her upcoming book project, Ecologicity: Vision and Art for A World to Come, analyzes the aesthetic and perceptual dimensions of imagining the ecological condition. She is currently a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany.