1.1. Ecology

1.06. London, UK.

1.1.1. Science and/or philosophy

I position my analysis and praxis within the field of ecological thought. Ecology is a key discursive field that re-works the nature-culture divide, and a key conceptual interface through which humans think their situatedness within the environment more broadly. In this section, I will outline a brief history of the concept, explore several ecological philosophies of significance for this research, and see how ecology came to inhabit visual arts discourse.

The acknowledged founder of the term ‘ecology’ is Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist who defined it in 1866 as “the science of the relations of living organisms to the external world, their habitat, customs, energies, parasites etc.” (Worster, in Pepper, 1996: 184). As Bateson later stated, “the unit of survival is organism plus environment” (Bateson, 1972: 489) or in James Gibson’s words, “the words animal and environment make an inseparable pair as each term implies the other” (in Miles, 2014: 34). Ecology at its core is the science of relations between organisms, including those of humans with other-than-humans.

Ecology has concurrently developed as a science and as a world-view. Donald Worster in his classic Nature’s Economy charts this multi-layered meaning:

the question of whether ecology is primarily a science or a philosophy of interrelatedness has been a persistent identity problem. And the nature of this interdependence is a parallel issue: Is it a system of economic organization or a moral community of mutual tolerance and aid? (Worster, 1994: 471)

This double meaning neatly encapsulates the ambivalences of society’s relations with the extra-human environment. My inquiry is primarily aesthetic and ethico-political, therefore the research will be grounded in environmental or ecological philosophies, rather than eco-science.

1.07. Outskirts of Bor, Serbia.

In philosophical-political sense, ecology “includes all the ways we imagine how we live together. Ecology is profoundly about coexistence” (Morton, 2010: 4). It is a radical questioning of who/what is an organism and who/what is environment (Goodbun, 2011; Morton, 2007). This questioning does not have a definite answer but instead is a practice of subject and environment. For Gregory Bateson (1979: 152-3), the relationship between two organisms is an “evolution of fitting together”, creation of contexts in which the subjects involved change the boundaries. Fundamentally, a relation to other beings is a “practice” or process of “learning the contexts of life” (ibid.: 146). Ecology as a learning practice is thus thoroughly intertwined with politics, science, engineering, agriculture, architecture, economy, and with any and every field of human activity, but it is not reducible to any of them individually. From its origins in the 19th century, ecology developed in close relation with aesthetics, and some of its fundamental ideas came from Romanticism1.

The expanse of ecological thinking is vast and beyond the scope of this research to review in its entirety. However, it is important to note two important tendencies that reveal the inherent tensions of the term. According to Donald Worster, since its origins in the 19th century, ecology implied two co-present but rather different views of nature―“arcadian” and “imperialistic” (Worster, 1994: 3-55), nature as an order to be preserved or to be managed by instrumental reason. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, eco-science tended to promote either ‘conservation’ or ‘preservation’. This idea was based on postulating nature as the ‘biological order’ that humans disturbed (Worster, 1990: 2). In the 1950’s and ‘60s, with the work of Eugene P. Odum and his concept of ecosystems, ecology shifted towards a quantitative analysis of flows of energy (ibid.: 4-6). In the 1970’s and 1980’s, in relation with chaos and complexity theories, there was a dramatic change in thinking towards a more complex understanding. Donald Worster describes this shift as a change from an ‘ecology of order’ towards an ‘ecology of chaos’ (Worster, 1991), which does not adopt a teleological vision that nature tends towards a steady-state equilibrium. Each of these iterations in eco-science informed eco-philosophies, and vice versa. I avoid mapping scientific findings into ecological philosophy, and focus instead on the discourse of subject and environment.

1.08. Kemiönsaari, Finland.

Ethico-political tension is inscribed in the etymology of the word Haeckel chose for the discipline. ‘Ecology’ derives from the Greek word oikos, meaning ‘household’ but also ‘economy’ (Pepper, 1996: 184), or, as in Haeckel’s original formulation, ‘housekeeping’ (in Stauffer 1957: 140-1). ‘House’ and ‘housekeeping’ imply a specific organisation of society and labour, class and gender, public and private. From this perspective, ecology goes beyond the economy of nature; it is a politics of relations. Ecological discourse is of interest to my research because it imagines more just ways of living together with radically different inhabitants of the earth. What I take from these tensions and debates is the ‘transversality’ of ecology (Guattari, 2000), a discourses that crosses and troubles the boundaries between the discourses of science, eco-aesthetics, philosophy, law, politics and other disciplines in rare extra-disciplinary conversations.

1.09. Areca palms. IKEA, London, UK.

1.1.2. Radical ecologies

In this section, I review three radical ‘green’ philosophies of the 20th century, positioned at the nexus of eco-philosophy and environmentalism. These are important forerunners that an ecological praxis in the 21st century has a lot to learn from. This is not to forget other major figures in this rich tradition, but to assert alliances and continuities that bear significance for the current context. What sets deep ecology, social ecology and ecological feminism apart from the large sea of eco-thought is that they in various ways attempt to dismantle the modern logic of dualisms.

Deep ecology, the term coined by the philosopher Arne Naess in 1972, asked for a fundamental change in relations with the natural world rather than a focus on individual issues. The key philosophical significance of Naess’s work can be traced in his first two principles of deep ecology: “Rejection of the man-in-environment image in favour of the relational, total-field image” and ”biospherical egalitarianism” (in Merchant, 1992: 117). Deep ecology is an elaborate ecological philosophy or ‘ecosophy’ based on following premises:

(1) A human being is not a thing in the environment, but a juncture in a relational system without determined boundaries in time and space. (2) The relational system connects humans, as organic systems, with animals, plants, and ecosystems conventionally said to be within or outside the human organism. (Naess, 1989: 79)

Based on these premises, Naess develops an ethical system, where he proposes that humans should ‘identify’ with other entities and collectives, in order to enlarge the ‘circles of interest and care’ beyond the human ego. The aim is ‘Self-realisation’: “The egos develop into selves of greater and greater dimensions, proportional to the extent and depth of our processes of identification” (ibid.:173-4). Another powerful idea of deep ecology is ‘biospheric egalitarianism’ which means that all entities have an equal right to thrive.

Deep ecology has exerted large influence on the environmental movement at large, and inspired scientists such as James Lovelock and Fritjof Capra (in Merchant, 2008:124-5). However, it has also drawn important criticism, especially from ecological feminism, for its ‘denial of difference’. Plumwood claims that deep ecology promotes ”impartial identification with all particulars, the cosmos” (Plumwood, 1992:181), thereby not attending to the ”very specific and local responsibilities of care”, and prioritising reason at the expense of ”respect, sympathy, care, concern, compassion, gratitude, friendship and responsibility” (ibid:172). Deep ecology opened a new field but perhaps too quickly created a cosmic narrative that uncritically presupposes a world-wide unity instead of explaining it. By doing so, it also postulates an abstract universal human subject and does not focus enough on differences in gender, class, race, ethnicity and structures of oppression. Whilst I admire its ambition, I believe a more situated approach is needed.

1.10. Sirogojno, Serbia.

Social ecology, and many variants of ecosocialist thought, are one of the rich traditions where ecology meets movements for social justice. Here I engage with one of the key authors in this area, Murray Bookchin. Before proceeding towards Bookchin’s vision, it is relevant to briefly summarise its predecessors. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were amongst the first critics of the capitalist mode of production and the relationships it establishes with nature.

Nature is a man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. [original emphasis] (Marx, in Foster, 2000: 72)

For Marx, man is in a dialectical relationship with nature. However, Marx and Engels also posited that man stands alone from animals and plants because man engages in production: “What [men] are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce” (Marx & Engels, in Parsons 2008: 47). Ultimately, Engels asserts that man enters history through labour, thereby articulating a teleological conception of history as “a series of class struggles” against capitalist forces of production. This modernist stance assumes that technological development will perform a “leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom” (Engels, in Parsons, 2008: 50). It is clear that Marx and Engels prioritised society in relation to nature and that the main focus of their analysis lies in creating a new social order2. But they planted the early seeds of radical green theory, as they criticised the making of “earth [into] an object of huckstering” (ibid.: 53). Perhaps the most significant contribution of Marx to green theory is his notion of ‘alienation’, or the estrangement of the worker from “his/her labour”, which is “inseparable from the alienation of human beings from nature, from both their own internal nature and external nature” (Foster, 2000: 72). This is an important early formulation of transversality of subjective and environmental ecologies. Alienation is also materially manifested in the division between countryside and town.

1.11. Seat of Intercontinental Exchange, Inc., London, UK.

Marxist analysis has been furthered by Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School, in particular, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment, where they introduce the idea of the ‘logic of domination’ or ‘absolute mastery over nature’ as a key project of modern reason (Eckersley, in Merchant, 2008). The Frankfurt School emerged from the critique of instrumental rationality, but eventually claimed that domination was a broader social project that involved social institutions, epistemology and world-view in general. Even though, according to Eckersley, Critical Theory may not have exerted a strong direct influence on the green movement or the New Left in general, Adorno and Horkheimer’s postulation of the logic of domination paved the way for at least two key radical ecosophies.

Murray Bookchin’s social ecology envisions an ‘ecological society’ (1980, 1990). Following Marxist and Frankfurt School traditions, Bookchin asserts that the domination of man over nature ‘stems’ from the domination of human by human (1990: 44-6). By doing so, Bookchin overturns the Marxist narrative that sees social domination as something that emerges from an enterprise to master nature. In Bookchin’s view, “‘nearly all ecological problems are social problems’, not simply or primarily the result of religious, spiritual, or political ideologies” (1990:24). To answer this, “we must examine their social causes and remedy them through social methods” (ibid.). For Bookchin, the key ecological problem is hierarchy. He goes at great lengths to describe the emergence of hierarchy from what he calls ‘organic societies’. On the other hand, Bookchin sees nature as nonhierarchical. The goal of social ecology is therefore to “extirpate the hierarchical orientation of our psyches, not merely remove the institutions that embody social domination” (1982: 340). Similarly to deep ecologists, Bookchin’s writing is permeated with universalist assertions, which are highly contestable.3 Without accepting the details of Bookchin’s analysis, I find of great interest his individuation of nonhierarchy as one of the pre-requisites of ecology. Social ecology is closely aligned in this way with another radical ecology that developed from the mid-1970s on.

1.12. Free newspapers. London, UK.

In ecological philosophy, the most consistent challenge to dualistic thinking has come from ecological feminism or ecofeminism, and the related but more recent queer ecology. The word ‘ecofeminism’ was coined by Françoise d’Eaubonne in her Feminisme ou le mort in 1974. Since then, ecofeminism has generated a plurality of positions and ideas that with difficulty can be summarised under one heading4. One potential but by no means over-arching mission statement of ecofeminism is Karen Warren’s:

‘Ecological feminism’ is the name of a variety of different feminist perspectives on the nature of the connections between the domination of women (and other oppressed humans) and the domination of nature. (Warren, 1996:x)

The passage emphasises two key terms—domination and oppression—that are usually seen as concerning only humans. Ecofeminism introduces a major leap into liberatory theory and practice that has perhaps not yet been fully acknowledged. In ecofeminist analysis, patriarchy and capitalism are systems of oppression via the naturalisation of certain parts of humanity (especially, women) and extra-humanity. What links feminism with ecology is that “women are believed to be closer to nature” (King, in Plant, 1989: 19), which, as a consequence creates “the sort of logic of domination used to justify the domination of humans by gender, racial or ethnic, or class status is also used to justify the domination of nature” (Warren, 1996: 24). This is the key point that ecofeminists share. Methodologies for how to change this state of things, and even what is oppression, vary widely. This is also why Warren insists on ‘variety’ and ‘difference’ in her definition of ecofeminism.

1.13. Mynydd Parys disused copper mine. Isle of Anglesey, Wales, UK.

The centrality of ecofeminism for this research is its emphasis on difference. This comes from a profound real-life experience of second-wave feminism which was criticised by women of different ethnicities and backgrounds for making sweeping claims about a ‘collective subject’ woman (Combahee River Collective, 1977). Following a push towards pluralisation, ecofeminists have argued strongly against the ‘unity’ or ‘homogeneity’ of many eco-philosophies, insisting on ethics that does not try to reduce the other to the same. Based on this, ecofeminists have expressed serious reservations towards inclusive or rational ethics based on morality and rights, such as Tom Regan’s ‘animal rights’ and Peter Singer’s ‘animal liberation’ proposals5. Regan and Singer are criticised for their liberal conception of the moral subject which implies that animals become ethically valuable “in so far as they resemble individual human knowers and experiencers” (Cuomo, 1998: 95). Josephine Donovan and Carol J. Adams argue that “the feminist care ethic thus has rejected abstract, rule-based principles in favour of situational, contextual ethics”, dedicating ‘attention’ to “the individual suffering animal” but also and always attending “to the political and economic systems that are causing the suffering” (2007: 2, 3). Instead of universalist and anthropomorphic arguments, ecofeminists insist on giving value to more local and more particular modes of relationality, such as care, empathy, solidarity, friendship and love (e.g., Plumwood, 1993; Cuomo, 1998)6. Seeking commonalities and coalitions between various forms of oppression, even across the gaping nature―culture split, is a powerful ethico-political proposal of ecofeminism7.

1.14. Hyvinkää County, Finland.

Women’s presumed ‘closeness’ to nature has been a thorny issue for feminism at large, and one of the key political and theoretical struggles of feminism was to break off from this legacy of naturalisation. This process is described by Stacy Alaimo as “feminist theory’s flight from nature” (2000: 1-23). In light of its explicit emphasis on the link between women and nature, charges of essentialism have been brought against ecofeminism since its inception, both from other strands of feminism and from the ‘greens’ at large. From this perspective, ecofeminist intervention seemed to go backwards, towards a more ‘primitive’ or ‘archaic’ vision of woman as bound with ‘mother nature’8. As a response to this, Sturgeon claims that this conceptual linkage is a ‘strategic essentialism’ that has to do with the socio-political reality of environmental and feminist struggles (1997). However, in the postmodern feminism of the 1990s, biological sex, or nature, was pushed into background in favour of gender politics, where gender was understood mainly as a cultural performance. In this reading, “nature is static and culture is dynamic, making feminist change contingent on the systematic removal of woman from the category of nature” (Alaimo, 2000: 5). This is one of the key factors that led to the relative disappearance of ecofeminism as a force in feminism9. Nonetheless, ecofeminist ideas sprouted some important developments, reappearing in new guises in material feminisms and feminist environmental humanities. Authors such as Catriona Sandilands (1999) and Stacy Alaimo (2000, 2010) have moved ecofeminism beyond fixed identity positioning. As a mode of analysis, a genealogy of ideas and an ethico-political imaginary and ethos, I believe ecofeminism holds enormous potential for posthumanist ecological imaginings.

1.15. A ‘chain of cards’ in a power loom. Nörkoppings stadsmuseum, Nörkopping.

Another coalitional thread of ecofeminism was envisioned in Greeta Gard’s visionary article “Towards a Queer Ecofeminism” (1997). Queer ecology has recently come of age, Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson’s (2010) edited collection of investigations into the various relationships between queer and environmental politics, ranging from contributions that seek to destabilise the toxic description of homosexuality as ‘against nature’, through historical analyses of queer environmentalism, ecocritical readings of queer/nature entanglements in cultural production, up to the formulation of queer ecological politics. Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson call for “a transgressive and historically relevant critique of dominant pairings of nature and environment with heteronormativity and homophobia” (ibid.:22). Association of queerness with ‘unnaturalness’ is the flip side of the pairing of women with nature, and attests to the power of nature as a tool for heterenormative and androcentric normalisation. In another text, Mortimer-Sandilands traces the connection between heterenormativity and the parks movement in the U.S. in the late 19th century, whereby parks were considered spaces for affirmation of both masculinity and heterosexuality, whilst also becoming spaces of contestation for queer-identifying people (Mortimer-Sandilands, 2005). Colonisation and imperial conquest have historically enacted forms of sexual and heteronormative oppression. Homoerotic and transgender practices among indigenous populations were among the causes used to justify their subjection, enslavement, or even extermination (Gaard, 1997: 126-9). Nature is thus a site through which identities of both natural others and human others had been determined as inferior. This makes ‘nature’ a space to be reclaimed and liberated (Sturgeon 1997, Alaimo, 2000). For queer ecologies and ecofeminism, “the redrawing of conceptual boundaries is intimately linked to the transformation of material practices involving both human and more-than-human natures” (Mortimer-Sandilands & Erickson, 2010:30). This intersection of analytical impetus and transformative intent is of great relevance to environmentally-engaged art, and it imbues the critical-creative modality of my praxis.

1.16. An airport. London, UK.

The ecology of difference of ecofeminism can also be read in relation to Félix Guattari’s ecosophy. Developed in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Guattari identifies the key factor in environmental crisis as what he calls Integrated World Capitalism and its productions of subjectivity (2000). Against this mode of production, Guattari pitches a ‘generalised ecology’ which operates ‘transversally’ across ‘three ecologies’: mental, social and environmental (2000). Guattari calls for a creation of new ‘existential territories’ through an ethico-politics and eco-art that would invite novel modes of subjectivation. Guattari’s analysis of patterns of domination is close to ecofeminism, and is in affinity with the anti-globalisation and environmental justice movements that shaped in 1990’s. In Chaosmosis, Guattari puts forward the idea of ‘virtual ecology’, which he describes as a mode of subjectivation that involves “Fluxes, machinic Phylums, existential Territories, incorporeal Universes” (1995: 31). Virtual ecology is an ‘ethico-aesthetic paradigm’ that traverses mental, social and environmental ecologies:

Beyond the relations of actualised forces, virtual ecology will not simply attempt to preserve the endangered species of cultural life but equally to engender conditions for the creation and development of unprecedented formations of subjectivity that have never been seen and never felt. This is to say that generalised ecology—or ecosophy—will work as a science of ecosystems, as a bid for political regeneration, and as an ethical, aesthetic and analytic engagement. It will tend to create new systems of valorisation, a new taste for life, a new gentleness between the sexes, generations, ethnic groups, races … (Guattari, 1995: 91-2)

Guattari goes beyond the modern quandaries of nature and culture, and other modern binaries, towards the ‘cosmic’. This ethico-aesthetic ecosophy, together with his collaborative work with Gilles Deleuze (1983, 1987, 1994), provides a fertile ground upon which to forge tools for eco-aesthetics and survival in the twenty-first century10. Deleuze and Guattari’s collaborations began as a critique of Freudian psychoanalysis and capitalism, and led them into a ‘geophilosophy’, or the philosophy of ‘becoming-earth’. Their singular and joint projects merge themes of anti-globalisation and environmental justice. Furthermore, their materialist ontology is of a decidedly posthumanist nature, taking into account agency of various forms of life.

1.17. Mining and Smelting Combine Bor. Bor, Serbia.

A wider understanding of the material modes of appropriation of nature is now available and key critical insights can be gained when these material processes are viewed transversally with the critical histories of modern thought, as deep ecology, social ecology, and ecofeminism have attempted11. The radical ecologies exposed here do not stop at analytics, they generate new patterns of thought and, sometimes, political action. This double vision, critical and creative, is an ethos that environmentally-engaged or -concerned art can draw upon and contribute to. Learning from ecofeminism and queer ecologies, contemporary ecological art should aim to concurrently reconfigure realms of meaning and material practices, and to help liberate differences of both humans and other-than-human bodies from the logic of dualism.

1.18. London, UK.

1.1.3. Eco-oriented art, a brief history

Art concerned with environment emerged in the same years as environmentalism, usually credited as starting with Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring in 1962. However, only since the 1990s has it evolved into more precise definitions such as environmental art, eco-art, sustainable art, ecovention and so on (Bower, 2010). By now it can be said that ecological or eco-art is a firmly established field of work (Kagan, 2011; Weintraub, 2007, 2012; Brown, 2014). To provide a complete survey of all definitions, bearing in mind the differences among various artistic approaches, is not feasible and is perhaps unnecessary. Instead of following pre-established definitions, I propose that there is an artistic working ethos that is ‘eco-oriented’, which means that it is disposed or inclined towards the ‘outside’ of culture: nature, environment, animal, nonhuman, etc.

From my standpoint, I would like to underline two important characteristics of eco-oriented art: it is an ethico-politics of practice oriented towards caring, meeting, relating with earth others; it is a modality of work characterised by hybridity and transversality of media and sites. The first point means that eco-oriented art tries to be responsive/responsible towards humans and entities that are considered as not belonging to society. Its hybridity is connected with the complex entanglements that environmental issues pose, and thus art involves trans-disciplinary or inter-media elaborations. This section is a general introduction to this ethos, whilst the next section will focus more on specific practices.

A short origin story of eco-oriented art could begin with Land Art. Land Artists ‘earthworks’ initiated a breakaway from the gallery space and, often, from the city to remote locations. They were among the first to exemplify what geographer Ed Soja called a “spatialisation of cultural politics” (in Wallis, 1999: 28). This spatial politics is clearly expressed by Robert Smithson, who wrote that artists “must accept and enter into all of the real problems that confront the ecologist and industrialist” (Smithson, in Flam, 1996: 380). His approach to land was that of ‘dialectical landscape’, “the democratic dialectic between the sylvan and the industrial” (ibid.: 162). Other artists of the period focused on process, for example, Hans Haacke’s ecosystems, Helen and Newton Harrison’s Survival Pieces and Gustav Metzger’s material environments. These works were methodologically responding to cybernetics and systems theories. Performative practices ventured into the ‘great outdoors’, in various bodily engagements with the landscape12. In the 1970’s environmental art spilled over into public art, community art, participatory art, and many other strategies that since the 1970s worked in what Rosalind Krauss (1979) called ‘expanded field’. Some of the features of the works of the period were, in the words of Craig Owens, “appropriation, site-specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridisation” (Owens, in Wallis, 1999: 38). The environmental artists of the 1970s were important in the developments of socially engaged and public art13. Eco-oriented art practices have early on embodied an understanding of transversality between social and environmental ecologies.

1.19. London, UK.

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro marked a “radical rearticulation” of the global environmental movement, which moved from a homeostatic approach towards a movement for environmental justice connecting the North and South (McKee, in Feher, 2007: 552-5). In correspondence with this evolution in environmentalism, Yates McKee argues that goals and aims of environmental art significantly changed. “[T]he task of new environmental art would be to unsettle the self-evidence of ‘environment’ itself, addressing it as a contingent assemblage of biological, technological, economic and governmental concerns whose boundaries and agencies are perpetually exposed to conflict” (ibid.: 561). This redefinition of ‘environment’ strongly resonates with ecofeminism and Guattari’s concept of ‘three ecologies’. I would add that this historical change in environmentalism corresponds with the public acknowledgement of climate change. From around the time of Rio 1992, ecological art was also put more firmly on the map of the now-globalised visual arts. A series of shows addressed and formalised what ecological art is, such as Barbara Matilsky’s Fragile Ecologies (1992) at the Queens Museum of Art in New York, which is often considered to be the first exhibition that focused exclusively on ecological art (Spaid, 2002; Demos, 2009). Since 2000 there has been a proliferation of eco-oriented exhibitions14. A place of prominence in the genealogy should be given to dOCUMENTA 13 (2012), which is of relevance for the context of this research inasmuch as it institutionalised the shift towards a posthumanist understanding of ecology. It also promoted very close engagement between art and philosophy, to which I will return below. More recently, and in part as a result of an intense transfer of ideas between arts and humanities, there has been an emergence of post-ecological perspectives under the notion of the Anthropocene. I will treat posthumanist and Anthropocene vectors in eco-oriented art in the following sections, here I limit my analysis to several historically established concepts and themes of eco-oriented art.

1.20. Klovakärrsgruvan. Kemiönsaari, Finland.

One of the main topics of eco-oriented art has been ‘sustainability’ (Hildegard, 2004; Kagan, 2011). There are two different and sometimes connected approaches here: artworks that deal with the problem of sustainability, and artworks that so to say embody sustainable values, methods, and technologies. Spaid Sue’s curated show Ecovention at Cincinnati is illustrative of the second sense: “the term ecovention (ecology + invention) describes an artist-initiated project that employs an inventive strategy to physically transform a local ecology. … Ecological artists also grapple with this impulse to build a more sustainable future” (Spaid, 2002: 13). In a catalogue of a large survey of ecological art at the Barbican in 2009, T.J. Demos claimed that the mission of ecological art is to:

contribute to the ongoing public engagement with the politics of sustainability, to advance creative proposals for alternative forms of life based on environmental justice in a global framework, and to do so until such art exhibitions can somehow meet the requirements of a just sustainability – these are the imperatives for a contemporary environmental art (Demos, 2009: 28).

More recently, the idea of ecological art as a vehicle of sustainability has given way to more layered cultural and political considerations. As Lorenzo Giusti in the catalogue of Green Platform pointed out, the “perspective of ‘sustainable art’ must leave room for the circulation of a broader ecological culture that, first and foremost, is presented as an ethical-aesthetic shift promoted on an environmental level and, at the same time, on a social level and in terms of mental processes” (in Giusti & Sensini, 2009). In the context of this research, sustainability, even though it has evolved from its original definition in Brundland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, is considered as fundamentally an anthropocentric concept, that does not seek to rework or displace the human―environment separation. Whilst sharing some aspects of the above definitions, imagining a more-than-human ecology implies a different standpoint.

Closer to the concerns of my research are the approaches that T.J. Demos calls “the post-natural condition” (Demos, 2012: 191). More than focusing on issues of sustainability or preservation, these approaches look at how nature is subsumed through “economic calculations and legal regulations” (ibid.: 194) and how they position themselves “into literally new terrain that is not only social but more specifically biopolitical and eco-financial” (ibid.: 197). In the introduction to a special issue of Third Text (2013), Demos furthered this critique and outlined a new space for a critical eco-aesthetics, linking it closely with the discipline of political ecology. By combining Guattari’s ‘three ecologies’, Latour’s ‘politics of nature’, Marxist cultural geography and the movement for climate justice, Demos provides a strong transversal conceptual platform for an eco-aesthetics

Political ecology based on the commitment to environmental sustainability, biodiversity, social justice, human rights, economic equality and democratic practice . . . identifies the overarching criteria for consideration of the artistic practices and critical positions considered in this issue. (Demos, 2013: 7)

In many ways my research overlaps with the concerns outlined above, however my objection to this viewpoint is that it shapes ‘criteria’ that are inevitably human. In a posthumanist space, as I will go on to claim, the whole vocabulary of ethics and politics should be opened up to re-orientation. Furthermore, in a posthumanist context, ethics and politics become locally accountable and the idea of universal or global criteria cannot easily correspond to the variety of inter-bodily engagements.

1.22. Bor, Serbia.

An understanding of ecology as an ethical engagement can be found in the exhibition statement of Undercurrents, organised by the Whitney Museum of American Art across different institutions and public spaces in New York in 2010.

Ethical cohabitation—how to live together in a shared environment—is the problem that brings together the sociopolitical, cultural, and ecological within this exhibition. While ostensibly aiming to achieve harmonious balance, such relations are nevertheless inherently antagonistic and always unstable. Situated in this context, how does one choose to act? (Fournier et al., 2010: 9)

The complicated nature of everyday cohabitation with different bodies is where eco-aesthetics emerges from, and from there, it moves to analysis of broader social, economic and political patterns and institutions. This viewpoint can be transversally read with Malcolm Miles’s formulation of eco-aesthetics:

a matter of how the world is sensed and understood, and from that of the relations between subjects and objects of perception, and whether what are taken as objects might themselves be subjects. Perhaps the relation of the subject to other subjects/objects is key to an ecological approach… (Miles, 2014: 3)

The question of the troubling of distinction between subject and object is of interest here. In a similar fashion, Timothy Morton outlines the primary task of eco-aesthetics as being to “undo habitual distinctions between nature and ourselves. It is supposed not just to describe, but also to provide a working model for a dissolving of the difference between subject and object” (Morton, 2007: 63-4). With the undoing of subject―object distinction, background and foreground as aesthetic propositions waver (ibid.: 175). Therefore, what modernly speaking, may have been aesthetic problems, actually have far-ranging socio-political implications, thus contributing to the critiques of the logic of colonisation of natures. A fully ethico-political conceptualisation of eco-aesthetics was proposed by Rasheed Araeen (2010), the founder of journal Third Text. Araeen sees artist’s ego (subjectivity) as one of the key obstacles to ecological aesthetics. Ecoaesthetics, for Araeen, is a “collective work”, “a continuous movement in life’s natural processes” (2010). In other words, Araeen tells that art must go “beyond art”. Araeen’s call comes from the critique of modernist avant-gardes that posited to annul the division between life and art, and, in his words, failed to do so. I do believe that we are facing a similar problem, and that eco-aesthetics needs to be grounded in everyday life, and I recognise the necessity to look for allies, similarly to how Araeen turns to land and those who live on and work the land. However, I do think that this implies also “facing the inhuman” (Barad, 2012), on which I will expand further.

To conclude this section, I clam that located ethico-politics and the undoing of binary structures are key working problems for eco-oriented artistic practices that entangle mental, socio-political and environmental ecologies, as well as extra-human ecologies.

1.23. Mona Mine. Isle of Anglesey, Wales, UK.

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  1. The rise of ecological thought would have been difficult to imagine without the Romanticist ideal of ‘nature’, as explored in the poetry of, for example, William Blake or William Wordsworth (Coupe, 2000: 13-15), not to mention the representations of nature in the visual arts. Jonathan Bate, in his pioneering book of literary studies about ecology, speaks of “romantic ecology” (ibid.: 13). Several founding figures of Romanticism stood right at the nexus of science and arts, such as Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt (Pepper, 1996: 200).
  2. Works of, for example, David Bellamy Foster (e.g., 2000) recently re-read Marx’s ecological positions, but I believe it would be hard to say that Marx’s approach is not anthropocentric and humanist. That being said, his analysis of economic production as perhaps a crucial interface of society with environment is still immensely significant and can be put to work in the present context with requalifications (e.g., Moore, 2015; Wark, 2015).
  3. Bookchin’s assertion of ‘uniqueness’ of the human species, and the somewhat Promethean claims that “nature phases into society” (1990:30) are highly problematic for a non-anthropocentric ecology. One interesting point to mention is also that, apart from higher intelligence, innate creativity, and consciousness, Bookchin also claims that only humans have developed domination and hierarchy, which are for him the worst ethico-political features and root of both social and environmental problems.
  4. The generative multiplicity of ecofeminism can be observed in some of the classic edited collections: Healing the Wounds. The Promise of Ecofeminism (Plant, 1989); Reweaving the World. The Emergence of Ecofeminism (Diamond & Orenstein, 1990); Ecofeminism. Women, Animals, Nature (Gaard, 1993); Ecological Feminist Philosophies (Warrren, 1996).
  5. This is not to say that ecofeminists do not share the idea of animal liberation, quite the opposite. Ecofeminist literature abounds with analyses of animal oppression, and proposed vegetarianism and veganism as a political strategy (see, Adams & Donovan, 2007). One of the key ecofeminist anthologies is Greta Gaard’s Ecofeminism. Women, Animals, Nature. To this, we must add Carol J. Adams founding text The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (1990). Adams is one of the key figures for the continuity of ecofeminist debate at large. Together with Lori Gruen, they edited a recent anthology Ecofeminism. Feminist intersections with other animals and the earth (2014). In their co-authored chapter Groundwork they draw a long genealogy of connections between feminism, vegetarianism, veganism and animal rights. The book asks for a critical reappraisal of ecofeminist authors, who, in view of the authors, have been unduly sidelined in animal studies at the expense of Derridean heritage.
  6. This emphasis on what is perceived as ‘feminine’ values has led to charges of essentialism from across the postmodern feminism, which in some way proved the ecofeminist point that value systems are skewed to give priority to rational values.
  7. The transversal character of ecofeminism can be seen in the books that are also important contributions to postcolonial theory, especially the work of Vandana Shiva (Shiva & Mies, 1993; Shiva, 2005).
  8. See numerous contributions on spiritual ecology and the Mother Earth religion in Diamond & Orenstein, 1990; and contributions in section ‘Ecofeminist Spirituality’ in Plant, 1989. Even the political economical analyses of Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva is based upon the premise that women are ‘closer’ to nature than men, and that, therefore, they are in a privileged position to struggle for its liberation (1993).
  9. The disappearance of the legacy of ecofeminism has recently been challenged (Gaard, 2011; Adams & Gruen, 2014).
  10. The relevance of Deleuze and Guattari’s project for ecological thought has taken some time to evolve. The pioneering study of Verena Andermatt Conley Ecopolitics: The Environment in Poststructuralist Thought (1997) analysed the implicit and explicit qualities of environmental thought in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. This work opened paths for an ongoing deep engagement with Deleuze and Guattari in ecological key (see Herzogenrath, 2008, 2009), and the ongoing investigations of eco-politics in the writings of Rosi Braidotti (2002, 2006, 2011).
  11. The literature that binds the histories of exploitation with environmental justice is growing by the day, but some of the classics in this area are Mies (1986), Mies & Shiva (1993), entire ouevre of John Bellamy Foster, Nixon (2011), Klein (2014), Moore (2015), Malm (2016).
  12. Walking as performative engagement with landscape was a key tactics in the works of Jan Dibbets, Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Bas Jan Ader, and Stanley Brouwn. A wave of women artists challenged the cultural and political stereotypes that identified woman with ‘nature’ by means of performative actions or sculptures in natural environments, such as Mary Beth Edelson, Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann. More than romantic explorations of nature, these practices put in question the regimes of cultural representation of environment.
  13. ‘Eco-oriented’ practices have inserted themselves in public spaces to contest the dominant politics, sometimes assuming tones of environmental activism. An iconic example is Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982), the project that consisted in planting and harvesting a two-acre field of wheat in downtown Manhattan. Joseph Beuys was one of the key figures in the socially-engaged environmental art with his co-performances involving animals, rich natural symbolism, use of materials, and his lifelong commitment to teaching and political engagement in the nascent Green party of Germany. Following Smithson, land reclamation as artistic and ecological mode of intervention, was theorised and practised by Robert Morris, Nancy Holt, Alan Sonfist and others. Very strong environmental statements/interventions were created by Ant Farm Collective in the 1970’s. Mierle Laderman Ukeles confronted the economics and politics of, for example, the waste disposal system of New York City in a series of works ranging from the 1977 until the present. Ukeles’s work is especially relevant as it brings together questions of labour and ecology.
  14. A non-exhaustive and evolving list of the major shows: Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies (2002); Groundworks (2005); Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art (2006); Still Life: Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change, the eighth Sharjah Biennial, (2007); Weather Report: Art and Climate Change (2007); Greenwashing: Environment, Perils, Promises, and Perplexities (2008); Green Platform, Art Ecology Sustainability (2009); Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet (2009); Earth: Art of a changing world (2009-10); Undercurrents: Experimental Ecosystems in Recent Art (2010); Adaptation: Between Species (2010); Dark Optimism (2013); Vegetation as a Political Agent (2014); 7 000 000 000 (EACC, 2014); The Ocean After Nature (YBCA, 2016), Beyond 2°C (Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, 2016).