Art and the environment

In my first post on this topic I discussed a few artists who have engaged with environmental problems in various ways. I barely skimmed the surface of a much larger body of work. So here is a bit more skimming!

In the Environmental Humanities online course I’m currently doing, we have just had a session on the relationship between art and Environmental Humanities. This was presented mainly through an interview with artist Susie Pratt, who is one of the presenters on the course. I didn’t realise until I did an internet search that Susie did her Masters in Fine Arts in New Zealand (

So this is an extract from the transcript of the video interview:

“ why I was attracted to Environmental Humanities is the potential to conduct practice-based research. So that means research that is driven by an art practise. Because Environmental Humanities offer scope for combining qualitative research, such as conducting in-depth interviews or ethnography, alongside using approaches from humanities, such as arts, to conduct research and create different interventions into environmental issues.

… So as part of my PhD, which was a practice-based PhD conducted in Environmental Humanities at UNSW [University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia], I looked into the environmental health implications on people living in the Hunter Valley by open-cut coal mines. And what I was surprised to discover was actually that, rather than the major health implications being solely from dust, what the implication that sort of surprised me was the impact of infrasound, low frequency sound, on people living there. And so that’s constant vibrations which affected them both physically, but also in terms of their mental health. And so what I wanted to do was translate this kind of invisible phenomena, that coal mining and resource extraction is often a really invisible phenomena for a lot of people living in Australia, …

So the art installation that I created consisted of recordings I’d made by these coal mining sites played on large speakers with metal trays set on top of it and water and coal dust in these trays. So as the speakers performed the sound, the infrasound vibrated through, so you get these rippling effects on the trays, and speaking about the different impacts of coal mining on both water and people and the different lifestyles in the Hunter Valley.”

Although no link was given to her work, I found a video of it on this website here:  I like this work; it conveys something of what it must be like to live near one of these mines. You can also find more information on this website, including interviews with some of the locals and an abstract for her PhD.

As part of her research she looked at different artist case studies, such as Natalie Jeremijenko’s Environmental Health Clinic based at New York University in New York, and Britta Riley, “who does a project called Windowfarms, which is urban farming within city spaces”.

Here’s a photo of the results of my project of fruit-growing in my backyard – urban farming? art?


Some of Natalie Jeremijenko’s work can be seen in this Ted talk, which was given as a link:

And Britta Riley’s here:

I watched the Natalie Jeremijenko talk. She does various ‘interventions’ in the environment; some of which I thought were positive such as recycling carbon from buildings and returning oxygen (I really don’t know if she actually managed this or whether it’s just an idea – a piece of ‘conceptual art’ – or, if it works how, as art, it differs from building technology?) But some of her interventions (appeared to) involve animals and I made the following comment:

“I’m not sure what to make of Natalie Jeremijenko’s Ted talk – I agree that ‘displacing’ an environmental problem is not a good idea and I like her building ‘interventions’ and perhaps the fire hydrant planting (although her throw-away line of plants getting squashed by the fire truck as ‘no big deal, they’ll regenerate’ was a bit too flippant I thought.) Heavy with irony, sure; but I don’t like the interventions with animals. The tadpole ‘art’ seems no different than putting canaries down mines and if they died from gas fumes, miners knew they should get out. The line the birds triggered in the Whitney exhibition of “share your lunch with me” seems to contradict her finding in Iceland that it’s white bread that’s most harmful to the birds. Or do I assume that all New Yorkers only eat healthy lunches (to humans and birds)?”

The Whitney installation referred to was when birds landed on something they triggered a voice in the gallery with a saying that was supposed to be from the bird.

A few other commentators on the course were also upset by the apparent use of animals and plants by both of the artists referred to. I suspect she doesn’t do some of the things she says she does – according to a Salon interview ‘The artist as mad scientist’: “She’s a maverick environmentalist whose field notes are public artworks. But she is being playful, a hallmark of her art and personality, and the trait that allows her work to stand out in the vital cultural arena where art and science collide”. She does, however, have a background in science and engineering, so it’s difficult to know.

Another one said (and here I have to admit that I am unsure of the etiquette of quoting a fellow course learner without naming them, but I don’t want to name him without asking. From his profile I see he is a New Zealander currently living elsewhere) –

“A quick flick through that second video leaves me wondering what it has to do with the environment, or with humanities – it seems more like some grown up kid torturing animals in the name of art. Putting a tadpole in a small sterile sphere, or a barrel and taking it for a walk? I read a document called Common Cause for Nature (, which discusses (among other things) that how we present our message may actually reinforce the values we are trying to move people away from. Such considerations certainly seem appropriate here.

That said, I think the use of high quality and well planned and executed art can be tremendously beneficial as a voice for the voiceless.”

Here are a few more of my photos (just because I like the visual!)  Environmental? I think so; art? – I don’t know!


One thought on “Art and the environment

  1. I agree with your fellow student: art that exploits live animals for effect is morally dubious. Here are some examples to test our inner ethics-meter:
    Of course, unless we are vegan, we exploit live animals all the time in our everyday lives. Is that better or worse than doing it for ‘art’. Hmmm.
    As for your lovely bowl of home-grown fruit, Viv – following Duchamp, it is art if you say it is!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s