Melbourne based artist Debbie Symons discusses the role contemporary art can play in sensitising a society desensitised to mass species extinction.
I am a visual artist. My research investigates how art can present the politics of the environmental crisis. It looks at the ways in which an artist can use data collected on animal/plant species to create a new perspective on humankind’s ecological dilemma.
I began my research project with a single question. Why weren’t the reports of ever increasing threatened species across the globe causing rapid action within society to reverse the trend? We have millions of species that inhabit the Earth’s environments and thousands of them are threatened with extinction. Each of these species plays an important role in the biodiversity of our planet–a biodiversity, it’s important to add, that supports us humans too. Therefore, the predicted mass extinction of each and every species should set alarm bells ringing.
However, it doesn’t.
Our relationship with other animals has been shaped by numerous theorists and scientists, and we have reams of documentation that prove that animals (especially the most studied groups of birds and higher mammals) have sentience, live in family groups, have highly complex social structures and communicate with each other. They are similar to us in so many ways.
However, the abundance of philosophical and scientific investigations pertaining to studies concerning animals–their consciousness or redefining their ethical status–has not closed the human-centred moral gulf between humans and animals. It is still ever apparent in all Western societies.
In Environmental Culture: the Ecological Crisis of Reason, Val Plumwood argues “an anthropocentric culture rarely sees animals and plants as individual centres of striving and need, doing their best for themselves and their children in their conditions of life. Instead nature is conceived in terms of interchangeable and replaceable units (as ‘resources’) rather than as infinitely diverse and always in excess of knowledge and classification.”
If the studies on animals are not challenging us enough to reverse the trend where the numbers of threatened species is increasing, then why not? Why aren’t we striving to stop the loss?
Don’t get me wrong; we are doing some things to stop the loss of some species. We have conservation parks, management programs, and guys with guns protecting elephants and rhinos 24/7. But every year the database of threatened species grows. Every year more names are added to the list. And all the time it becomes more apparent that the continued existence of the majority of these threatened species is in direct conflict with capitalist ventures.
This made me question what influences were at play. Is it as simple as we do not understand how drastic the situation is, therefore we are failing to act? Is Bill McKibben’s proposal correct that you don’t build movements with statistics and bar graphs? It would be hard to argue that the transition of scientific fact to public acknowledgement is an area that does not need to be addressed. However, I would further McKibben’s point by proposing that the “weighting” of scientific facts in global political and government agendas also needs to be addressed, as does contemporary society’s “anaesthetised state,” a point raised by Zvjezdana Cimerman and Welsh.
This is where I began to see the opportunity for my research to intercept and act as a social conscience. Like many other contemporary artists, I am using the very data and reports that are struggling to get any real traction within our desensitised society.
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Art works, such as those produced by Tiffany Holmes, critique social institutions, link databases and interpreted information and disinformation via their method. Their power is in the work’s ability to visualise scientific information and create imaginative impact: “Facts and figures and lists of scientific information are really important but an artwork that interprets those figures has the power to have a huge imaginative impact – it’s the visualisation and concretisation of what’s possible” (Holmes).
Holmes’ hypothesis about art-science (the database) is furthered by Cimerman in “Mediating and Designing Environments—Art and Natural Science”:
Science is governed by methodological rules, art is not; science aims for conceptual abstraction, art for concrete sensation. Science seeks to understand what is observed in nature and the laboratory and thus to ascertain and formulate the laws of the experience world; art focuses on the world of experience not only in its outer reality but also in its subjectivity: on the inner condition of the observer as individual and as the subject of social change.
Furthermore, as Edward Shanken notes in Art and Electronic Media, “increasingly, scientists […] are recognising that artists make valuable collaborators who contribute to research and invention not just by making pretty visualisations of data but by asking provocative questions, offering alternative perspectives and stimulating creativity and innovation.”
Visual art can connect audiences with environmental information, such as the Red List shown above, in its transdisciplinary method, and also assist in their transformed understanding of our ecological conundrum.
The data in this new medium can reach new audiences and be exhibited in public spaces. Appropriate known media and communication vehicles–such as stock market boards, maps, graphs, information boards, and importantly the art works–visualise and interconnect cause and effect. Literally visualising how our quest for economic return is causing a significant impact on species and the environment.
It can find new ways to address society’s focus on consumption and production and act as a social conscience.
Grant Kester proposes that artists might have the unique abilities to visualise and halt the effects of environmental degradation. In an article entitled “Re-Connect,” Angelika Hilberk furthers Kester’s theory by stating that “the arts have a prominent–if not key–role to play in this implementation (novel approaches and concepts for remediation). It seems to be one of the last disciplines left with the largest degrees of freedom for creativity, novelty, action, exposure and provocation.”
The utilisation of scientific data within the contemporary works generates an authority, a responsible and learned voice that science constructs. As S. C. Bingham notes in The Art of Social Critique: Painting Mirrors of Social Life : “[i]ndeed, in an era when sceptics threaten to undermine a rationalist scientific view of major environmental concerns such as climate change, the ability of the arts to move emotions may indeed be an effective way to win support for actions to reverse problems like anthropogenic climate change.”
It should also be considered within this examination that the science community also benefits from this exchange of data. Their work is represented in the public sphere, enabling a greater audience reach. As such, science is supported through the artists reintroducing the data. It is a relationship in which both members benefit, as the scientist and the artist are both attempting to sensitise an anaesthetised first world culture. “Works of art, like other products of the consciousness industry, are potentially capable of shaping their consumers’ view of the world and of themselves and may lead them to act upon that understanding” — Luke Skrebowski.
Let’s go back to the original question: “Why weren’t the reports of ever increasing threatened species across the globe causing rapid action within society to reverse the trend.” Cimerman theorises that society is in a “climate of widespread anaesthesia brought about by techno-economics and the media.” Western society is focused on a voracious and unsustainable consumerist trajectory and therefore as Cimerman theorises, in every other way mankind is desensitised. Humankind’s anthropocentric focus is on capitalistic growth: production/industry and consumerism, and this focus blinds us to our environmental crime.
In October 2008 George Monbiot wrote of Earth’s ecological limits and the developing financial crisis. He stated that “we are losing natural capital worth between $2 trillion and $5 trillion every year as a result of deforestation alone. The losses incurred so far by the financial sector amount to between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion. […] The credit crunch is petty when compared to the nature crunch.” Monbiot’s statement clearly illustrates that the environment and its species are in a far more precarious position than our financial institutions.
Therefore, it stands to reason that if society is in an anaesthetised state, then scientific facts concerning the deteriorating natural environment circumnavigate but rarely penetrate. Western consumerist attitudinal desires outweigh the ethical concerns and consequences that science informs. “In the overt interests of global economics, a battlefield on which the sciences through their applied disciplines are strategic players, for the beautification of reality is big business, and its strategies are business strategies. To gain and hold one’s place in this aesthetic world one must at all times consume” — Cimerman.
Consequently, the consumption and production evident in Western society that facilitates global economics and global growth (when based on consumer purchasing) is in direct conflict with a) sustainable living, and b) minimising our impact on the natural environment. Furthermore, if we are in fact anaesthetised to all other matters, bar aesthetics, it stands to reason that our focus will not be on addressing our tainted relationship with wild nature to which environmental science tries to alert us to, rather it will be focused on creating more products, which, in turn, will generate more toxic environments as our consumerism, and not our natural environment, is sustained. Monbiot substantiates this theory by stating “people fail to prevent ecological collapse. (As) Their resources appear at first to be inexhaustible; a long-term trend of depletion is concealed by short-term fluctuations; small numbers of powerful people advance their interests by damaging those of everyone else; short-term profits trump long-term survival.”
A recent study in Nature magazine listed the products causing the greatest threats to biodiversity: tea, coffee, rubber, cocoa, palm oil, vanilla, bananas, tobacco, soya, timber, cotton et cetera. These products are generic consumer goods that are sleekly packaged, advertised and promoted in Western stores. Julian Stallabrass writes of Western society’s anaesthetised state as being instructed and informed by mass media: “[f]irst world culture, increasingly mass-media based, is founded upon simultaneous excess and minute discrimination. To object to it is to risk the charge of Puritanism, and, indeed, this culture would hardly be a matter for great concern but for what its production does to the lives of the servants who make and deliver these goods; to the planet which gives up its resources to manufacture them, and last (and perhaps least) to the minds of those who consume them.”
Stallabrass’ argument is that first world culture is based on unabated consumerism with no concern of the implications of this overindulgence. He argues:
first world culture is founded on a world economy which denies the great majority of people the necessary means to live a decent existence, untroubled by wide spread hunger and disease. What is so astonishing though is the paucity of the benefits the moderately rich receive in return for the production of this poverty, violence and environmental degradation.
With this statement Stallabrass is referring to first world cultures’ lack of acknowledgement. Western society does not comprehend the effects of unabated consumerist growth on those less fortunate/powerful, nor the environments they inhabit. Stallabrass continues his argument by stating that “mass culture is a crucial component of the system of capitalism,” implicating Western capitalistic mass media communication tools as inculcating and driving its society.
Humankind has a complex relationship with the environment, nature and animals. This relationship is historically confrontational and quarrelsome. Nevertheless, this relationship needs to be addressed rapidly in contemporary society, as never before have so many plant and animal species been on the brink of extinction in our short history on Earth. Theories raised by Bentham have been substantiated by contemporary science and we are acutely aware of the symbiotic relationship between species, biodiversity and the greater environment.
However, this information has not altered our trajectory adequately to reverse the endangered species and environmental destruction trend apparent in contemporary society. Theorists Cimerman and Stallabrass hypothesize that the reasoning behind our inability to alter Western society’s destructive trajectory is caused by our need to consume, so as to fit in with society’s mandate that one at all times must meet the aesthetic constructs we have built. Therefore, political agency needs to be engaged, and an awakening from our anaesthetised state implemented and executed.
Contemporary artists are engaging in this political agency they are re-releasing environmental data/statistics back into the public sphere in an effort to sensitise a desensitised society.