January 19, 2010

However poignant or poisonous, pointed or pointless, Art is born of contemporary political circumstance, and reflects it, whether it chooses to address it or not. The climate is changing as CO2 is increasingly trapped within our atmosphere; this fact is nailed on to the political agenda of our day. As such, we already have some sobering reflections of the changing world (Edward Burtynsky, Oil 2009). We also apparently have OCEAN EARTH: Situation Room currently showing at Bristol’s premier contemporary art gallery, the Arnolfini

E. Burtynsky Alberta Oil Sands #6

The exhibition wants to “achieve climate stability through technology change”, “fundamentally reorganise geographical information”, and “connect ecological imperatives with future-oriented technology and the intellectual capital of art ideas informed by the scientific community.” Navigating my way through these stultifying, inane, rudderless words, I approached the space with unease, just as you would anyone who was trying simultaneously to save the world and alter our understanding of it once and for all, by uniting the unlike forces of science, art and technology.

The eerie-sounding Ocean Earth Development Corporation have made this audacious attempt in one ground-floor room, by sketching the oceans of the world on the walls in crayon, with wall-mounted video installation and an exciting global feed, which is not as exciting as it sounds. The synthesis of ecologist, artist and activist, however well-intended, achieves the feeling of being in a child’s classroom, with cluttered walls, although here, nuggets of complicated ecological research are strewn around the space. The tentative and ineffective use of video and internet, as with many other multimedia platforms, sadly and incoherently seem apart from, rather than a part of, the rest of the thing.

 Though I am not a prioi territorial about mixing media- or academic disciplines, or professional pursuits for that matter- I begin to wonder: in what way would an ecologist prefer to put forward their research? It is clear to me that science has developed a language over centuries not best submitted in pastel or chalk, just as an artistic reflection of the changing Earth achieves affect and meaning neither through a poorly-rendered sketch, nor with alarming pretension to new geographical truths, or climatological redemption.

 The uneasiness of the artless thing is redoubled by the unedifying rhetoric of Dadaism used to validate it. The exhibition notes claim that OCEAN EARTH co. show how water flow can be collected using Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913)- like a waterwheel… and how the map of Britain in the foyer has been rearranged to resemble something other than itself, becoming a mere physical unit, like The Fountain (1917) , they say, had done. It is all too easy to dredge up art history when pining for authenticity and yet, if it had looked more like a urinal, I should have used it.

 The second major exhibition currently showing at the Arnolfini is Craftivism, a collection of Bristolian projects including knitting, weaving, urban foraging, build-it-yourself ‘sculpture’, and design-it-yourself found fashion. The idea behind craftivism is to create with social consciousness, to use individual craft to subvert mass capitalism, to be politically active, ecologically friendly, as well as empowering and available to all.

 Among the works on show is a hand-crafted, ten foot-wide dress with three neck-holes hanging, encouraging visitors to try it on with strangers for a new kind of gallery experience. Food for Free presents a map of central Bristol showing the city’s edible plant organisms, although the street names have been replaced with plant names, making the local ‘Food for Free’ particularly hard to find. In any case, it is unclear whether nettle soup, grey squirrel and goose grass tea are likely to fill the bellies of many Bristolians.

Food for free?

 The work occupying the main space is bau-Stelle, a construction-site of wooden lattice, nuts and bolts put together by anyone willing to participate. The multiple authorship project mirrors, in a socio-political sense, calls for ‘community’ and ‘grassroots’- everyone can get involved. In a philosophical sense too, the contemporary emphasis upon ontologies would complement the piece, as the always-already valid situated knowledges, interpretations and actions of participants are the driving force. And yet stood before this unwelcoming, messy illogic of cheap wood, and considering the assortment of impassive recyclers, knitters, foragers and OCEAN EARTH CORPORATION minions, I am left asking myself, where is the art in this place?