Eco Art and Other Impossibilities

artist sketch of “Bug Cinema”

I am belatedly reviewing an “eco art show”, “Whale Oil To WholeFoods” that took place this past summer in two locations in Greene County, New York. I am reviewing it now because, I have time, the curators are friends of mine, the show was a good example of well-intentionedness gone awry, and I don’t like to step on any toes but I don’t see that anyone else on the web or otherwise has seen fit to honestly assess the effort and intent that went into this show and efforts like it. 

The show took place this past summer, and was billed as an “Eco Art Show”.  The curators hoped to put together a collection of art that reflected various perspectives on the ecological issues that we are faced with, and to that end, even invited artists from other countries to participate.  I thought that the first version of the show at the Greene County Council on the Arts was interesting and even contained work that I wanted to own; the dust bunnies created by  Suzanne Proulx. Ms Proulx made believable life sized bunnies  out of dust collected and somehow transformed into a sculptural material. The bunnies all look like they are snuffling along quietly. Now if you ask me, that is eco art. Taking something that nobody really has much use for and using a minimum of energy and resources to transform it into something that feels compelling and real.

Due to a certain amount of personal involvement, I was too aware of some of the extremes that went into mounting the second leg of the show that was exhibited at the Agroforestry Center.  James Brady was invited from Ireland to participate in the show. He had proposed creating a “Bug Cinema”.  So here we have the first red flag. He flew here from Ireland using his share of the 44 tons of fuel necessary for one trans-Atlantic flight. Once he was here, he was assigned a driver (my 19 year old son) as James did not drive. Second huge red flag. The fact that he was coming to a rural area and did not drive, but could not stay right where he was mounting the “Bug Cinema” created a situation where he had to be driven. This actually resulted in twice as many miles being driven than if had been able to drive himself, as my son had to drive the 7 miles to go get him, drive him to his destination, drop him off, and then drive home himself. Then the whole diesel expenditure occurred in reverse to get him home at night. On other days, they drove even further, to go rent special solar lighting in a town 20 miles away, or to go buy fabric for the project in a different town 20 miles in a different direction.

I am not picking on James Brady or the curators. I must clarify right now that I am only writing about this (and risking upsetting people I really admire!) because we are all faced with ethical decisions about  expending our share of trans-atlantic jet fuel in order to see our 8o year old mother-in-laws or take our children to see the Parthenon, etc. This eco-art issue just exemplifies choices we all make every day…..   I think it is important for all of us to acknowledge when we are making a mistake even when we are trying to “do the right thing”. It is often difficult to know which is the “right thing’.  For example, in the grocery store, when the cashier asks if you want your groceries in a plastic or paper bag, what is the right answer? I’m sure I don’t know unless it is “I brought my own bag”, but even that might not be right as it may be made of plastic at least in part that required some sort of terrible pollution in it’s manufacture, or pillaging of natural resources….  

I also think it is possible for one person to be imported from far away, at the price of their share of the 44 tons of fuel, and maybe more, but the message that they bring must be inspiring, thought-provoking, and big. Brady’s Bug Cinema was not. I’m not sure what sort of experimentation Brady may have done before attempting the project here, but the evening that the bugs were supposed to succumb to the attraction of the solar lights in order to perform some antics for an expectant art audience, two terrible things became clear. Brady’s solar lamps were not bright enough, even once they had been sort of jury-rigged by my electrician husband (who is thankfully not an artist but a person who knows how to make electrical things work) when they failed to work. The second terrible thing was that Brady had missed an obvious lighting solution for his cinema: the all night signage lights for the Agro Forestry Center that we all filed past after over an hour of trying to imagine that some sort of Bug Cinema was occurring in Brady’s dim set-up in the woods. The moths and bugs were too busy  in the hot exciting lights of the AgroForestry signage to go looking for Brady’s unchartered and unpromising pitiful solar lighting situation. And the Agroforestry signage lighting would have cost the Arts Council and the environment nothing as it was an existing lighting condition.

When I was a student in undergraduate school, we subjected ourselves and everything around us to scathing critique. I think that is healthy and I miss it. Not everything is wonderful and not everything makes sense. IF more people voiced a critical opinion it might lead to greater thought going into projects before they are mounted…Another important aspect of criticality is that it can be paralyzing. I imagine that at some level, Rupp and Potash who curated the show, could sense that Brady’s contribution was requiring a bit too much fuel  to qualify as a good eco-art idea, but they had a deadline to meet and lots of other things in their lives to take care of, and they just went ahead, hoping that his final piece would make it all worthwhile. 

Many of the most critically astute artists that I went to undergraduate school with, eventually stopped making art. A truly critical and intelligent perspective can lead to inertia. I guess I feel that in this case, inertia might have been a better approach than the literal slurping up of fossil fuel to a make cinema that very few bugs attended.

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