15. Juli 2010 | Arts and Sciences for Sustainability

Steps to an Ecology of Art, or A Short Walk to Complexity

von David Haley. Manchester (UK)

How is walking an ecological practice? Walking can make us perceptive and open us up to an ecopraxis, attentive to the complex patterns of life.

Lesezeit 8 Minuten

The walk will attempt to Walk the Talk to Many Futures by Making Time a Matter of Urgency. It is a workshop event for Cultura21’s first Summer School of Arts and Sciences for Sustainability in Social Transformation, in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. The walk itself will be quite short – about two and a half hours on a mid-August morning, so the distance will be quite short too. However, this brief stroll in the Balkan foothills may for some become a moment of epiphany, a paradigm shift, or a quiet confirmation of what Francisco Varela refers to as ‘mindfulness/awareness’ in his book The Embodied Mind. David Bohm offers the process of dialogue as a similar experience:

‘Because the nature of Dialogue is exploratory, its meaning and its methods continue to unfold. No firm rules can be laid down for conducting a Dialogue because its essence is learning – not as the result of consuming a body of information or doctrine imparted by an authority, nor as a means of examining or criticizing a particular theory or programme, but rather as part of an unfolding process of creative participation between peers.’

Surrender to Indeterminacy

In a recent interview for the Guardian newspaper, the ex-Roxy Music keyboards player and ‘godfather of ambient music’, Brian Eno, identified the differences between “control” and “surrender” in our society. Considering how this is reflected in the contemporary imbalance of values in art production, he alluded to the history of shipbuilding to illustrate his point. Old wooden ships leaked, so they needed to be ‘caulked’ constantly. As technology in construction advanced, they built structurally superior, watertight ships, however these broke up because they were rigid. Shipbuilders, therefore, returned to leaky ‘ships that had flexion.’ The vessels that surrender, allow themselves to respond to changing circumstances. And this is not about a nostalgic return to the halcyon days of an idyllic feudal lifestyle, nor the renaissance of Luddite technologies. This is “something more complex”.

Referring to his recent artworks and his directorship of this year’s Brighton Festival, Eno explained, “I set up situations that involve abandoning control and finding out what happens.” In a similar way, this walk abandons the control of the artist taking the lead – the expert interpreting what we encounter on our short journey. Here, I have set up a situation for the participants to walk with local experts to find out what happens. For some this terrain will be strange, they may be challenged by the unfamiliar or stimulated by uncertainty. For others it will at first be familiar, but may become a source of surprise as they see anew. As the artist in the group, I simply introduce some questions for the alchemical dialogue of indeterminacy to start.

Patterns of Life

Another aspect that will become apparent is what I refer to as, ‘phenomenological drawing’. This is about us being sensitive to the way things draw themselves – ivy tracing its pattern of growth onto the side of a house; lichen symbiotically colonising a rock; the silver trail of slime from a snail; a tree deciding now is the time to cast down its leaves to make earth for the future; or the way clouds rise as castles and morph into dragons. Famed for turning the act of walking into a sculptural form, the UK artist Richard Long explains:

‘My work has become a simple metaphor of life. A figure walking down his road, making his mark. It is an affirmation of my human scale and senses: how far I walk, what stones I pick up, my particular experiences. Nature has more effect on me than I on it. I am content with the vocabulary of universal and common means; walking, placing, stones, sticks, water circles, lines, days, nights, roads.’

An Email to Hans

My friend, Professor Hans Dieleman recently wanted to initiate an art-walk for his course at the Urban Design Centre, Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de Méxicoand, so he contacted me for some information about my A Walk On The Wild Side, programme in Manchester. I replied:

Hans, hi

I’m so pleased you are going to the C21 Summer School.

Regarding ‚A Walk On The Wild Side‘, I have attached a paper on the subject that certainly provides much of the background information.

From a practical point of view, I will answer your questions:

1. what aspects to address?

For me there were several issues that I wanted to address, some overtly before the walks and others introduced while walking – a) the city as an organism within an ecosystem (watershed) b) the discovery of/need for ‚biodiversity corridors‘ to facilitate species migration caused by climate change c) the lack of time for proper observation and reflection in science and art d) the walk as performance as artwork – the act of walking generates different ways of thinking, looking and questioning e) people’s participation in spatial planning‘ – what is it? who makes the decisions? how democratic is it? what is decided on behalf of biodiversity? etc.

2. how to introduce the project, what information to give beforehand and what not, do you give a central question to all of them or do you leave the exercise as open as possible?

I have attached a sample information sheet and I used to supply photocopies of a route map on the day. Health & Safety and comfort are big practical issues. I always did a ‚reccie.‘ with a local guide to check for timing, safety and comfort issues and to prime myself with questions. Usually, the ‚Wild Walkers‘ were the local experts and I was the lost artist, who has big ideas and concepts, but needs local knowledge. On every occasion people would say, ‚we have lived here for ten years and we never noticed…‘.

3. How much time do you plan for the walks,

It was important to ‚take time as a matter of urgency‘. These were not fitness hikes, or marches, but exploratory meanders – people were encouraged to bring binoculars, cameras and drawing materials to stop, look, listen, smell and feel the place. Mostly, I use the convention, ‚all in a day’s work‘. For practical purposes, this was 10.00 AM to 4.00 PM. Once you include a 30 minute lunch break and two 15 minute comfort stops that always over-run, the time gets quite short. If the time is limited, then the walk is shortened accordingly.

4. how do you make teams or let the participants make their teams (if at all you do), ???

I generally limited the numbers to 20. You can engage with 20 people in a day while walking. This built a kind of comradeship and occasionally approaches a ‚dialogue‘. If you have more than 20, then make separate teams to walk on different days, or different times, or different routs – this could help you to ‚map‘ a connected larger area, or provide interesting comparisons.

5. what skills or capacities are required to organize and guide such an activity??

Eyes, ears, nose, fingers, feet and tongues. It is good to prepare and organise beforehand, so that your Walkers feel comfortable and safe and focused, but then improvise and let intuition take over – this is where experimentation gives way to exploration… and fun!

6. It is good to include a stream or river, if you can, and try to make the route a circle.

Let me know if you require anything else. Have a great time and keep well.


Stepping Out, Dance with Shiva

The original premise of my ‘practice-based, arts-led research’ was that art could in some way contribute to ecology and that this would benefit the environment and society. As a form of activism, interventions like ‘walking’ were created and applied to a variety of situations to explore, promote and generate ecological restoration. My research ‘journey’ was informed by other artists (in particular, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison), systems thinkers and the continuing process of making an ecological arts practice.

However, reflecting on the material I generated over the last eighteen years, it became evident that the effects of art on ecology had a reciprocal affect on the art. As in the symbol of the Taijitu (Yin & Yang), opposing elements may be resolved when understood as a dynamic whole system. Furthermore, the whole system may display emergent properties to become another system. In this case art and ecology interactions feedback to form a third process – ecopraxis. As an expression of complexity, the concept of this synthesis may be termed, ecopoeisis, or the evolution/creation of whole systems ecology.

The practice and conceptualisation have been further developed through academic papers and a series of Master Classes, in dialogue and ‘question-based learning’ that generated the epistemology of ecopoeisis and ecopraxis. This is referred to as ecopedagogy. Together these three interrelated, interdependent , interactive elements may in themselves be understood as a whole system, forming an art of ecology.

In a contemporary context the work of Helen Mayer Harrison & Newton Harrison established such an art of ecology that provided the platform for artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Betsy Damon, Patricia Johanson, Buster Simpson, Susan Steinman, Alan Sonfist and others to develop their own strands and niches of ecological arts practice.

However, only the work of The Harrisons transcends this genre to emerge as an art of complexity, resonating with artists such as Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Paul Klee, James Joyce, Alan Kaprow and scientist/philosophers such as David Bohm, Michel de Certeau, Fritjof Capra, George Lakoff, James Henson, Stewart Brand and Ilia Prigogine. Here the separation of art and science has little meaning, for in a complex whole system, all things are related in their diversity. While writers artists and theorists such as Baile Oakes, Barbara Matilsky, Suzann Lacy and Grant Kester have created different genres and theories to describe and define the field of ecological art, they all revert to the doctrines of social sciences, social contexts and the 20th Century Western Art Canon for their epistemological frameworks. This walking activity attempts to break from those anthropocentric paradigms, to situate art as ‘the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously’ – rta. As with the story of The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho I will return to the point from which I started… but hopefully with new understanding of where, what and how we may become. From her paper Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, Donella Meadows makes a wonderful observation:

‘In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly madly letting go.’


International Summer School of Arts and Sciences for Sustainability in Social Transformation

This article is part of a series of articles published in preparation for the 1st International Summer School of Arts and Sciences for Sustainability in Social Transformation (ASSiST ) that will take place in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, from August 21st to 27th 2010. The theme of the 1st edition ASSiST is: „Walking and Places: Building Transformations.“

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