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PHOTOGRAPHY: an experiment in sustainability

By Jessica Lantos.

Sustainability. The word has become ubiquitous. Executives talk about it. Politicians talk about it. So do media junkies, engineers, scholars, architects, designers, scholars and…artists. Sustainable practices, green initiatives, and eco-conscious entrepreneurship have infiltrated nearly every space of contemporary life.

It is a word that means many different things to many different people. “In the hands of contemporary artists, the study of humanity’s engagement with the earth’s surface becomes a riddle best solved in experimental fashion” (Nato Thompson). So it’s no wonder that the artistic response has manifested in various forms, including Edward Burtynsky’s and Andreas Gursky’s photographic critiques, the WATERPOD project, and eco-conscious, socio-environmental proposals found in MoMA’s Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront exhibition.  Marlborough Gallery’sNatural Renditions ends July 9th. Exit Art is hosting a multi-platform show titled “ECOAESTHETIC: The Tragedy of Beauty”, and The James Gallery at CUNY Graduate Center recently opened a group show, “Experimental Geography.” Composed of sculptures, drawings, paintings and photographs, these shows articulate the innovative ways in which artists are responding to sustainable and environmental issues.

Greater New York artist David Brooks is one example. This week, at the second session of MoMA’s “Greater New York 2010: Artists Present” panel, he stated that, “to know nature is to know what to do with it.”  And we know what he does with it based on his photographic series─he recreated the Amazon jungle within PS1. Prompted by the pressing issues of ecological waste generated by the insatiable and detrimental human need to exist in contrived, artificial spaces (in this case, our reliance on concrete infrastructure), Brooks traveled to the Amazon, the tree farms, and the concrete factories, to bring back nature in the form of a tropical rain forest. Then he drowned the trees in cement. The fossilized jungle speaks to the process of human interference, destruction and re-construction. And when the show is over? Brooks and his team plan to break down the concrete, returning it to the source for reuse. Raw materials become product, which become art, which become raw materials once more. It is arguably a sustainable work of art, endlessly finding new form and life through the hands of the artist, the curator, the concrete worker…and the photograph.  When Greater New York closes, all that’s left of the concrete Amazon is its documentation. The suicide of the art is redeemed by the survival of the photograph.

In this case, the photograph functions in two ways: as the artwork itself, or the visual record (evidence of the conceptual idea, the cultural production, the installation, or the performance) when the art no longer exists. By taking pictures of these environmental, site-specific, temporal projects, we enable them to continue into perpetuity; otherwise, their life cycle effectively ends when the show ends. Sustainability is no longer simply the subject; it is an integral strategy embedded within the artist’s practice and process.

In this light, can photography play a sustainable role in the life of the artwork and its cultural production? From an aesthetic perspective, the discursive and problematic nature of the photograph as it relates to installation art and ephemera continues to evolve. Thankfully, the transient nature of these practices (as well as the brevity of the museum exhibition) is tempered by the permanence and materiality of the photograph. Yet the increasing prevalence of fleeting works by Tino Seghal and others demands the need for photographic proof even more but leaves us wondering what to photograph, and for what end. To capture the technical process? To engage wider audiences? To visualize the artist’s mission and philosophy? To preserve art for future educational use, for generations to come? Or, quite simply, to just be?

We are faced with a similar issue in our (increasingly transitory and fragmented) natural world. From a sustainability perspective, we take pictures in large part to measure, record, and catalog our surroundings, to preserve what still exists and track what no longer is. In today’s hyper-savvy tech world, we have the ability to document anything and everything through photographs─the depleting shoreline, the vanished corner bodega, the new Chelsea high-rise, the 85th hour of Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present.

William Barrett, in his Irrational Man, wrote “Anyone who attempts to gain a unified understating of modern art as a whole is bound to suffer the uncomfortable sensation of having fallen into a thicket of brambles. We ourselves are involved in the subject, and we can hardly achieve the detachment of the historian a few centuries hence.” Photographs preserve and extend the life of our fragile and irreplaceable environment…in other words, they are our way out of the thicket. Therein lays the very problem, and solution, of the photograph as a device of sustainability.

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