Sci-Art as Activism

Taney Roniger/ Since we’re on the subject of practice, I want to reintroduce a question Eve Laramee brought up early on in this discussion, which was: Is there a place for activism within sci-art? Given Eve’s own work as an environmental artist and activist, I think the answer is certainly yes. But I wonder if anyone would care to speculate about some of the complications inherent in this kind of work. It seems to me that when one’s explicit intention is to educate or raise awareness, it becomes especially important to get the science involved right and to relate it unequivocally. This puts considerable pressure on the artist – and on the art. From what I’ve seen, much of the work that falls under the activist art rubric suffers from a certain heavy-handed didacticism and a concomitant diminution of aesthetic complexity.

One example that comes to mind is Maya Lin’s What is Missing project, whose purpose is to raise awareness about species loss and habitat degradation. It can be argued that this project is meant less as a work of art than as a public memorial of sorts, but I’ve seen parts of it installed in galleries. In the latter context it has struck me as fatally didactic, so little did its embodiment as a work of art do to move me. (Frankly, rather than having to stand there reading the various litanies, I’d much rather have been handed a pamphlet to take home. And I have never, I must confess, been moved by a pamphlet.)

Perhaps others can offer some examples of more successful projects.



3 Replies to “Sci-Art as Activism”

  1. I’m probably not well-suited to answer this question, since this sort of political awakening is almost the last thing I turn to art for.

    Still, if there is a problem here, it’s a fairly general one. For instance, I’m sure you’ve been following the discussion over why climate change has proven to be such an elusive subject for fiction–see, e.g., the interview with Amitav Ghosh in the LARB:

    Visual art exhibitions don’t seem to fare much better, as this review indicates:

    Still, they continue to be mounted. Here’s the catalogue from one (“Weatherwise/Otherwise”) that’s up in Atlanta right now, for instance:

    The simple fact, however, is that none of these have anything like the reach or impact of, for example, David Wallace-Wells’ “The Uninhabitable Earth”, which faced a severe public backlash for being so negative in its tone that it (allegedly) ran the risk of causing people to give up and disengage rather than stay in the fight. (It’s an indicator of my own pessimism about our climate’s future that I found it a measured and well-grounded analysis.)

  2. Thanks for these links, Dan, which (among other things) introduce an idea that’s never occurred to me — namely, that next we might be seeing a new genre dubbed “cli-art”! The interview with Amitav Ghosh articulates the problem very clearly. I respond particularly strongly to this paragraph:

    “I think the most important thing is that novelists shouldn’t write about climate change. I mean, that’s the whole point. As soon as you conceive of your object as something called ‘climate change,’ your work dissolves. What you have to be writing about is actually your changed reality. This is what novelists have always done. Novelists have written about war, about famine, about all sorts of things. This is the changed reality that we have to try to confront. When we try to think of this thing in terms of a single object, it does in fact become very abstract and dull. But if you look at the actual impacts that are unfolding around us, they’re anything but abstract and dull. They’re incredibly powerful, overwhelmingly powerful. It’s so interesting that Hurricane Katrina resulted in so many important documentaries and nonfiction books. And even Hurricane Sandy has resulted in some good nonfiction work. But where is the fiction? Where’s the culture? Bill McKibben pointed to this decades ago, asking where is the culture that reflects our changing reality.”

    And his citation of The Grapes of Wrath as a proto-climate change novel that’s also a literary masterpiece is fantastic. All of this seems to point in this direction: “addressing issues” in art cannot be done in the abstract. The issues have to be embedded in a context of particulars (in the case of novels, a narrative about specific people or nonhuman subjects; in the case of visual art, an object or image oriented around the same). It’s really a matter of orientation, I guess; while some of the images in the Boston exhibition you link to are intriguing (maybe), the explanatory text in which they’re wrapped robs the work of its affective potential. (As soon as I read that something is “about climate change,” my eyes glaze over just as Ghosh suggests.)

    But the problem of *exactly* how we should be addressing these issues in art is a very difficult one. (What would a successful piece of “cli-art” look like?) So far paintings of melting glaciers have not really cut it.

  3. The topic of Sci-Art as activism is a trifecta condition. Some of us are participating in the online forum seeking definitions and possibly some clarity on “what” Sci-Art is and isn’t. Attaching activism to the genre, in my opinion, places the majority of work on the doorsteps of science and activism. When thoughtfully presented they stand strong in their communities, having intelligently presented the data, created accessible engagement through dynamic visuals as well as involved activities and, if done well, they have reached outside of their neighborhoods.

    One of the projects presented “outside” the gallery possibly fitting under the Sci-Art as Activism umbrella would be Eve Mosher’s High Water Line,

    Laura Splan’s Watching Hands,, commissioned by the CDC is one of the few projects successfully standing in the Sci-Art Activism blend.

    Brandon Ballengée’s The Frameworks of Absence,, poetically attracts our attention to lost species diagrammatically and the visual effect is a punch in the gut. This particular projects successfully presents in a gallery, art fair (initial showing was at the 2015 Armory Show), science centers, county clerk offices and state parks. It seamlessly translates to each environment a bit like a chameleon.

    Would this type of “effortless” presentation be a marker one is seeking of Sci-Art as activism? As Taney asks, are there more successful projects?

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