We live in an era of unprecedented environmental transformation.
Unfortunately the vast preponderance of this change is negative: from the relentless decimation of animal species to the ravages of a global warming so dire that even the Pentagon has admitted it as a real threat. It is not surprising, then, that artists have sought to address ecological concerns in their work. Artists throughout the modern period have turned to natural themes (often through the rhetoric of landscape), and have also claimed a special affinity with the world of nature. What is more unusual in recent art practice is that this essentially representational relationship to nature has been supplemented by a commitment to direct intervention. Building on the tradition established by earth art pioneers such as Helen and Newton Harrison, Agnes Dennis, and Alan Sonfist, artists over the past decade have developed a remarkable range of projects that offer concrete solutions to specific ecological problems ranging from brownfield reclamation to the survival of family farms.
Groundworks: Environmental Collaborations in Contemporary Art provided an overview of recent projects, bringing more established practitioners into conversation with emerging groups in the United States, England, Africa, Austria, Japan and Argentina. This generational dialogue overlay a set of geographic exchanges, in which artists working in western Pennsylvania exhibited in the context of a growing national and international environmental art movement. The exhibition was supported by the Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. It also featured documentation from a series of long-term residency projects in which national and regional artists worked collaboratively with the residents of communities and neighborhoods in the Monongahela river valley.
Over the last two decades the field of environmental art practice has become increasingly diverse, with works ranging from traditional sculpture and public art to performance and new media.
Groundworks focused specifically on two, often interrelated, areas of current practice. First, we presented works that are generated through a collaborative or participatory approach in which the inhabitants of specific sites are actively involved in a process of physical and creative transformation. Drawing inspiration from the history of performance art as well as the traditions of radical planning, these projects seek to replace the mastery of the conventional planner or artist, with an openness to the specifi c realities of site and subjectivity embodied in a given environment. We also focused on projects that seek to directly engage the mechanisms of policy and planning that govern the use of a given eco-system. These may include professional planning agencies, government officials, activist organizations and NGOs. In each area of work the artist helps to craft an interface: between the contingencies of place and the abstractions of space, between the needs of inhabitants and the survival of complex eco-systems, and between the agency of man and the autonomy of nature. In many cases these two tendencies, collaborative process and direct political engagement, are combined in a single work.
This is an exhibition about the environment, but it is also an exhibition that explores the boundaries of new art practices.
The projects on display reflect back critically on normative assumptions about art—what form it might take, what effects it might have—as much as they do on our perceptions of the natural environment. They embody a relationship to nature not as something to be mastered, transformed, or turned to our advantage, but as an interlocutor and agent speaking to us in a language we are not always equipped to understand. At the same time, they suggest a critical relationship to notions of authorship, expressivity and immanence in art practice, embracing instead the uncertainty of collaborative interaction. There is, in fact, an underlying synchronicity between this collaborative approach (in which the work of art is less an a priority construct than an open-ended process of exchange) and the ethical relationship to the land that is implicit throughout these works. These questions are explored in an accompanying catalog, with essays by leading figures in the fields of art and architectural history and environmental philosophy. Groundworks featured project documentation, images, drawings, wall texts, diagrams and maps, transforming the exhibition space into a visually rich Chautauqua; a site for dialogue over new developments in art and environmental activism. This website includes brief descriptions of artists and groups included in the exhibition as well as participants in the residency projects.