Martin looking across bogland near Bearna, County Galway. August 2017. I stayed near this bog during my Moore Institute Fellowship.

The bodily exertions endured by Robinson during his researches and observations are, once more, indexical of a decelerated ecological vision – a mode of discovery and living that privileges immersion and depth in its relationship with the living landscape’s storehouse of natural and cultural imprints.

Eoin Flannery, 2016, ‘Essayist of Place: Postcolonialism and Ecology’, p.223.

This is my second post reflecting on my month-long Moore Institute Visiting Fellowship to examine the Tim Robinson Archive, held at the National University of Galway in the West of Ireland. Robinson’s practice that embraces many ways of knowing over many decades, is an exemplary example of how valuable deep understandings of  specific places can be fostered by transversality. A transversal practice synthesises diverse knowledge and lifeworld experience to foster new understandings; to establish or recover values, practices and priorities relevant to caring for a certain place and its communities.

In this post, I briefly explore how one may initiate a similar transversal eco-social art practice through experiential encounters, artful practices and non-art activities as seen in my own practice (see the online slide presentation below). These ideas reflect my recent doctoral art practice research of developing a guiding theory-method framework to better understand these multi-faceted practices; practices that have significant potential to emit crucial eco-social understandings relevant for a local sustainability. My intention from the Moore fellowship will be to publish a journal paper on how my transversal theory-method framework can increase understanding of Tim Robinson and others eco-social art practices. However, during recent months, I have also developed an indepth study on art and sustainability for my county, which somehow, unexpectedly turned into ideas for national art and sustainabilty policy for Ireland.

Much of my motivation for studying the aims, operations and potential of eco-social art practice (my term for longterm, situated ‘ecological art practice’ that responds deeply to a place) stems from the frustration and difficulty I encounter when I try to explain and convince others of the value of my and others’ multi-faceted practices that are engaging with important eco-social concerns. For instance, when my practice was emitting important non-art outcomes, as in how it contributes to new Irish forest policy, in its advocacy for a law against man-made ecocide and how it has contributed data for assessing a more sustainable forest management approach, I found it was particularly difficult, even with senior art colleagues, to explain my diverse activities as an art practice. I wondered too, how exactly, had my creative practice cultivated a political agency from my day-to-day experiences from living with a forest? How had The Hollywood Forest Story enabled Hollywood forest to become “the little wood that could”?

I could see similar valuable outcomes in others’s eco-social art practices, particularly in the pioneering ecologically-focussed work of contemporary artists, Helen and Newton Harrison. In their new book The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 Years Counterforce is on the Horizon (Harrisons, 2016) which I highly recommend, they and others review almost five decades of their inclusive eco-social art practices that cultivate communities’ agency for improved environmental understanding, and new practices and policy. Charles Garion (2012), in his analysis of the Harrison’s transversal way of working (inviting, exploring, curating conversations of their’s and others’ experiential, art, local and Indigenous knowings and disciplinary knowledge, to foster new values and visions of the places they study), argues that the Harrison’s broad practice may have significance for an eco-pedagogy, not only in the arts but for all education in these urgent times.

Yet despite the Harrison’s extensive practice documentation and the extensive critical acknowledgement from art researchers, eco-social art practice, and I would include Tim’s Robinson’s work for this context, remains on the margins of the contemporary art world. Low levels of ecoliteracy in the wider public sphere explains the disturbing cultural lag in art education to engage in eco-social concerns. Another key difficulty is that any creative practice that engages comprehensively with environmental issues becomes complex and seemingly unwieldy; one soon finds nonhuman and human realities are entangled materially and politically, and are always changing. Therefore, deeply engaging with an ecological worldview challenges the conventions of  modern artistic practice; it unsettles the emphasis of celebrating individual talent and short-term residencies, and it emphatically questions why art should distance itself from eco-socio-political concerns. In analyses of shifts in contemporary art practice over recent decades, Suzi Gablik (1992) describes how practices that embrace ‘the ecological imperative’ are similar to the more popular, social art (socially engaged, community-focussed) practice, whose practitioners frequently work with others to negotiate non-art communities and contexts. More recently Gablik (2009) argues ‘in our own catastrophic times, there is a remarkable dichotomy between artists who believe unfailingly in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of art and those who maintain that art should have some socially redeeming purpose. A sentence from [her] book The Reenchantment of Art could be construed as… “We need an art that transcends the distanced formality of aesthetics and dares to respond to the cries of the world.”

The consequence of not clearly understanding eco-social art practices is particularly critical when increasing numbers of international cultural agencies and research, like the Agenda 21 Cultural Committee for the United Cities and Local Regional Government (Duxbury et al., 2016) and Lakoff (2010), identify culture is a key pillar, alongside science, to envision and foster ideas of sustainability that are relevant for specific communities and regions. In Ireland, cultural responses are nowhere near commensurate with the unprecedented current and exponentially deteriorating scale of the eco-crises that threaten humanity and many other species survival.

Personally, I argue for ecoliteracy for the arts because my previous science background has me terrified of the accelerating rate and scale of environmentalal degradation that we can see from daily headlines is already increasing human and other-than-human misery.  Over recent years, I have become more convinced that difficulties in understanding how eco-social art practices are developed and maintained is important to improve understanding and wider adoption of such practices. Such practices are a small part of recognising the value of the arts and other cultural activities to engage audiences toward more life-sustaining futures. In a way, I set out to create a guiding framework to increase how these practices develop and operate because I wish dearly that had been available to me when I started with The Hollywood Forest Story. Ultimately, I hope to encourage many more in the cultural sector to engage in this area. We are all going to find the urgency and moral imperative to respond to eco-social issues will become harder to ignore.

An overview of my research into this framework to understand why and how eco-social art practice operate is reviewed at a talk I gave at the Burren College of Art*, in the West of Ireland. The slideshow is likely to be of interest to contemporary art practitioners but also to those from non-art spheres who may collaborate in such practices.

A study of art and sustainability

During my time on the Moore fellowship, I have also been developing a broader study on art and sustainability for my local county, County Carlow (my thanks to the Carlow Arts Office for the Arts Act Grant that supported this research). As there is an absence of cultural policy in Ireland for understanding and promoting art’s critical role (alongside science and other education sectors) in engaging a wide public in sustainability, the study to my surpise, has tentatively evolved policy ideas for local and national art and sustainability policy for Ireland. Its a draft study, so if any of my followers would like to read it, please contact me. I’m happy to have any feedback and will acknowledge contributions.

In the study, I have looked to England and Scotland’s developed policy and strategies in this area and I have to thank CEO Ben Twist and Gemma Lawrence from Creative Carbon Scotland for supporting my initial conversations. Its quite a long study as it also sets out what ecoliteracy for the arts might cover and it highlights significant cost savings for the Irish cultural sector. And how does this relate to Tim Robinson’s and others’ eco-social art practice? Its self-evident really and very much overdue – policy will lend legitimacy, focus attention and direct supports and strategies to enable cultural practitioners from across the cultural spectrum to engage confidently in the most pressing eco-social concerns of our time. We have enough facts from science over several decades to know that we must act now, but science doesn’t have the reach and broad social power that the arts have to engage and move people heart’s – to imagine and enact the better world that is possible.

Duxbury, Nancy et al., (2016) ‘Why Must Culture Be at the Heart  of Sustainable Urban Development?’ Agenda 21 for Culture – Committee on Culture of United Citites and Local Government (UCLG).

Gablik, Suzi (1992) ‘The ecological Imperative’. Art Journal Volume 51, Issue 2: Art and Ecology.

Gablik, Suzi (2009) ‘The Art of Art’. Resurgence. p. 61.

Garioan, Charles (2012) ‘Sustaining Sustainability: The Pedagogical Drift of Art Research and Practice’. Studies in Art Education. Summer. 53(4), 283-301.

Lakoff, George (2010) ‘Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment’. Environmental Communication. 4 (1) pp. 70-81.

* My thanks to Dr. Eileen Hutton for inviting me to share my practice and research with her students at the Burren College of Art in 2016.

2 thoughts on “the key role of eco-social art practices to envision life-sustaining futures

  1. Hi Cathy, am interested in your ecoliteracy tool box, whatworkshops are you doing in 2018. I have last year completed a masters in Paint in ncad and there was very little interest in eco literacy there.
    Do you cover philosophers and their work in relation to the environment?
    All the best
    Cahersiceen Co Kerry


  2. Hi Helen

    I’ve just been finishing up my PhD so have only recently begun sharing my knowledge. I gave a workshop day at the Wexford Cowhouse studios in April 2018 and would like to do more. I did prepare a reading list for this day; do let me know if it would be of interest. The key philosopher I have used to theorise my eco-social art practice is Felix Guattari. A small book ‘Guattari Re-Framed (for the Arts) by Paul Elliott (2012), particularly the end section, has been primary in developing my thinking about the ecoliteracy and social power that can be developed by eco-social art practice. It does strike me, that as you live away from me, that there is a need for online ecoliteracy for the arts, be interested to know what you think?


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