Art Shmart: Art Symposium

Nikki Sansone

Art and Environmental Studies concentrators were out in full force this weekend for Environmental Art and New Media Technologies: Imagining Sustainable Futures, the two day symposium organized by ecoarttech.net. Hosted by the departments of Art & Art History, Film & Media Studies and Environmental Studies programs, the symposium featured presentations and performances from ten internationally recognized artists who work with new digital media to explore creative solutions to answer problems of the environment.

The symposium was an unprecedented and definitive sample of artists currently working in a highly experimental realm. The symposium kicked things off with a Tex-Mex buffet followed by a presentation from Keynote speaker Natalie Jeremijenko.

Jeremijenko was undoubtedly the highlight of the symposium and boasts an impressive career, including being named in ID magazine’s top forty most influential designers and one of the inaugural top one hundred young innovators by the MIT technology review. Jeremijenko set the tone for the rest of the conference by asking how it is that social movements develop around environmental issues, and more specifically how can one participate to stop global warming.

Jeremijenko’s work was focused on alternative ways to engage individuals in the problem of fixing the environment through clever and creative projects such as Ooz and the Feral Robotic Dog projects. The other projects presented during the symposium ranged from similar approaches to inspiring the masses to be more environmentally-conscious (Amy Francheshini’s Victory Garden 2007+ project) to re-conceptualizing the digital network as a new and inextricable link to our natural ecosystem (Colin Ives’ video installation). Each artist was unique in both character and work, and the sum effect was an enlightening, broad-spectrum view of environmental activist art.

However, this genre of art is as new and experimental as its constituents’ own work, which presents a lot of problems in terms of activists and their activism. It was widely acknowledged that this symposium was a symposium of contradictions; and while that was both productive and frustrating, the artists involved were simply grateful to have a chance to further interface with a network of their peers. One of the biggest problems with environmental activist art is that it is largely a loose community of renegade artist and activists, and for those working in new digital media, community is even smaller.

For students, this symposium was a unique opportunity to interact with artists of this genre. The projects and presentations were surprisingly dependent on and saturated with scientific research; however most of the work executed was actually very ideological and idealist – one of many audience members’ main complaints with the works presented. Though these artists readily admitted that they were simply exploring alternative solutions to help ameliorate the problem of our environment, sitting in the audience one couldn’t help but feel that the artists bordered on being “all bark and no bite.”

Those artists that actively sought to extinguish environmental apathy amongst their communities were quick to point out easy ways to adjust one’s life to be more environmentally sound. What was conspicuously lacking from their thought process was a consideration of logistics, and more importantly, a consideration of class.

When Joline Blais posited the possible outcomes of having 10 percent of her community boycott shopping at Walmart, student audience members asked her about those members of the community who could not afford to boycott such a conglomerate. When numerous artists pointed to the effectiveness of their work educating students, student audience members reminded these artists that college is a luxury sometimes out of reach for many people: what of them?

The need for a truly interdisciplinary conference has never been as strong as it was this weekend in Golden Auditorium. Students’ questions truly illuminated the limits of these artists’ postmodern approach to issues of the environment, and perhaps even by extension made a case for how issues of the environment even got to this point in the first place. Arguments concerning political reform and governmental action needed to be raised as counterarguments to the works presented, and the absence of our politically minded friends definitely left a void in the overall success of this weekend’s discussions.

In the realm of contemporary art, most anything goes; it’s when art begins to overlap with activism that things get trickier. Artists who seek to use their work as a vehicle for activism must be held to more stringent standards than those simply exploring an artistic medium.

Though this weekend’s symposium was overall a huge success in terms of what it accomplished and the kind of artists it managed to attract to our university, one would be hard pressed not to think of how things could have been. Shame on us, Colgate, for not having thrown the full force of our liberal arts environment at these artists and giving them the challenge of a lifetime. Political science majors would have eaten these artists alive with examples of how they could be doing more towards creating a more sustainable future-and not just thinking about it.

Colgate Political Science majors: you were sorely missed.

Further information on the artists involved in this weekend’s symposium is available at http://www.ecoarttech.net/sustainablefutures/index.html.