Art Against Extinction

Nurturing new ways to visualize the planetary — the embeddedness and codependency of our species with others.

Matthew Rangel for Noema Magazine
Hans Ulrich Obrist is the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London.

LONDON — The late visionary artist Gustav Metzger argued that artists should create works that address the most urgent threats faced by society. What worried him most was the destruction of the interconnected planetary environment.

Metzger insisted that instead of talking about “ecology,” we should talk about extinction. As he saw it, if we only ever talk about ecology, no one will ever wake up to the seriousness of the crisis we are facing. When I interviewed Metzger at the Serpentine’s “Extinction Marathon” in 2014, he argued that the possibility of humans going extinct is apparent in the myriad of other extinctions happening all around us. Metzger used newspaper articles in his work, showcasing how easy it is to get overwhelmed by the disappearance of species, normalizing what is a very abnormal phenomenon.

The fundamental question he raised was: How can and should we in the art world combat this inertia? How do we wake people up?

At the Serpentine Galleries, Metzger’s influence has been manifested through various elements of our program over the years, including exhibits such as the “Extinction Marathon” (2014), which was programmed with his collaboration, and the nationwide day of action to “Remember Nature” (2015).

When we saw Metzger a few days before he passed away in March 2017, we made a promise to him that we would put ecology and the fight against extinction at the center of what we do at the Serpentine. True to that pledge, last year we marked the 50th anniversary of the Serpentine by launching a multi-year project, “Back to Earth,” which brings dozens of artists, builders and thinkers together to respond to the environmental crisis. 

“How do we wake people up?”

“Back to Earth” weaves ecology into our everyday lives, celebrating time and place instead of the escapist fantasies of moving to other planets. Our team at the Serpentine invited artists to come up with multi-year campaigns to respond to the environmental crisis. These campaigns include, for example, the global “Create Art for Earth” project with Judy Chicago, Swoon and Jane Fonda, which is an open call for artists (more than 10,000 so far) to create environmental art projects. “Back to Earth” also fosters new alliances between institutions — “Create Art for Earth” is a collaboration with Greenpeace USA, Fire Drill Fridays and the National Museum of Women in the Arts — in order to reach a wider audience. 

Another example is the Malian writer and filmmaker Manthia Diawara’s new film project in Yene, Senegal, where he worked with fishermen, pebble collectors and migrant pelicans, all of whom depend on the generosity of the ocean for survival. Diawara’s idea is to use the film to produce reality: He founded an association where the different parties joined efforts to stop the floods caused by climate change. 

Also as part of “Back to Earth,” we asked more than a hundred artists to share instruction pieces or recipes for the planet. These will be gathered in a small book that will be published this summer under the title “Remember Nature” (a nod to Metzger). The book will be like a portable exhibition, and what emerges from it will always be locally produced and use reusable materials so that resources aren’t wasted. Readers of the book can stage these exhibitions in their own homes and anywhere around the world by following the artists’ instructions.

Planetary And Social Boundaries

It was through my teacher, the economist H.C. Binswanger, that I came to understand the necessity of finding what Kate Raworth, also an economist, calls “a space between planetary and social boundaries” where humanity can thrive. In her book “Doughnut Economics,” Raworth illuminates the ways mainstream economics led us into a pattern of extraction and overreach, pushing past planetary boundaries and threatening the terms of our own future.

“Just as there’s an outer limit to humanity’s use of Earth’s resources,” she told me recently, “there’s also an inner limit of the distribution of those resources. … Don’t leave anybody falling short in this hole in the middle on the essentials of life: food, water, healthcare, education, housing, gender equality, political voice.”

Raworth’s description of the inner and outer rings of our use of earthly resources is based on a visionary image of an economic goal for humanity. Within the figure of the doughnut, we find a delicate balance of ecologies that needs to be maintained. Key to this radical picturing of 21st-century economics is a shift from a human-centric vision of the world, or a dissolution of the perceived division between human existence and planetary life, to what Nils Gilman and Jonathan Blake refer to as an awareness that “humans are embedded and codependent with microbes, the climate and technologically enabled emergent trans-species communities.”

Raworth furthers this necessity to maintain the balance of codependency through the sense of collective responsibility to our planet, the same responsibility of which Metzger spoke: “We need to nurture that side of our nature that enables us to best collaborate, because we have to collaborate. There are going to be 10 billion people on this planet. And if we go around thinking that we’re self-interested, competitive individuals, we don’t stand a chance.”

For Raworth, the aspect of human interaction that allows us to collaborate is, like the shape of the doughnut, cyclical rather than linear, gradual and measured rather than fast and throwaway. In other words, “slow” and mindful.

Long-duration Programming

The notions of ecology and collaboration through “long-duration programming” are very much embedded within my project “do it,” which began in Paris in 1993 as a set of instructions that were distributed as a book, inviting artists and others to interpret the ideas and build whatever they saw within. In devising this new format for a show, I was concerned with how exhibitions could be rendered more flexible and open-ended; an “art for all” expansion into other circuits, which encourages greater levels of participation and interaction on the part of the audience. The result is a show that is always locally produced with reusable materials so that no resources are wasted.

The themes of ecology and extinction also played a major role in the Shanghai Project, which I co-curated a few years ago. That project sought to carry an exhibition into the urban tissue of the city. Moving away from the one-time spectacle event, the Shanghai Project was a time-based research project that took place over 11 months. It invites a shift in our frame of reference and the scale of our thinking about global change so that we might grasp what is entering our field of vision, and also to try and save, or at least document, what is irreversibly disappearing from it in the process of extinction.

The idea of collaboration and sustainable growth brought us to what some have called the “world mentality” thinking of Édouard Glissant, the theorist of “relation.” He believed we must move beyond the oppositional discourse of the same and the other, that all beings draw energy from each other and need each other to survive. In his view, we should operate instead with a new “post-filiation” philosophy of difference as an assembler of the “dissimilar,” recognizing and embracing the common connection of different people and places, animate and inanimate objects, visible and invisible forces, air, water, fire, vegetation, animals and humans.

“If images rule dreams, and dreams rule actions, artists have a particular responsibility at this critical juncture of human civilization.”

At the Serpentine, we are consciously moving to embed these values and ideas — of relation, slowness, ecology and collaboration — not just into our programming, but into the makeup of the institution and how we operate as a contemporary arts organization. As Raworth said, much of the current crises that we face in our economy and ecology is related to the “linear, degenerative economies” that we have inherited, which are based on the principle of individualism — the idea that we are separate, both from each other and from our environment.

We must therefore strive toward collective actions, something that the scholar, poet, activist and educator Alexis Pauline Gumbs powerfully communicates: “We have the opportunity now, as a species fully in touch with each other, to unlearn and relearn our own patterns of thinking and storytelling in a way that allows us to be actually in communion with our environment as opposed to a dominating, colonialist separation from the environment.”

Images are powerful. If images rule dreams, and dreams rule actions, artists have a particular responsibility at this critical juncture of human civilization. We need to use all the agency we have to nurture a new planetary visualization of the embeddedness and codependency of our species with all others — art against extinction.