In the dark at PSM Gallery in Berlin, a digital animation is silently breathing. It appears as an inverted landscape split in equal parts by land and sky. A field recedes into the horizon, with a mass of permafrost above and mostly clear blue atmosphere below. Green shrubs flop and slide loosely on the screen, wriggling and dismorphic, moving as they would in an acid trip, but with a mechanized steadiness.
At the opening, there is a chunky, triangular metal table to the right of the screen, where artists Awst & Walther sit and talk about their show, Ground Control, An Interdisciplinary Forum. Curator Ine Gevers begins with a brief presentation on the artists’ attempt to restabilize a relationship to nature that is grossly out of proportion, with humans set apart from the environment—either at a critical distance from it, or arrogantly perceived to be at the center of it.
Gevers describes what Awst & Walther are doing as “shaking loose these notions,” by questioning the romanticization of the landscape. She asks, “Are we the only ones who can define nature, or can they have a role in it is as well?” “They” in this case is the bacteria she refers to throughout her talk, as well as the Earth’s plants, animals, doors, technologies, and minerals. She mentions Timothy Morton and the notion of forgetting “nature” in favor of radical ecology; when we take nature as a known, we show our ecological illiteracy. Gevers declares that it would be in our best interest to no longer make a distinction between the environment and the social.
Though this is only the beginning of the exhibition (a performance follows, and another panel discussion is scheduled for April 18), the talk is over too quickly and doesn’t give enough insight into the case the artists are making. In fact, instead of clarifying the work, Gevers inadvertently points to the need for a reconsideration of everything I see before me. I am afraid that those of us in this room and within this artistic community can be accused of inheriting a problem we have absolutely no intention of solving, at least not in the radical way called for by Gevers and Morton.
Largely, the artists’ trajectory speaks to the known. This is not a bad thing; their animation is precise, diffidently scolding, and delicious in its way. However, while the presentation itself checks all the correct boxes for contemporaneity and approach, the result is dependent on cool criticism and predominantly European perspectives. What they miss is building a connection—real or imagined—to the voices of the landscape, right down to the bacteria.
To be fair, this appears to be a pinnacle of the art community’s reach regarding an open discourse on the state of environmental precarity and the necessity for human change. I imagine fantastical alternatives and solutions to what Gevers addresses. This could mean far more time spent outside of galleries, cubes, cities, etc.; alternatively, we could let bacteria, plants, animals, and technocrats have the galleries and institutions. If we achieve what Morton describes (even by degree), would there be anything left to buy or sell, or would we simply craft far more exotic and rarefied objects to fetishize? Could we instead spend our time consuming a range of visceral and available-to-all experiences? An imaginable and still considerable shift would be sharing our cultural platforms with more souls who live near to or within the forest, placing mystics, biologists, and artists side by side, including anyone who attempts to listen to bacteria and who is willing to report back. Forget the landscape, and in particular nature, as entities to build bridges to—the landscape is by definition read from a distance, and primarily for its aesthetic value anyway—this Awst & Walther delineate emphatically. Let’s acknowledge that cities have always belonged to the biosphere, and vice versa, that they are distant cousins of the lushest forests and it’s time to resituate them accordingly.
What must follow, if only that it may be enjoyed, is an affirmative, immersive, and intuitive radicality. We cannot live as we have done. The costs of being an artist, gallerist, or a curator are paid by all of us; the flights, fairs, shipping, and ego-massaging dinners only enforce a status quo that is unethical and unkind, environmentally taxing and socially divisive. It is not mobility that needs be shirked but our means of having it, and until such time as we take ourselves more seriously in this, I would advocate a dramatic slowing down in a way in which pleasure and affection become our principle endeavors.
Ground Control, An Interdisciplinary Forum is on view at PSM Gallery through April 18, 2015.