Victory of the Sun
Artistic Proactivity in the Planetary Context
The increase in the amount of available energy to humanity had a central influence in the background of the early 20th century revolutions and the subsequent totalitarian states, as well as the rise of the Scandinavian welfare states. Thus, the foreseeable changes in the production and consumption of energy and the possible collapse of the carrying capacity of nature pose a overwhelming challenge to the existence of modern societies and cultural systems.
The problems in dealing with energy questions analytically surfaced clearly when I gave a lecture at the latest Manifesta biennale in Saint Petersburg. Russia is the world’s largest producer of fossil energy; the home of the Manifesta organisation is in Holland, the centre of the world’s oil markets; Europe’s dependency on imported energy is one of the most pressing questions in our security policy, and the structures of the production and consumption of oil have a strong effect on the collaborative projects of both whole nations and cultural institutions. In spite of these facts, energy wasn’t a theme touched in the content of the biennale; the energetic and energy economical basis of cultural activity remained invisible, and questions dealing with such connections were on the whole unknown to both the organisers and the audience of the biennale.
The activists of the Liberate Tate group, which opposes BP’s sponsorship of the Tate Gallery, haven’t remarked on the central, enabling role which fossil energy has had on nearly all 20th century art. The group protests the clandestine nature of Tate’s sponsorship deals by exhibiting a gigantic version of Kazimir Malevich’s black square in Tate’s turbine hall - yet, they don’t reveal that Malevich demonstrated with his original square the cosmic character of the fossil energy and industrial production which humankind had harnessed, and showed his dismissal of a societal order which had it's base on renewable energy.
An intriguing backdrop to my own work is provided by a group consisting mainly of past and present students of Goldsmith’s College, who realised a series of seminaries called Matter of Contradiction, and particularly its 2013 section, War against the Sun, which ponders on the various dimensions of the anthropocene and new object and reality theories. Alongside many worthwhile and groundbreaking views, the presentations of the seminar strengthened my conception that the transition from the fossil to the post-fossil global system means a deep-set crisis in our world view. The break is linked with ecological catastrophes, but also with many social threats such as the petrification of democratic systems - which would be enabled by general ignorance and widespread mistrust - and their replacement with authoritarian and even totalitarian systems and theoretical, philosophical and artistic ways of thinking which would reinforce them.
Despite referring directly to destroying, consumerism’s links to collective self-destructive behaviour hasn’t been thoroughly analysed in the academia. Similarly, although George Monbiot articulates many people’s stances in his blog writing Consumer Hell by saying that “consumerism is a totalitarian system,” there isn’t a great deal of contemporary academic writing on this topic either.
The concept of humanity based on the rational consumer/investor of neoclassical economics is difficult to reconcile with e.g. Keynesian / post-Keynesian theory’s goal, which sees the irrational behaviour of humanity and tries to develop a best possible economic theory on such grounds. The assumption of rationality inherent in the neoclassical hegemony has become a requirement which doesn’t accept e.g. the often non-rational concept of humanity that art has. The consequences are, on one hand, the forcing of an individual and organisations into behaviour which maximises one’s own advantages, and on the other hand, the uncontrollable tumult of irrational and subconscious forces in the background of the double standards which deny the irrational side of humanity.
Professor of Psychiatry Johannes Lehtonen states that the so-called climate neurosis is fed by a situation in which an individual wakes up to the destructivity of the state’s officially recommended actions. Without a wide collective and cultural processing, the phenomenon can lead to the deepening of the diseased state and to the collective, active amnesia of those factors which cause anxiety.
In Hannah Arendt’s analysis, the acceptance of paradoxical and illogical constitution of societal ideals create a breeding-ground for totalitarian development. Nihilism works in a similar way, when work, societies and human life itself are seen as fundamentally meaningless. Meaning can then be looked for in ideologies that are foreign to reality, or in technological utopias. Through these viewpoints it’s interesting to look at the relations of 19th century cosmism and faith in technology (one representative of which is in my view also Malevich’s suprematism) to today’s technological-utopian views in which the ecocatastrophe can be avoided through the use of yet-to-be developed technologies such as fusion energy or geo-engineering, or by eventually moving off from the Earth to other planets. Utopian and supernatural viewpoints tend to increase in popularity when the legitimacy of the reigning hegemony is threatened. The collapse of Tsar's regime caused largely by revolutions in technology and energy production can give us analogies to the contemporary rupture of fossil capitalism.
On the basis of my sources we can draw the conclusion that technological development should be looked at - not through rational problem-solving - but primarily as a narrative that has been constructed socially, spiritually, ideologically and culturally. Epistemologically we are talking about the critique of the mechanistic-deterministic view of reality and the seeing of the economic-technological discourse that dominates societies as only a part of a larger cultural whole. Through this viewpoint the averting of the ecological catastrophe presupposes the development of cultural self-understanding.
In this framework the function of art is in active production of a cultural process of change. In the neoliberal environment, the ideal of art has primarily been the reflecting and commentary of the surrounding society. Art may be seen as a self-steering evolutionary (or fatalistic-creationistic) process, something that needs to be assumed, alongside the Zeitgeist, if one is to attain success. The progressive development of the ideals of art as well as proactivity may be regarded as aggressive or tasteless.
When it comes to many phenomena in art history, it may be difficult to tell whether art has had a proactive or reactive relationship with them. This is also the case with Malevich; the societal break fed by fossil energy and the technological ideals produced by cosmism were developed decades before Malevich. However, I feel that the way Malevich formulated and crystallised the change taking place around him is central to the future of humankind’s development. The way I see it, his works played a central role in the actualisation of the industrial revolution’s full potential from utopian texts to a situation in which 70% of the planet’s land area resembles a suprematist work of art.
My critical analyses of Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project and e.g. the Liberate Tate actions are based on a view according to which these gestures - despite their potentially worthwhile content - will remain weak reactions to the proactivity practised by others. In this way, the works will only reinforce the conception of art as a marginal, unclear and irrelevant commentary, whose purpose is mainly to help people get used to the decisions others have made.
It’s characteristic to my chosen theoretical thinking that it resonates strongly with the experiential environment and reinforces the observations and findings made through practical projects. For instance, the energy project of the Mustarinda Association provides an opportunity for artistic work in a physical and existential-phenomenal environment born through post-fossil technologies and practices. The theoretical-practical entity of the Mustarinda Association forms an interesting place from which to observe the different dimensions of the ongoing global change.
I actively keep an eye on the latest scientific reports and I’m a member of a research group which tries to find way to create visibility for the natural scientific viewpoints we find crucial for the survival of humanity and the ecosystem of our planet. In our view, the problem with natural science is its weak links with communication systems and the processes of art and culture. In order to slow down the destructive progress we don’t need more convincing research reports; we need the ability to communicate themes in a society which is largely built on ideological and cultural conventions.
Through the experiences recounted above - and many others - I have developed an interest in the philosophical and artistic movements prevalent mainly in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century. From these changes I move on the Hannah Arendt’s philosophy concerning totalitarianism, consumerism, embodiment and planetarism. A more contemporary target of my interest is ecocriticism, object-oriented ontology and so called naftology which “try to understand how and why the material and spiritual constraints of energy regimes and subsistence activities are revealed,hidden,embedded and/or forgotten in the lives of the people engaged in those energy regimes and subsistence activities”.
The depletion of the environment and our resources isn’t potentially the unintentional side effect of consumer culture, but rather its central goal. Consumerism can bee seen as a manifestation of rebellion towards the laws of our planet, and finally towards the mortality of the body. My theoretical and practical work aims to recognise the possible connections of our contemporary consumerist culture with totalitarian and subconsciously destructive developments by looking at the efforts to reach a utopian sphere of ’hyper-reason’ outside of bodily, environmental and planetary contexts.