Ecology and economy (and its politics) are concurrent, intersectional systems. To consider both together fully requires an interdisciplinary approach to which art and geography (and cultural geographers or geographer-artists) are potentially well-equipped to perform. Artwork coming out of this union is often in response to research scrutinizing information pulled out of social demographics, seen from outer space, or embedded in landscapes. Both disciplines are usually nested in the humanities, but practitioners also engage and collaborate with the sciences, adopting a fluidity necessary to deal with the connectivity of the systems they investigate.
There was a time during my forays into a Bachelor of Arts (before coming to my senses and pursuing a BFA) where I became incredibly enamored with the term ecofeminism. “Finally,” I thought, “an ism for me!” An incompletely informed feminist with my heart in the right place, I thought I needed a special feminism to include my environmental concerns, and not “just” the social justice concerns of Feminism proper. As my relationship with feminism grew in breadth and depth through reading, discussing, and engaging with radical feminists in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I came to realize there was no need for ecofeminism. It merely described in a little more detail the same concerns as feminism itself: of course social justice is connected with environmental justice; both demand the undermining and elimination of patriarchal/colonial/capitalistic power to such an extent that everything must change. There isn’t a need for a special sphere just for ecofeminism with its own special philosophy; politics and ecology are overlapping, entangled systems that feminism straight up can handle just fine.
Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything lives and breathes this intersectionality: she methodically delineates the imbrication of ecological, political-economic systems, demonstrating their tied fates and making a clear case for replacing current economic structures. Klein’s book is interdisciplinary, and also not. Just as ecofeminist concerns can easily be nested within feminism, the politics of economy are nested within ecology—there is literally nowhere else for them to go.
Klein’s work reflects the contemporary moment in academia: there is a palpable fluidity between many once distinct and siloed fields. Comparative literature departments, for example, are nothing but. Similarly, the discipline of geography went through a radical split in the 1970s between traditional concerns, and a new branch: human geography (and from that followed cultural geography). Human geographers interpreted the data, embracing social demographics and the dynamic interplay of individuals, culture, populations, environment, biology, politics, and economy. This work observes embedded politics in relation to a broader ecological context as described by Klein.
Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings... Installation view at MACBA. Photo: Gemma Planell / MACBA, 2013
Art practices such as Hans Haacke’s would now fit comfortably within a geographer’s research purview. Early works such as Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System as of May 1, 1971 engaged the materials of a cultural geographer, and presaged the infographics with which we are all so familiar today. Haacke’s conceptual practice was described at the time as “information” or “systems” art. He used government records, social demographics, and field photography (of the properties in question) in order to produce a just critique and to unveil the power systems at play.
It makes sense via this lineage that artists have started to find their way into geography departments. Trevor Paglen did as much when he completed his PhD at UC Berkeley. The artist’s work finds, tracks, and reveals surveillance infrastructures whereby governments spy on their own citizens. Paglen deploys fieldwork photography, publically available documents, amateur satellite enthusiast websites, and observation of landscape to make work about the way information moves across, is controlled, and is grafted onto the landscape (or, indeed, the exosphere).
Trevor Paglen, Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 4; Build 4)[, 2013, Mixed media, 16 x 16 x 16 feet. Courtesy of the artist
Artist Gwen MacGregor is taking a similar path, and is currently pursuing her PhD in geography at the University of Toronto. MacGregor was already an established artist when she decided to return to school after the 2008 recession. She had long created work packed with obsessive detail, environmental concern, colonial critique, and had begun working with personal GPS technology. Her interest in GPS came out of the desire to create something site-specific while holding a six-month residency in New York. She later took some undergraduate classes in geography, and found it was an uncannily good fit for her practice and interests. As she has advanced through her academic career, she has found her geography professors supportive and open-minded about the forms her research may take. The discipline has taken a “cultural turn,” so much so that it meshes with the conceptual concerns and site specificity so present in MacGregor’s work. Research, Flow Charts, and Databanks is an installation in which the artist combined the experiential with data in video, sculpture, and animation to critique the colonial legacy of the watershed, while also considering the positioning of self to nature.
Gwen MacGregor, Installation view of Research, Flow Charts and Data Banks, Kitchener–Waterloo Art Gallery, 2010
This approach (a bit of dilettantism, without which we wouldn’t have Da Vinci’s flying machines or art punk) echoes of early western empiricism à la Francis Bacon. The philosopher / scientist / author wasn’t so much post-human as pre-humanities; the silos of academia which recently have become more soft around the edges were at that time fluid—more the continuum described by Rosi Braidotti in The Posthuman. Braidotti’s book formalizes the interdisciplinary tendency described in the art practices above posthumanism, and echoes Klein’s call to actually change everything in accord with truly recognizing the entanglement systems of ecology-economy-everything.
(Image at top: Gwen MacGregor, Installation view of Research, Flow Charts and Data Banks, Kitchener–Waterloo Art Gallery, 2010)