Le grand retour
Looking back (and a little ahead)
for Grand Tour 2020 – Meetings Across Europe on Art and Ecology, 2018
Place: Brussels (home)
Date: August 31, 2018
Travel time: none
A letter (pretext)
On the morning of 22 June 2018, the postman slides a letter through my door. The letter is in an envelope with a stamp, my name and address hand-written on the front, and the sender hand-written on the back. The letter itself is also written by hand. It is a very nice letter, well-composed and with a good flow. I am touched. Moved: my last hand-written letter was sent, I think, a very long time ago – I am talking decades, another age – in what you might call a more romantic context. I am surprised, by the gesture and its content.
It is a letter about this book, that does not exist yet. It comes from Maaike and Fairuz. They just moved a few kilometres outside the centre of the city. They already had to drain water from their garage once and now know what climate change means. They are the designers of this book and they are searching for the most ecological options. They found a printer who works climate neutral, but that is primarily thanks to the careful use of energy to compensate for any waste produced during the printing process. Maaike and Fairuz themselves want to ensure that the book is an ecological object, not the printing company.
The letter contains some data. One printed sheet contains 64 pages without any waste. 64 pages make up four quires. Vegetal inks seem to be most environmentally friendly. There is also software, inksave, that keeps the ink settings as low as possible in the pre-press phase. The paper with the smallest ecological footprint is unpressed paper. It is treated the least. There is some debate as to the sense and nonsense of FSC labels. But the good news is: the more paper the better! Paper guarantees forestation (here they quote the climate-neutral printer). It is the most recycled product: 70% re-enters circulation while much of the remaining 30% simply remains in circulation. That is also why they write me a letter. If I want to read it again, as I am now while writing this introduction, it costs the earth nothing. My computer, the screen and the server that transmits my emails, on the other hand, all use a lot of energy. In other words: LONG LIVE PAPER.
I will keep this letter for a while. I have not finished with this letter. A letter like this is something very personal. Like this book, actually. At the end of this book, there are two more letters that I sent to two artists electronically, via the wordpress.com servers. They make this book even more personal. This book, by the way, that began as a diary – a particularly private form of writing. Or as a logbook maybe – a form of writing for the initiated. It is no coincidence that it begins as a weblog: a travelogue in quasi real-time that allows the partners and the artists who are involved in this project to stay up-to-date with what is happening. The blog allows them to anticipate events and make corrections where necessary. The readers of my blog are like the chaperons that accompanied young aristocratic boys on their Grand Tour in the 17th or 18th century, initiating them in the cultures and languages of the European continent.
A hand-written letter is not only very personal, it also takes me back in time. I come from an age when everything is done on paper. My professional career starts as a very young boy with my civil service in the archive of a film club where I catalogue books and magazines using hand-written index cards. Urgent matters were dealt with via telephone. Less urgent matters went via the post. My first invoices were written by hand on the club’s stencilled stationary. There was no computer (the first one only arrived in the early nineties), no fax (late eighties) and certainly no internet (late nineties). We did it that way because we could and because we must. This letter fits what is named at the end of this book (in the two letters): progress in reverse. It fits our times, full of nostalgia.
A few days ago, I passed a hip shop window with the words Le grand retour written above a sexy retro sports outfit. And I thought, Le grand retour: perhaps that would be a good title for this epilogue that looks back on the events in this book. But progress in reverse (or Le grand retour) might also be part of some self-criticism, a measure taken against global warming that begins with yourself (and of course I do not mean dressing in tiny shorts with a matching top – though that might help).It sometimes seems better to engage in the struggle against global warming by simply not doing things. Like not eating meat, for example. Or not driving a car. Not taking airplanes. Or just not travelling at all (something I realize after nine journeys, while I am very much looking forward to the last of my ten trips). Or: not using the computer, no internet, no servers, no GPS, no smartphone. Is that the future of the world after the climate catastrophe?
Not for the time being. For the time being, everything remains as it is, and we would do best to learn to live with what we have before coming up with solutions that only cause new problems. First to take stock of the world and then to find the best way to a possible solution. Maaike and Fairuz do it with the design of this book. Just like the artists I meet and who, each in their own way, look at the world and how to act in it. They start from everyday experiences and often collect scientific data and ways to process that data. I do it too during this Grand Tour on which I not only learn from the artists, from their work, but also from the science and ideas that they use.
An email (subtext)
That is how this book begins, this project: in the world in which we live. A year before that letter, I receive an email: from Ilse. Ilse is the coordinator of Imagine 2020 in Brussels. Whether I would submit a proposal for a documentation project about Art, ecology and possible futures. Whether I would visit ten artists, selected by the ten partners of Imagine 2020, in the cities where they live and work. Whether I would interview the artists about their artistic-ecological citizenship. The working title she suggests in the mail is Vita Artistica, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s Vita Activa, a reference to the co-existence of art and political engagement. Imagine 2020, as I also learn from the email, stands for the creation of consciousness-making, for the creation and study of prototypes of possible futures. Whether I would be interested to do that.
At the time I receive the call, I am finishing with a group of students another documentation project, another book, about fashion, which focused on themes like ecology, sustainability, production methods, capitalism, (post-)colonialism, globalization, and ultimately global warming. So no, I was not entirely unfamiliar with the issues. In the meantime, I am preparing to start a new project about beauty (it starts with the end of beauty, the beauty of the end, beauty as an end, beauty without end: any relationship with reflections on the current state of the planet is no coincidence – during my Grand Tour, I add a fifth point: beauty after the end), constructed around caring for the self, the organization, looking for what lies beyond beauty, the sharing of the commons and beauty that ultimately erases itself. Both projects continue in this documentation project, which explores (a) possible future(s) through art and ecology – a new end to work towards.
I submit my proposal rather quickly, impulsively, and with many question marks. I change the working title, Vita Artistica, into Fear of a Blank Planet; the inspiration of Hannah Arendt into that of Public Enemy. The rational argumentation behind the possible futures makes way for untrammelled feelings, full of anger, ready for change. As an example for the beauty of the end (something in which to believe, a goal – an end – on which to focus) I refer – a bit too cynical? – to the happy end of COP 21, the climate conference in Paris, which ends with an accord with which everybody (and therefore nobody) could agree. I want to make the blank space of travel – the sea, for the transport of goods for our consumer society, and the air, for flights for our tourism industry (what remains is the goal – the end – what disappears is the environment – without end) – tangible again by travelling by train and by bicycle. I opt for a book. Not very original, but to me it is the most enduring form: something tangible, that lives on into the future. Continuing in the spirit of Public Enemy, I want a sampled book in which various voices encounter one another: those of the artists, the artists they are looking at, the authors they are reading, and the authors I myself find on my journey.
My ambitions gradually adapt to reality. And so my Grand Tour, just like this book, develops as a learning process with constantly changing perspectives, with alternating styles and rhythms that clash with the styles and rhythms of the encounters that precede them. The argument of Vita Artistica – the artist as citizen – expands to the citizen as artist: how to engage an audience to become part of your work and your ideas? How to create this consciousness through art? As a response to an avalanche of data, I want a book with feeling. A book that strives to turn feelings of guilt into pleasure, the fatigue of resignation into the energy of involvement: a different world is possible.
A tour (context)
This Grand Tour is one of extremes. That too is entirely fitting for our times. While I write this, we experience one of the hottest summers in years. Europe is on fire from Sweden to Greece, not to mention the forest fires in California and Australia. Temperature records are broken. The droughts are alarming for plants, animals and people. In July Zaventem, the national airport about ten kilometres from where I write, counts the highest number of passengers on one day, ever. Climate scientists warn that if we do not rapidly decrease CO2 emissions, the hot summers of today will feel relatively cool in the future. According to those same scientists, the chances of heatwaves will double in the future. And as another little nugget of news in cucumber season, I read that Earth Overshoot Day, the day on which the earth consumed the available resources for an entire year, occurred on 1 August this year: one day earlier than in 2017 and several months earlier than in 1986, when we still managed to make it all the way to 31 December.
But there is also positive news. Solar energy is breaking records left and right. In Belgium, it covered 8% of total use in July (nuclear energy still accounts for 35%). I read it all on my always already outdated iPhone, as I read the report that the value of Apple has topped one thousand billion dollars while Huawei for the first time will be selling more phones than Apple and Samsung. Is this relevant to a book about art and ecology? I think it is. What would we – artists and cultural workers – be without our smartphones and laptops? Even though we know that the rare metals in our hardware are not inexhaustible, that mining them is wreaking ecological havoc in Congo and China and that the energy use of the servers that manage the cloud, our social networks, emails and websites now rivals all the air traffic on earth put together?
Never before the causes and consequences of global warming were so clear. And yet everything simply continues as though nothing is wrong. A dangerous habituation is taking place whereby the extraordinary is becoming normal and the temporary discomforts of heat and flooding are becoming permanent. You don’t win an election with global warming. And if we can no longer rely on our politicians in our governments, we must look for solutions somewhere else. We can no longer only think and act for ourselves, we must involve our environment, the mountains and rivers, the plants and animals, previous and future generations. To do that, we need artists. Thierry Boutonnier talks to the animals, plants and machines on his parents’ farm. Just like Lotte Van den Berg in her Parliament of Things, he is inspired by the Dingpolitik of French philosopher Bruno Latour. They expand their workspaces to their environment, just as Michael Pinsky does in London. At the same time, Clare Patey, Armin Chodzinski and Sibylle Peters, Janis Balodis or Benjamin Verdonck go even further by working for and with children. The new production by Beton Ltd. in Ljubljana is likewise oriented to the next generation, while Tamara Bilankov in Zagreb simultaneously shifts her perspective to the previous generation. This is part of my assignment, which not coincidentally comes fifty years after May 68: to look forward and to look back, to explore what remains of the engagement of that time. That is the subject of Vera Mantero’s latest production. This is also the beautiful thing about the group of artists that the partners selected for me: they are upcoming (Janis, Tamara, Thierry), mid-career (Benjamin, Beton Ltd., Lotte) and established (Michael, Clare, Armin and Sibylle or Vera).
My meetings with the artists brought me back ever more to the citizen, to citizenship. And thus also to the question of scale: what can we, as small individuals, do against (or with?) global warming? Then, a global problem becomes an increasingly local issue. Your environment starts here (do you know the activists who try to stop the plastic soup in the oceans by writing the sea starts here beside sewer drains on the street?). Before I set off on this Grand Tour, I had a conversation in Brussels with Sue Spaid, the American philosopher and curator from Ecovention Europe. She said the following:
To my lights, climate change is first a local issue. Yes, we as a planet are monitoring “global temperature increases,” but we are doing so country by country, with each having committed to do its part to prevent further warming. Individual communities actually have way more agency and move a lot quicker than corporations or governments. Ordinary citizens can (and routinely do): plant as many trees as possible to make rainfall renewable and storm water capturable, fix damaged groundwater catchment systems to ensure rainwater’s capacity to refill aquifers, farm using carbon-absorbing regenerative soils, reconstruct wetlands, implement systems that neutralise the effects of greenhouse gases, and discourage new housing developments. The knowledge is everywhere…there just need to be more local initiatives on a grander scale.
And thus we see that cities are opting for different forms of organization. We see the influence that citizens have. And we see how artists get involved, if they do not already play guiding roles in the process. Therein lies the power of the alliance between art and ecology, between art and global warming: in seeing differently and thinking differently. That starts here, wherever you are.
A different way of life begins with seeing things differently. What we need is an alternate perception. Instead of constantly wanting to reform things and giving short shrift to reality (a classic example: the way politics is promoting electric cars and thus shifting the problem – the pollution is for China where those cars will be manufactured – and using deferral tactics: our cities are becoming blocked by infrastructure for individual transport, while there is an urgent need for better and non-privatized public transport; not to mention the way politicians outsource the solutions for social problems to private capitalists) we should be doing the reverse and looking reality in the face (as Latour does in Facing Gaia) and then think about ways to deal with that new reality without trying to reform it: reality is habitable if we adapt to it, not makeable by adapting it to us.
Looking reality in the face also implies recognizing our own bubble: class, education, culture, nation… It implies being attentive to other bubbles. Taking them into account. Opening them. Ecology does not stop at the edge of your bubble: your theatre, your school, your newspaper, your social network, your neighbourhood, your city, your country. Borders that increasingly grow into walls are the worst thing that could happen to us ecologically. Because all of these bubbles put together are part of one bigger bubble: that immeasurable and ungraspable thing that we call an ecosystem and of which we only have fragmentary knowledge, grasp, and insight – in bits and pieces.
That is where the “imagine” of Imagine 2020 comes in again. That’s how this Grand Tour works: as a pharmacon, as a poison that wants to be the antidote at the same time. To imagine as a pharmacon, turning the poison into a cure. In a time of extremes, this also became a tour of extremes. In just over four months, I visited nine cities and an island. I spent 140 hours (that is the equivalent of 17,5 working days of 8 hours, 3,5 working weeks) travelling by train and bicycle, as well as one airplane and one boat. To make all this possible, Ilse spent another 50 hours (just over 6 working days) at the Imagine 2020 headquarters to plan the trips and book tickets and hotels. I travelled about 15.470 kilometres in four months’ time – I don’t know what your life is like, but that is more than I would otherwise travel in an entire decade. This documentation project, this Grand Tour, thus became an extreme city trip: a collection of city trips, a test for an alternative means of travel that is only possible in the subsidized bubble of the cultural sector. Katarina from Beton Ltd. said it in Ljubljana: in the cultural sector, we don’t travel in the summer, we don’t go on holiday, we travel for work and work in the summer. We do it because we can and because we must: this assignment is my job. Then it becomes increasingly clear to me: ecology is a luxury. Because we can and because we must? But only depending on where you are, who you are, how you are.
(In a conversation with Tim Etchells – you can find the video easily online – Vera Mantero talks about the way the coming of the railway changes life in the city. It enlarges the natural maximum distance. It leads to food no longer having to be produced near the city. It detaches the city from its environment. It gives the city a new face, a new feeling, a new experience. I am reminded of it when I see how Lisbon, Vera’s city, is flooded with tourists. In the botanical gardens, I hear about as many languages as there are species of plants. And in the meantime, an airplane roars overhead every five minutes, bringing another load of tourists. That is how the airplane changes the face, the feeling and the experience of this city. The same is true – to a greater or lesser extent – of the other cities that I visited on this Grand Tour.)
It is not only the travel and the meetings that are a pharmacon. This book is one too. This is a book of extremes. The complete project took less than one year to complete: the journey started on 20 February. The book presentation is scheduled for 15 December (first it was October, then November, then early December, now it will be halfway through December, because it must and because it can). No ordinary publisher would risk it. So we are doing it all ourselves, because we can and because we must. Because after travelling alternatively we also want to explore the boundaries of alternative publishing. How far can we go? What kind of paper do we use? Which printer? Which machines? Which ink? In which way? How will we distribute the book? What will the print run be? Will this be a book to buy? To give? Or to pass on?
A moment (text)
This book thus develops as a snapshot, as a sign of the time, of its art and its ecology. It follows the chronology of the journey, with the encounters ordered in the sequence in which they took place. The reader will soon notice that this journey was not so much a tour as a game of hopscotch, during which I always returned home. You may also read this book as a game of hopscotch jumping between the various pieces across the various artists. You might also read it back to front, but that is not necessary. But if you do, you might notice how I grew along with the assignment. Like many other citizens, I have a certain ecological consciousness. More than half a life ago, I decided to stop eating meat because it requires so much more energy and resources than a vegetarian diet. Cycling is something I grew up with as a child, and I continued to do it after I moved to the city as a young adult. (Do you sometimes see the signs attached to bicycle saddles? One car less?
That really makes no sense to me. All I see is one more bicycle. Why do we always use the car as a reference point when it comes to transport? I have the same problem with digital route planners. Everything is focused on cars and all too often, bicycles are simply forgotten. And again when we planned the trips for the Grand Tour: just try organizing a train journey to Riga or booking train tickets to Lisbon. Easyjet would get you there much faster at a fraction of the cost. That is the reference point and that has to change.) Over the past fifteen years, journeys that are too far by bike, I combine with my folding bike on the train. I do not have any children, but just like Donna Haraway, making kin in the Chthulucene, I do enjoy taking care of my relatives: family, friends, neighbours, their plants and animals. But it doesn’t go much further than that, and the occasional vote for a politician with an ecological consciousness, preferably combined with a social commitment.
(Before I forget: I also compost. During my Grand Tour, I realized on several occasions – in Lyon, in Rotterdam, in Riga or in Lisbon – how important the worms in my homemade compost bin on my balcony are: they are my only pets and increasingly, they are my favourite animals. They provide solutions for so many problems. Later, when I die, I want to be composted, like in the little book that I found on my journey: Playdoyer pour l’humusation. I saw the following sign in an exhibition by Laure Prouvost:
It inspired me. Should I turn it into a slogan that suits me? Global worming, not warming!)
This book – I said it earlier – is part of a learning process (hence the reference to the historical Grand Tour of 17th and 18th century aristocrats). I was not only learning to organize my meetings. The first were still relatively short, but they soon became longer and the interviews from the initial assignment made space for meetings during which I followed the artists, not only in their work, but also in their surroundings. This not only required a certain degree of improvisation, but also a great deal of patience from those involved to spend time with one another and let things happen as they happen. Along with the artists, I also questioned myself and my position regularly. In the same way, questions were regularly raised about the value of an international network like Imagine 2020. For one, it loses significance the closer we come to the magical year in its name, while for another that is precisely what makes it increasingly pressing.
On this Grand Tour I met each of these artists for the first time (but not the last). By growing in these encounters, more opportunities opened up along the way to discover what goes on around the works. Through their professional lives, I increasingly permitted myself a glimpse into the artists’ personal lives. It begins with caring for the other, caring for one’s environment, and ends with caring for oneself. As a coincidence my first meetings were with curators: Sue Spaid in Brussels, whom I looked up before I left to acquaint myself with the subject matter, and Michael Pinsky and Clare Patey in London. With them, I explored the origins of the word curator: to care. And in what does this care consist in the work of a curator? In the words of Sue Spaid: “provoking thoughts by guiding audiences to make particular connections”. From there, the themes evolve to the organization of the work and the role of the artist as an author (Thierry, Armin & Sibylle, Lotte, Janis) and continue to the role of the economy, the pressure of time, the importance of experiments in failing, of education, doubt and uncertainty, or of waste and taking the measure of things.
Between all these themes there is another issue that recurred frequently and uninvited: that of language. Coincidentally, my first conversations – with an American in Brussels and two Brits in London – were almost self-evidently in English. Equally self-evidently, I accepted the condition from Imagine 2020 to complete this documentation assignment in English. But this soon felt very far from obvious: how strange it is only to use this language. I myself am Dutch-speaking, and have lived all my life in Belgium, a country with three official languages: Dutch, French and German. Over the past few years, due to globalization and the growth of the European institutions in Brussels, the city where I live, English has increasingly become an unofficial fourth language. That partly explains why I accepted the condition for this assignment as self-evident. But in practice, it is not so obvious at all. While visiting artists whose languages I can more or less speak (Benjamin in Belgium, Lotte in the Netherlands, Thierry in France and Armin and Sibylle in Germany), it was artificial to use a different language. With artists whose languages I do not speak (Janis in Latvia, Beton Ltd. in Slovenia, Tamara in Croatia or Vera in Portugal), it became a necessity. But it still felt strange. It still ran counter to my sense of ecology. It is a question of language ecology that is at stake in a way of communicating and thus of thinking and seeing. Eileen Myles writes about it in The Importance of Being Iceland:
“There’s an imprecise mourning needed to see where we are now. I think it’s like the species rediscovering itself. Learning to be stubborn in our awkward speaking and hearing. All over the world regional accents are vanishing because of the homogenizing power of announcers’ voices normalizing everything, until everything started to go away. The landscape and the voices. There’s an ecology of sound. Of speech. We have to think about what English does. Riding roughshod over national poetries that since the room is small and no one’s in there why not step out to the bright light of day and write in English, think like us. Speaking the language of the global crash. People are standing outside in Reykjavik, demonstrating, demanding the Prime Minister to step down. I can’t read the signs but I get it.”
That is how I often felt in my meetings with the artists on this Grand Tour: limited and forced to use the language of the global crash. This too makes ecology a local matter, something that needs to be translated time and again to one’s environment, the situation, the language of the one who observes. We’re in this together, Rosi Braidotti says in Transpositions, but each with our own language, needs and customs. Accepting this is the first step in the struggle against global warming.
Ecology begins with yourself. Hence the importance of a healthy dose of self-criticism from time to time. Here is another fragment of my conversation with Sue Spaid:
“What I’ve realized, just recently, is that 90% of what passes for criticism or new thinking is really self-reflection. Whenever you did something you reflected upon it and you were like how can we make it better. And then something got lost. People stopped doing self-reflection but started criticizing other people. A good example is all the people that are now claiming that humans aren’t the centre of the universe: the anthropocene critique. But the idea of humans not being the centre of the universe is the Copernican revolution of the 17th century. Somehow, this Copernican revolution lost it’s impact enough to the point that people stopped thinking that humans weren’t the centre of the universe. But then you’re like that’s already been said, it’s been three hundred years. I don’t really understand how universities can be focused on this problem. The problem is that people stopped being self-reflective.”
Through Sue’s remarks about self-criticism (and the university), I make another jump from today to May 68 and the auto-critique that filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin incorporated as a fixture into their films from the period of the Groupe Dziga Vertov. In Histoire(s) du cinema, Jean-Luc Godard raises the following questions (and answers):
Qu’est-ce que le cinéma ?
Que veut-il ?
Que peut-il ?
In its own way, this book asks the same of art.