What do we do about the extractive industries and their persistent and pervasive presence within the arts industry as sponsors, facilitators and (un)welcome benefactors?
There is no easy answer to this question — the arts seem to be reliant upon the financial support of extractive industries, either through direct corporate sponsorship or indirectly, via funds that flow from resource companies through governmental funding bodies in a manner that seemingly entangles art and fossil fuel. In following a thread through recent contemporary practice, specifically the works of Georgia Nowak and Eugene Perepletchikov and A Centre for Everything (Gabrielle de Vietri and Will Foster), this essay considers the manner in which affect can be elicited through contemporary practices that interrogates extraction, ecology and industry in order to ask what divestment in the arts sector might look and feel like.
Deep within the bowels of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania is a half-filled room. Arriving at this space feels like a product of chance, requiring one to traverse labyrinthine walkways as the air grows increasingly acrid, mechanic. This room houses Richard Wilson’s 20:50 (1987), an installation in which the artist fills the exhibition space to waist height with 8000 litres of recycled engine oil. Parting this oily sea is a narrow walkway, offering viewers the opportunity to pose for photos with the slick as invigilators warn against dangling anything over the inky black surface. 20:50, a liquid abyss, complicates relationships with depth, gesturing to the histories and materiality of extractive processes. The presence of so much oil within the gallery space gives us much to dive into — to draw from, to extract — as we consider the place of fossil fuels within our arts institutions.
The title of Wilson’s work is a timestamp, referring to the year 2050 as the date that, at the time of creation, was imagined to be the marker of peak oil extraction globally. Thirty years later, we can understand that peak oil (and the climate catastrophe it implies) may have already passed. And yet 20:50 endures as a portent of seemingly endless production and output towards the point of crisis. Within an arts context, we consider it a forerunner to the deluge of contemporary works that respond to ecological crisis.
Mining in ‘Australia’, the world’s primary coal exporter and third largest exporter of fossil fuels overall, accounts for almost ten percent of the nation’s economic wealth, with the rate at which minerals are ripped from the earth accelerating. A strange synchronicity emerges as this extraction powers onward, mapped between the extractive processes themselves and the practices that describe, oppose and critique them. We think here in terms of resource accumulation and the proliferation of contemporary artworks that emerge in critical response to extraction, as well as in the potential for criticality to act as an impetus for adaptation — not only for the fossil fuel industry as it seeks social license to operate, but also, more pressingly for us, in the face of looming climate catastrophe.
As T.J. Demos writes: ‘Just as nature is no longer understood as a pristine and discrete realm apart from human activity, art’s autonomy is all the more untenable when faced with ecological catastrophe.’1 This is made manifest in the turn of practice toward the ecological, and we identify across such practice a subtle attunement to the affective consequences of environmental change. We see ripples of causality, chance and design in work that rejects spectacle and surety in favour of interrogation and critique. We must pay attention not only to the content of such artworks but also the context of their production. Institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, The National Gallery of Victoria and the Perth Institute for Contemporary Art present works by Lyndal Jones, Pony Express and Stelarc,2 interrogating catastrophic temperature increases,3 waste spreading across landscapes and seascapes,4 and the challenge of ecological crisis — all while accepting funding from the fossil fuel industry.5
As Stephanie LeMenager reminds us, ‘feeling ecological need not be pleasant.’6 Beyond the frame of reflection, observed literally and figuratively in the material gesture invoked by 20:50, contemporary arts practices that seek to critique the ecological devastation wrought by the seemingly limitless resource boom instead operate in the realm of deep discomfort. The affective dimension of such work speaks to our immediate experiences of the world at large: climate catastrophe, governmental inaction and the precarity of the future. That is, they provoke an affective response which compels us to act.
One such work is Georgia Nowak and Eugene Perepletchikov’s three-channel video Memory-work (2019), which operates as a stratigraphic and temporal disruptor, tracing ecology, industry and affect across place. Memory-work presents archival footage, meditations on landscape and extraction unfolding on various scales, following the material traces of basalt across the Victorian landscape. Memory-work was installed as a projection stretching over nine metres, presented inside the bunker of a former munitions factory in Maribyrnong. It is a meditation on time and materiality that weaves together footage of ecological and extractive processes — volcanic flows, detonation events, industrial machinery — as well as archival footage of families walking through arid landscapes. The entangled temporal network of action unfolding across each screen reads like a score; vacillations not only in and out of time but also about time, speaking to the latent geologic memory of being in place. Geologic past, present and future unfold across the screen like layers of strata — the work presents a challenge to remain attuned to each in turn.
One sequence displays bricks hammered into place, the smooth outer wall of the National Gallery of Victoria, a block of basalt slowly carved into by whirring blades. Nowak and Perepletchikov allude to the connections between these things: viewing them concurrently, we become aware that they are not discrete images of occurrences. Although obtuse, their interconnectedness becomes tangible. This is further made sensible by the audio laid over these seemingly disparate yet intertwined scenes — a mechanic whirring, but muted, as if occurring out of sight, in the next room or somewhere beneath our feet. It is an aural reminder of the omnipresence of industry, humming away as rocks break, hammers strike, people converse.
The series of relations and convergences between representations of extraction coalesce in the singular vision of the extractive act that underpins all that has preceded it within Memory-work. The central channel displays an anonymous hi-vis clad worker who depresses a detonator; the video channel widens as the rock face shatters, before becoming three again. The three channels are here united in the footage of billowing debris as the mechanical whirr fades to a ghostly hum, dissonant against the background of silent destruction. We apprehend through Memory-work the presence and persistence of extractive industries.
Extractive industries are also major actors within the contemporary arts sector. In Maps of Gratitude, Cones of Silence and Lumps of Coal (2019) by A Centre for Everything (Gabrielle de Vietri and Will Foster), the vectors of extraction are displayed as a web, a series of digital connections illuminating a toxic network of infrastructure in which the connections between the two industries become glaringly obvious. This work maps the financial tethers between extractive industries and arts organisations, revealing how both executives and companies invest in the arts as a way of sanitising their public image (art-washing) in an era in which divestment campaigns from mining corporations are increasingly prevalent.
Through their work, De Vietri and Foster demonstrate the importance of tracing the influence of industry across the arts sector. The recent events of the 2021 Perth Fringe Festival highlight the continual unfurling of such influence, reinforcing the significance of Maps of Gratitude’s rigorous and critical dissection. A long-running incubator and forum for the performing arts, the Perth Fringe Festival relies on corporate sponsorship to enable its existence. Since 2012, Fringe’s major sponsor has been Woodside, the largest Australian operator and producer of oil and gas. Participants in the 2021 Fringe Festival encountered clauses within their contracts stating that they must not ‘act or omit to do any act that would prejudice any of Fringe World’s sponsorship arrangements’.7 This clause, amounting to a ‘gag order’, is particularly insidious in light of Woodside’s plans to further expand its oil and gas operations both on and offshore of Western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula. The Burrup is one of the most archaeologically, spiritually and ecologically significant sites in Australia, and the expansion of these operations will have an unquantifiably deleterious effect on the physical and cultural landscape. As we see through the example of Fringe and Woodside, industry exerts influence through funding, able to limit the experimentation, expression and most importantly critique that arts organisations claim to support.
In their video lecture Fossil Fuels and the Arts (2019), De Vietri and Foster ask some relatively straightforward questions: ‘Why are the arts still so attached to mining money?’; ‘Should arts organisations refuse money from the fossil fuels industry?’; and ‘How can artists and arts collectivise in response to this information?’ The answers, however, are far from simple. Using the example of the 2014 Biennale of Sydney and its (former) sponsorship by multinational corporation Transfield, the artists break down the withdrawal of labour on the part of selected artists within the Biennale in light of Transfield’s involvement in the establishment and operation of offshore refugee detention facilities. The protest and withdrawal were met with distress from the Biennale’s board, who argued that the collective action undertaken by the protestors jeopardised the future of the Biennale. The protest action produced heightened public scrutiny on both Transfield and the Biennale, which resulted in Transfield withdrawing their sponsorship. The effect of such actions was not limited solely to the severing of the financial relationship, but also saw Transfield lose stakeholders and undertake a rebrand which has since allowed them to ‘float back into the corporate ether’.8 It would be remiss of us not to note the effective rebranding opportunity this offered the Biennale itself — despite momentarily losing financial stability, the Biennale gained a wealth of cultural capital through the forced divestment.
De Vietri and Foster’s work shows that the issue of ‘dirty’ money becomes increasingly complex when it is not just one event, one sponsor, one institution, but instead permeates the entire arts ecology. At the time of Maps of Gratitude’s making, their suggestions of downsizing our arts industry, scaling it back, turning it inwards and shunning the constant expansion that the arts industrial complex aspires towards seemed almost unthinkable. At present, however, amidst the COVID-19 crisis and the enforced downsizing it effects, we want to ask: is our current moment an opportunity to reconceptualise how the arts sector is funded?
The manner in which the Australian arts landscape has been altered by the disruptive events of 2020 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic cannot be understated. As most Australian cities and their arts institutions return to pre-pandemic operations, the continued landscape of funding cuts and job losses, the intensification of precarity and the absence of ongoing support for those engaged in artistic (and other) labour exposes glaring flaws in the way in which ‘the arts’ operates and is consistently (under)valued. Funding was made available through COVID-19 relief payments, presented by local, state and federal government authorities in the form of ‘quick response grants’, many of which were not contingent upon outcomes — for example, the production of new work, the delivery of an exhibition or a public program. In doing so, space was made for practice without definitive output.
In De Vietri and Foster’s examination of the Biennale of Sydney, the impact of collective action presents the possibilities that emerge from mobilisation. What role does affect play in collective mobilisation? How might we, through an engagement with art, register the discomfort of ecological catastrophe in ways that lead us toward action? It may be that in the apprehension of difficult affects, desire and resistance become possible as embodied modes of being together and towards a future. It may also be that collective action in the form of refusal, withdrawal and protest mobilises discomfort, rage and grief towards the same ends.
Collective action across the arts has seen Decolonize This Place force change to the board of the Whitney Museum, the BDS movement highlight the ongoing struggle for Palestinian sovereignty and, closer to home, artists organising through the Black Finch Project stage protests in opposition to Adani’s Carmichael mine in Central Queensland. Thinking through such collective organisation, we wonder what it could mean to decarbonise our arts spaces and, in doing so, mobilise the surplus of affect, of dismay and hope, that accumulates across the sector. As De Vietri and Foster state in Fossil Fuels: ‘Art plays its role in helping to bury the dirt.’ What if we were to take this dirt, and this affect, and work together to make bricks — and with them rebuild something of our own: an ecology underpinned by the drive to divest, one comprised of unionised movements against climate crisis, one that enacts a different order of value?