an auto-theory text on collective refusal as an art gesture amid global eco-cide
by India Boxall
Perishability: a state, or status, of being, which occupies, or lurks, in the existential mulch of humans and more-than-human-others.
The perishable conglomerate is opaque and fabulating; granulated and fractal, like grains of sugar or beads of sweat. Aware and intent on undoing and repairing the detriment and destruction continually deployed by the ‘the imperial-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy’1, perishable conglomerates survive through collective refusal of mass eco-cide under global capitalism.
Spawning from an ongoing creative research practice into the origins of a Westernised socio-cultural-economical system with many limbs, this text has been written with the intention of illuminating potential acts of hope through a critical reading of how certain art gestures have operated in the concurrent Oil Age.
This text will unravel stints of social justice and ecological activism operated and performed by specific groups of artists and arts workers who were active in the last century. The common thread tying these acts together is the mechanism of refusal, framed here as an anchor by which to creatively withhold from. Collective refusal could be a knot in consciousness; a space of safety for the terrestrial commons to seek and deploy reparative models of hope.
A refusal, a breakage, a mutual breath…what are art gestures amid mass eco-cide?
Active engagement with the 21st century climate emergency as an artist and/or arts worker often propels the self into a realm of sacrifice and exhaustion. To become reputable, an arts worker and/or artist must often forego full commitment to undoing and dismantling eco-cidal and socially unjust practice in order to gain access to paid employment, funding, exposure, and professional development. Increasingly, arts-based institutions and organisations greenwash campaigns and spread messages of solidarity with anti-racist movements, burying their previous lack of care with performative gestures of allyship.
Arts workers and/or artists are forced to choose between their deep existential paranoia about the state of Earth and the springboards of employment or opportunity that may provide them with financial support in their creative practice.
Often, arts organisations proport a mutually beneficial relationship between the worker, the work, and the work environment. A conversation regarding mutual agreement between artist and Earth is a practice subdued by oppressive standards of artmaking that can envelope and shut down actively sustainable creativity that engages in counter narratives to the Oil Age. Is there adequate support for artists and/or arts workers seeking to present a mutual breath: a breath to be shared by themselves and the materials they employ, the land upon which artworks are made and presented, and the social context within which their fruits will be shared?
A shared breath is a perishable gesture. A gesture without known permanence entails a perishability that is useful in its ability to pool at knots of tension in problematic geopolitics.
Who shares perishability?
To begin our tangle with perishability, we start with an arts movement that mobilised a healthy terrestrial commons as creative practice.
Ecovention was a term coined in the late 90s by curator and philosopher Sue Spaid2 to describe a group of artists intent on providing interventions to eco-cide. The artists utilised their experience of the destruction of their local and global environment as an underpinning for land art, earthworks, landscape architecture and environmental sculpture. The lack of quality of life promised by 20th century modernism became an anchor for the Ecovention artists’ creative practice. Exploring a variety of components of capitalism and the effects of the globalised free market economy, the Ecovention artists sought to combine art and place-making to restore their terrestrial environment.
The lack of intersectionality that these artists were blinded to/by is an inherent trope of whitewashed environmental activism that posits itself as a framework for exploring ecological trauma and recovery. Drawing on Kathryn Yusoff’s borrowing of Sophie Hartman’s term ‘cultivated silence’3, a large proportion of the Ecovention artists were racialised as white and globalised as Western. By cultivating a movement that was wilful in its amnesia towards the wider struggle of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic artists, (who lived in the same countries but, due to their racialisation as non-white, survived in the rougher parts of cities and rural spaces), the Ecovention artists formed an echo chamber around their white-ness.
Another series of art gestures I would like to unpack are those of the Artist Placement Group (APG)4. Operating in the latter half of the 1960s in the UK, the APG has not yet been overtly connected to the Ecovention artists through the algorithms of human knowledge and Wikipedia. Having said that, I believe there are footings in APG’s premise that are reflected in the Ecovention movement. Rendering the groups’ actions as part-rooted in seeking transparency with regards to the impact of heavy industrial processes on societal, cultural, and ecological terrain, the members of APG “actively sought to reposition the artist within a wider social context”5. Seeking a mutually beneficial relationship between art, artist, and corporation, APG placed its cohort of artists within various industries in Europe. They refused patronage from their placements, and in doing so elevated the groups’ actions to a plausible type of activism in the form of art gesture.
The art gestures performed by APG involved the dematerialisation of the art object, thus forming a basis for conceptual artists to flourish during the 1970s. APG’s breakage from conventionality is critical in its undoing of rigid perspectives of the dichotomy between art and work. Pushed through the sieve of our contemporary urgencies, APG’s work fails to be rhizomic in its undoing of social hierarchies. The group failed to explore collaboration with other movements rising out of the embers of social unrest, such as the Black Arts Movement or the Weusi Artists. The APG’s think-tank approach serviced a cohort of artists fresh from the London-based art school Central Saint Martins, an institution condemned in the 21st century for lack of inclusion and diversity amongst its core staff.6
During a ten-year period of fabulation, the Black Arts Movement garnered a momentum in its platforming of black art, poetry, and theatre. The Movement was “… an affirmation of the autonomy of black artists to create black art for black people as a means to awaken black consciousness and achieve liberation.”7 The consciousness spoken of here beckons the thought of a collective refusal against the imperial-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. This collective, the conglomerate, emboldens the perishable; the other; the marginalised; the alienated; the refused.
Just after the Black Arts Movement rooted itself in the physical and metaphysical Black consciousness, the Weusi Group formed in Harlem. The group’s focus was amplifying the work of African American artists in New York, and it served as an alternative and situated charter of American art and non-art history, poking holes in the claim of universalism that echoed from the Abstract Expressionists, (most of whom were white and male). The Weusi Group shifted its aims in the early 1970s toward actively engaging with the community within which it practiced. The Weusi Nyumba Ya Sanaa Academy of Fine Arts and Studies re-established a connection between place and people, flourishing in its ability to out-reach and promote care for both community and locality. The Academy began the Harlem Outdoor Festival, running for thirteen years and eventually becoming Harlem Week: a space for refusal, a space for the refused.
What are art gestures towards collective refusal?
The Black Lives Matter Mural Trail8 began in Scotland during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic following the murder of George Floyd in America. Artworks by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic artists bloomed across Scotland’s built and rural fabric, fastened to the outer rails of cultural institutions quickly scrambling to share rushed statements supporting the Black Lives Matter momentum. Urgency threaded the trail together, surging as an axis between racial injustice and the emergency of mass eco-cidal practice. Pulsating from behind the windows of closed venues, the Mural Trail harnessed the gestural premise of art, and the criticality and reflexivity of activism, to illuminate the tensions held within the UK’s current and past social, cultural, and geographical contexts, and to unionise physically within the urban and rural. As Brexit continues to looms on the horizon of ongoing Covid-19 related lockdowns, the Mural Trail thrived in its ability to use place-making as a strategy towards an urgent undoing.
Urgency is at the core of the work of the artists’ union, specifically Tate_United.9 Tate_United was set up in August 2020 as a union to support workers put into positions of precarious employment by Tate Enterprises, the corporation that funds the Tate galleries. Tate has been under fire for many of its former ties; its 23 year relationship with British Petroleum and its subsidiaries ignited many activist groups, (see Liberate Tate10) to organise against the alliance, spurring protests in solidarity with those human and more-than-human-others who suffer disproportionately from deep extraction and other Oil Age activities. Art organisations that fuel the Oil Age oppress the artist and/or arts worker by asking them to refuse mutual care for human and more-than-human-life destroyed by extraction-based eco-cide.
In August 2020, the activities of Tate Enterprises, the corporate limb of the Tate empire, were leaked by employees of the retail and hospitality sector of the company. The White Pube11, an art critic duo based in the UK, shared the screen grabs of emails and text messages detailing the ensuing and highly problematic actions of the Tate’s Director Maria Balshaw and Tate Enterprises itself. Tate issued a statement that outlined the firing of 313 employees, asking Team Leaders to rate their staff based on past performance. After this alienating and othering task was carried out, the results were emailed to the freshly sacked employees late on a Friday evening. Many of those removed were from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.12 In response, Tate_United has garnered hundreds of supporters both on and offline, with protests taking place physically, outside Tate locations, and digitally, by disseminating letters of support and circulating hashtags.
Unionising is like conglomerating. To draw this back to the idea of the perishable conglomerate, Tate_United, the Black Lives Matter Mural Trail, and the artists and arts workers who continue to refuse capitalist conglomeration through the modalities of the imperial-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy; they are the conglomerates who are shaping the future of creative practice threaded with intersectional environmental awareness.
The blossoming conglomerate is the conglomerate that absorbs its perishability, employing art as an active gesture to prise open insidious practice. The perishable conglomerates take a mutual breath to find a breakage; a creative withholding; a collective refusal, and in doing so chart an alternative and situated history to that of the calcified status quo.
The perishable conglomerate is opaque and fabulating; granulated and fractal, like beads of breath.
1 bell hooks, Belonging Through Connection, in conversation with john a. powell, 2015.
3 Kathryn Yusoff, A Million Black Antrhopocenes or None, 2015, University of Minnesota Press
INDIA BOXALL’ s creative research practice is rooted in challenging and unpicking alienating and hegemonic political, social and cultural narratives, rendered as normative by global capitalism. She has a particular focus on spiritual ecology and eco-feminist practices as reparative modalities for states of stagnation and inertia. India likes to situate herself as creative-researcher within the axis of language and rhetoric, asking: how do things come to be, why, and for whom? Drawing, collage, sewing, writing and photos are starting points that vary in physical scale and conceptual magnitude, often transforming numerous times into textile installation, sound works, film collages, and sculptural play. These points are a constellation of creative research, entangling and overlapping to inform acts of generating and situating material and collective knowledge/s. She is the founder of a fledgling online library called MUCK (Must Use Critical Knowledge), which exists to support and platform critical art writing. indiaboxall.hotglue.me / @paperseeps / @muck_____