This month, COP26, the UN’s near-annual climate conference, gathered global heads of state to set a new round of targets to limit global emissions by 2030. Without such measures, there is no doubt that the earth will continue to freefall into ever more disastrous weather events. For artists, the questions of our era are immense: how does one go about making art in a time of planetary collapse? What is the value of aesthetics weighed against the value of sustainability? Is it responsible to make art exhibitions at all, given the clear urgencies of the next eight years?
The Synthetic Collective – a group of artists, culture workers, and scientists – are calling for “enough” as an aesthetic imperative that counters the extractivist model of “more” by which galleries typically operate. Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through, the first museum exhibition the collective has organized, demonstrates that it’s possible to work differently, and to use ethical values to frame art’s value. What if we understood process and impact assessment as an integrated part of valuing and critiquing art, rather than an obligation to overcome?
Plastic Heart (produced by Art Museum at the University of Toronto) is an expansive group exhibition that locates questions of environmental responsibility in two parallel fields of ecological inquiry that span the past 70 years: plastics and sustainability. Works that examine plastic as material, petrochemical product, and synthetic substance are in dialogue with works that foreground research into chemical composition and microplastics pollution. At the same time, the exhibition doubles as a process-based experiment in sustainable forms of curating. Its provocation, “Where do you begin to tally the environmental impact of an exhibition?” is answered in the minutiae of the dozens, even hundreds, of decisions that contribute to researching, curating, installing, and programming an exhibition.
Witnessing the forensic process undertaken to create sustainable curatorial protocols made for the most compelling material, partially because the exhibition’s omnibus nature made a consistent throughline challenging to grasp. The history of plastics in art alone would make for a dense thematic exhibition, and combining the materiality of plastic with an exploration of sustainability as curatorial methodology produced many tangents, including works that adapted the aesthetics of plastic (both beautiful and ugly); projects that engaged art as data visualization; works that could be interpreted through the colonial overtones of NASA and space exploration; sand extensive research into the microplastics in the Great Lakes.
Where Plastic Heart succeeds is in demonstrating what’s possible when every decision is considered for its impact – when solutions are “ground-up, DIY, on-the-fly, and often comprise low-level interventions,” according to the research-dense PDF that accompanies the exhibition. Plastic Heart: A DIY Fieldguide for Reducing the Environmental Impact of Art Exhibitions – which was sustainably produced using simplified aesthetics and images that lessen file size – outlines the curatorial choices, visible decision-making, interdisciplinary collaboration, and process-based work that form the Synthetic Collective’s conceptual strategies. Their “Manifesto for Curating and Making Art in a Time of Environmental Crisis” calls for practical changes alongside new aesthetic and conceptual directions in art. They draw parallels to the work of Conceptual artists some 40 years ago, and Lucy Lippard’s Numbers exhibitions prove influential, serving as an example of how the “non-object portability” of Conceptual art could be mobilized as a new material challenge for artists concerned with producing less. The collective also give examples of its tactics when planning Plastic Heart, including borrowing works from within a small geographic region (thereby also limiting the options), commissioning works by local artists, reusing packing and crating materials (as evidenced by the bags of garbage and recycling left on display), avoiding toxic materials like paint or plastic, leaving walls noticeably unpatched, reusing plinths from previous exhibitions, using natural materials for didactics rather than vinyl signage. In their collective meetings, they limited video conferencing and energy-intensive streaming, and refused to rely on corporate carbon-offsetting. The publication is one of the strongest aspects of the show, offering a critical how-to guide for working ethically as an artist or arts worker.
Still, despite these energizing sustainability strategies, the conventions of gallery viewership remain deeply entrenched and at least partially reliant on the rarefied space of the museum to frame non-art objects as art. Without the familiar framing of “museum standards,” the demarcation between artwork and ordinary object becomes blurry. I suspect that is the organizers’ intention: a focus on curatorial process demands that viewers look differently, beyond conventional installation methods, to make their own determinations of value. I found a worthwhile challenge in questioning which decisions were part of the sustainability framework: are there so many holes in the walls because there is something especially toxic about patching the walls from the previous installation? Is it cynical to question whether the bags of garbage left in the gallery are truly constitutive of all the waste the exhibition produced? All the wall texts are hand-painted in pigments of tree sap, gum Arabic, and Manitoulin honey by artist and illustrator Devon Kerslake, but with varying degrees of legibility. It’s difficult to absorb the information in the longer, thematic texts. Is struggling to see beyond these challenges of presentation part of the curatorial experiment?
I did look past the method, and there were some standout artworks dealing with or made of plastic: Hannah Claus’s hanging installation chant pour l’eau (2014) is a beautiful material meditation on water, printed and hung using acetate; Meagan Musseau’s E’e for that Aunty magic, from the Intergalactic L’nu Basket series (2019) is a Black Ash wood and sweetgrass basket woven through with plastic tape combinations that suggest how plastic is now entirely enmeshed with natural materials. There is a wide swath of renowned historical works, largely from the ’60s and ’70s as plastic became a more common material for artistic experimentation, including works by Iain Baxter&, General Idea, Francoise Sullivan, Les Levine, and Joyce Weiland. Others took direct influence from conceptual mail-art and exchange strategies, like Christina Battle’s The Community is Not a Haphazard Collection of Individuals (2021), which asked participants to plant seeds, mailed to them by the artist, that would help remediate soil in provinces most directly affected by plastic industries. In exchange, participants sent back postcards that mapped the locations of their dispersals – a poetic and practical gesture that reframes art production through the renewal of toxic landscapes. Works by the artists in the Synthetic Collective were closely aligned, making them read like a tight exhibition-within-an-exhibition: Kelly Jazvac’s installation of recycled polyvinyl billboard tarps plays with the seepage of light and demonstrates the ability to produce elegant, minimalist sculpture through material offcuts; Tegan Moore’s Permutations of a Dataset (2020-21), Kelly Wood’s Great Lakes Accumulations (2020), and Heather Davis and Kirsty Robertson’s Chemicals of Mutual Concern (2020) all use different conceptual strategies to convey the collective’s research into microplastics and plastic pellet sampling around the Great Lakes.
Demanding that institutions reduce their waste, carbon footprint, and energy consumption seems a bit like asking everyone to recycle and turn out the lights; we’re so far beyond the point where changes to individual consumption habits might be globally useful. But individual efforts do have local impact, however small. Plastic Heart reflects the art-world’s own consumptive habits quite clearly. They write: “An aesthetic of enough is one that simultaneously acknowledges and values the past, present, and future—enough already!—in its refusal of high carbon, high energy, high waste productions. … Enough is an aesthetic based in achieving maximum impact with the minimum of resources. Enough is a counterpoint to the implied goal of museum-standard perfection and a culture that valorizes work above all else.” If this became the norm, it wouldn’t seem so jarring to see exhibitions with fewer installation materials, fewer temporary walls, less construction, and less plastic produced overall. New conditions of viewership would mean that art doesn’t get a pass for its high consumption, and that artworks could be assessed for their ideas and impact – truly a conceptual approach – rather than being beholden to the exchange value of an object. The idea that what exists is already enough is an energizing call for the conceptual possibilities of art, in an unrelenting era.