Art historians and curators Maja and Reuben Fowkes are engaged in pioneering research into the interconnections of art and ecology, with a special focus on the East-Central European context. In 2013, they established the Translocal Institute in Budapest, which serves as a meeting point, a library, and a framework for research, curatorial, and educational activities on art and ecology. I conducted this interview with Maja and Reuben on the occasion of the recent publication of two of their books. First, the River Ecologies (published by Translocal Institute), is a selection of essays, interviews, lecture transcripts, and images from Translocal’s River School project (2013–15) that brought together people of various disciplines in a discussion around creating more sustainable lifestyles and less anthropocentric ways of thinking on the banks of the river Danube. Second, The Green Bloc: Neo-avant-garde Art and Ecology under Socialism (published by CEU Press) is the extension of Maja Fowkes’ PhD dissertation at University College London that proposes a history of East-Central European art practices dealing with nature in the aftermath of 1968. When read together, the two books show how environmental discourse, albeit an essentially global one, has important regional dimensions and specific local histories. The books sketch out some major shifts in the availability of information on the state of the environment and the corresponding civil and artistic engagements with ecological issues. They also demonstrate how a concern for the environment inherently involves a political stance that often goes hand in hand with a critical view on the institutional structures of art.
Júlia Laki: It would be good to start with some clarification: how do you differentiate between ecological and environmental art, art using natural materials, land art, etc.? These terms come up in both books and the differences in their meanings seem to be crucial.
Reuben Fowkes: This question gives us the chance to differentiate between “art and ecology” and “ecological or environmental art,” the latter being terms we don’t use that much. One option is to put these terms in an art historical context: classical environmental art was about drawing attention to environmental problems, to try and solve or remedy them through art. However, over the years, the concept became much broader, as ecology itself is understood today in broader terms. It seems to be something that touches on so many aspects of people’s lives, it has resonance on many levels of society and politics. Artistic engagements do not necessarily have to be defined as “environmental art” in order to have something to say about our changing relationship to the natural world.
Maja Fowkes: It is also clear that art dealing with ecological issues does not necessarily have to use natural materials. Land art is also a very specific art historical term, and our interest lies in how it was assigned to works of art differently in the Eastern Bloc and in Western Europe/North America.
JL: Maja, can I ask you to give a brief introduction to your book, The Green Bloc?
MF: The book delivers a comparative art history of the region, looking at artists from five different countries (which, at the time, were only three: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia) and five different art scenes and conditions under which works were produced. In the broadest terminology, these can all be seen as neo-avant-garde practices, and I was looking at everything from performance through conceptual and land art to public art of the time, focusing on different ways artists could engage with ecology and reflect on the idea of nature. I looked at the practices of Petr Štembera in Prague, Rudolf Sikora in Bratislava, the Pécs Workshop in Hungary, OHO group in Slovenia, and TOK group in Zagreb. I was not only interested in how the environment figures in their works, but also wanted to show different art histories of the region and particular sociopolitical contexts that they worked in.
JL: To what extent can we say that an environmental discourse and corresponding art practices existed at the time in the Socialist Bloc? Are we not risking employing concepts, in retrospect, from today’s very different social and political reality?
MF: The book describes the period just after 1968, which was the time of the first global protests. It was also the era of the birth of conceptual art, which is now seen as the first global art movement. This is a very special historical moment in which ecological issues were also part of this new consciousness of ‘68, and artists in Eastern Bloc as well as everywhere else on the planet started to think about pollution and other issues that societies across the globe have to face. It was also a special moment because, as a result of the Space Race, people managed to see the Earth for the first time from outer space; the planet became something that one could visualize from a distance. It was very clear that there were no borders, making it evident also for artists that what they were dealing with were cosmopolitan or planetary issues and not something very local anymore.
I was careful to avoid simply adopting concepts from “Western” environmentalism or art history; this was precisely the aim of the book. I do not compare Eastern practices to Western ones or any kind of paradigms that were established elsewhere. Instead, I tried to look at the history of the region, and what I found is that although it was a very specific territory in terms of environmental politics, the artists engaged with the same issues here, without these being necessarily imposed upon them from elsewhere. It also has to be said that these countries were of course not completely cut off, there were fluid exchanges between them, and this is the reason why I wanted to take a comparative approach within the region. In some countries, it was possible to talk about these issues, and some of them developed their own environmental discourse much earlier than others. By the late ‘80s, environmental degradation became so obvious in Eastern Europe that environmental activism spread rapidly, and in the end, it helped greatly with the 1989 transformation. But also in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, such a discourse existed, only in much more delicate spaces and ways.
JL: Do you see The Green Bloc as a “correction” of existing art histories of East European neo-avant-garde art? There are accounts of artistic engagement with nature in regional art histories (such as János Sturcz’s or László Beke’s), which you cite throughout the book. Yet,it feels like they conceptualize art’s relationship to nature in a rather limited way, not exploring the wider web of ecological issues that these artists have tapped into.
MF: I wouldn’t say that the book is a correction. Rather, I wanted to contribute to the existing readings of the region’s art history. The intention was to look at the artistic practices of quite well-known artists, and find elements that have been overlooked as there is a general lack of sensitivity to environmental issues, to which art history is no exception. These dimensions of their work were rarely addressed properly, so that is the gap I was trying to fill, integrating an understanding of environmental theory and history into my reading, while also contextualizing the works in terms of politics and existing art histories.
RF: From a historiographical point of view, it’s interesting that with different perspectives and awareness, people look for different things in the same past, so art history gets reordered every time. Such as when people look for political aspects, or gender aspects, or anything that is of contemporary concern, and take the old narratives and discover new directions.
JL: I felt that one of the most important aspects you wanted to highlight was the intimate relationship between the politics of nature and human politics; a deep interrelation that came up in all the analyzed works. You also mentioned that this communality was often not very well tolerated by the authorities.
MF: Art historians tend to say that whenever artists left the cities to make work in nature, or in the countryside, it was motivated by trying to avoid political control, which is another statement that we would like to dispute. Artistic engagement with the environment was not only fuelled by this avoidance; they were genuinely interested in the issue. However, politics was obviously present in every aspect of life under socialism, and we wanted to show how different socialist countries were in these terms. In Croatia, artists could go onto the streets and make protests and actions that were ecological, because ecology was in a way tolerated, asit was not perceived as political.
RF: It is ironic in terms of the socialist system and its attitude towards ecology that while authorities saw it as not so threatening as other forms of opposition, they would rather have people channel their interest into ecology than, for instance, nationalism, or left-wing revolution. Nevertheless, ecology turned out to be the Achilles heel of socialist dictatorships. In the ‘80s, there was basically an ecological breakdown of the whole system. With Chernobyl and other events, these issues emerged as the force that motivated people to build civil resistance and take the system to pieces.
JL: Do you see this revolutionary, political potential in the artistic practices that you have encountered through the River School and documented in the River Ecologies book?
MF: I’m not sure I would define these artists as activists on the grand scale of revolution. Yet, if you look at the section of the book on lifestyles and biosphere responsibilities, you will find the artists explaining their own stance on some of the issues, and show how through their practice and lifestyles, they try to act in accordance with their environmentally aware beliefs and planetary consciousness. We wanted to look at these practices and show them as possible answers to the current crisis. It is indeed very hard to get the message across in the region of East-Central Europe that ecology is political. In some periods of history this becomes clear, but then it tends to get forgotten due to all the other issues that artists and citizens have to deal with. Very often art from the region is seen through the lens of politics; it is always expected to be political, which sometimes even becomes a cliché. At the same time, this politics is very narrow and human-centered; thus there are rarely other kinds of politics included in the picture.
RF: What artists sometimes do is make visible the ecological roots or context of some of these social and political problems that people or communities are struggling with, which at the same time, clearly shows the political nature of ecology. It poses a real challenge to dominant methods and models of living and working and economics. Once you start going down the route of the ecological critique of all those, then it very quickly becomes a radical questioning of the whole system that everything is built on.
JL: Can you talk a little bit about how the project (both the River School and the River Ecologies book) was structured?
MF: It was very fluid, a bit like the river itself, and it took us to different places. There were elements, however, that structured it; conferences, workshops, excursions on the river we organized in Hungary and Romania, as well as an exhibition that also moved from Budapest to Bucharest.1 In each section, we worked with several participants from various backgrounds. When it came to the finale of the project, which was to edit a book about it, we decided to rethink the material again and reorganize it according to thematic sections rather than a chronological development.
RF: We wanted to draw out the themes that ran through the different venues and different sub-projects.
MF: One of the issues that emerged as very important to us is “sensuous scholarship,” i.e. actually being on location, doing artistic or curatorial research in nature. We thought that since nature is the focus of our work, we should also consider what our research means when immersed in the natural world.
RF: We really wanted to put the materiality of the river at the center of our investigation, to get away from the tendency of turning it into an abstract notion. That is also why we really wanted to go out there and see what happens to this whole discourse when you place it in the actual natural context.
JL: How do you translate this experience into a book format?
MF: First of all, we tried to emphasize that the river is not without “other” life, in terms of non-human existence, which we wanted to point out with the exhibition on the birds, Avian Ecologies2, but also through the many other species that feature in the project. In the book, we brought together as many different points of view as possible, from anthropology through environmental history to art and science, to really show that there are other ways of approaching the river and its environment that are equally valid. Environmental history, which is currently the fastest-growing branch of history, although still in its developing phase, plays a crucial role in exploring non-anthropocentric perspectives on the natural world. However, the environmental history of the region is still under-researched; it is all in little bits and pieces that have to be collected together, nor is there an environmental history of the Danube.
RF: Even though there are so many books on the Danube.
MF: Yet every book is about cultural or economic history, or migrations of people, so itis very human-centered.
RF: They also usually employ a perspective from upstream, which is another thing that surfaced during our research. The view on the Danube is always defined from the upper part of the river, seeing the Lower Danube as some kind of exotic, wild, untouched realm. The “language” of the Danube is also German. Thus, there are plenty of colonialist assumptions. What we found is that when you start thinking about the materiality and ecology of the river, it somehow also connects to a shift away from this Upper Danube perspective. In other words, thinking about the river in ecological terms also challenges a dominant, colonialist logic.
JL: Do you feel that this project has created a network between the different actors that have taken part in it?
MF: We hope so. There was definitely a lot of dialogue going on between different participants, and the closing event at the Central European University was one of the most engaging conferences we have organized thus far, because there were so many points of view coming together and creating a new perspective. I also think that somehow slowly the situation in Hungary is getting closer to the point where scientists and artists can work together on joint projects. It is a very common phenomenon in many other places, but currently we lack the necessary structural support. One of the intentions of the project was to aid this process and spread the word about forms of intellectual and experiential exchange that challenge the historical divide between science and the arts.
The interview was conducted in September 2015 in English, and was first published on tranzitblog.hu in October 2015 in Hungarian
About the author
Júlia Laki holds a Master’s degree in Gender Studies; she currently works as a translator and editor while co-managing a small olive oil company based in Greece.
- The first workshop of the River School took place at Whitechapel Gallery in London in August 2013 and the project continued until April 2015, when the River Ecologies book was published. For details of the program, see: www.translocal.org/riverschool/ ↩
- Like a Bird: Avian Ecologies in Contemporary Art, curated by Maja and Reuben Fowkes, Trafó Gallery Budapest, December 13, 2013 to January 26, 2014, tranzit.ro Bucharest, May 9 to June 4, 2014. ↩