In the Midst of Practice

“What is “environmental” art? What use is it? Is it reasonable, or desirable, to approach or evaluate it in terms of its tendency to do particular things – to effect, for example, personal, social, or political progress? How is it possible to know whether it’s doing what’s asked of it? Are these even the right questions?” 

Image by Eugène Cuvelier, 'Fontainebleau Forest' via MET

Thinking of climate change, and of what he sees as the failures of “realist” fiction to comprehend environmental crisis, the novelist Amitav Ghosh has recently allotted “a new task” to contemporary and future literatures: “that of finding other ways in which to imagine the unthinkable beings and events of this era.”1 Ghosh’s thesis is a complex and controversial one, but whatever its merits, its implicit premises and logic are well worth examining. Art, by these lights, has the power to inform consciousness on a global, or at least globally consequential, scale. And art appears to have a moral responsibility to use that power for good, which entails a perpetual process of self-examination and, when necessary, self-correction. Ghosh is critiquing certain traditions, and even certain works, in the literary canon, but his criticism is, in a potent sense, imbued with optimism: if it’s worth taking artmaking to task, that’s because artmaking is a mighty, world-altering practice. If this sounds familiar, it probably is – Ghosh’s argument comes more than a decade after Bill McKibben posed a related question: “We can register [climate change] with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?”2

Last week, I chaired a public event called “Artists Have Never Been More Important,” a joint production of SEI and Sydney Ideas. A sold-out audience heard from and conversed with Bill Fox, Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art; Janet Laurence, an Australian artist of national and international repute; and Associate Professor Ian Maxwell, Chair of the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Sydney. (If you missed it, or would like another listen, do check it out here.) Bill gave a spirited survey of artists and projects – from Larry Mitchell’s Western Australian land- and seascapes to Michael Heizer’s staggering American earthworks – and staked a claim for art’s unique capacity to prompt ameliorative action. Janet’s and Ian’s responses roamed nimbly and broadly, but their contributions – and their contentions – were centrally concerned, I think, with the matters sketched in the first paragraph of this post. What is “environmental” art? What use is it? Is it reasonable, or desirable, to approach or evaluate it in terms of its tendency to do particular things – to effect, for example, personal, social, or political progress? How is it possible to know whether it’s doing what’s asked of it? Are these even the right questions?

These wonderments (and surely many others) lingered feelably, long after our time expired and our gathering dispersed. But for me, the evening furnished at least one certainty: the ways I have been used to thinking and speaking about certain relations – among art and environment, art and utility, art and science, and so on – need taking apart and rearranging. This means examining not only the currents and energies I see taking place between these concepts, but examining my senses of those concepts themselves. I’m using the first-person with intent: I don’t doubt that there are persons and traditions whose frames for thought, and forms of language, are more successful than mine. What was so salutary about “Artists Have Never Been More Important,” and about the symposium Environment in Practice that followed it, was the manner in which the insufficiencies of certain of these frames and forms became glaringly visible in the places where different practices, audiences, conventions, and convictions encounter one another.

Many of the things I heard and saw over the course of these events will continue working on me. Here are a very few of them: Janet spoke incisively of the dangers of a kind of Anthropocene sublime – of the way that amazement at environmental transformation can amount to a form of paralysis. Ian maintained the special – because undecidable, and often alienating – qualities of performance, and insisted that practices in and interpretations of art ask better questions than they have. During Environment in Practice, Merilyn Fairskye suggested that art’s impact can’t be appraised via simplistic physics of cause and effect, or mover and moved, and proposed a less calculable, but to my mind no less credible, sort of imaginative accretion. Dean Sewell indicted didactic and logocentric attitudes toward environmental photography that diminish an image’s range of significations, and of actions. And Judith Beveridge described – and demonstrated – that paying poetic attention to the world can simultaneously, and paradoxically, render things unfamiliar and render them loved.

“Inter” comes from Latin, and variously means “between, among, amid, in between, in the midst.” (OED) However they’re categorised – as art, or science, or work, or politics, or whatever – interdisciplinary practices are in the midst: of knowledges, methods, traditions, histories, technologies, places, bodies, and lives. If they don’t travel easily along regular paths and orbits, it’s worth asking whether those paths and orbits need replotting. Literature may perform tasks, but perhaps not in a straightforwardly instrumental sense. Imaginations may be devices, but perhaps they don’t contrive in ways we can fully understand, articulate, or mobilise. Experimental understanding cannot occur unless first principles and hypotheses are open to revision, or to obliteration. “Artists Have Never Been More Important” and Environment in Practice put works, and modes of working, in contact, and the experience was instructive, inspiring, and chastening. I have a great deal to do if I’m going to learn to devise in a fashion commensurate with the activities that pulse around me. But I’m eager to practice.


1. Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 33.
2. Bill McKibben, “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art,” grist 22 (Apr 2005): n.p.

Killian Quigley is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at SEI. He is coediting (with Margaret Cohen) The Aesthetics of the Undersea, forthcoming from Routledge Environmental Humanities. He co-organised “Artists Have Never Been More Important” and Environment in Practice with SEI Deputy Director Michelle St Anne and Associate Professor Ann Elias. He and Bill Fox discussed their work on ABC Radio earlier this week. He is the convenor of Reading Environments, which meets next on April 17. Follow him @killian_quigley.