Daddy, What Did YOU Do To Stop Global Warming?



“London Town is drownt this day

Hear me say walk and way

Sling your bundle tern and go

Parments in the mud you know

Greaf and woe don’t you know

Pick it up its time to go”1



Project Overview.


This project is broadly concerned with how artists effect change when considering the twin issues of Peak Oil and Climate Change (POCC).


Through reference to Albert Borgmann’s thinking within technology2 and culture; Allan Kaprow’s theory of “Life as Art”3 and the philosophy of the Transition Movement4, projects by Viet Ngo, Xavier Cortada and Kathryn Miller are discussed in detail. Together with current scientific thinking of POCC and other artists working in this field it is used as a contemporary art context in which to frame my own action research into how effective and appropriate change may be implemented.


Key themes, or questions, that arise through research into these key areas, reoccur throughout the essay and are answered in the summary, are:


1. How can artists effect change considering PO/CC?

2. How can an art be developed that seeks to unite the individual with their communities and environment?

3. Who is “the audience”?

4. The role of “the gallery” in such artwork?



In 2002 Sue Spaid and Amy Lipton curated the “Ecoventions5” exhibition in the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio. For the catalogue of the exhibition Spaid6 lays out 4 categories of ecological artistic practice:


1. Land Art – Encompasses any art that activates the Land. A good example of which is Alan Sonfists “Time Landscape: Greenwich Village, 1965 – 1978”, where Sonfist introduced a 45 feet x 200 feet patch of pre-colonial wilderness into Manhattan.


2. Earthworks – An art historical category which involves primarily permanent, non-natural forms sited in wide open spaces. Examples are Robert Wilsons “Poles” (1967 – 68), Michael Heizers “Double Negative” (1969 – 70) and Robert Smithsons “Spiral Jetty” (1970)



“Spiral Jetty (1970): Robert Smithson”8



3. Environmental Art – which tends to be less monumental and employs nature as a medium to enhance the viewers awareness of Natures forces and processes, or demonstrates indigenous cultures awareness of Nature. Examples are the work of Meg Webster and Agnes Denes’ “Rice/Tree/Burial” (1973 – 79). Where her planting of ordinary Loisiana white rice eventually produced red rice, which caused her to explore the long term toxicity of the soil due to the nearby Love Canal.


 “Rice/Tree/Burial (1973 – 79): Agnes Denes”9


4. Ecological Art – which considers issues of sustainability, adaptability, interdependence, renewable resources and bio-diversity, but don’t necessarily try to transform the local ecology. (e.g. Yutaka Kobayashi “Chicken House and Eco Art Project” (2007), where Kobayashi gets help from a local community to build an chicken house ecosystem in their area. A fenced chicken fertilises plants, and people are encouraged to bring the chicken food if they take eggs.


 “Chicken House and Eco Art Project” (2007): Yutaka Kobayashi”10


Spaid states that Ecoventions are designed with some intended ecological function and can fit into any of the other Nature based art practice categories outlined above. However, unlike a typical work of art which is transportable from one place to another, or is part of a body of work which can be discussed as a whole, most Ecoventions impact local communities in particular ways and therefore remain local.




Exploring non-object based practice I read Kaprows 1983 essay “The Real Experiment”11 it significantly altered the way I thought about my own artwork and the interaction between art, the gallery and my local community projects. In it Kaprow asserts that since Ancient Rome there has been a conflict between “Art” and “Life”; and there has existed two “Avant-Garde Art Histories”12. One of artlike art and the other of lifelike art....artlike art holds that art is separate from life and everything else, whereas lifelike art holds that art is connected to life and everything else.


The idea of artlike art is essentially a critique of Western cultural history and in it he argues it is the gallery, museum or theatre which gives the works of Art their meaning, and is therefore the real content of the works exhibited therein. For this reason lifelike art has never fit into traditional art institutions because the institution itself “frames” lifelike art right out of life and into art.


“Artlike arts message is appropriately conveyed by the separate, bound “work”; the message of lifelike art is appropriately conveyed by a process of events that has no definite outline”13


My initial experiments with Ecovention projects tried to represent themselves in a gallery context. The challenge however, is how to communicate an event where the audience was not present. Richard Long faces this problem through spare, descriptive text, photos and mud paintings, but I believe the displayed object gets in the way. It plays the dual role of mediator and insurmountable barrier between the gallery audience and the experience. I realised that for me the audience for the Ecoventions I undertake are the community and visitors to the locations themselves. They are not undertaken for a gallery audience and therefore the gallery does not play a role in their development.


As an example “Parties, 2008” took the form of 2 parties organised by my partner, Rachel and myself, and held at our home with the intention of creating a space where different social and cultural groups in our communities could mix freely in a comfortable, non-confrontational and culturally acceptable context to tell stories and discuss (or not!) points of view, concerns and ideas.


“Parties (2008): Greg Humphries”14


We told none of the participants at the party the intention of the gathering was artistic. Framing the gathering as “An Art Piece” would have robbed it of its essence. It would have turned the experience into an “artistic exercise”. The declaration separates the work from life and interferes with the communication of the piece.


This stance is supported by the artist/engineer Viet Ngo. Viet Ngo is an artist / engineer who is the CEO of a multi-billion dollar engineering company called Lemna Inc. who undertake water treatment and reclamation/environmental projects with communities worldwide. Ngo’s projects have featured in galleries internationally, but nowhere on the company’s website15, or in his writings does he declare himself an artist.


“Water Treatment Project (2007): Viet Ngo”16


“People have asked me if my work is public art. That is my intention, but I do not like to use those words because they segregate me from the working people”17


However, I believe this stance does not apply to all Ecovention projects, and the consideration of communication of intent needs to be considered on a project by project basis.


A good example of an Ecovention with a gallery/participatory element is Kathryn Miller “Seed Bombs” (1992 – 2001), where Miller has distributed seed bombs (paper bags filled with soil and seeds of native plants) to re-vegetate degraded, physically abused or barren landscapes with native plants. When local seed bombs exhibited as part of a museum exhibition, museum visitors may take one and toss it locally, wherever they feel native plants are needed. What I particularly like about this work is that it is a call to action, it transgresses the gallery boundary through the act of taking the art objects outside, then offers the opportunity for the audience to transform their own local ecology. However, I would question the effectiveness of Miller’s project as an Ecovention because of it’s lack of emphasis on nurturing the plants and long term care. How many of the plants will be alive in 1 year, 3 years 10 years? Looked at this way Miller’s project seems like a “one hit wonder” compared with longer term sustained projects.


This participatory aspect to gallery initiated Ecoventions is also a feature of “The Reclamation Project (2006)” by Xavier Cortada, but I believe Cortada’s legacy will last longer than that of Miller because the participants actually learn a new skill (how to plant mangrove trees) in his work, and leave a lasting physical legacy in the trees planted.


For the project Cortada hung 252 mangrove seedlings in the Bass Museum in Miami Florida, (in plastic water filled cups). Then using the gallery to advertise the event he worked with volunteers to place another 2500 across South Beach reclaiming an island that was once a lush coastal ecosystem thriving with mangroves.


“The Reclamation Project (2006): Xavier Cortada”18


“The Reclamaton Project (2006): Xavier Cortada”19


What interests me about this project by Cortada is the way he manages use the gallery as a point of departure for the Ecovention outside. He doesn’t really transgress the boundary of the gallery, but seems to link his work with the outside world using the gallery as a marketing vehicle. Would all the people be planting mangrove trees if Cortada was not an exhibiting artist?


Even so he managed to initiate a project that is both an example of Culturally Remedial Eco Art and also an Ecovention leaving a legacy for the community of the area which will last long after the exhibition has ended.


Reading the 4th report by the The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leaves no doubt that the Earth is warming and that the effects for human habitation of the planet could be severe. The IPCC was established by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to improve the understanding of Climate Change, it’s potential impacts and options for adaptation20 and mitigation21. The reports22 by 3 working groups provide a comprehensive and up to date assessment, by many hundreds of climate scientists worldwide, of the current state of knowledge on climate change.


In looking for a way to effect change I was particularly interested in finding areas where I could mitigate the effects of climate change and also help society to adapt to severe change. One area that seemed to cover both of these areas was the need for trees.


“Deforestation and land conversion have been significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions for decades while often resulting in unsustainable agricultural production patterns. Abating and halting this process by incentives for forest conservation and increasing forest cover would not only avoid greenhouse gas emissions, but would also result in benefits for the local climate, water resources and biodiversity”23


The report also highlights the need to develop solutions which are relevant at a local level. Each community has different needs and resources at hand and although national and global systems and frameworks can be put in place, the action “on the ground” at a local level will vary depending on the needs and resources of that community.


In “Guerilla Gardening”24 Tracey encourages people to use plants to reclaim public space for the public good, and gives advice on how to achieve this and why. It describes the practice of planting useful plants on public land (particularly dis-used urban spaces) which transforms the spaces and the communities around them. This long term approach to the reclamation of open spaces contrasts with that of Kathryn Miller’s “one hit wonder” approach, and is therefore arguably more successful.


Taking the advice of the IPCC and mixing it with the DIY philosophy of Guerilla Gardening initiated the idea for “Beacon Wood (2008 – present)”25.  The land is owned by the Cornwall Heritage Trust (CHT) who I sought permission to plant trees on the site. They refused because the site was planned on becoming designated a Lowland Heath site by DEFRA.


 Through contacting local gardeners at the local Gardening Society I got in touch with a man called Tony who is the Parish tree warden and has been planting trees in a specific area around the Beacon for over twenty years in a Guerilla fashion. The planting originally had the backing of the CHT Warden for the beacon, but this role of warden within the CHT has changed hands many times and it is uncertain whether the tree planting is a legitimate act or not. Planting trees in that space shifted from being a legitimate activity to becoming a “Guerilla” act simply through lack of communication within the CHT. 26


“Beacon Wood” (1982 – Present): Greg Humphries ”27


I see the project as an Ecovention and a legacy for the people who live near and will visit the site in the coming years. The project does not include the gallery in it’s evolution and taking a view similar to Kaprows28 I believe the Beacon Wood project t is a piece of “Avant Garde Lifelike art” and as such would not  want to turn it into “Artlike art” by exhibiting documentation of it in a gallery. I am still unsure art is even a useful term in this case?


My practice is concerned with creating a legacy of basic skills which could possibly be useful to communities post oil, but not in returning to some primitive, sentimental and ludditic technological past. I struggled for a long time how to verbalise and explain my thoughts surrounding the contemporary nature and application of these practices but reading “Technology and the Good  Life”29 gave me an underpinning philosophy on which to lay my ideas. The book is a collection of essays which outline, and critique the ideas and philosophy of Albert Borgman in his book “Technology And The Character Of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry”30. Essentially Borgmans work is a critique of our use and blanket application of technology, technology’s effects on ourselves and our society and how we can resolve the problem.


In his philosophy, Borgmann describes the cultural shift from “things” to “devices” (e.g. fireplaces to central heating, wood to Formica etc) in our society as “The Device Paradigm”, and it is one which limits and reduces the relationships between ourselves and our communities (i.e. other people, nature, culture, family, etc).

Whereas devices are disposable, discontinuous with their larger context, and glamorous in their appeal, “focal practices” or things are the opposite. They associate us with our communities and surroundings.


Taking Borgmanns Ideas further, Brittan Jnr31  in his essay “Technology and Nostalgia” builds an argument for the adoption of focal practices on the basis of “Freedom”.


“On the one hand, technology, in making opportunities available, affords us genuine choice...on the other hand, it is undeniably the case...that we are becoming increasingly dependent on it, at a loss when it breaks down. But in this dependency we are abandoning our liberty, no longer able to make choices that the very nature of “devices” precludes”.


Brittan Jnr goes further pointing to a way to resolve this embrace and rejection of technology.

“What we do have to do is keep alive, individually and socially, a range of basic skills, if not also a set of focal practices” 32.

He argues that “our ability to do with less technology is a measure of our independence, our freedom”, and that re-orientating our lives around basic skills and focal practices is the way to achieve this. It is important to understand that the crucial word in the above quote is “ability”. It is not necessary for us to regularly supply heat in our homes with the wood we have selected, cut, gathered and split, but that we have the ability to do so. Our ability to do so is a function of practicing these basic skills from time to time, of acquiring the requisite skills and of keeping them, and us in shape. Brittan Jnr as does Borgman, is not for rejecting technology in a Ludditic and reactionary way but feels technology should re-orientate itself around focal practices and basic skills.


“...although it is a fact that while we often avail ourselves of the most advanced technologies, the occupations on which we fall back to some extent on ourselves fill us with a measure of self-esteem, and perhaps also of pride, and often with a kind of joy”33. 


But beyond the benefits to the psyche of the individual, and society, from practising these basic skills, they have a direct, practical and functional benefit to both when we consider PO/CC issues. Hopkins, 2008 talks of “the panic that often sets in immediately after an awareness of peak oil, especially for young men, is the realisation that we no longer have many of the basic skills our grandparents took for granted”34, and he calls for a Great Re-Skilling of local communities.


To know that there may be local solutions to this crisis is hugely empowering in the face of such massive and overwhelming problems. However, the space of time in which effective action can be made is limited, and greatly affected by the second big issue which is linked to Climate Change; that of Peak Oil35.


In his interview with journalist and author George Monbiot, the IEA’s chief economist - Fatih Birol said:


“In our report we are asking for a Global Energy Revolution to prepare everyone for difficult times”36


And Monbiot concludes that unless we immediately start reducing the amount of transport fuel we use then one of two things will happen:


1. We rely more on heavily polluting sources of oil (e.g. Canadian Tar Sands) and coal, which will increase CO2 emmissions and further effect climate change,or,


2. The transport system will come to a crashing halt.


This indicates we are moving from a cultural climate of mitigation of climate change to one where we need to build resilience in order to help with the adaptation to it’s effects. An effective way to deal with this shift in perception of the situation came to me through reading The Transition Handbook37.


The book clearly outlines and explores initiatives and ideas that individuals and local communities can implement (as opposed to relying on Local, Regional or National Government) in order to respond to the challenges posed by PO/CC. These include planned relocalisation, decentralised energy infrastructure, the Great Re-skilling, localised food production, energy descent planning, local currencies, local medicinal capacity.


The main premise of the book which resonated with my own thoughts on the subject, is a site specific bottom – up approach, in which resilience is built up from a small, community,  “grass roots” level; as opposed to “Top –down” initiatives from regional or national government which, by their very nature, take a long time to implement, are blanket approaches which attempt to provide the same solution to very different communities, and are slow and unwieldy to adapt to changing circumstances.


Through suggesting  local, community scale solutions to the huge PO/CC issues The Transition Handbook gave me a renewed sense of optimism and initiative as to how I, as an artist, could effectively help communities improve resilience to whatever changes may come in the future.





In summary, I wish to address the questions posed at the beginning of this essay:


1. How can artists effect change considering PO/CC?


I believe artists can play an effective role in making communities more resilient to PO/CC through a combination of Ecoventions and Culturally Remedial Artistic practices. The actual form the work takes is determined by sustained and durational interaction with a community but ultimately leads to the community participating in some form of “focal practice”. However, for me it is important to make the distinction between a community and gallery based audience (although they may overlap) because the intended audience determines the form the work will take.


2. How can an art be developed that seeks to unite the individual with their communities and environment?


The focal practices mentioned above are by their nature associative. This focal practice acts as an agent which associates those communities and may lead to further dissemination of that focal practice using the gallery as an educational vehicle.

Through the Ecovention projects I have the opportunity to work with local people to develop their ecologies and re-discovers lost practices for the communities in which they are undertaken38.

Through the opportunity to exhibit work in a gallery context I  use the gallery as an educational facility. Encouraging the gallery audience to participate in, and learn, the skills uncovered in the various locations where I have undertaken Ecoventions. Those skills (or instructions how to undertake them) can then be taken out of the gallery and practised in the respective communities of the audience/participants.


3. Who is “the audience”?


There are many audiences, but the relevance of audience to this project revolves around the gallery. The gallery based audience have an expectation to “see art”, whereas those in the community do not. Generally speaking, for my own work, the audience for Ecoventions remains outside the gallery, and as such the documentation of these projects remains outside the gallery context. To create an archive of these projects I have therefore created a blog For the participatory pieces I create and place into gallery spaces, the audience is different, they expect to see “art” and therefore I work with this rather than trying to change their expectations and create interactive sculptures which will also educate.


4. The role of “the gallery” in such artwork?


The Gallery does have a role to play as an educational space within my practice. Through participatory practice, sculpture and installation basic skills and focal practices can be introduced and taught to a gallery going audience. Through the creation of prints and objects in the gallery participants can transgress the gallery boundary and through carrying these objects out of the gallery space and into their own communities the knowledge is carried with them, enabling these skills to disseminate beyond the confines of the gallery space.







Footnotes and References


1 Hoban, R. Riddley Walker, Bloomsbury, London, 2002.


2 Borgmann, A. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984.


3 Kaprow, Allan, Kelley, J. (Ed), Essays on The Blurring Of Art And Life, University of California Press, London, 1993.In which Kaprow proposes two separate art histories. One of artlike art and the other of lifelike art....artlike art holds that art is separate from life and everything else (whose message is best communicated through the separate, bound work); whereas lifelike art holds that art is connected to life and everything else (the message of which is appropriately conveyed by a process of events that has no definite outline).


4 The Transition Movement is an attempt to design abundant pathways down from the oil peak, to generate new stories about what might be waiting for us at the end of our descent, and to put resilience-building back at the heart of any plans we make for the future.


5 Ecovention = Ecology + Invention.


6 Spaid, S. Ecovention: Current Art To Transform Ecologies, The Contemporary Arts Centre/Ecoartspace/, Cincinnati, OH, USA, 2002.


7 [Accessed 13/03/09]


8 [Accessed 28/03/09]


9 [Accessed 04/04/09]


10 [Accessed 22/04/09]


11 Kaprow, 1993. pp 201 - 219


12 Kaprow, pp204


13 Kaprow, pp204.


14 Authors private collection, 2009.




16 [Accessed 03/05/09]


17Viet Ngo writing in Spaid, S. Ecovention: Current Art To Transform Ecologies, The Contemporary Arts Centre/Ecoartspace/, Cincinnati, OH, USA, 2002. P141.


18 [Accessed 12/6/09]


19 [Accessed 22/05/09]


20 Adaptation – adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities (IPCC, 2001)


21 Mitigation – An anthropogenic intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases (IPCC, 2001)


22 Klein, R. J. T., S. Huq, F. Denton, T.E. Downing, R. G. Richels, J. B. Robinson, F. L. Toth, 2007: Inter-Relationships Between Adaptation and Mitigation. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II To The Fourth Assessment Report of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M. L. Parry, O. F. Caneiani, J.P. Palutikof, P. J. Van Der Linden and C. E. Hanson, Ed’s Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 745 – 777.


23 IPCC, pp757


24 Tracey, D. Guerilla Gardening: A Manualfesto. Society Publishers, Ganriola Island, Canada, 2007.


25 According to a recent survey by my local Parish Council : 60% of residents want more trees in the Parish. This is a result of centuries of deforestation in Cornwall to make room for farming land and provide timber for the mining industry, with no thought to re-planting what had been taken away.


26 In April 2009 Tony and I attended a meeting with the CHT and English Nature at the Sancreed Beacon site.


27 The Cornishman Newspaper, Local News Section, Page 22. 22/03/09.


28 Kaprow, Allan, Kelley, J. (Ed), Essays on The Blurring Of Art And Life, University of California Press, London, 1993.


29 Higgs, E. Light, A. & Strong, D. Technology And The Good life?, University of Chicago Press, London, 2008.


30 Borgmann, A. Technology And The Character Of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984.


31 Light & Strong, Page 71 – 89.


32 Light & Strong, Page 84.


33 Light & Strong, Page 85


34 Hopkins, Page 166.


35 Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum production is reached, after which the rate of production enters its terminal decline. It could be argued the developed economies of the world have been growing over the last 100 years due to reliance on, and exploitation of, the world’s non-renewable oil reserves. Optimistic estimations of peak production forecast a peak will happen in the 2020s or 2030s. However, growing world population and increased demand for oil based resources from developing economies is expected to bring this peak oil date closer. It could be argued the developed economies of the world have been growing over the last 100 years due to reliance on, and exploitation of, the world’s non-renewable oil reserves. Optimistic estimations of peak production fo

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