Multidisciplinary Approaches to Ecology in Contemporary Art


Frontiers in Retreat*, the five-year long collaborative enquiry into the intersections of art and ecology, is entering its final year. During its first four years, the Frontiers network of remote residencies has strived to generate a more complex understanding of the entanglements unfolding between locally articulated ecological concerns and larger, systemic, global processes.

Ecological concerns cannot be considered as purely environmental concerns, but should be understood as wickedly complex problems that require transgressing the borders of disciplines. Artists have the capacity to synthesize different modes of knowledge, which is crucial for the understanding of complex co-dependencies between ecological, social, economic, and political phenomena. This ability is required in order to come to terms with a hyper-complex question such as global climate change.

Questioning the notion of a frontier, which implies the idea of humans infinitely seeking new territories to explore, conquer, and colonise, the project set out to investigate how situated knowledge on local environments could inform knowledge-formation on larger ecological changes that shape habitats and transform societies on a global level.

What is also questioned is the taken-for-granted nature of the current globalised world system that relies completely on easy access to certain raw materials, such as crude oil or rare minerals. Would it be possible to maintain the current data-heavy technosphere and globalised economy, if an abrupt change in climate or availability of ‘natural resources’ would occur? Would the physical and imaginary frontiers of human civilisations shrink again into more narrow horizons and localised engagements?

In the project, there are seven core sites, with their distinctive ecosystems and entwined ecological-social-economic and political concerns that are observed through different lenses over the course of five years. Through their distinctive artistic approaches, the invited artists work at and in between the ecologically and culturally diverse locations, researching the specific ecologies of each site. Most of them get to work in various residency centres (or engage more deeply with one site), circulating and mediating knowledge within the network.

With these artists who work across various epistemic frameworks, methods, and understandings on 'ecology', we are engaging in experimental formation of knowledge – often in collaboration with local inhabitants and communities.

The original project concept was developed in 2012 by curator Taru Elfving, in dialogue with Jenni NurmenniemiIrmeli Kokko and Jaakko Rustanius. Since the launch of the project in late 2013, Jenni Nurmenniemi has been in charge of its curation, while Taru Elfving has continued in an advisory role. HIAP runs the project in partnership with the following organisations: Cultural Front – GRAD, Serbia; Skaftfell – Center for Visual Art, Iceland; Scottish Sculpture Workshop – SSW, Scotland; Interdisciplinary Art Group SERDE, Latvia; Centre d'Art i Natura de Farrera, Catalonia; Mustarinda, Finland, and Jutempus, Lithuania.

Most of the sites are located far away from urban centres within fragile ecosystems such as glaciers, ancient woodlands, archipelagos, high altitude mountain villages, or small, mostly depopulated rural communities. All these sites can somehow be recognised as frontiers, where the complex interlacing of human activities and the materialities and processes of particular natural environments become tangible in an intensified, crystallised way.

Conceptually and methodologically, the project relies on radical openness that allows its participants to navigate across different epistemological multiplicity and to generate difference, instead of a singular narrative on ecological change. This also allows observations and new knowledge to emerge slowly over a long period of time, through situated engagements conducted in dialogue with the residency centres, local inhabitants, and communities.

So far, the project partners have been working with the Frontiers artists alongside local artists at numerous different sites, curating and organising research visits, field excursions, residencies, lectures, discussions, interdisciplinary incubators, and exhibitions.

In the coming years, these processes will be woven together through a series of exhibitions Edge Effects that will take place in Frontiers sites, in Seoul, as well as on the virtual platform currently in the making. Towards the end of the project, acclaimed thinkers and writers will be invited to reflect upon the emergent knowledge brought about by the artists’ processes. The final symposium by Jutempus' Zooetics project at MIT, Cambricge (MA) in Spring 2018 will pave the way for further interdisciplinary enquiries beyond the European Frontiers framework.

Through artistic and multidisciplinary enquiries into the deep history of the Earth, the current ecological changes shaping our biosphere, as well as possible futures, Frontiers in Retreat aims to generate a more complex understanding of the ecological changes affecting the living conditions of humans and more than humans alike, locally and globally.

– Jenni Nurmenniemi
Curator, Frontiers in Retreat; HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme



7 artist residency centres at the edges of Europe 
1 nomadic platform for concept development and theory formation (Zooetics)


25 contemporary artists
Invited scientists, philosophers, writers, curators, educators
Partner universities and art organisations
Local interlocutors and communities

Scale, Scope & Aim:

5-year time span
Art, research, discussions and writing on local ecological contexts, 
reflected against each other and planetary scale processes of ecological change

Ecologically defined experimentalism in Art: 

A growing ground for a new, post-fossil paradigm


Design: NODE Berlin Oslo

Code: Systemantics