Incubator: Ecological Crisis and Artistic Language

October 11–13, 2014 at Centre d'Art i Natura CAN (Farrera, ES)


Multidisciplinary Dialogues on Co-dependencies

– Curatorial Notes on the Frontiers in Retreat Incubator ‘Ecological Crisis and artistic language’

The second Frontiers in Retreat incubator ‘Ecological Crisis and artistic language’, at Centre d'Art i Natura (CAN), probed into global ecological crises (namely that of human-induced climate change) from the local perspective of the Catalan High Pyrenees. The incubator explored possible roles and trajectories of art and artists in addressing complex ecological questions and a systemic crisis such as climate change. The event cast both a historical and a future-oriented look into the village of Farrera and its surroundings. It featured a broad range of specialist talks, artist presentations, and artworks, and drew audiences from the academic and art worlds, but also visitors from near and far. Differing from a conventional symposium, much of the three-day incubator was spent outdoors hiking the hills, mountaintops, and valleys bathed in vivid autumn colours.

Human habitation and its very complex interplay with the mountain landscape emerged as another key subject of the incubator. The participants were provided with insight into how people have transformed the environment, its ecosystems and biodiversity during the approximately five millennia of human habitation in the region. It was equally important to learn how the particular features of the Catalan High Pyrenees have shaped the local human cultures.

For instance, Cunill introduced the participants to how the presence of humans has affected the ecosystems of the area, and how these changes are traceable through carefully looking at the landscape and the changes in tree-growth line. This opened a perspective into the geological time of the mountains. She pointed out how global change takes on its own, different characteristics everywhere, when analysed on the local scale. The close-up look allows examining a larger number of interrelated social and natural variables, which will enable better understanding of the changes occurring in that particular place, while also aiding understanding change on the planetary scale.

Although the topic and title of the event was the relations between intensifying state and mentality of ‘crisis’ and artistic languages, the presented artworks did not explicitly tackle the accelerated change that the planetary ecosystem (as we have learned to know it) is facing, likely already during the next decades. Instead, the artists subtly played with the specific characteristics and materials of the surroundings and the dynamic co-existence of humans, the constantly changing landscape, and biodiversity.

The artworks commissioned by the organising institution, CAN, for the annual SAO festival in connection with the incubator, ranged from dance pieces to subtle interventions in the landscape to experimental live music. Elisenda Fontarnau and Iera Delp interpreted the personal ‘movement galleries’ of local inhabitants, ‘recorded’ via careful observation and mimicking of their everyday practices. Dancer Anna Rubio, for her part, attuned her own movement to the one of an apple tree, mimicking the tree's physical existence. One of the most memorable moments was a concert on a mountaintop, performed by drummer and composer Arnau Obiols. The piece was his original composition in nine parts. In the score, he made use of a full drum set, but also a plethora of local natural materials, such as rocks, lime stone, leaves, and water, drawing inspiration from nine neighbouring mountain villages of the region, including Farrera. The result was contemporary and experimental, although drawing on elements that could be thought of as ‘traditional’ to the area. For the closing part, Arnau Obiols was accompanied by an elderly gentleman, Josep Bringué, who had taught the young musician fragments from a disappearing local singing tradition.

Seeking new ways to connect with cultural heritage seemed to be a pressing matter in Farrera, a village of 22 year-round inhabitants, many of who have returned to the region from bigger cities, and are engaged in restoring the old buildings and keeping the village community alive. The cultural centre CAN is a good example of this. It is located in an old limestone house beautifully restored by Lluis and Cesca Llobet. Under their guidance, CAN has done extraordinary multidisciplinary work since 1996, by offering artists and researchers from across the globe residencies in Farrera, facilitating the continuation of local culture and environment in a ‘glocal’ context. This culturally and historically wide perspective was clearly visible in the programming of the incubator that dived deep into not only biological diversity, but also a diversity of world-views. In his presentation, one of the invited speakers, Josep-Maria Mallarach, opened up the ways in which our world-views influence how we encounter and engage with our environment.

There is also a strong relationship between the language that we use and our world view, whether we talk about ‘Nature’ as an entity somehow separate from human experience, or about ourselves as inextricably part of a single planetary ecosystem – or, as has become symptomatic of the industrialised, modernised, late capitalist societies, as ‘resources’ that are available for humans to control and to commodify. This makes a world of difference. Through their languages, artists can create new meanings and new trajectories desperately needed in the current state of global ecological crisis that humankind has got itself into, under the principles of (now) neo-liberal capitalism that is based on the idea of limitless economic growth through unrestricted abuse of ‘resources’. When the Earth 'runs dry’, the resource-hungry human gaze turns towards new frontiers, new places to colonise, new Earths.

Cultural anthropologist Oriol Beltran from the University of Barcelona gave the incubator participants a lecture on governance and the state-imposed transition from the traditional, communal management of local ‘natural resources’ typical to mountain societies, to heritagisation of nature. According to Beltran, territorially-oriented policies played a major role in implementing the policies of the modern state after the early years of the nineteenth century. He referred to the exponential growth in the number of protected ‘natural environments’ since the 1980s. Beltran analysed the political, cultural, and social aspects of these protective acts, and the ways in which they dismantled the old local order that, in the mountain areas, showed diversity and autonomy, in keeping with its adaptation to the specific circumstances of each place.

What seemed evident in Farrera, after days of specialist and artist talks and discussion, is that there really is no single theory, ideology, or narrative that could be implemented in order to survive the immediate future as a species. Instead, as Jose Almeda brilliantly argues in his article, ecological crisis is a systemic state. It is not something that would threaten us from the outside. In scale and scope, it is both macro (global, planetary) and micro (crisis of our capitalist, commodified subjectivities and ways of living).

In her presentation, Teresa-M. Sala brought up the paradox of having detailed, scientifically-produced knowledge of the various components of the crisis. However, this has failed to work in favour of necessary reforms. On the verge of the Paris Climate Summit, she justifiably notes the past climate summits as public stagings of this failure. How to make the transition into a new paradigm? How to convince ourselves of the Epicurean principle of ‘sufficient is best’? Importantly, how to move away from anthropocentrism, the human-centric paradigm, without forgetting how to be humane?

At the end of the incubator, through various exercises on co-creation facilitated by artist lluís Sabadell Artiga, the participants set out to develop a glossary, and to map out key concepts around this paradigm shift. The posters in this publication are a rehearsal for collective thinking and visualisation of the colliding world-views, discourses, countless paradoxes, and wicked problems at hand.

The incubator event in Farrera was organised within the framework of the project ‘Frontiers in Retreat’, a rhizomatic network of ‘remote’ European residency centres, artists, curators, and specialists from diverse disciplines interested in emerging approaches around complex questions of ‘ecology’ and tackling local and global ecological change through a fusion of methods (artistic, scientific, activist, curatorial, etc). The project continues until spring 2018 under the coordination of HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme, but the connections, concepts, and new practices that emerge will hopefully continue beyond the project’s life span.

On the opening day of the Paris Climate Summit, November 30, 2015


Jenni Nurmenniemi, Curator, HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme, Frontiers in Retreat (2013–2018)