Art and Environment: holding both at the same time

When the closing speaker at the 2017 Art + Environment Conference finished his remarks, I knew exactly what I needed to do next: drink whiskey, up on the rooftop, alone.

It’s not that the conference had gone poorly, or that I was depressed. In fact, the very opposite. The conference was so good, so thought-provoking and revitalizing, that it took me back in time; the last decade of my life flashing before my eyes. And I saw a lot of things I still care deeply about, that I am optimistic about, which I had sidelined, given up on, shelved for later. And now, well, it’s ‘later.’

Author Bruce Sterling had given us 500-some attendees a thoughtful and comical summary of the past two and a half days spent together at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, spent discussing art, the environment, and their myriad intersections. He said that us thinkers, us makers, were going to get hurt. That we are already hurting. We see the issues of climate change, of cultural oppression, of disassociation from our environments and our creative natures as human beings every day – and work in that world without much relief. Our pain, our grief, comes from our lack of ignorance about the world today and the actions we continue to take to fight it. He said, as artists and creators, we must carry on with the bright light of inspiration and innovation. We cannot succumb to the overwhelming nature of the problems at hand. We must be the avant-garde.

By the end of his half hour, I was pretty upset – with myself. Because over the last ten years, I’ve been a bit of a coward. I’ve been getting an education, building my career, traveling, moving, cultivating great relationships, and trying to spent my time doing what I love and am good at doing. But I’ve also been denying myself from expressing a huge element of my being. In that last 30 minutes of the conference, I realized that no matter what I was doing in the past decade, I was always approaching it from a creative mindset, as an artist. I had to admit to myself that I am an artist, I have always been, and will always be. I just haven’t been giving it the room it needs to grow and flourish.

Luckily, journalism is not a mutually-exclusive practice. It plays well with others, and that is a huge reason why I felt called to come back to school to study and practice it. It has given me the best excuse ever to talk to almost anyone, about anything, and tell those stories. Especially those of artists. The act of reporting for me is one of adventure and exploration, both physically and mentally. The writing acts as a synthesis, connecting the dots through issues and people.

The media today gets a bad rap, but as a young journalist, almost everyone I know in this field should just go by the title of “critical thinker” or “detective.” Perhaps, “writer with a voracious appetite for learning,” or “professional networker who knows the perfect person for you to connect with.” Or maybe, “multimedia storyteller of important issues in an age of clickbait and sensationalism.”

In her 2004 book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit quotes Bulgarian writer Maria Popova: “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté.” This book sold out online in November 2016 in the wake of the presidential election. I made one of those thousands of purchases. I was looking for a reason and a way to still have hope.

One of Solnit’s many definitions of hope is that it, “just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

A week after flying back from Reno, I sit here and think about connecting these dots. It seems, very clearly, that if the future is going to be better than the present, that the world needs hope. Because without it, there will be no meaningful action. But hope also needs critical thinking. So for there to be meaningful action to create a better future in this country and in the world, hope and critical thinking are essential. So where does hope come from? And who cultivates and inspires critical thinking?

Bill Fox, Director of the Center for Art + Environment, opened the A+E conference with the simple, yet significant remark: “Artists are the people who reinterpret the world, and re-present it to us.”

Where we assume something negative, artists can construct a positive. When we see a wall, they can make a door. Through reinterpreting and re-presenting the world to us in the curious atmospheres of museums, galleries, in someone’s house or simply on the street, artists don’t just create artworks, they create hope.

And as Dianne Dumanoski said at a Harvard seminar in 1999 (From The Land Ethic to the Uncharted Territory of Global Humanity): ​​​”In this era of experts and specialties, journalists are among the last of the intrepid generalists. We are synthesizers who gather the scattered pieces of the puzzle and try to tease out the broad picture lurking amidst the fragments.”

Hope and critical thinking, meet the artists and journalists of present day.

News, including that of science, can be a pessimistic, fear-inducing medium. Yet art is an engaging medium, one that draws in the mind and the heart. It evokes emotion, and allows for the processing of past, present and the future through a context based more in experiences than in words. Together, (environmental) art and journalism might just be the dream team we need in the 21st century to produce both hope and subsequent meaningful action.

Agnes Denes, one of the pioneers of environmental art and whose work has stuck with me these past ten years, said it best: “Making art today is synonymous with assuming responsibilities for our fellow humans.”

There is often a sense of purpose and meaning that comes with good timing. The Art + Environment conference only happens once every three years, and I was privileged to attend the fourth one this month during my second year of graduate school, while working on a year-long professional project on the very same subject matter. In my life, in the current state of the world, and in my graduate education, it could not have come at a better time. So I feel a sense of duty to make something of it, to push forward as part of this avant-garde in art and communication, of environmental awareness and our real need for hope. To give art and journalism the room to grow and flourish; to hold both at the same time.

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