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INTERVIEW: Patricia Watts On the Eco-Art Movement
For some closing thoughts on the cultural flurry in Copenhagen, Inhabitat turned to Patricia Watts. As the founder of ecoartspace, she has been curating, organizing, discussing, analyzing and writing about eco-art since before it was cool thing to do. With so many conflicting views on the state of art and eco-art today, Watts gave us an exlusive interview offering up her own thought-provoking perspective on the difference between art and activism, art and propaganda, and the prowess behind fake press releases.
INHABITAT: Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian said “Some activists have wondered why the art world has been slow to grasp the significance of climate change,” while alternatively the RSA Arts and Ecology states, “In the five years since we have been operating, there has never been so much great work being produced.” You’ve been working with eco-art for the past ten years. How is it different now than when you began? Is now really an awakening, or is the public just becoming more aware of eco-art?
WATTS: There are definitely more artists today interested in utilizing their aesthetic, scientific, spatial and/or theatric skills to awaken the general public to environmental problems. This is due to a zeitgeist of conditions such as advancements in personal technologies, accessibility to information, and a new generation of artists who are product oriented and are demanding results.
INHABITAT: Many folks will not experience the artworks of COP15 firsthand. Most, like you and I, had to stay home and learn about them via the internet. What is your feeling of the cultural scene in Copenhagen given this distance? In your experience how does the internet affect our perception of environmental art?
WATTS: It appears to me what is happening in Copenhagen is a more activist oriented work — actions. I’m not really sure you could call it environmental art, although the actions were designed to address such. This gets into a larger debate about movements in art versus the subject matter of art. There are many strategies or practices in this area of focus. Something I am always considering is how art is viewed either inside or outside the museum walls. Attendance to museums is low considering the population of the world. I much prefer to see these artists work in the public sphere or at non-traditional art venues. Because isn’t the real goal to create an environment for change? Activism allows for a more diverse, larger audience.
INHABITAT: What is the potential of art to create real ecological change? Is COP15 a unique cultural-ecological opportunity, or just a gathering of like-minded voices?
WATTS: Taking action in the name of art allows for more playful encounters that are not as threatening as an “angry mob.” However, from what I’ve read and seen via broadcast coverage at COP15, there is no room for alternative or “outsider” expressions at the conference. My impression is that the venue Bella Center is not big enough for the numbers of attendees.
INHABITAT:In America the arts are constantly having to defend their practical worth. Do you think eco-art fulfills a “practical purpose”?
WATTS: “Eco-art” can provide a practical use, but it is a big word that includes a wide range of media.
INHABITAT: What is the line between art and propaganda? When does eco-art cross that line?
WATTS: That would be an invisible line — a line of perception. So it would depend on one’s personal history, background in art and activism. The better question is, does it even matter whether this work is perceived as art? My personal opinion is no. The dialogue that is created out of these works or actions is the real art, and where changes in our perception can take place.
INHABITAT: What are some standout projects you’ve seen or heard of at COP15?
WATTS: I personally like works that challenge what is real. For example, the Yes Men’s latest press release purporting to come from the Assistant Press Secretary of the Canadian Office of the Minister of the Environment, announcing a new agenda for climate change and world development. When an artist can trick the public and officials to question what is before them — is it real — this is success in my opinion. It is that moment where the possibility of something more productive, possibly even more moral, is felt and resistance can dissolve.
INHABITAT: What are some domestic projects you feel speak to the issues at the climate change conference?
WATTS: I live in a town that has several NGOs who are interested in changing the way we live (Sebastopol, CA). The Post Carbon Institute is one of them. These types organizations who are working toward a global agenda should really focus on creating sustainable models in their own backyards. And this is where artists can play an important role using their artistic abilities, combined with activist strategies, to help create culturally and economically thriving cities.
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