Media begets media. It’s the truth, sad as it may be. Given that my project’s “materials” include media such as blogging (amongst other things), the Environmental Audit blog gets requests from time to time from other media folks. In this case, it was the Radio National gang from the ABC, who asked if I’d like to do a segment called “The Vent”.
Actually, the story goes further back – there’s a thing coming up later this week called “Tipping Point“, focussing on the connections between art and climate change – and I’ve been invited to speak briefly at the launch. And it was because of THIS that the ABC got in touch.
The concept of The Vent segment is that one person speaks continuously for 5-10 minutes on a subject of his/her choice. Particularly something that gets their goat. In my case, it made sense to speak from the position of having been doing the audit for the last 4 months (it’s now coming to its end, folks!). To tell you the truth, I struggled a bit to come up with a rant – I’m actually feeling pretty positive right now… or at least I was a week ago when I recorded it!
And, below the line here, you can read the transcript from my Vent…
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THE VENT, by LUCAS IHLEIN, ABC RADIO NATIONAL ARTWORKS, 31 October 2010.
What’s an environmental audit?
Strictly speaking, it’s a way of adding up all the inputs and outputs for a given activity or object. Say I want to audit the lifecycle of my (supposedly eco-friendly) Toyota Prius. I’d consider the energy used to extract iron-ore to produce steel for body parts. I’d attempt to quantify the chemical manufacture of plastics to make the interior trim; not to mention the rubber in the tyres. I’d try to work out the volume of petrol consumed (and coal burned), plus all the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases the car farts out while driving around the city. If I were really conscientious, I’d follow the journey of my Prius right through to its grave — squashed to scrap metal and downcycled into something less useful, much of it tossed unceremoniously into landfill.
What is the basic function of a car? To conveniently shuttle humans and their goods and chattels across the surface of the planet. But what if I wanted to carry out an Environmental Audit of something less clearly defined? What about an environmental audit of Art? During the past four months, that’s what I’ve been doing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.
It hasn’t been easy. I’ve done my best to trace the materials and energy consumed in putting on the show. I’ve added up the power consumption of the lights, air-conditioning, crating and transportation to deduce the exhibition’s total emissions. But unlike my Toyota Prius, an art exhibition doesn’t have an easily defined function.
Is it to educate? To entertain? To give pleasure? To shock? To change society? To provide opportunities for rich folks to hobnob? A place for tourists to shelter from the rain? Or is it all of these functions and more? How many more?
Even if we could pin down the “core functions” of Art, how would we go about measuring its success? What are its Key Performance Indicators? How would we weigh these against the planet-bruising effects of putting it all together in the first place?
This is the sort of perilous terrain that I have been stumbling over since I began my audit at the MCA. I should note here that I am an artist — not a trained Environmental Auditor. So the project has been as much about my faltering process of learning to do an Environmental Audit, as it has been about any hard results. And yet, now that I’m approaching the end, with ever increasing frequency people inform me that they are looking forward to the time when I will reveal my ‘findings’.
This question drives me crazy. As if this matrix of muddling could possibly deliver something as simple and satisfying as a bottom line, a green-star rating; a verdict damning or praising; a way of settling the score once and for all! I’m afraid, folks, I have no findings.
But what I do have is a blog full of ‘searchings’ — stories of individual situations and dilemmas which — perhaps — add up to a larger picture. From these searchings, I offer 3 short statements; observations gleaned from the auditing process and its effects.
Statement Number 1. TIME
Auditing implies an economy — and within the economy of production, Time is the ultimate resource. The industrial drive to produce more in less time, is, arguably, how we got ourselves into this absurd mess in the first place.
To free up time; to be able to stop for a minute, look around and consider whether what I’m doing is done in the most intelligent manner – this really is the rarest commodity I have. When I’m hurtling towards a deadline, the main thing on my mind is that ‘everything has to be perfect’ as the moment of the great unveiling arrives. Considered temporally, the launch-moment is of utmost importance. The lead-up period is simply the means to an end: disposable time.
I’ve seen it on dozens of occasions while setting up art exhibitions. We race around like chickens expending far more energy than necessary; we buy extra supplies from the hardware store, because we ‘don’t have time’ to go back to the shops if we’ve forgotten something; we leave a big trail of detritus behind us, to be cleaned up (or chucked out) later on; we beg favours from friends we hope to pay back some day.
In short, we borrow time from the future.
Statement Number 2. A SMALL DEVELOPMENT
The very act of staging ‘an exhibition about the environment’ has forced the MCA to consider its own ecological footprint. Perhaps it’s the fear of being accused of hypocrisy; maybe it’s the public exposure my audit has generated. It’s hard to measure cause and effect, but the museum has now formed an ‘environment committee’ to tackle questions that up to now have been intangible, unaccountable, uneconomical, un-askable.
Statement Number 3. AN OPPORTUNITY
To bring ecological cause-and-effect into the equation is not just a matter of popping a financial price on carbon emissions. It’s more than the use of surplus funds to ‘offset bad behaviour’ by purchasing virtue produced elsewhere; and it’s so much more than using recycled paper to print exhibition catalogues. The greening of art implies a more deeply integrated reworking of the very way we do things — a fresh consideration of each activity, keeping in mind the origins and the destinations of the materials which flow through our lives.
I want to be clear: this is not a slap on the wrist. Nobody will be forced to wear a hair shirt. This is not the dawn of a new age of austerity. Rather, what’s on offer is a mainstream opportunity to connect up our own activities with the complex chain of events they set in motion. It might seem like a strange thing to say, but the imminent collapse of our planet perhaps provides the best chance we’ve ever had to come into an intimate relationship with ourselves.