Monday, January 28, 2013

arts of sustainability

Jenny Brown, Learning the Ropes, 2007
Forms of Responsibility - Recent Projects by Jenny Brown

by Gary Sangster

In early 2005, an elegant gesture of product repatriation was conceived and produced by Jenny Brown as a way of both describing certain elements of a working global economy and tracing the efficiency of a path of distribution. It was a modest act of economic anthropology that engaged research, performance, and documentation, as well as articulating an imagined or real cultural narrative of a concept of homeland and the actual journey of anonymous artifacts to their site of origin. The somewhat poignant, yet deeply ironic, pursuit of a homecoming, for near valueless materials or objects, small stones, garden decor-purchased inexpensively from a down-market, transnational department store in Sydney-heightens the sense of disconnection and inauthenticity produced through a global economic marketplace. The project, Placing stones as they are found, suggests a sense of loss, or alienation, as objects of value, objects of use, objects of function, and objects of desire, large or small, voluble or mute, are interminably transferable, anonymously interchangeable, dislocated and redefined throughout the trade routes of mass-market capital. The work is an action of little consequence, a specific kind of elusive gesture of futility towards irreversible systems and processes, which makes sense only as a poetic or aesthetic form of art.

Placing stones as they are found, 2005
For some time now, contemporary art, always somewhat elusive and mobile, has been avidly ‘shape-shifting’ in sometimes subtle, sophisticated ways, and sometimes in obvious, awkward ways, either of which can make us uncomfortable through their misidentified or unrecognizable guise. Presenting us with new and unfamiliar forms, materials, and ideas, as well as undercutting our convenient systems of display and distribution, contemporary art has infiltrated a wide range of physical, cultural, and intellectual spaces with surprisingly mixed results.  For some, art should be comforting and accessible, for others, art should be challenging or confronting.  For some it should be easy, or it may be expected to be demanding. But perceiving art to be either simple or complex, lucid or dense, are not the kinds of even-handed dualities that make sense in the light of the variety of new art. From the immensely tangled diversity of forms, strategies, and systems now embedded in contemporary art it is possible to produce seemingly unending discourse and to pose questions or pursue inquiries that may not have clear-cut and well-defined solutions. While this inevitably makes the taxonomy of art more expansive, it also brings it into ever more reflexive and dynamic relationship with real life and lived experience. Contemporary art is becoming more connected to every life, more relevant to lived experience, both depending on and producing experiences and artifacts that entangle the aesthetic and the practical nature of experience in a way that can go far beyond the observational didactics of the museum or the exhibition-driven art world. Contemporary art is not something apart, a reflection of the world, it is embedded within the world of lived experience, and operates in the same way that life, and the real world, is fragmented, discordant, or dissonant. Aesthetic constructs, art theories, or holistic notions of seamlessness that may posit harmony or unity in art works are limited modes of understanding new art or of determining what constitutes successful art.

Tied, 2006
Scanning the range and mode of work produced by Jenny Brown during the past decade, it is not difficult to see how her work inhabits one of the rapidly expanding zones of art known as social sculpture. It is a field that eschews formal models of daily studio production, as well as traditional gallery modes of presentation, in favor of more research, production, and engagement that takes place within existing frameworks of culture and society.  In other words the art is drawn from, is produced within, and takes place in the real world, rather than within the world of art and its institutions. Like many committed to this social field of practice, Brown’s work responds to Joseph Beuys’ famous call to artists “to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives.” In some cases the responsibility inherent in this invocation can be accomplished by observing, witnessing, and documenting the conditions of the real world. This signifying process can provide an extended critical language that will engage both power and knowledge. For others, including Jenny Brown’s practice, this has meant a more concrete way of activating art within the contours of formal systems and institutions in the world.  It means engaging with protocols, regulations, and bureaucracies in ways that both incorporate yet extend beyond signification in generating meaning and value. In this form, the locus of meaning and value that is generated through art lies primarily with the audience rather than the artwork.  What is evident in this mode of art practice, pursued rigorously in Brown’s extensive range of work, is the sense in which both human values and conscience lead beyond the contemplative and subjective, and enter the realm of action/reaction, where engagement-social, political, emotional, psychological- is not tacit or optional, but obvious and necessary.

Tied, 2006
In 2006, Brown created a work titled, Tied, which was a complex multi-layered project that involved an Indigenous-owned fishing vessel, the Tribal Warrior, and an event on Sydney Harbour that culminated with a funerary performance, in which ice sculptures of sea creatures were melted into the ocean. The work engaged a specific range of communities to reflect on the effects of global warming and rising oceans on low lying Pacific Islands, archipelagos and tufts of rock, coral and land, which will be amongst the first submerged should the seas rise, yet have contributed nothing to the rapid increase in global warming. The intricacies of Tied, in which mourning, loss, and displacement are critical references, spoke not only to the probable geophysical erasure of environment and property, or at least their drowning, but also to the disappearance of unique communities, cultures and languages. Brown’s review of the anthropological research revealed that the Pacific Islands contain a disproportionate section of the world’s cultural and linguistic diversity in which more than one third of the world’s languages are spoken in four countries in Melanesia, Papua New Guinea, The Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and each island group is home to distinctive human cultures, having extant social and cultural mores, dance, dress, traditional knowledge and technologies. An impending migration to a larger, more developed, and more culturally uniform society, would inevitably eviscerate or even collapse the rich depth of cultural knowledge, tradition, and language contained in southern Oceania. Through a variety of different cultural references and registers, elements designed to evoke and imply or imagine, rather than describe unequivocally, Tied presented a means to enact a pre-memorial and to grieve in the face of an impending, near inevitable, environmental transformation and cultural decimation.

The artifacts that constitute this style of art practice-the gestures, the strategies, the arrangements, the interactions-are shifting fields of experience rather than specific objects, documents, or images. Staking territory quite tangential to the iconoclastic programs of the art market and the museum archive, positing different modes of production, and envisioning quite a different end-user or functions of her aesthetic product, Brown participates in or leads the production of nodal points of communication. Like many political activists her work is concerned with mediation, with aligning distinct positions and trajectories of self-interest in order to pose a solution, rather than provide the solution. To provide means, as an aesthetic gesture, rather than present an end, as an aesthetic artifact or artwork may be described. Her work prompts or prods audiences to interact with the pragmatic world of political or social action through aesthetic programs that may in fact have some tangible outcomes. It is not so much an active resistance to the ubiquity of the increasingly lavish international art world, but a circumvention of its authority to account for or even restrain all fields of art.

Blue Mountain Woodworking Collective, ongoing.
Brown’s style of work hones in on the elements of modernism that correlate with utopian idealism, collective cultural vision, and spiritual insight. But it is not uncritically separatist or indignant in approach. It is work that is tempered by exposure and sensitivity to the exploitative trajectories of the politics of colonialism, capitalism, globalism, or media monopolies. The work embodies a critique and resistance to the harmful tendencies of the world’s leading systems of social organization, and so is designed to support individuals, communities, and classes who may be beset from systematic institutional and functional pragmatism.

Temporary Refuge I, 2006
In an ongoing project, initiated in 2006, Temporary Refuge, Jenny Brown begins to examine shelter. Brown was initially inspired by the idea that women make the majority of houses in the world, and after time spent in China, Brown relates the work to the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng’s teaching that, “the body is an inn.” Her perspectives are typically complex including the economics of modern housing, the sustainability of contemporary dwellings, the rituals of regulations surrounding individual rights and the commons, and critically, the spiritual and psychological dimension of personal space. While home is generally thought to be a permanent site of safe haven, Brown suggests it is provisional, shifting, and insecure, but no less a place of transient respite from the risks inherent in our self-conscious vulnerability.  Brown’s project is to construct a dwelling using an ‘additive’ gleaner sculptural approach, arriving at a livable house of reduced scale using many recycled materials. The work can be readily conflated with the commodifiable sustainability goals of neo-environmentalism, but is perhaps more in tune with an earlier counterculture approach to generating forms of alternative or vernacular architecture, that are pragmatically site-specific and persistently irreplicable.

Temporary Shelter II, 2009-
From the outset, Jenny Brown’s work is a process of self-conscious responsibility, addressing community concerns, environmental threats, social issues, and political institutions. In many cases she also expands her frames of reference more generally to address power and authority or justice and equity. Some of the topics her work has engaged are a hot list of political issues that traverse a wide range from the personal to the political, including diversity, equity, capitalism, disability, therapy, global warming.  So on first encounter with her work, form appears a secondary concern to content.  But in this context the works of social sculpture mimic the strategies of conceptual art, focusing on ideas, processes, and effective or practical outcomes, rather than prioritizing a sensuous visuality. Brown plays in the realm of policy, and rigorously resists the lure of visual expression in favor of pragmatic accommodation and accomplishment. But just as the somewhat arid readings of early conceptual art gave way to an awareness and enthusiastic acceptance of the structure of the aesthetics of conceptualism, form can never be a secondary consideration.  The manifestation of the work is form ‘be it virtual, ephemeral, tangible, or permanent’ and form is what constitutes its existence.  Even invisibility is a kind form, just as process, system, or protocol will also constitute a manifestation of form in conceptual art, as well as in social sculpture.

Brown’s work stakes out claims for both functional ends and aesthetic forms. Sometimes melding the two trajectories tightly, sometimes privileging one of the goals over the other. In her multi-phased project, Beyond Rapa Nui, developed in collaboration with Gavin Ramsay from the University of Western Sydney working with 13 local government councils, the Australia Council for the Arts, and over 20 other organisations including the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, the work builds on a regional permaculture public art program involving 11 local government councils devised in 2008, to analyze and develop food production capacity and local supply mechanisms.  The project addressed the deficiencies in both agribusiness and retail food distribution to consider ways to enhance local communities capacity to meet health and nutrition needs. Beyond Rapa Nui is a project conceived to investigate and leverage critical opportunities in the science of local and indigenous agriculture, the economies of food, the process of community engagement, and programs of health and self-awareness. Brown’s primary role is in the conceptualization, outlining, and negotiation of collaborative processes, actions that mediate the development of a coherent system.  Brown is not attempting to shape the project towards a given aesthetic form or a specific criteria of art practice, rather she is forming connections and alliances within a research and policy program designed for enhancing public utility and awareness around food production and nutritional resources. 

Temporary Shelter I, 2006
While this kind of project in the main resembles the functional aesthetics of design or urban development, what shifts this work incrementally from an instrumental aesthetic reading, are the imperatives of community education, enhanced self-awareness, and the ecological moral dimension of sustainability.  It is the ‘connective aesthetics’ that is endemic to social sculpture. Brown’s mediating role as an artist in driving the scheme of Beyond Rapa Nui is to ensure that the project matches the personal and psychological developments of those involved, with the civic, scientific, and economic elements of the project.

The work accomplished through projects such as Tied or Beyond Rapa Nui, is both functional and discursive, drawing on an integrated sense of moral reflection, while being animated through complex political situations. These projects affirm that culture is a mutable, often fluctuating or pulsating set of competing forms of knowledge, covering a broad spectrum of experience from the personal, perceptual, and subjective, to the social, conceptual, and communal knowledge that can be psychological or visceral, semiotic or sensual, or a bundled network of these systems of understanding and experience.

Temporary Shelter II, 2009-
Interleaving a coherent sense of the values of social awareness, a commitment to engagement with the political field of everyday experience, and the role of signifying practice within the aesthetic realm of art as a creative practice, one that entails a degree of open-endedness, a degree of unknown, unpredictable outcomes within the formalities of political accountability, is a remarkably daring project. It is a challenge for artists to function effectively within the strictures of a social, public, and institutional framework and retain the right to experiment and reinvent forms of knowledge. Gallery and museum art is already coded with that privilege intact.

Social sculpture entails an entirely different kind of responsibility than the subjectivity of creative expression characterized by the majority of studio practices which are aligned with an individual vision of a single artist’s voice. Jenny Brown’s work, melding the demands of an integrated social structure, in concert with specific community interests, knowledge, history, and memory, into a pragmatic aesthetic discourse requires remarkable integrity. It requires the construction and maintenance of processes that possess a dynamic self-regulation, while avoiding a trajectory of inevitability that is constrained by the conditioning of an anticipated outcome or the moralism of a didactic conclusion. Artists who absorb these challenges and respond to collective situations and political contexts are creating new forms of expression, and expressing new forms of responsibility through art practices that are in an ongoing process of being regeneratively articulated and codified.

Blue Mountain Woodworking Collective, ongoing
Many thanks to Gary Sangster and Jenny Brown for this. GR

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