Oxford Futures Forum 2017

Posted in Uncategorized by chrisfremantle on June 1, 2017

Abstract accepted by Oxford Futures Forum (2-3 June 2017). Heading there now.

What is the role of artists in relation to land use?

Lucy R Lippard says in her recent book Undermining (2014) that she finds ‘landscape’ to be a difficult word, trapped in the art domain, and that living in the American West the term ‘land use’ is more relevant.

This affirmed a line of research and writing I’ve been engaged in for more than 18 months, concerned particularly with artists whose work addresses land use and could contribute to Land Use Policy. This is only one aspect of artists’ working with environmental and ecological issues, but it is an area of key relevance to the Oxford Future Forum agenda. ‘Land use’ directly describes the current construction of human use of land as a resource, with all the implied contradictions. Whilst artists and designers are sometimes involved to support ‘public engagement’ through creative approaches, I’m interested in the work of artists who also work strategically imagining different futures and sometimes work to deliver them. Practices such as Collins and Goto, Stephen Hurrel, Kate Foster, John Wallace, Anne-Marie Culhane and internationally Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison are drawing on social/cultural histories as well as scientific disciplines (eg Forest Ecology, Soil Science, Coastal Defence or Marine Biology) to synthesise new understandings of specific places at a range of scales. This can be understood as the formation of scenarios, albeit presented as artworks.

The development of Ecosystems Services Assessment makes this work more significant given that it specifically includes the Cultural dimension, an area which the sciences and environmental management find challenging to move beyond obvious designations of scenic beauty (spiritual value) or path networks (leisure value). But it is worth noting that the artistic practices cited above , through cultural approaches, can also address the Provisioning (i.e. products obtained including food and fuel), Regulating (e.g. water purification) and Supporting (e.g. soil formation and photosynthesis) aspects of Ecosystems Services Assessment. An apparently cultural approach to river ecology might envisage interventions which affect water quality and flow management. A good example is the Harrisons’ Atempause Für Den Save Flüss / Breathing Space for the Sava River (1990) which proposed an ecosystemic approach to cleaning the Sava River which was also implemented on the nearby Drava River.

Artists are in some cases able to go beyond representing landscape to create value in areas not previously perceived as valuable through conceptual, policy and practical interventions produced with communities, environmental managers, engineers and scientists. In doing so they demonstrate complex skill sets including social engagement, collaboration and interdisciplinarity as well as the production of process and object-based art.

The challenge is to engage policy makers (as well as curators) at regional and national level in understanding the value of these practices. Another challenge is to understand how to extend this type of work, which currently exists as unique projects, across multiple different administrative regions.

I work as a researcher and producer across arts & ecologies and arts & health. I was the producer for the Harrisons’ Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom and have recently co-authored two chapters on their aesthetics. I’ve worked with a number of the artists mentioned above. I established ecoartscotland as a platform for research and practice in 2010. ecoartscotland is multi-dimensional, collaborating with the Land Art Generator Initiative on a major project for Glasgow, participating in exhibitions at Edinburgh College of Art and Summerhall Arts Centre, publishing ‘occasional papers’ under an ISSN, and connecting a large network of practitioners through a blog.


Harrison, Helen Mayer and Harrison, Newton, Atempause Für Den Save Flüss, Ljubljana: Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Moderna Galerija, 1990
Lippard, Lucy, R. Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, New York: The New Press, 2014

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