Environmental Encounters

7 March 2014

How might creative practices enable us to encounter the environment?

How might these encounters build alternative relationships with our environments?

What methods can we use to study these environmental encounters and their effects? 

It is well recognized that a host of aesthetic strategies – from artistic practice to visual culture more broadly – respond to, and often move for action in the face of, environmental change and current ecological crises. Environmental art is wide-ranging; encompassing different mediums, (e.g. performance and body art; participatory art, story-telling) themes, (e.g. local myth and lore, pollution, imaginative and exploratory engagements with scientific data-sets) and philosophical positions (e.g. encounters with animate earth-matters). Despite the popularity of these art forms, and the recognition of their inter-disciplinary value within and beyond the academy, it is equally well recognized that we lack an understanding of the nature and import of the environmental encounters that they catalyze, as well as those encounters catalysed by the curation and programming associated with these art works.

The rise of the idea of ‘encounter’ as a means to understand cultural experiences of art extends studies of the ‘meanings’ of art by asking what art ‘does,’ and further how it accomplishes such ‘work’ in the world. It also draws attention to questions of researching and writing about art, in other words how do we encounter art works as researchers/ audiences and how do we write about those encounters, in turn creating sites where our readers/audiences encounter art. With respect to environmental arts practices, the idea of ‘encounter’ holds the potential to help us to explore the relationships between audiences and environments that art works catalyse, including attempts to stage and mediate these relations by artists, scientists and others. Furthermore, ‘encounter,’ also resonates with those cultural geographies and political ecologies of landscape and environment that seek to re-settle power relations and understandings of agency with respect to humans, non-humans and the Earth’s animate matters and forces.

A diverse array of philosophical frameworks have formed the means for conceptualizing arts’ ‘environmental encounters.’ These include; phenomenological/post-phenomenological explorations of Earth Art that develop an embodied ethics premised on intimacy and entanglement; using New Materialisms, Geo-Philosophy and Speculative Realisms to explore arts’ evocations of animate matter and dynamic environments; and, exploring participatory and community art via Latourian ideas of entangled nature/cultures or Stenger’s Cosmopolitics. These ideas explore how aesthetic assemblages of human and non-human enroll multiple stakeholders (including publics, scientists, etc.) to overturn knowledge hierarchies and promote forms of environmental citizenship. Responses to these varied studies are unified by calls to complement often abstract theoretical modes with enhanced methodological exploration, thus extending examinations of encounters and their transformative potential.