Ecological Uncodings: Decolonising Digital Futures

Feature article by Maja and Reuben Fowkes in Springerin no.3 2021, a special issue on Digital Ecology (September 2021).

Could there be, however, indications that the hold of digital technology over the future is beginning to slip? When approached not as a succession of technological milestones, but rather as inseparable from the gearing up of economic globalisation and acceleration of climate change from the mid-1980s, the short history of the digital era is disclosed as contingent and circumscribed by larger forces. Distinctions made between the virtual realms of digital reality and the materiality of the offline world no longer appear viable in light of the ecological and decolonial critique of the Cartesian divide between nature and culture. The reluctance of technophiles to admit the complete dependence of the virtual on terrestrial materiality has also been shaken by the growing threat to the physical infrastructures of digital networks posed by extreme weather events. Although critical accounts of networked information technology remain in awe of its power and promises, there is new awareness of how digital culture ‘inhibits our ability to think meaningfully about the future,’ by reducing our options to a technical choice between platforms. Explored here is how in contemporary art a far-reaching critique of so-called digital space is emerging, revealing the dependence of techno-futurism on fossil fuel energy and the mining of rare earth minerals, as well as making visible the interconnections of technological modernity with histories of colonialism and extractivism.

The Politics and Ecology of Invasive Species:
A Changing Climate for Pioneering Plants

Chapter by Maja and Reuben Fowkes in The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change edited by T. J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott, Subhankar Banerjee (February 2021).

 Encroaching planetary crisis has focused minds on the ecological benefits brought by new arrivals in terms of reversing biodiversity loss and the pioneering work of so-called invasive species in restoring destroyed landscapes. It is now evident that the main drivers of the Sixth Extinction are climate change and anthropogenic habitat loss, rather than the homogenizing effect of the global intermixing of non-native species. The rewilding of extractivist sites or suburban wastelands by non-native plants is also now valued for the potential contribution of restorative action in a specific locality to lessening or reversing climate disorder by creating natural carbon sinks. Contemporary artistic engagement with vegetal migrants has explored ways of collaborating with the plant pioneers of the new wild to model transformative ecological solutions. The gravity of such an endeavour springs from the knowledge that, in the absence of swift and radical action on the largest political scale, the planetary course is set to indiscriminately turn human and non-human Earth dwellers into climate refugees, dissolving any residual distinction between native and non-native.

No Art on a Dead Planet

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
Published in Barricading the Ice Sheets. Artists and Climate Action in the Age of Irreversible Decision, edited by Oliver Ressler (Vienna: Camera Austria, 2020).

The temptation to look for a silver lining in artistic responses to the disaster of climate chaos should be resisted, as there is no upside to ecological downfall. Even when artists conceive of ecological alternatives to the dystopian present, such as by making visible the fragments of a new society glimpsed in the creativity of social movements, they tend not to lose sight of the fragility of collective visions of cosmopolitical democracy and environmental justice. Artistic engagement with ecological activism should also be seen as part of a wider transformation of the art world, in which curatorial and institutional innovations also play an essential part, with exhibition-making and institution-building as constitutive elements of artistic practice. 

Raising the Ecological Flag

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
In Jindřich Chalupecký Award 2019
(Brno: Moravian Gallery, 2019)

At the 2019 edition of the Pohoda music festival, which took place in an abandoned military airfield near Trenčín, Slovak artist Oto Hudec installed a Flag of the Blue Planet. Conceived as a reinterpretation of the flag that peace activist John McConnell envisioned in 1969 for the first Earth Day celebration featuring the planet at its centre, half a century later Hudec’s version left a gaping hole where the Earth should be. 

Decolonising Central European Nature: Műcsarnok Exhibition Histories

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
Published in Ars Hungarica no.4 vol.43 (2017)

This article sets out to examine the processes of the colonisation and decolonisation of nature as they are present in the art history and contemporary art of Central Europe. It focuses in particular on Hungary, taking as a case study the exhibition histories of curatorial engagements with nature themes at the Budapest Kunsthalle from the 1950s to today, while also considering the response of contemporary artists to the multiple legacies and current forms of colonial domination of the natural world.

Facing the Unprotectable: Emergency Democracy for Post-Glacial Landscapes

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
In Along Ecological Lines: Contemporary Art and Climate Crisis 
edited by Barnaby Drabble (Manchester: GAIA Books, 2019)

A text for a volume of essays, interviews and case studies examining the work and ideas of environmentally engaged artists working in Europe today, which takes as its focus artistic practices that deal with the melting of glaciers from a political point of view.

Cosmopolitical Struggles for a Pluriversal Planet

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
In Creative Time: Another World is Possible edited by Corina Apostol and Nato Thompson (New York: Routledge, 2019)

As the ecological crisis intensifies, the extractivist logic of late liberal capitalism is entering a new phase of adaptation and profit-seeking, unleashing a high-stakes rivalry for control over dwindling natural resources and an opportunistic exploitation of the geophysical effects of climate change. 

Unsalvageable Futures of the Debrisphere

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
Published in Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan, eds, Debrisphere: Landscape as an Extension of the Military Imagination (Punch: Bucharest, 2019)

The assemblage of natural and human histories that constitute the Debrisphere did not emerge as a symbiotic growing together of living and non-living matter but rather through the force of a violent collision. Debrisphere stands for a type of artificial terrain that even when cosmetically disguised still strains to hide its origins in acts of military aggression that pulverised living environments into heaps of detritus. Known as ‘made ground’ in geography, the wartime rubble in London’s East End was flattened and grassed over to form future playing fields, while across Germany it was heaped into mounds to create the geological novelty of the Schuttberg or debris mountain. 

Intentionally Contemporary

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
In Bookmarks: Revisiting Hungarian Art of the 1960s and 1970s, edited Katalin Szekely (London: Koenig Books, 2019)

Catalogue text investigating how in spite of the obstacles posed by the Iron Curtain and the only slightly softer borders between the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Hungarian neo-avant-garde artists seized opportunities to share in processes of artistic exchange and contribute to the expansion of transnational art movements. 

Feeling the Curve of the Earth: Deviant Democracies and Ecological Uncertainties

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
In Mutating Ecologies in Contemporary Art, edited by Christian Alonsol (Barcelona: University of Barcelona Press, 2019)

A publication engaged in thinking about the conjunction of the ecological turn in contemporary art and the attention given to matter in recent humanist scholarship as a way of exploring how new configurations of the world suggest new ways of being and acting in that world.

The Post-National in East European Art: From Socialist Internationalism to Transnational Communities

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
Published in Ana Janevski, Roxana Marcoci and Ksenia Nouril, eds, Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology (New York, MoMA, 2018)

Explores the specific trajectory of globalisation in Eastern Europe where some traditions of socialist internationalism are more deeply embedded than the widespread and much discussed ideas of postcolonialist multiculturalism.

Liberty Controlled: Institutional Settings of the East European Neo-avant-garde

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
In Sándor Hornyik, Edit Sasvári and Hedwig Turai, eds, Doublespeak: Hungarian Art of the 1960s and 1970s (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018)

 Across Eastern Europe the neo-avant-garde, which was characterised by a desire to experiment with innovative artistic forms and test the boundaries of the established institutional structures around the revolutionary conjuncture of 1968, was at the same time obliged to negotiate its position within the complex systems of control and containment devised by the socialist state. 

Cracks in the Planet: Geo-ecological Matter in East European Art

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
In Urska Jurman et al, eds, Extending the Dialogue (Ljubljana: Igor Zabel Association, 2017)

Attentiveness towards rocks, earth, mud and the surface of the planet, with their deep history and immediate materiality, as well as appreciation of the transformative perspective provided by the immensity of geological time, belonged to the shared pool of conceptual props that East European neo-avant-garde artist drew from. This became evident around the watershed year of 1968, when worries about the environmental destruction of the planet also crystallized, marking the beginning of global ecological concern which has intensified over time. If we were to analyse geological materials present in such art practice, what hidden sediments of East European art history would they reveal? 

Working with Trouble: Reassembled Landscapes of History and Nature

By Maja Fowkes
In Natural Histories (Vienna: Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (MUMOK, 2018)

The reconfiguration of the landscapes of history is considered in this contribution through artistic projects that have focused on specific turbid instances of historical and natural conjunctures, whether by revisiting the sites of wartime terror, uncovering the material residue of those conflicts, or by disclosing their natural afterlives. 

Experiments in Untamed Creativity: Anthropology as a Tool in Tamás Kaszás’ Practice

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
In Exercises in Autonomy, exh. cat. (Lodz: Muzeum Sztuki, 2016)

Tamás Kaszás’s artistic practice revolves around anthropological propositions that destabilise the boundaries between nature and culture, wild and domesticated, indigenous and modern, technological and crafted, placing the question of the ‘anthropos’ in the foreground. 

The Primeval Cosmic River

The Primeval Cosmic River and Its Ecological Realities: On the Curatorial Project Danube River School
By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
Published in Geohumanities 

As the longest river in the heart of the European continent, the Danube has been a recurrent topic for artists, writers, poets, filmmakers, and theorists, and whether their accounts linger in the national realm of one of the ten countries through which the river passes, or follow its transnational flow,

Eastern Europe can be Yours!

'Eastern Europe Can Be Yours! Alternative Art of the Eighties,'
By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
Published in Afterall (September 2017)

In spite of its reputation as the decade of the ‘return of painting’, the overriding characteristic of the art of the East European eighties was its pluralism, which also accounts for its resistance to strict definition. 

Placing Bookmarks

Placing Bookmarks: The Institutionalisation and De-Institutionalisation of Hungarian Neo-Avant-Garde and Contemporary Art, Tate Papers, no.26 (2016)

The recent interest in avant-garde art from Hungary shown by international museums such as Tate has been paralleled by transformations to the country’s art institutions as a consequence of sweeping political changes. This essay contextualises these changes in relation to the expanding global market for art from the region, and examines the impact that initiatives by private galleries as well as artists and curators are having on the writing of a critical history of Hungarian art.

You Only Live Twice: the Strange Afterlife of Socialist Realist Sculpture

By Reuben Fowkes
In Anca Benera and Alina Serban, eds, Bucharest - Matter and History: The Public Monument and its Discontents (Bucharest: Romanian Cultural Centre, 2011)

Socialist Realist monuments have had two very different existences, firstly as monuments to the socialist utopia of the Stalinist era, in which they enjoyed a uniquely prominent position, and secondly as de facto counter-monuments within the changed ideological context of de-Stalinisation and into the post-communist era.

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