During lockdown, I have been able to spend some quality time discovering the new viewing experience of online exhibitions. Whether institutions responded with increased accessibility for archival material, or recontextualised already-planned exhibitions for the web, an emphasis has understandably been placed on moving-image. I’m not interested in gallery-emulating virtual tours, and physical gallery visits hardly lend themselves to beginning-to-end focused viewing. ‘farewell, Art’, a new solo project by French research and design duo Bureau d’études that is presented by Rhubaba, therefore offered me a strikingly different visitor experience, as I navigated their text-heavy, diagrammatic website-cum-map.
Bureau d’études (Léonore Bonaccini and Xavier Fourt) have been active since the late 1990s. Their practice has been preoccupied with power relations in capitalism, institutional critique and processes of commoning. ‘farewell, Art’ is concerned with the ecological disaster our planet is facing and calls for the invention of a new school of art that will re-imagine the Earth as a habitable place in a post-capitalist future. Despite the global remit of such concerns, the project focuses distinctly on Scotland.
For now, the ‘farewell, Art’ website includes three texts authored by Bureau d’études: two introductory essays and a guiding text to their mapping logic (‘Axis’). Later on, three additional texts will be added to accompany each of the three sections of the ‘Axis’. However, the project’s main output is an interactive map, layered with multiple historical, environmental and visual data that Bureau d’études gathered during their fieldwork earlier this year on visiting organisations and communities around the country. The layers, or ‘contexts’, to use their own description, have names that proceed from ‘Cretaceous’, ‘Trees’, ‘Planning Villages’ and ‘Clearances’, to ‘Energies and Pollutions’. Clicking on each context builds layers of symbols and lines on the map. These marks are not clickable. Their meaning is listed in a ‘Key’, which cannot be read without hiding the map. This unusual net.art reminiscent experience makes me aware of the ever dwindling capacity of my short-term memory and of my fear that I’ve grown intolerant of interactive environments not curated by massive corporations. This is not so far from what ‘farewell, Art’ wants to trigger: an approach to time that would activate the present through memory and the past, toward a future we are otherwise having trouble imagining ‘as anything other than a disaster movie’.
‘farewell, Art’s’ cartographic story begins with the prehistoric geology of the Cretaceous period (145 to 66 million years ago), which is overlaid by the woodland species of Scotland 6000 years ago. The third layer fast-forwards to the ‘Cultural Colonisation of Scotland’ between 1600 and 2000. Here we find annotations detailing: villages planned between 1745 and 1851 by landowners; clearances—forms of eviction dispacing crofters to such villages in place of increased sheep farming and agricultural ‘progress’—and protests against them; Gaelic speaking areas in different centuries up to 2000; charcoal ironworks; and commercially exploited pinewoods. The last two ‘contexts’ on the map refer to ‘infrastructures and pollutions of late capitalism.’ Pollution marks include seabed storage areas for defunct nuclear submarines (also known as the ‘nuclear dustbin’) in the North West of Scotland; salmon farms; biological weapons; licensed munitions dumps; military ranges and weapons stores; and radioactive waste. This is a particularly informative layer that incorporates additional textual annotations. The ‘Energies’ section charts hydropower plants; wind farms; gas and oil fields and pipelines; as well as prospective government planning for marine renewable energy (offshore wind, wave and tidal).
Even though ‘farewell, Art’s’ rich textual material elucidates the artists’ broader political and ecological position, the relation of this material to specific aspects of the map is quite loose. For instance, in one of the texts, we read that:
‘Hegemonic narratives and practices of social and economic organisation are still defined by the neoliberal agenda of sustainability: the destruction of our life-support systems could be avoided if we replaced oil with wind, just as, in the past, we replaced coal with oil, as if surviving the global crisis were simply a matter of substitution or reshuffling of the ingredients of the status quo, without challenging its foundations.’
The ‘Energies’ or ‘Pollutions’ sections do not seem to specify this thesis into an evaluation of the listed forms of (renewable) energy or pollution. Instead, it is in a different text where we learn about the problematic aspect of a great part of the listed ‘Energies’: ‘energy sources and harvesting technologies’ such as ‘shale oil, ethanol, nuclear fission, solar, wind, tidal or hydroelectric power plants […] rely on near-depleted mineral resources.’ Furthermore, a central stipulation of ‘farewell, Art’s’ writing seems to be the primacy of ‘the art of commoning over the art of appropriation and monopolisation.’ However, even though the map reflects this by referring to the history of land ownership, enclosures and clearances, the writing does not offer a corresponding discussion around ownership or private property (historical or contemporary). Rather, commoning is—otherwise rightly—promoted in broader terms as potentially permeating all ‘institutions, structures and facilities’ essential to the social (re)production of all (human and non-human) life—including, crucially, moral and cultural infrastructures.
The duo imagine ‘the art that works towards the making of a common world after capitalism’ as ‘the capacity to work collectively in an open and uncertain world where the nomenclature of beings is not fixed: a world made of multiple—even (seemingly) incompatible—rationalities, ontologies, epistemologies brought together.’ ‘farewell, Art’ summons unfixed and multiple processes of naming, knowing and cooperating towards a ‘heterogeneous’ school of art, which also ‘lacks a programme.’ However, despite the welcome intention to be open-ended about allegiances and foreclose cultural appropriation, the art that is postulated (useful, didactic) does not entirely lack a programme, or rather, a programmatic impulse. For instance, the text ‘Three Axes for Redefining the Arts and their Teaching in a Collapsing Society’ calls for a ‘moral economy’ where less would be more in a variety of senses, by embracing things such as hermitage, degrowth, reduction of working time, and Universal Basic Income. These are suggested as perhaps crucial coordinates for our imaginaries.
My problem with the otherwise necessary assignment and promotion of imagining alternative utopias based on commoning, is that such propositions have remained inert for decades. Meanwhile, social inequality has exacerbated globally, while authoritarianism and fascism are on the rise. These subtract from any confidence or power to put such propositions into practice, despite the ever more necessary (utopian?) purposefulness towards ending oppressions and caring for the environment. ‘farewell, Art’ could have delved deeper into the toxicity and inertia of particular techno-juridical, socio-economic and psychological distributions and associations that, arguably, constitute significant barriers to its intention.
Overall, ‘farewell, Art’ is a valuable resource that sets out to conceive of art as a teaching and learning praxis that endorses an imagining of the future of our planet as habitable, by all forms of life. The project gathers material, assorts data and proposes a visual tool for orientation. It ventures into the arduousness of fieldwork and taxonomy to produce an epistemology simpler and more encompassing than a scientific study. Thanks to this, we can easily visualise and memorise flows of information, energy and environmental pollution, and consider them alongside archaeological questions and meaning altered in time. We are reminded that we need to keep deciding what is important to our present, and pasts, in order to better focus on common struggles—a programmatic impulse, which, as Rhubaba’s text on ‘farewell, Art’ suggests, is shareable by art and its ‘politically-minded’ institutional outside, in a need to ‘organise together in adversity.’
Angeliki Roussou is an Edinburgh-based art historian. Her PhD focused on instituent praxis and notions of power in the contemporary artworld. Prior to her doctoral research, she worked in curating in Athens, Greece.
‘farewell, Art’ is a project by artist duo Bureau d’études commissioned by Rhubaba, available here from May 26 2020. The project is still under development, with new content uploaded until September 2020.