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This is the English translation of the interview Alice Bonnot: “A indústria da arte parece estar a ter dificuldades em construir a sua transição ecológica” for Gerador, Portugal.

Interviewer Carolina Franco, January 2022. 

Gerador: You are the founding director of villa villa, a sustainable and climate-conscious arts programme dedicated to supporting contemporary artists, curators, writers, thinkers, and other cultural and environmental practitioners committed to more ecologically sensitive practices.  The aim of this programme  is to make it possible for artists to have more ecological practices. What was the drive on your path that made you focus on these issues as an independent art professional, rather than  working for an institution?

Alice: In 2018/2019, when I started to look into the negative impact of the arts sector on the environment, there were not so many existing arts organisations addressing this issue. As an independent art curator investigating socio-political issues, it was natural for me to conduct my own research on the ecological impact of contemporary art exhibitions. I developed a four-step methodology, or framework, for understanding the environmental challenges associated with curation, measuring these impacts and knowing how to reduce them. I began teaching the short-course ‘Curating an ecologically sensitive exhibition’ and spreading this message through various workshops, lectures, and webinars, to provide the tools to become a responsible practitioner of curation and to curate contemporary art exhibitions with environmental impact awareness. Today —  three years later — the arts sector is increasingly aware of the urgency of these issues and many non-profit art organisations and institutions have begun to emerge in recent months, showing that a green movement is taking shape.

Gerador: Is this project an invitation for artiststo reconnect with the environment and to rethink their path as artists?

Alice: Our aim at villa villa is to create a safe and sustainable place for art practitioners to engage with ideas of contemporary sustainability and to grow as a community that cares for people and the planet. Through a programme of open-ended art residencies, exhibitions, talks, workshops, and culinary food-based research, our mission is to achieve the following objectives: (1) contribute to the development of new environmentally and socially sensitive art practices that are ethical and climate-conscious, (2) engage with ideas of slow, sustainable living and making, (3) reduce and improve our environmental and social impact, and (4) inspire other individuals to join our actions. This can indeed be seen as an invitation to reconnect with nature, to slow down and connect to the geological time of natural processes.

Gerador: What are the biggest challenges when thinking about ecology and art? Is the arts and culture  industry a big part of the problem?

Alice: Artists, curators, institutions, galleries, collectors, and all art professionals have a crucial role to play in making the art world more sustainable. While other sectors have been moving towards sustainability for some time, the art industry seems to be struggling to build its ecological transition. Yet, to fight the severe environmental crisis we are facing today, each of us must rethink the way we operate. The carbon footprint and waste generated by the organisation of art fairs and exhibitions is enormous. Every day, thousands of artworks are packed and shipped around the world, non-renewable energy is used to store artworks in climate-controlled units, tonnes of CO2 are released when flying to art fairs — along with other very energy-intensive and wasteful habits.

Gerador: Some fashion designers in Portugal, and across the world, are using fabric waste to create their pieces, but we don’t necessarily see this happening in contemporary art. Do you think there is an idea of loss of  value for buyers when they know some piece is created from waste or recycled materials, in the art market?

Alice: Many contemporary artists use natural, recycled, non-toxic materials, without this having an impact on the economic value of their work — since the value of an artwork is not necessarily based on the price of materials. But you are right, ultimately, collectors have a lot of power over the type of art that is considered successful in economic terms. Therefore, collectors have the purchase power to advocate for a sustainable art market. They should use it to demand more transparency from museums, galleries, institutions and auction houses and to pressure them to adopt more sustainable working methods. They should encourage climate-conscious artists by giving them the support they need to carry their message and to continue to raise awareness about the importance of respecting and protecting people and the planet. Collectors can, more than we think, play a leading role in transforming the art market into a green economy.

Gerador: What do you think are the most and the least polluting artistic practices?

Alice: I wish I could answer that question in such simple terms. If it were, it would be much easier to solve the climate and ecological crisis. Sadly, the situation is much more complex. An artist's practice can have a negative impact on the environment for so many different reasons, from the toxicity, harmfulness and wastefulness of materials used, the reliance on non-renewable resources in the processes, through the energy used in the studio, to the number of international flights taken to ship artworks or travel to exhibition openings, that it is very difficult to compare the carbon footprint of one practice to another in such general terms. If we were to focus solely on materials, for example, the toxicity of harmful products could vary tremendously depending on their level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), their level of damage to both the environment and the health of users, their more than often single-use plastic packaging, whether they have been (or can be) recycled, etc. Digital art practices, while not relying on the use of such materials, also have a significant carbon footprint and are therefore not a low carbon alternative.

What is easier to define, however, is what an ecologically sustainable artist practice is. It is a practice that considers the impact of each artistic decision, aims to use a majority of materials, products and processes that are eco-friendly, ethical, locally produced, reused or found, a practice that embodies notions of circularity, which by creating local loops and links, helps to reduce the amount of resources used and generate local values within communities. It is also a practice that strives to achieve a neutral impact through multiple sustainable actions and solutions such as improving waste management, studio maintenance and energy consumption, reducing or improving transport needs and switching to natural materials.

Gerador: In March 2021, through the survey ‘how sustainable is your studio practice’, villa villa collected information from 131 artists on their efforts to make their studio practice more environmentally sustainable. One of the questions was “how do you commute to the studio?”. When we think about the transportation of art pieces to exhibitions around the world, what are the biggest concerns we should have?

Alice: The result of this questionnaire shows that 33.6% of respondents do not have a studio or work from home, 20.6% walk to their studio, 19.1% cycle, 13.7% drive, 7.6% take the train, 1.5% take the bus and 3.8% use other public transport. This question, while perhaps not as critical as long distance travel — as some think, is one that artists, art professionals and all individuals should consider. Long distance travel may be occasional, commuting to the studio is daily. It is a question of finding a balance in the overall CO2 emission resulting from a practice. That said, if an artist could only focus on the most polluting aspect of transport, then yes, for the sake of the climate, one should give up flying. If flying is, however, absolutely necessary, it can be made more carbon-efficient, for instance by taking longer trips, packing light and avoiding connections and business flights, which emit more CO2.

Gerador: “I’ve been making smaller works that are easier to transport, so I can send them to an exhibition instead of having to travel myself. So a large drawing might be made up of many small drawings for example.” - said someone on the survey. Should artists think about how the size and the ambition of their body of work interfere in their ecological footprint?

Alice: Our survey report ‘Environmentally Sustainable Artist Studio Practices’ contains many useful pieces of advice, tips and recommendations from artists. In this case, Brussels-based artist Rachel Bacon makes beautiful 47 x 83 cm graphite drawings on aluminium paper, which, when combined together as a grid of 24 drawings become a large landscape measuring 503 x 191 cm. This is an excellent example of a practice that manages to maintain the production of large-scale works, while finding a practical solution to shipping. Being able to send lightweight artworks by post, preferably using rail freight, is very advantageous. This shows that ecological decisions do not have to impact the size and ambition of an artwork.

Read Portuguese version here.

Alice Bonnot  〰️ ➰
In-ter-dependent Curator