Ecology: Between Ethics and Aesthetics

At the start of this 21st century, the issues that ecology raises unfold on a true battleground. The supposition that made André Malraux herald this century as irreligious seems hardly credible when the decisions to be made for humanity’s greater good focus on our duty to future generations. In Quebec and in Canada, just as everywhere else in the world, the protection of the environment elicits public outcry. Whether in respect to the exploitation of oil, shale gas development, the harnessing of river energy or deforestation, the representatives of organizations mandated to preserve our natural heritage fight on the front lines for the need to protect our natural resources. In the name of civil society, they demand more transparency in the decision-making process. Thus, in the span of a few decades, ecology—initially viewed as a natural science reserved for experts committed to studying the life of organisms in their natural habitats—has become an increasingly ideological movement for developing policies to protect the environment.

As a value system focused on debates about environmental issues, ecology encompasses scientific data but above all assumes an ethics. Yet, this ethics entails new responsibilities. For the philosopher Hans Jonas, these are prospective; they must take into account how our decisions will impact the lives of those who come after us.1 Furthermore, this ethic of the future coincides with a new way of seeing our place in the living world. In this regard, Michel Serres believes it important to develop a sort of contract with nature, acknowledging that all forms of life on Earth have a value, even an integral moral status.2 This way of considering our relationship to the environment calls into question the rationalist dualism prevalent in the West for centuries. And we also must move from an anthropocentric ethics to a biocentric ethics. This transition involves a new understanding of our sensory relationship with the world. Faced with a future that arouses anxiety, Jonas and Günther Anders advocate for a sensitivity combined with a feeling of fear. In the realm of the imagination, sensitivity can be conveyed as aesthetics of exaggeration.

In the recent exhibition LSS (Life Support System), the artist Ana Rewakowicz transformed Galerie B-312 into a kind of laboratory, in which she experimented with hydroponic plant growing from an artistic standpoint.3 From the start, her practice has sought to make viewers aware of environmental issues, including climate change. With works such as Air Cleanser (2008), Conversation Bubble (2008) and Green Line Project (2006), she has explored the potential of inflatable materials and the cultural and aesthetic implications of lightness. In contrast to Rewakowicz, Jean-Pierre Aubé’s artistic research considers the notion of landscape. By collecting electromagnetic phenomena, Aubé has captured novel variations of our experience of landscape from early on. Begun in Estonia, in 2009, the Electrosmog series has led to various images derived from the collection of radio frequencies. Most recently in Venice, the site of an important biennale of contemporary art, Aubé has continued collecting these phenomena, which our senses cannot audibly or visibly perceive.4

Artist Aude Moreau’s work La Ligne bleue is an exaggerated view of an unlikely ecological disaster.5 This project dramatizes a site-specific intervention that the artist intends to carry out in New York’s Financial District. It will take place at night and involve about twenty buildings in Manhattan. La ligne bleue will trace a 65-metre high horizontal line from inside office buildings, corresponding to a rise in the sea level if all the ice on the planet were to melt. Today, scientists and philosophers, such as Jonas or Anders, are putting forth the idea of disaster. This idea presupposes the decisions that need to be made in the context of a new geological epoch called Anthropocene. According to Bruno Latour, this era, which began with the Industrial Revolution, considers human activity as a key factor in transforming our planet. In these circumstances, thinking of nature outside of culture is useless. Instead, it is crucial to oppose the hope for another world beyond this world and urgently take care of the only Earth we have.

In her article, Bénédicte Ramade, the co-editor of the Forms of Ecology feature, reflects that while the Anthropocene epoch can offer new avenues for art, in terms of exhibiting works, the link between art and ecology is not always evident. Caitlin Chaisson presents Trading Routes, a socio-artistic project developed in response to the exploitation of oil in British Columbia. Artist Ruth Beer leads this project that offers an ecocritical discussion on oil culture. For her part, Caroline Loncol Daigneault recalls the philosophy of Boréal Art/Nature, the first artist-run centre in Quebec to take up environmental issues. In her essay, Pamela Mackenzie examines the critical potential of a work by Dutch artist Maurizio Montalti, who considers plastic to be conducive to a bioartistic approach.

Gentiane Bélanger’s article focuses on the World of Matter collective, an interdisciplinary group of artists and researchers who investigate and analyze the distribution of raw materials.6 Moving away from an anthropocentric perspective, the collective base their practice on a “materialist ontology,” which is related to Latour’s philosophy. In her essay, Christine Ross analyzes artist Isabelle Hayeur’s video titled Aftermaths. Based on an analysis of the omnipresent clouds in the video, the essay speaks of the consequences of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the resulting ecological disaster. To complete the collection of essays, in the “Public Art and Urban Practice” column, Isabelle Hermann evokes the public interventions of the Argentinean artist Nicolás Uriburu and his sporadic association with Greenpeace. This is the activist group for whom the environmental cause requires grand gestures that have the potential to create significant visual impact so as to affect the public in such a positive way that they will be compelled to take part in one of the greatest challenges of this century.

Translated by Oana Avasilichioaei


  1. Hans Jonas. The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
  2. Michel Serres. The Natural Contract. Trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
  3. The exhibition was shown at Galerie B-312 (Montreal) from February 19 to March 21, 2015.
  4. On the invitation of Galerie de l’UQAM and curator Louise Déry, Aubé is continuing his investigation of radio frequencies in Venice. Following a series of live interventions during the preview days of the 2015 Biennale, he will be showing his work at RAM radioartemobile (Rome) from May 14 to June 27, 2015.
  5. La ligne bleue exhibition, shown at galerie antoine ertaskiran (Montreal) from March 11 to April 18, 2015, featured various exploratory phases of the project.
  6. The World of Matter collective presented the exhibition Exposing Resource Ecologies at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University (Montreal), from February 20 to April 18, 2015.