Over the last fifteen years, numerous curators and critics have tried, through theoretical exhibitions, to redefine the role of art in relation to ecology – to find the right relationship between them.1 Perspectives that are too narrow or that drive home the principles of a fundamental duality are held in contempt: the ideas about ecology conveyed by artworks (as well as their contexts of production and presentation) are held under a microscope. In fact, ecology – a subject at the crossroads of science, politics, technology, economics, social justice, and biology – is demanding a greater voice, and art that claims to give it voice must incorporate and reflect this complexity. Cultural theories steer discourses on nature toward integrating a form of “self-reflection,” determining at the same time a potentially indispensable approach to art theories and contemporary creativity dealing with ecology. Obviously, a form of aesthetic rectitude is making inroads: ecological art must be ethical and, especially, conceptually valid.
This critical work, being done by theoreticians and artists, is even more necessary because it sheds a bright light on the art world’s contribution to environmental issues. I would like to broaden the focus here to consider the example of Boréal Art/Nature, a Canadian organization that was very involved in this area.2 Thus with these debates over ecological art in mind, I will examine the nature of the context this centre set up and how it communicated this context in order to highlight both its pertinence and its ambiguities.
Boréal Art/Nature was part of the first wave of Quebec artists and collectives to directly embrace the environmental cause. Starting in the second half of the 1980s, when the green movement was experiencing a revival,3 a series of events, exhibitions and sites intended to highlight the themes of art and ecology, art and nature, art and territory, or art and gardens sprang up. These events took place across Quebec, tracing the perimeters of new “cultural territories,” notably in the Bas-du-Fleuve, Gaspé, Charlevoix, Eastern Townships, Mauricie and Abitibi regions.4 A shared ecological sensibility centred on local issues and a regionalism sustained by the structure of the art system connected these initiatives. There was also the widespread idea, very much in fashion at the time that the “spirit of the place” could influence the art. It was at this time that Boréal was founded in the Upper Laurentians in 1988. The centre deliberately chose to make nature the principal subject of investigation. For twenty years, artists gathered together to make their way into remote landscapes – from rivers to reservoirs, from forests to valleys – in the Upper Laurentians, but also the Canadian West, Iceland, Mexico, and Wales. They set their course for “wild” nature. In addition to expeditions within Canada and abroad, thematic residencies were organized on a private property (at La Minerve), and then in the heart of a three-hundred-acre heritage forest (at Labelle) the centre managed. Until it closed, in 2008, the organization invited artists “from the four corners of the world,” from varied generations and disciplines, to create ephemeral works in natural environments that were transformed into observatories, laboratories, studios, or exhibition sites, away from the usual systems of production and presentation.
For an idea of the early experiments Boréal conducted and the attendant ideological issues, we have to look at the expeditions accounts. Let’s take the example of the publication Écart Art Aventure (a record of the second expedition Boréal organized, in 1989), in which a topographic map defines Lake Mitchimanecus as a “virgin zone where a few people settled to create.”5 The artists set out as adventurers. In their view, “the space [was] large and available,” and a succession of “deserted” bays became their studios. First marking the distance, then signalling the obstacles, the dangers of the journey (waves, rocky shoals, perilous route) and each of the steps to take: this was how Boréal delivered, from the beginning, the story of its expeditions in nature. The care organization took to “deepen the distance” between “worlds,” to highlight the scope of the voyage and to designate nature as site of pure otherness, contrasted with its wish to “revive a contract”6 with nature. Basing a desire to draw closer on a practice of distance and division is reminiscent of the internal contradiction raised within deep ecology and ecological holism – that is, envisaging a model of merging with nature built from theoretical traditions that the centre sought, in fact, to dismantle.
In concert with the flood of art-nature events in Quebec during the 1990s, Boréal’s activities coincided with a gradual “reshaping” of the notions of nature and landscape. In addition to ethical and epistemological issues affecting environmental art, a change of paradigms was in operation within contextual practices, what art historian Miwon Kwon designates as the transition to a conflation of a “phenomenological” approach – based on presence in the field – with a “discursive” and intertextual approach to the site.7 In this sense, the relationship with context put forth at Boréal would resemble a “phenomenological” system in which the site is seen as a relatively monolithic reality rooted in individual experience, to the detriment of seriously considering the cultural, economic, and political mechanisms that constitute it. More generally, we might also note both that certain phenomenological uses are sometimes accused of primitivist nostalgia and that adopting a “natural” attitude gives rise to interpretations seeped in romanticism. Despite these reservations, it seems to me that the phenomenological approach, with its endorsement of “essences,” sheds light on Boréal’s position. Direct, subjective experience played a crucial role for the organization as the primary means by which one can “get to know” the world and this other that is nature.
As Jeane Fabb, co-founder of Boréal, emphasized, the organization intentionally situated artistic “questioning” in “untouched places,” separated from environmental issues and their representations. Thus, actions belong “fully on the side of an ‘unabridged’ nature.”8 When we read Boréal’s travel accounts, we see moreover how artists participating in the expeditions stripped away each layer of social strata in order, in a phenomenological comprehension, to “return to things themselves.” In doing this, they undertook to be attentive to what could be found beyond and prior to cultural referents. If this seemed theoretically impossible from a discursive perspective, it was otherwise from a phenomenological perspective, as the thinker Neil Evernden suggests:
If we are to address ourselves to the actual experience of others, not to the cultural explanation of otherness, we will have to take seriously Merleau-Ponty’s adage: “To return to things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge.” This statement alludes to the phenomenological method with its act of “bracketing” social conventions so as to achieve as direct an experience of the world as possible.9
Boréal thus minimized social interference and positioned the research in a “bracketed” nature.
In this spirit, during its last five years of operation, Boréal Art/Nature made room for longer cycles of individual residencies, in which solitary retreats prevailed and contact with the natural environment and the research process clearly had precedence over production. Like for the expeditions, the stories resulting from the residencies (often more than the artworks produced) provide the most information. For example, after a winter residency on Boréal’s land, in 2006, the Saskatchewan Métis artist Edward Poitras wrote about his experience. During the two months spent on his own, he said that he felt “closely watched.” Surrounded by trees that, in his words, “considered” him, the artist would naturally have turned his gaze to the objects that he had with him:
…seeds, peelings, shells, tin cans, plastic coverings, labels and stickers. I began to look at my own consumption seeing the problem with the amount of waste that was left over from my own need to survive. I was beginning to see something in all of this. […] In the end, I was interested in the homeless and less fortunate. Thinking of ways that other’s could benefit from my presence. If my presence were to have an impact. Maybe an act of altruism in the creation of a project is one path. The art of presence, in the company of others, now that I know what it is to be alone.10
Surprisingly, for Poitras, it was from within the brackets of a “non tangled” nature that environmental ethics and social ethics were to meet, eventually changing the direction of his art production.
Boréal Art/Nature was manifestly rooted in an “unorthodox” way in the broadened context of discursive approaches and current issues arising from the arts and from ecology. Yet, although the organization didn’t address nature from the start by situating it at the heart of daily, social and political contingencies, and didn’t point to ideological and cultural markers either, This is because it took another, less distanced and more relational avenue. Boréal favoured the approach of attachment and closeness. The nature taking shape there, just as complex, provided the opportunity for a dialogue, calling attention to the origin of the creative gesture, and wanting to recognize what pulsates behind it. And this, perhaps, exceeded the representations.
Translated by Käthe Roth
Caroline Loncol Daigneault is an author, curator and researcher. She is currently writing a book on the dialogues that contemporary art engages in with the environment. In 2013–14, choreographer Tedi Tafel invited her to write on her dance work and centre Vaste et Vague asked her to write about a project with local Mi’gmaq communities. In 2012, she curated Hospitalité, the 2012 Saint-Jean-Port-Joli sculpture biennale, and wrote about artist Vida Simon’s exhibition-intervention ELLE MARCHE blue mountain.
In the exhibition catalogue Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969–2009 (London: Barbican Centre, 2009), T. J. Demos attempts to find the ideological flaws in previous exhibitions (including Barbara Matilsky’s Fragile Ecologies and Stephanie Smith’s Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art), laying claim to a more subtle and all-encompassing comprehension of ecology and its concepts. Criticized for its purist and spiritualist understanding of nature, Fragile Ecologies (1992) considered ecology, for example, as a “science of planetary maintenance.” Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies, co-curated by Sue Spaid and Amy Lipton (Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, 2002), encouraged practices with a “real” impact on the environment. Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art (2005) explored multidisciplinary appropriation of sustainable design, integrating an ethical and critical approach to art production and presentation. The Biennale de Charjah, Still Life: Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change (2007), brought together the public’s environmental issues and its daily life.
At first called Boréal – Association des artistes des Laurentides, the centre changed its name to Boréal Art/Nature in 1997.
Under the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the United States, the first half of the 1980s was marked by the threat of nuclear war, and the great majority of green activists, artists included, temporarily changed their focus to the disarmament and peace movement. Only at the end of the decade, as the conclusion to the Cold War approached, was it possible to observe renewed interest in environmental issues, which were central to public opinion around the world, and in Quebec. “Green” ideas and concerns crossed disciplinary boundaries and were addressed in spheres as varied as social, political and artistic research.
Notable among these many initiatives were Bonjour Françoise at Port-Daniel, Gaspé, in 1991; Le langage des traces, at Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, in 1983; the Nishk E Tshitapmuk (sous le regard de l’Outarde) symposium, in Mashteuiatsh; the founding of Centre Est-Nord-Est, in 1992, at Saint-Jean-Port-Joli; the creation, in 1995, of the Fondation Derouin and the Jardins du précambrien de la fondation Derouin, in Val-David; and, in 1997, le Symposium Art et Nature at Bic. On each occasion, the orientation remained faithful to the model of the symposium as employed at the pioneering Symposium international de sculpture de Chicoutimi in 1980: more than a theme to explore, ecology structured the relations among the artists, the sites and the public.
Boréal Multimédia, Écart art aventure (La Macaza: Boréal Multimédia, 1990), 6 (our translation).
Ibid., 56 (our translation).
Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2004), 3.
Interview with Jeane Fabb by the author, April 2011 (our translation).
Neil Evernden, The Social Creation of Nature (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), 110.
Edward Poitras, The Art of Presence: Residency (Boréal Art/Nature, 2006).