Survival tactics: Sustainability in the Art World
For this survival tactics article, we’re getting into all things sustainability in the art world. From mediums, packaging, shipping, and crypto mining, we’re uncovering some of the biggest current eco-issues in the art ecosystem.
Featured Image: Photograph of Robert Smithson’s earthwork, Spiral Jetty, located at Rozel Point, Utah on the shore of the Great Salt Lake
As art fairs, major auctions, MFA programs, museum exhibitions, and gallery shows are well underway in the autumn season, it is important to take a moment to reflect on our collective imprint on the environment with our travels and excursions in the artworld. As temperatures rise and the looming consequences of climate change loom large, any and all steps are important to consider.
The artworld may appear to be a small market demographic, but we have an important place and footprint to consider in the larger picture of the current climate crisis. International auction houses, private overseas sales and global fair circuits all contribute to significant carbon footprints for artists, collectors and art professionals alike. Jet setting to metropolitan locations, freighting artworks across borders–whether sea, air, or ground–mountains of discarded bubble wrap and even the materials artists use all contribute to our environmental bottom line.
This week we’re diving into some of these issues, artist’s who are critically combating the damage made on the environment, and the current environmental issues impacted by crypto mining and trading NFTs.
Mediums and Artworks
Sustainable art is about creatively finding new ways to create works that can benefit the environment. Using recycled materials, found objects, repurposed artworks incorporated into new pieces, or giving new life to discarded pieces of older works are all ways to approach a practice through the lens of environmental consciousness. At the crux of sustainability is the practice of using Earth’s resources in a way that will not destroy the future generation’s ability to meet their basic needs.
Particularly in the age of mass information, the constant stream of data and information regarding climate change has informed contemporary art practices. More and more, artists are developing their practices to critically examine the collective state of the environment and their role as an artist.
Marina DeBris: The Sydney-based American artist scavenges beaches and collects trash washed up from the ocean to create “trashion” and other works of art. Deeply tied to performance art, costuming, and Duchampian methods of using found objects, her work focuses on raising awareness of beach and ocean pollution. DeBris also is an environmental fundraiser, educator, and collaborator with non-profit organizations. Recently in 2021, DeBris found nearly 300 face masks on beaches, and used them in her “trashion” and other works.
Jos Theriault: The Toronto-based artist has developed his practice using repurposed dried and discarded paints and materials in his works. Often creating intimate urban landscapes highlighting the run-down age of the city affected by pollution, gentrification, development and waste. Additionally, discarded food packaging such as chip bags and single-use utensils are molded into cheeky squirrels, sharks and the common DeWalt drill intrinsic to any art install.
Earth artists of the 1960s and 70s paved the way for many contemporary artists. Robert Smithson (1938-1973) and Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) are important figures in the development of Earth art and critically examine our role on the land in the art world.
Shipping and Transport
After the physical artwork is produced, the next issue is how we get it from point A to point B. Whether a large-scale painting, a delicate ceramic, or fragile work on paper framed under glass, transportation has a major impact on sustainable practices. Christie’s auction house and the fine-arts logistics firm Crozier have made major strides in their recent partnership. Together they have a new regular sea freight route between London and New York to help streamline the number of trips taken to shuttle works between the two major art centers.
Compared to air freight, sea freight provides an 80% reduction in emissions, providing a more sustainable art transport solution. The partners have dedicated these routes to the highest volume routes to reduce the frequency of trips and avoid sending near empty freights across the globe. Christie’s has committed to filling 60 percent of each container to ensure the pilot program’s viability, The remaining space in the container will be made available to any Crozier client interested in shipping by sea. This also includes small-scale arts companies committed to sustainability but unable to afford such a service on their own.
As a collector, artist, or arts professional, considerations to consolidate works for transport is important to strategize. As an artist, working with your gallery to consolidate your works with other artists for exhibitions and fairs may seem like a small step, but can contribute to a more sustainable practice.
Similarly, artworks scheduled for auction can be scheduled into an efficient route with your shipper to be transported across the country on a routine shuttle.
Of course, life can get in the way and last minute transport solutions will inevitably crop up, however having the awareness and foresight to plan as best as possible for sustainable transport is a practice that can be carried out throughout your journey.
Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson announced recently that his studio is eliminating nearly all airfreight and individual air travel in an effort to become carbon neutral within a decade. The artists Gary Hume and Tino Sehgal have also adopted this approach to their practices.
Wrapping and Packaging
Remember that mountain of bubble wrap we highlighted above? We’re going to dive right into to discuss how we can collectively be more sustainable with our packaging and wrapping in the art world.
As a rule of thumb: reuse, reuse, reuse! We often treat packaging materials like bubble wrap, packing peanuts, cardboard, and foam as single-use items, used to effectively throw away. However, these products can and should be reused to not only help your bottom line, but be more sustainable overall.
There are also some incredible companies who have devoted their research to innovative reusable packaging products that can help phase out these single use materials that have come to be par for the course in the art world.
EcoEnclose: Their paper mailers are made with 100% recycled fibers with a minimum of 90% post-consumer waste. The wide range of mailers are also curbside recyclable helping consumers responsibly dispose of the materials once they have become unusable. The company also offers “GreenWrap”, a honeycomb expandable paper product that molds around artworks for safe transport–a great reusable alternative to packing peanuts.
RokBox: An exciting solution to the bulky, awkward and expensive wood crates that the artworld depends on for transportation. The rentable, reusable, lightweight plastic crates significantly reduce CO2 emissions during transport and address the issue of single-use waste created by traditional wood crates. Totally customizable to specified dimensions, colors and branding, the boxes are also fully recyclable at the end of their life.
Kvatt: Technologically advanced reusable packaging that effectively replaces the soft-packaging used in ground transport. The reusable envelope-style packaging allows for seamless protection of artworks with the added bonus of reusability for future shipments. An interesting part of their model is the ability for consumers to return damaged or degraded packages so the team can either repair or recycle them for a sustainable product solution.
Exhibitions and Fairs
Closely linked to transport, packaging materials, and individual traveling is the monumental task of organizing major exhibitions while being environmentally responsible. In the case of museums, extending exhibitions longer for reduced transportation and resources might be a good first step. Additionally, institutions mounting exhibitions featuring more works from their own collections would also be a fantastic way to creatively re-examine collections in new ways with fewer traveling works to cut down on carbon footprints. As value-add, the public can experience works from the vaults which are not always readily available in the permanent collection.
For fairs, time is of the essence and cannot be afforded extended exhibiting times. However, if the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that digital can replace so many traditionally analog in-person experiences. The social value aside, supplemental virtual components to fairs can help streamline a collectors approach to their role in the art ecosystem. Artland VR Exhibitions offer online exhibition programming for galleries. In these parallel spaces to the traditional bricks and mortar gallery, the virtual reality exhibition is used by galleries as a sales tool to offer private client previews, accept direct client inquiries, and are available for both desktop and mobile use. For artists, the tool can help contextualize their works in a proportional gallery space to help collectors and prospective galleries to visualize their works in a tangible way.
Recently, Frieze has switched to a new type of fuel, Green D–made from vegetable oil waste– to power its London fair. The move resulted in a 90 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared to conventional fuels. At Art Basel, some 94.2% of “overall energy requirements are met by renewable energies,” an Art Basel spokesman said.
Daniel Birnbaum, the former director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and current director and curator of virtual- and augmented-reality arts organization Acute Art, said “What’s needed is a more ‘localized’ approach to art…Focus on exhibitions or shows within your own city or nearby in the countryside. Because it’s really no longer necessary to fly a big piece of art halfway around the world just to appear at a cocktail party.”
Where does this leave NFTs?
NFTs themselves do not impact the environment, however, how they are minted can have a significant impact. Minting a single NFT using a proof-of-work blockchain uses the same amount of electricity as an average American household uses in about 47 days, according to Digiconomist. Taking a look at Bitcoin more specifically, most of its mining facilities are powered by fossil fuels which contribute to the eroding stability of the climate.
Ethereum is the leading blockchain used to mint NFTs. It transitioned to proof-of-work, called The Merge, on Sept. 15, 2022, which helped reduce energy consumption by approximately 99.95%, according to Ethereum. It is still early days, however, and the long-term impacts remain to be seen. The effort and consciousness, nonetheless, point to a more sustainably driven crypto model for the future.
Aorist “is a next-generation cultural institution supporting a climate-forward NFT marketplace for artists creating at the edge of art and technology.” By partnering with ClimateTrade and Algorand, the organization strives to promote blockchain sustainability while working closely with artists. The group is climate-forward, striving to offset at least twice the carbon emissions generated by minting its NFTs.
Time will tell more about the fate of NFTs and their impact on our physical environment, however, it is an important consideration when venturing into the world of NFTs and deciding whether to partake in this new world.
Want to learn more? Check out some additional resources on Eco-friendly artists, mining, organizations banning together for a more sustainable future:
ECO FRIENDLY ARTISTS WHO WILL BLOW YOUR MIND
INSTITUTE FOR LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL ART
The World Biennale is the worldwide traveling innovation laboratory for the contemporary arts with a strong focus on sustainability and responsibility.