Prompted by Jessica Langley at ReCreative Denver
On Medium: “Making Kin with Pessimism (and Mushrooms)” by Katherine Guinness, in response to Tilt West’s Roundtable on Environmental Ethics & the Arts
As creatives living in or next to the Rocky Mountains, we are keenly aware of the stereotypical heroic American landscape—open vistas and looming mountains, associated with a sense of rugged individualism. Our American songs, movies, literature, and ad campaigns have long referenced this mythologized, pristine landscape. American art history is replete with landscape paintings that have both represented and shaped the country we know today. The poems and essays of Emerson and Thoreau helped to establish the notion of a sublime wilderness which Bierstadt, Church, and other Hudson River School painters later depicted. These artworks lured white European settlers to North and South America. They were the blockbuster movies of their time, spawning eco-tourism, westward expansion, and the decimation of native peoples and the plants and animals living on these lands.
Now these landscapes are flooding and burning; the climate has changed. We are post-industrial and post-digital, but not post-material. We must endure a landscape devastated by our presence.
New research on the Anthropocene is teaching us that humans have reshaped our planet’s surface in irreparable ways, leaving our mark in the geologic record. Raising beef—a $2.8 billion industry in Colorado—accounts for close to 20% of U.S. methane emissions. Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) and other surface mining practices have literally scraped away whole mountains. Natural wonders around the world are being “loved to death” by an influx of tourists seeking that idealized, Instagrammable #wilderness. Fragile lava and moss fields are being trampled because of the recent draw of Iceland’s terrible beauty, and riparian (wetland) areas around the world are being flooded to make way for clean energy. A new island has formed in the Pacific Ocean made entirely out of garbage.
What is this new landscape, and what role might the arts play in shaping a new relationship between humans and the Earth? Are some art forms better suited than others to address the current crisis?
Most images of our planet now come from data sources far removed from the Earth’s surface – satellites. We rely on satellites for navigation, communication technology, weather forecasting, and the tracking and surveillance of people on the ground. Like the famous 1972 “Blue Marble” photo taken by the crew of Apollo 17, images of our planet given to us by these satellites provide an omniscient—an alien—point of view. How do these abstractions of place and landscape affect our relationship to our planet? Are we more removed than ever from direct, sensory experience, despite being more “connected” than ever through GPS, the Internet, and social media?
One understudied scientific field that might lend hope to our seemingly hopeless situation is mycology, the study of mushrooms. Mycology relies on both professional and citizen scientists. Hunting for mushrooms requires all the human senses—sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. A foray in the woods offers a connection with the surface of the planet, even as it engages with the lab-based activities of microscopic and chemical identification, as well as DNA sequencing. Through slow observation and careful movement over the ground, we experience the immediacy of our embodied selves.
John Cage, an avant garde musician, founded the New York Mycological Society in 1962. Cage and other experimental musicians, like Pauline Oliveros, promoted deep listening and a meditative engagement with nature and the environment. Recent mushroom research, led by scientists like Paul Stamets and artists like Philip Ross, has sought solutions to environmental problems from bee colony collapse disorder to malaria, and has led to the creation of zero-impact packaging materials. By researching ancient folk practices and combining this knowledge with current technology, mycological discoveries are revealing a tightly connected relationship between the mycelial network within the soil and the forests around us. Researchers are learning how these connections work to break down matter, remove toxins from soil, and even transfer nutrients from one species to another, providing enormous health benefits to both humans and the planet.
Meanwhile, as our climate disaster worsens, we see the general failure of capitalism to address these environmental challenges. Do artists have an ethical obligation to get involved? Currently, the dominant visual art market is obsessed with speculation and an artistic trend (zombie formalism) that curtails discussion of difficult global problems. Are other artistic fields (theater, film, literature, dance) doing a better job of responding to this crisis, or do those fields reflect this failure to act as well? Existential dread in the face of climate change can only get us so far. Can mourning the loss of our landscape make way for healing? Future thinking is a sign of healthy cognitive function… can we still envision a future for our planet, or are we bound to a collective obsession with an outdated image of our environment, a mythology that artists helped to produce? Can we find hope in our capitalist ruin?
—Jessica Langley, roundtable prompter
Art for the Anthropocene Era by Eleanor Heartney
Against the Anthropocene by T.J. Demos
The Toxic Legacy of Zombie Formalism, Part 1 by Chris Wiley
This is What Climate Change Looks Like in VR by Adam Piore
A House Made From Mushrooms, an Artist Dreams of a Fungal Future by Liz Roth-Johnson
6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World by Paul Stemets
Prologue & Chapter 1: Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
About the Prompter
Jessica Langley (b. 1981, USA) is a multimedia artist currently based in Colorado. She has exhibited her work internationally, and has been an artist-in-residence in numerous programs including Skaftfell Center of Visual Art in Iceland, Askeaton Contemporary Art in Ireland, the SPACES World Artist Program in Cleveland, and the Digital Painting Atelier at OCAD-U in Toronto. She was a recipient of the J. William Fulbright Scholarship for research in Iceland, and earned her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008. She is an amateur mycologist, and her artwork and writings have been published in the New York Mycological Society Newsletter, New American Paintings, NPR, Hyperallergic, and Temporary Art Review. She is co-founder of The Yard, a site for public art in Colorado Springs.