the limited consideration of its place in art history and visual culture, to understanding its position within wider social and political systems. It necessarily promotes a broadened understanding of the role of art within society and its environment.
The Riparian Project exemplifies these ideas. It is a public art initiative led by interdisciplinary artist and researcher Jen Rae, waterways engineer Amanda Wealands and environmental lawyer Nicola Rivers, which promotes changes in live stock grazing practices in Victoria to improve the health of river systems. It uses art as a means of communication to build public awareness and influence government policy on the issue of riparian grazing. In conjunction with rural communities in Victoria, The Riparian Project develops public artworks to provoke new modes of thinking on the issue. It has been collaborating with the Yea Wetlands Committee of Management to engage the community in the design of a permanent, iconic artwork. An advisory group comprised of local artists, council representatives, educators and business owners provide insight and feedback on the development of a public artwork in the Yea Wetlands.
Adopting the principles of artist-led ecological projects, The Riparian Project incites a ‘collaborative approach to art making in the public realm, seeking to address contemporary environmental issues involving collective labour and ideas sharing’.5 It encourages interdisciplinary relationships and dialogues, through community engagement and participation, to survey the current state of riparian land, and ultimately initiates environmental protection through public action.
This project highlights the role of art as a tool to explore new ways of thinking: to challenge existing practice and instigate collective action. It demonstrates the ability of artworks and artist-led projects to subvert preconceived notions and authority structures, which hinder our ability to address issues of climate change and environmental degradation through proactive and progressive action. Another organisation that operates within such a framework is Cape Farewell, an international project that advocates a cultural response to climate change. It brings together artists, scientists and communicators to stimulate the production of art founded in scientific research, and promote the development of a creative language to communicate the urgent nature of the global climate crisis.6
In this context, art becomes an arena for engaging with ‘real world’ issues. It moves beyond the conventional criteria and rules that governed the production of art, to a broadened concept of art that promotes social, political and environmental action. This approach echoes the philosophies of artist Joseph Beuys and his view of art as a form of social activism. Beuys’s idea of ‘the extended concept of art’, or ‘art of the social sculpture’, encapsulates his belief in the transformative powers of art in the process of social revolution.
The Riparian Project and Cape Farewell reflect Beuys’s legacy, upholding notions of art as activism, and art as a tool for communication and collective action. They embody Beuys’s notion of the ‘ecological Gesamtkunstwerk’, the all-encompassing artwork developed through the democratic participation of all citizens to construct ‘a social organism as a work of art’.7 In this context artists operate beyond their conventional position, assuming a multitude of roles such as educator, mediator, facilitator and activist. Their projects commonly take place outside the walls of dominant art institutions, operating on the fringe of the mainstream art industry, yet their significance is paramount. Moving beyond customary systems of art making and display, these projects employ new and innovative practices.
Despite such progress, the prevailing art system continues to operate in terms of the physical art object and conventional exhibition model, which require significant investment in storage, packing, transport, display and lighting, not to mention the associated publication of glossy books, catalogues and magazines. Within this model, however, attempts are made to mitigate the environmental impact of art museum operations by changing accepted practice.8 A publication developed by Museums Australia, Museums and sustainability: guidelines for policy and practice in museums and galleries, provides cultural institutions with principles and strategies to achieve sustainable operations in the short- and long-term, and establish their role as integral to advancing sustainability in the broader community.9
While there is currently no centralised set of indicators to measure sustainability across cultural institutions, in 2008 the Australian Bureau of Statistics published Information Paper: Towards Comparable Statistics for Cultural Heritage Organisations to identify a number of key measures to improve the quality and comparability of organisational performance data across the sector – which could arguably be extrapolated to include some measure of
1 + 2/ The Riparian Project, Public Art Advisory Group (PAAG), documentation photos from workshops and site visits; images courtesy The Riparian Project
4 4 2 6 4 O c t o b e r 2 0 1 3
art monthly AUSTRALIA