To Erode or Not To Erode: The Opposite Poles of Environmental Cultural Engagements

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

Lanfranco Aceti
Associate Professor, Contemporary Art and Digital Culture
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Sabanci University, Istanbul

ABSTRACT

The dynamic relationship between humanity and the pollution and erosion of the North and South Poles is increasingly reshaping, altering and challenging cultural assumptions. As the Poles are eroded, the cultural framework and symbolisms determined by a cultural landscape that is the reflection of a natural environment in distress are also increasingly eroding. Our erosion of the Poles results in the Poles eroding us in return, obliging humanity to alter and find new cultural solutions.

Keywords: cultural erosions, cultural geography, Poles, digital culture, symbolism, new media art and community


GREED AS AN INCENTIVE: NO SOCIETY CAN ADVANCE WITHOUT INCENTIVES

Perhaps this is how the contemporary issue of the erosion of the Poles could be summed up: the conundrum that contemporary society is facing is that of being able to alter economic mechanisms and behavioral attitudes that have sustained the present rhythms of human development. The impossibility of continuing the present framework of exploitation of the planet – although becoming more and more apparent and scientifically proven – has not led to significant changes in social behaviors.

The reason for the slow progress of change and the increasing impact of human activity on the planet and the Poles in particular is linked to the difficulty of altering a basic and fundamental approach to the planet as an object of consumption. Earth as a cultural concept has shifted from a perception of divine gift to object of consumption that in an anthropocentric culture is based on a culturally inherited vision of boundless resources. The planet has been traditionally represented as infinite and not as a finite environment with its own precarious and evolving equilibria.[1]

Fig 1: Screen grab from the entry page of the online project Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

Fig 1: Screen grab from the entry page of the online project Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

The online art project Erosions challenges through visual metaphors the concept of infinite resources and the relationship between greed and progress, placing the viewer in a condition of impossibility of engagement.

To view the project means to automatically alter and erode it in order to achieve an immediate material gain: a pixel of the artwork itself is eroded every time a visitor enters the site online, leaving behind a progressively eroding and eroded map. Not being motivated by greed and refusing to participate in the online project to avoid being part of a process of erosion ‘punishes’ the viewer by not providing any immediate gain, only the possibility of receiving a delayed gain in the form of a digital art piece in 2050 – an assumed date of the melting of the Poles.

Fig 2: Screen grab from the map to be eroded that will reveal a second image hidden behind it as increasing numbers of participants will choose pixels to be eroded. Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

Fig 2: Screen grab from the map to be eroded that will reveal a second image hidden behind it as increasing numbers of participants will choose pixels to be eroded. Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

By the time the viewers who decided ‘Not To Erode’ receive the artwork in 2050 they may no longer be able to enjoy the artwork and the image may have become only a cultural reminder and documentation, a visual mythological byproduct, of a process of erosion that has reached its conclusion.

Contemporary digital media – possibly more than other media – offer the opportunity, through databases and records of mass interaction, to reveal the sequence between choice/behavior/consequence in a visual art context based on a new concept of cultural geography.[2]

Louise Shannon,Curator and Deputy Head of Contemporary Programmes at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, for the exhibition Decode: Digital Design Sensations asked “what do digital technologies allow you to do or investigate that other tools do not?” Golan Levin answered: “I can create behaviour.”[3]

The possibility of generating new behaviors or at least revealing forms of behavior in order to foster alternative cultural engagements is being recognized as one of the fundamental elements of contemporary digital artworks.

Fig 3: Accumulation of eroded pixels displayed online. Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

Fig 3: Accumulation of eroded pixels displayed online. Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

The relationship, in this context, between digital art and cultural geography is one of action and intervention. Digital art’s focus on behaviors materializes the possibility offered by contemporary media to alter the relationship between human communities and the natural environment by creating artworks that are derived from a shift in behavior and cultural perceptions. The focus of cultural geography – particularly in a context of erosion and pollution of the Poles – is on the new cultural – and visual – landscape that is being created as a byproduct of human action and on the possibility of “investigating the transformation of natural landscapes into cultural ones.”[4]

Fig 4: Screen grab of an email with eroded pixels. Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

Fig 4: Screen grab of an email with eroded pixels. Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

Complex interactions between the visualization of the erosion of the Poles through artistic practices, and the reconstruction of the cultural representations of the natural landscape in new models of cultural geographies, are creating the narrative that will underpin the cultural mythological transformation and transition from what the Poles were to what the absence of the Poles will be.

The process of erosion of the Poles is not only a physical transformation of the landscape caused by human activity but also a reshaping of new cultural engagements with the past and future mythological representations and meanings of these two regions of the planet.

The process of transformation of the Poles will require a redefinition of their meaning – from arctic climate areas to Mediterranean heavens perhaps? – with a nostalgia for the rediscovery of the aesthetic meaning[5] of the wilderness in the Great North that, as the planet warms up and changes into desert, will become the cultural and mythological representation of a lost golden era. Societies will have to be provided with a new visual and cultural definition not just of the disappearing and perhaps disappeared Poles but also of the impacting role played by humanity on the planet.

Fig 5: Particular of accumulation of eroded pixels displayed online. Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

Fig 5: Particular of accumulation of eroded pixels displayed online. Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

This is a role that is being extensively recorded and scientifically documented. The amount of scientific data available increases as the observation of the process of erosion of the Poles – indicators of a process of erosion of the planet – intensifies.

Together with this scientific observation there is a buildup of socio-political cultural commentaries that through the new media recording of statements, writings and wrangling will form a body of knowledge in a future myth on the ability or inability of contemporary society to respond to the challenge of redefining itself in order to be able or unable to save itself.

NATURE IS NOTHING IF IT IS NOT SOCIAL[6]

This process of digital data recording will generate a new model of mythology describing the alteration of the geography of the Poles, since it will not be based on an oral tradition of transmission that is in itself affected by processes of erosion. In the study of myths Claude Lévi-Strauss stated that “we can never hope to know more than certain fragmentary and partial aspects which, before they come into our ken, have already been subjected to all kinds of upheavals and phenomena of erosion.”[7] Perhaps for the first time in human history there will be a mythological representation of reality that is based on scientific data creating a myth based on the exactness of the description of humanity’s erosive nature.

Fig 6: Particular of accumulation of eroded pixels displayed online. Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

Fig 6: Particular of accumulation of eroded pixels displayed online. Erosions, Lanfranco Aceti, 2010.

The consequences of an erasure and fundamental alteration of the geography and of the cultural geography – together with its mythological representation – will further call into question the anthropocentric role of humanity on the planet. It may possibly reverse the ‘abuse and leave’ approach characteristic of the historical behavior of European travelers and colonizers at the basis of a concept of progress that is more similar to uncontrolled parasitic growth or human infestation.[8]

‘The European traveler,’ he wrote, ‘is disconcerted by this landscape which does not fit any of his traditional categories.’ This was a world which was too alien, too much ‘other.’[…] The other form of exploitation was visible in those areas where man had misused the environment for a few years and then abandoned it to weeds and erosion.[9]

This form of collective behavior and its cultural representation based on exploitation and abandonment if it is sustainable on the short to medium term becomes an impossible tenet in a world where there is nowhere else to go. The contemporary world is a geographical locus where the ‘others’ – the unexplored geographical areas – have all but disappeared. The new frontier becomes outer space, the astronomical geography that is already being polluted by the detritus of human satellites’ and rockets’ activities. Moving off the planet – as a form of salvation – becomes another tap – or trap – in the journey of exploitation and abandonment. Earth is abandoned and a new itinerary of space exploitation becomes available in a new definition of human kind that does not take into consideration its deeper realities.

From geology, psychoanalysis and Marxism Claude Lévi-Strauss makes a distinction between conscious perceptions and the deeper realities which underlay them.[10]

It is in this distinction between conscious perception and deeper realities –including forms of mythological realities and their representations – that art and new media art have a potential to offer symbols that respond through metaphorical representations of the scientific, the social and the cultural to cultural stress.[11] The process of re-creating symbols and social interpretation of crisis through forms of ‘behavioral digital art’ provides a possibility of rebuilding a social sense of identity and community.[12] Within this area of trans-disciplinary interactions the aesthetic, scientific, social and cultural engagements help to understand the deeper realities of contemporary engagements and to reshape, through numerous and accumulated individual actions, society’s identity and the anthropocentric cultural perceptions of progress and evolution beyond the concepts of erosion, exploitation, abandonment and permanent crisis.[13]

CONCLUSIONS

The approach of reshaping, through contemporary digital media, behaviors and modalities of interaction is a concept based on the social idea of political intervention not as a quest for power and greed but as individual and collective acts of responsibility to transform society.[14] This analysis brings the actions of the states and of the individual into the realm of morality, or the lack of it, in contemporary society and questions the relationship between nature and human morals in an ecofeminist perspective.[15] If this is a complex relationship with a long tradition based on the relationship of humans with nature that has changed from communitarian to individualistic, from caring[16] to abusive, David Harvey reminds us that a virtuous relationship with nature is based on communitarian ideals of civic virtues.[17]

What needs to be reassessed are the parameters of human behavior in an extended global village that increasingly knows no barriers. The human city is the planet and it is a city in which Lévi-Strauss’ decried approach of abuse and abandonment as a globalized enforced custom in the name of an a-moral progress – that disguises greed and individualism versus communitarian and collective oriented ‘green behaviors.’

With the words “greed is idolatry,” […] is equivalent to saying that greed is a heathen behavior […] To be greedy, then, is in the opinion of the group, to be guilty of flagrant disloyalty to group values, in effect to betray the group’s identity.[18]

This is not an argument for either the return to an era of golden morals or to religious values, but a proposition in favor of continuously developing social ethics that, evolving from a Pauline metaphor and passing through the contemporary ethics of illegality,[19] may actually reach, possibly through digital media and aesthetic visual representation of data, newly hardwired behaviors.

The creation of “community” did not happen overnight; it developed over many millennia. People came to understand that emotions like shame, guilt, disgust, and fear of abandonment could be used to induce the individual to practice self-control for the common good. […] to use these emotions to control individual behavior. Over time, some system of rules for behavior had to prevail if a community was to prevent its own disintegration.[20]

Perhaps the construction of a new morality, based on knowledge and caring, may be carried through new media behaviors, forms of visualization and interactions that support community action and civic engagements in order to prevent – by re-negotiating and re-constructing a new sense of community – the erosion of the planet and of the humans on it.


ENDNOTES

1. For theories of physiocentrism see: Klaus Michael Meyer-Abich, “Humans in Nature: Toward a Physiocentric Philosophy,” Daedalus 125, no. 3, The Liberation of the Environment (Summer, 1996): 213-234 and James D. Proctor, “Geography, Paradox, and Environmental Ethics,” Progress in Human Geography 22 (1998): 234-55.
2. Marie Price and Martin Lewis, “The Reinvention of Cultural Geography,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 83, no. 1 (March, 1993), 2-3.
3. Golan Levin’s official Web Site, “Interview for Victoria & Albert Exhibition by Louise Shannon,” September, 2009, http://www.flong.com/texts/interviews/interview_shannon/ (accessed February 10, 2010).
4. Marie Price and Martin Lewis, “The Reinvention of Cultural Geography,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 83, 1 (1993): 1.
5. “This romantic or aesthetic model of nature supports present-day quests in Bedford for elite social status through reference to earlier aristocratic models of distinction.” James S. Duncan and Nancy G. Duncan, “The Aestheticization of the Politics of Landscape Preservation,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers91, no. 2 (Jun., 2001): 398-399.
6. Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 30.
7. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Naked Man: Mythologiques, vol. IV, trans. John and Doreen Weightman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 634.
8. Károly Henrich, “Gaia Infiltrata: The Anthroposphere as a Complex Autoparasitic System,” Environmental Values 11 (2002): 490.
9. David Pace, Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Bearer of Ashes (London: Routledge, 1983), 44.
10. Ibid., 25.
11. Lester B. Rowntree and Margaret W. Conkey, “Symbolism and the Cultural Landscape,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70, no. 4 (December, 1980), 459.
12. This approach leads to a phenomenological, ontological and epistemological interpretation of geography, culture and morals. James D. Proctor, “Introduction: Overlapping Terrains,” in Geography and Ethics: Journeys in a Moral Terrain, ed. James D. Proctor and David M. Smith, 6 (New York: Routledge, 1999).
13. “One of the current difficulties with rationalist social theory, with its underlying evolutionary presuppositions is that we have lost our capacity to claim to understand what lies beyond the current crisis. Without any clear sense of the possibility of new patterns, crisis becomes a more or less permanent condition – a chronic illness or a dream without end.”  Robert Holton, “Problems of Crisis and Normalcy in the Contemporary World,” inRethinking Progress: Movements, Forces, and Ideas at the End of the 20th Century,‎ ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander and Piotr Sztompka, 43 (London: Routledge, 1990).
14. Ibid.
15. David Marshall Smith, Moral Geographies: Ethics in a World of Difference (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 194.
16. Chris Cuomo, Feminism and Ecological Communities: An Ethic of Flourishing (London: Routledge, 1998), 22-23.
17. David Harvey, Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 179.
18. Brian S. Rosner, Greed as Idolatry: The Origin and Meaning of a Pauline Metaphor (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007), 156.
19. “Note that we have added a third column to Merton’s typology. The new column represents acceptance or rejection of illegitimate means (i.e., criminality) in pursuit of one’s goals. […] we assert that maximizing strategies correspond to many situations in US society (especially within the business world) where groups and individuals are expected to pursue illegal acts in the context of legal acts in order to ‘get ahead’, to ‘win the game.’” Daniel S. Murphy and Mathew B. Robinson, “The Maximizer: Clarifying Merton’s Theories of Anomie and Strain,” Theoretical Criminology 12; (2008): 511, 512-513.
20. Laurence Tancredi, Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals About Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 6.