Can the Art World Kick Its Addiction to Flying?
In the era of climate crisis, we all need to rethink how and why we travel
In the era of climate crisis, we all need to rethink how and why we travel
In 2009, the critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud published (in English) a book-length essay called The Radicant. The term ‘radicant’ refers to plants that root from the stem above ground instead of below; to be radicant, Bourriaud wrote, meant ‘setting one’s roots in motion, staging them in heterogeneous contexts and formats, denying them any value as origins’. It was a critical concept that he already lived, de-emphasizing his home base in Paris in favour of an itinerant existence amongst international museums, galleries and studios, the roosting points of art-world peregrination. Bourriaud documented his travels explicitly in his introduction, as if to demonstrate his commitment to cultural nomadism: ‘This book was written between 2005 and 2007 in the places to which circumstances brought me: Paris, Venice, Kiev, Madrid, Havana, New York, Moscow, Turin and, finally, London. Cities and places, rather than countries.’ ‘Nations are abstractions I distrust,’ he wrote – too ﬁxed, too ideological.
To Bourriaud, the Centre Pompidou’s pointedly international 1989 mega-exhibition ‘Magiciens de la terre’ (Magicians of the Earth) represented ‘the official entry of art into a globalized world shorn of master narratives, a world that is henceforth our own’. In other words, the art world grew to encompass territories beyond its usual Western poles. At the same time, perhaps, art history lost its previous teleological thrust in exchange for a ‘continuous, low-amplitude motion’. Cultural globalization represented a kind of loss of self: ‘Nothing counts, since nothing really binds us or requires us to commit to ourselves.’ The diaphanous, churning loss of self must be countered instead by travel, constant juxtaposition against new people and places.
Over the past decade, Bourriaud’s itinerancy has become commonplace not just for academic celebrities and the milieu of less-famous curators, artists and critics, but for a wide swathe of those who are or want to be associated with the cultural vanguard: from collectors and start-up CEOs to so-called digital nomads – remote freelancers tapping away at laptops in co-working spaces in Bali, maybe making a living by ghostwriting gallery press releases distributed by e-flux. Radicant living has been codified and commodified via the neverending global schedule of biennials, art fairs, panels and openings. Tech companies like Airbnb and Uber extract proﬁt from mobility as we rely on them for on-demand apartments and rides in each new city, while critics and curators fare no better than drivers in the precarious gig economy. Bourriaud’s itinerary now resembles not a whimsical intellectual adventure but the stops of a travelling salesman.
It’s a lifestyle the critic Andrew Berardini both summarized and parodied in a 2014 essay for the Canadian art website Momus, ‘How to Survive International Art: Notes from the Poverty Jetset’. Already that piece reads like a nostalgic elegy for a bygone time. Berardini trades Bourriaud’s theoretical polemics for a soft sensualism, evoking the pleasures of travel in the lifestyle of the ‘art nomad’: ‘You live on one continent and work on two others.’ You have ‘a firsthand knowledge of the sunrise over the Po, the sunset over Shenzhen, the crackle of the midday sun as the Acqua Alta wets your calves’. You might be a poor culture-ronin, but you have accidentally attained an enviable ‘air of weary cosmopolitan glamour’, which follows you back to your shabby, expensive ﬂat.
The art world’s addiction to travel and the aura it imparts is chronic and it’s only getting worse. Today, as I watch colleagues depart for another fair, residency or retrospective, I think not of their open-bar, expenses-paid, five-star destination, but of the plane trip there. The three square metres of Arctic sea ice that melt for every tonne of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. (A return flight New York to London generates approximately 986 kg.) The fact that one small group – the 12 percent of Americans who make more than six round-trip flights a year – are responsible for two-thirds of the US’s aviation emissions. We see the pointed internationalism of the cultural vanguard as a bulwark against the inward-oriented conservatism of our moment, but we talk less about how all that movement is only accelerating climate change.
It’s a strange double-consciousness, reflective of what the writer Daisy Hildyard has called ‘the second body’ in her 2018 book of that name. When I fly for work, I feel briefly enlightened, empowered, like I am someone valuable enough to have been transported simply to see a talk or exhibition. (A delusion, of course, but one many people share.) And yet, I also have the crushing awareness of that collective second body: the way that each of us, undertaking our mundane lives, is also invisibly contributing to the damage, our habits and hobbies inseparable from flooding in Bangladesh, droughts in East Africa and extreme heatwaves across European cities.
Our second bodies become bigger and bigger. We know that an overall rise in temperature of just two degrees would mean the displacement of 30 million people a year, 388 million people exposed to water scarcity, a 25 percent increase in hot days.1 It is the ‘age of climate panic’, according to journalist David Wallace-Wells, and each year we do not solve the problem, the harder it gets to solve. Any sense of optimism often takes the form of nationalist narcissism: in November 2019, Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement on the grounds that it would ‘punish the American people’. This kind of exceptionalism is like the subconscious assumption that your flight alone won’t hurt the environment.
Despite our awareness of the apocalyptic Anthropocene – a curatorial buzzword long before it became mainstream – we seem to feel that travel is either a right or a necessity. There are plenty of good reasons. The small, scattered art world is kept united by flights and human relationships built on both planned and chance physical encounters. Museums, galleries, magazines and individual freelancers alike must maintain their networks and knowledge of what is happening elsewhere, not just because of the cosmopolitan ethic, but to stay competitive in the creative marketplace. Still, the deeper reason for our desire to travel might have something to do with the nature of art itself, particularly in the digital era, when the Benjaminian aura seems scarcer than ever.
Art has always had an aspect of pilgrimage – the imperative to travel to encounter the physical object in its original surroundings. The Grand Tour, the 18th-century tradition for the British gentry to travel continental Europe as a kind of cultural coming of age, was oriented around seeing and buying art. One such 1722 guide to Italy’s ‘pictures and statues’ put forth its goal ‘to endeavour to persuade our nobility and gentry to become lovers of painting, and connoisseurs’.2
First we visited individual works, then the great museums and collections, then the ephemeral academic salons of Paris. 1895 saw the first Venice Biennale. Since the 2000s, art fairs and all sorts of -ennials have taken up the mantle of pilgrimage destination. The motivation to attend these events chimes with the goal of the Grand Tour, as the critic Dave Hickey described in his account of the fair circuit c.2007 in Vanity Fair: ‘No matter how rich you are, you can’t learn how to be rich playing pitch and putt in Sun Valley or throwing down vodka shooters in Misto Kyyiv. You need to absorb the evolving global etiquette by immersion.’
I would argue that it is neither the art nor the artists that provide the attraction these days, but the surrounding social scene. Each event forms a de facto installation of relational aesthetics, a 1998 coinage again of Bourriaud’s, which privileges social experiences as art objects. The party-as-art was documented, disseminated and intensified through Artforum’s tongue-in-cheek Scene & Herd diaries, an online column that, from 2003, became weekly propaganda for the privilege of travel. Its name-dropping established an exclusive social cohort. Geoff Dyer satirized the scene in his 2009 novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi: ‘This was the Biennale, there were lots of other parties to go to and as soon as a party began flagging it quickly fizzled out.’ Dyer, via his writer-protagonist, evokes a zone of encounters with art objects, vaguely theoretical discourse with colleagues in which consensus is easily reached, casual sex and cocaine ingestion.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is the latest patron saint of art-world travel, his reliquary a rolling suitcase. In a 2014 New Yorker profile, D.T. Max recounted that the curator had made 2,000 trips over the past 20 years and travelled for ‘50 of the previous 52 weekends’. (All in, we could say he’s responsible for at least 6,000 square metres of melted Arctic ice.) The curator made meeting artists and having conversations his practice; both necessitate physical co-presence. Obrist’s travel habit trickled down. How many participants in the art world today must fall within that 12 percent demographic of maximum polluters?
For DIS’s 2014 disaster issue, it collaborated with the magazine ECOCORE to solicit data about the climate impact of individual exhibitions; one show at Artists Space in New York with works shipped from Germany produced 0.0449 tonnes of carbon dioxide – bad, but not as bad as one intercontinental flight, which produces twice as much. (Multiply that by thousands to get the impact of a single art fair.) In 2018, Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch brought 30 chunks of glacier from Greenland to London, slowly melting in order to incite us into second-body guilt. But the installation also produced 55 tonnes of carbon dioxide between the flights, hotels, ships and trucks needed to execute the project – its mechanical and human resources.3
In regard to climate change, there’s a gap between what art attempts to communicate and its literal consequences. If a work is particularly memetically successful, as Ice Watch was, perhaps the cost was worth it. Judging between the frivolous and the adequately persuasive is a gamble. In installations such as these, the problem tends to get aestheticized rather than solved, because it’s easier to ‘respond to’ or ‘engage with’ than to undertake the obvious fix, which is to opt out of the global circuit. In his book The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), Wallace-Wells critiques the neoliberal misconception ‘that consumer choices can be a substitute for political action’ – if only we conscientiously buy the right things, we might fix the environment. ‘The climate crisis demands political commitment well beyond the easy engagement of rhetorical sympathies, comfortable partisan tribalism and ethical consumption,’ he writes. This applies to the consumerism of the art world as well: buying environmentally woke art isn’t going to stop the seas from rising.
Art does have the potential for activism in the sense of changing the way we envision climate change and its causes. It can remind us that, for most people in the West, it’s not too much flying that is their greatest contribution to the warming planet, but emissions from their cars and the way they heat and air-condition their homes. Or it can show that individual choice doesn’t even play the most significant role in climate change: 100 corporations – including ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron – cause 71 percent of global carbon emissions.4
We are all implicated in making travel aspirational, for accepting the idea that living ‘between’ places is more cosmopolitan, more creative, than settling in just one and staying there. We keep choosing to leave every few weeks, constantly advertising for subletters on Facebook, melting the Arctic ice, because movement is so pleasurable.
I remember how legitimizing travel felt to me as I tried to make my way through the art world a decade ago as a journalist and critic. Previews, press trips, opening parties, panels: I was a professional spectator. My first full-time job out of university was as the English editor of the Beijing-based magazine Leap. The first moment I felt like I was part of a scene that I barely knew existed as a student – the Scene & Herd zone – I was leaning against the wall of my own giant hotel suite in Hangzhou, having travelled there in a van from Shanghai with three Chinese art critics to attend an artist’s museum opening. At the afterparty, there were bowls of Zhongnanhai cigarette packs and plates of smoked duck necks stacked on the bar, which the artist owned. Later came the junkets, the upgraded flights to Istanbul, the dinners on drifting boats or in the courtyards of closed museum, the several times I went to Savannah, Georgia, less for the art than because I liked the Spanish moss and the ageing neoclassical architecture.
In the end, I wasn’t even that successful at gaming the system. I always marvel at one friend who seems to have been on the road for the past five years straight: biennial, art fair, fashion retrospective, boutique hotel opening, all with the dubious veneer of art-world relevance. Travel doesn’t cost writers anything except the questionable value of our time; the payment we offer in return is often no more than a quick dispatch posted on the website of a major glossy magazine. Some triangulation of real and cultural capital happens between the client, PR agency and publication and, all of a sudden, you’re halfway around the world.
In retrospect, I feel both guilty at my own largesse and embarrassed that it wasn’t as extreme as others’. Was it worth the environmental price? The travel seems like a kind of social pressure that, if we decided to, we might be able to give up, or at least cut back on – sneaking in just a few flights like clandestine cigarettes. The young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has pioneered environmental guilt-tripping, mounting her activism using sustainable methods like sailing across the Atlantic, a durational performance of two weeks. In her home country, Thunberg has pushed the term flygskam (or flight shame) to some effect: this past summer, Swedish domestic flights decreased by eight percent compared to the previous year.
Travelling doesn’t have to be such a burden on our industry. We consume images on Instagram already; why not leave installation shots to be produced by those who live close to an exhibition or a studio and then just look at them online? Alternatively, there seems to be an opportunity for a kind of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for exhibitions: sustainably curated art experiences, biennials that travel on ships, like Thunberg, or on lower-impact trains, which remain an evocative mode of continuous movement. The trick might be coming up with new formats and new expectations, admitting that our current methods of drop-shipping shows are unsustainable at best. How do we re-localize art through curation, without sacrificing the global culture that we prize?
An answer could come from Obrist, with his formula-based ‘do it’ exhibitions, launched in 1993, in which works take the form a set of instructions that can be restaged by other artists who are conveniently accessible. Or, we could move at a consciously slower speed, with residencies instead of junkets, commissions instead of short-term installations. I recall Dougald Hine – co-founder of the UK’s Dark Mountain Project, which advocates retreat from civilization in response to climate change – mentioning an idea for a pan-European theatre troupe that travelled only by land. Hine’s latest project is Home: a school based in rural Sweden for studying ‘the mess the world is in’, grounded in bringing people together, in one spot, on a small scale. The goal here is finding a sustainable ecology not just for the climate but also cultural community, rooted in place. We don’t need to stop travelling, but it’s worth admitting that the trips can be made more worthwhile. There are enough parties wherever you already live.
In 2009 Bourriaud asked us to deny our origins any value as origins, to travel as a means of challenging our identities and our aesthetics. But to continue accelerating on the nomadic path risks homogenization in the short term and literal disaster in the long. Ignoring nationhood now seems ignorant, patronizing. Beyond a connoisseurship of places, of cities and their various charms, we need to cultivate an appreciation of staying put. Invite a few local friends over, light some candles and call it hygge — it might even be fun.
1 The Impacts of Climate Change at 1.5C, 2C and Beyond, Carbon Brief, 2018
2 Cited in Bruce Redford, Venice and the Grand Tour, 1996, Yale University Press, New Haven, p. 36
3 Ice Watch, report produced by the London-based arts environmental awareness nonprofit Julie’s Bicycle in collaboration with Studio Olafur Eliasson, February 2019
4 Dr Paul Griffin, The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017, EJ/CJ Digital Hub, July 2017
Main image: Roger Hiorns, A Retrospective View of the Pathway, 1990-2016, jet airliner, burial, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © Roger Hiorns, Luhring Augustine, New York, Corvi-Mora, London, Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles, and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam