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Art for Earth’s Sake

The limits of climate-conscious art

It is Angela Merkel’s worst-kept secret: brown coal, or lignite, creates 14 percent of Germany’s electricity, more than in any state in the European Union. The dirtiest of the dirty fuels, it releases the highest CO2 emissions per ton when burned—one-third more than hard coal and three times more than natural gas. Extracting the stuff from the ground is a comparatively nasty habit, and Europe’s ostensible climate leader has something of a dependency.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—even now, during a pandemic—giant machines swallow the landscape at Tagebau Hambach, Germany’s largest open-pit mine, in search of it. Ninety percent, or more than four hundred thousand acres, of the ancient Hambach Forest has been sacrificed to the “wandering hole” since 1978. At last count, the mine covered nearly thirty-three square miles. This is the equivalent of nearly twelve thousand soccer fields or twenty-five Central Parks—a scale so vast, it is almost inconceivable to grasp, never mind capture. And nothing appears capable of stopping its monotonous expansion. Not the Paris Agreement. Not the locals protesting to save their homes. Not even the country’s promise to end reliance on coal by 2038.

In 2019, Brussels-based digital artist and self-identified climate activist Joanie Lemercier visited the site for the first time. Using a drone, he swooped down to the bottom of the artificial crater, nearly one thousand feet below sea level, to discreetly survey the destructors. (Without such technology, this perspective wouldn’t be possible; RWE—the company that owns the mine—does not allow photographers or journalists to enter the pit.) The resulting footage forms part of an immersive audio-visual installation, The Hambach Forest and the Technological Sublime, on display at Espacio Telefónica Foundation in Madrid as part of a broader exhibition of Lemercier’s work. Broken into five “chapters,” the installation takes viewers through the sun-dappled remnants of the twelve-thousand-year-old forest before confronting them with the colossal, mesmerizing machines chewing through biologically dead soil for coal to be burned in power plants belching toxic clouds into the sky. Swarms of eco-activists are shown alighting on the mine to demand an end to our reliance on fossil fuels.

Art cannot do the work of politics, and its promulgation plays a part in the ravaging of the biosphere.

Edmund Burke envisioned the sublime as “the strongest emotion of which the mind is capable of feeling,” a sense of awe so powerful that it borders on terror. “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror,” he wrote in 1757, “is a source of the sublime.” Two centuries later, the scholar Perry Miller would consider the “technological majesty” of the polluting steels mills and steamboats of the Industrial Revolution—and the borderline religious wonder and fright they inspired—likewise a source of the sublime. In evoking Miller’s “technological sublime” in the title of his new work, Lemercier draws the undercurrent of horror to the forefront: the open wound of Tagebau Hambach accosts the viewer in their passive appreciation of scenes of bucolic, imperiled “nature”—and their complicity in its ongoing destruction. In that regard, his work should be considered a form of climate activism. But art cannot do the work of politics, and its promulgation plays a part in the ravaging of the biosphere.

Demolition of a nineteenth century church near Tagebau Hambach. | YouTube

Coal, at least for most, is a dry topic: impersonal and distant. But for the estimated one hundred twenty-five thousand residents who have been displaced by lignite mining in Germany since 1945, and the thousands more who await a similar fate, it is a pressing concern. By placing people’s livelihoods at the center of his work, Lemercier presents the ravages of extractive capitalism and the climate crisis at human scale. He cuts through razor wire to document houses, churches, graveyards, and fertile farmland being cleared. In “chapter five” of The Hambach Forest and the Technological Sublime, Lemercier’s camera pans across empty plots of land, spaces people once called home. A crane is shown toppling the spire of a nineteenth century church—part of an entire village leveled on behalf of the “wandering hole.”

Lemercier’s efforts to make the scale of the climate crisis legible recall the work of conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson. In 2014, Eliasson transported twelve blocks of melting glacial ice to Paris’s Climate Change Conference for the installation Ice-Watch. Five years later, he presented it at the United Nations Climate Summit. The work serves as a powerful visual reminder that global ice loss has accelerated over the last decade faster than scientists’ bleakest projections: 1.2 trillion tons are now lost every year. Like Lemercier, Eliasson’s work translates abstract figures into something that provokes an immediate, visceral response. But art that aims to draw attention to the climate crisis must be unambiguous. With The Hambach Forest and the Technological Sublime, Lemercier aims for “veracity above aesthetics,” leaving no room for divergent interpretations about the work’s intent. And the message is clear: the planet is dying

In another of Lemercier’s interventions, he targets the work of the American multinational software corporation Autodesk, ranked fifth in the world by Dow Jones for its commitment to “corporate sustainability”—even as it provides the software, expertise, and training to build and operate the excavators at the “wandering hole.” As part of the project, Lemercier spoke to the company’s CEO, Andrew Anagnost, over Twitter. He was, at first, responsive—happy, even, to brag about his company’s stated commitment to integrating environmental impact as a factor in business decisions. But as Lemercier pressed Anagnost on the firm’s facilitation of environmental destruction, he denied responsibility: “These machines will continue to be built with or without Autodesk products,” he claimed. Another executive would later trot out a similar excuse: “We do not measure the environmental impacts of our operations and products.” Lemercier then approached employees, hosting a pop-up exhibition outside the company’s Montreal headquarters, showcasing photographs of the devastation wrought by the mine. Managers called the police, but other staff members engaged, expressing rage and shock: they, too, had fallen for the company’s deceptively green marketing.

These efforts to draw attention to the company’s hand in the Hambach mine were then collected on the website Autodesk.Earth. I say website, and not artwork, because Autodesk.Earth blurs the line between art and advocacy journalism. Included on the site is a video that makes plain the carnage: “Air pollution kills 1,800 people a year around the mine” flashes over footage of the RWE-operated Kraftwerk Weisweiler power plant near the town of Eschweiler. “CO2 footprint: 100,000,00 tons a year” hovers over a birds-eye-view of the Hambach pit. All of this is aided and abetted by Autodesk software. Lemercier concludes the piece with a list of demands, calling on Autodesk to cease misleading “sustainability communication” and ban fossil fuel companies from using its software.

Truly potent art, you could say, fights directly, and Lemercier often aids activists’ efforts by documenting direct actions, as well as providing them with distinct visual iconography. In 2018, more than five thousand activists led by climate justice organization Ende Gelände stormed the Hambach mine and occupied the bucket-wheel excavator, one of the largest machines on earth, to demand the immediate phase-out of fossil fuels in Germany. From a distance, Lemercier projected the group’s name over the excavator as a way of suggesting grassroots sovereignty. He also projected “stop this madness” along the edge of the pit, as Lemercier documents in The Hambach Forest and the Technological Sublime. The activists were ultimately able to halt work at the mine for two days before police cleared them out—preventing the emission of nearly one million tons of CO2.

Whether art abets climate solutions or perpetrates further harm is to a certain extent dependent on the art and the artist, but the architecture of the industry as a whole is really to blame.

But art has a worrying footprint of its own. Supply and demand require the shipping of artworks by galleries, museums, collectors, auction houses, and art fairs, all of which generates untold tons of plastic wrap, one-and-done crates, and temporary building materials. And that’s to say nothing of the jet fuel burned to cart all the gallerists and collectors to and fro: over ninety-three thousand people flocked from all over the world to the 2019 Art Basel in Switzerland. Later that year, Art Basel Miami, hosting over two hundred galleries from twenty-nine countries, welcomed eighty-one thousand visitors. Frieze London had sixty-thousand. The Armory Show in New York drew sixty-five thousand. Though jet setting for the sake of art accounts for only a sliver of total air travel, if global commercial air travel were a country, it would rank sixth in global emissions. Art Basel Hong Kong may be scaling back by more than half this summer due to the pandemic, but there’s little reason to believe this temperance will persist.

The digital market is no better. Non-fungible tokens—assets verified using blockchain technology and prized for their ability to make digital art “unique”—took the art world by storm this year. Artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, recently sold an NFT for a record-breaking $69.3 million, the third-highest price achieved by a living artist[*].

But the annual carbon emissions from the electricity needed to mine Bitcoin, which is sometimes used to process transactions of this sort, are equal to the amount emitted by all of Argentina in a year. To put this into perspective, Lemercier’s sale of six crypto artworks of Platonic solids late last year consumed more electricity within ten seconds than the entirety of his studio in the last two years. Worse still, with every resale, their footprint will grow: one estimate indicates the mere act of selling an edition of one hundred NFTs consumes more energy than an individual living in the European Union for a year—and there are already more than six hundred thousand NFTs in existence. Though the hype of NFTs will likely burn off, the noxious fumes produced by these ostensibly ethereal works will linger in the atmosphere for decades, if not centuries, to come.

All this sublime technology burns coal. Digital art burns coal. Shining a projector at Hambach burns coal. Flying to Montreal to rile up Autodesk employees burns coal. Creating and running Autodesk.Earth burns coal. I asked Lemercier how he justifies all this. “By mitigating my impact,” he says. The artist has eliminated personal air travel and switched to renewables, in addition to reducing his studio’s energy consumption by more than ten per cent every year since 2018. Well, up until ten seconds of crypto fame undid it all. He has since stopped selling NFTs, and invested those profits into renewables, which should further cut his overall annual consumption by 60 percent.

But a solitary consumer’s accounting inevitably leads to the question of individual agency versus corporate responsibility. And Lemercier believes corporations deliberately shift the blame onto the minuscule carbon footprints of individuals. In fact, it was the world’s sixth-largest polluter, British Petroleum, that popularized the idea of a personal “carbon footprint” in the first place, conveniently shifting blame for the climate crisis onto individuals. Whether art abets climate solutions or perpetrates further harm is to a certain extent dependent on the art and the artist, but the architecture of the industry as a whole is really to blame. Piecemeal solutions abound—“NFT scaling,” carbon offsets, limiting the scale of art fairs—but they all fail to consider the scope of the problem in not only the art world, but across all extractive systems. Just one hundred companies have been the source of more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. And it’s those fossil fuels producers and their investors that hold the key to tackling climate change. If Lemercier stopped producing digital art, it would make very little difference. If Autodesk stopped supplying Hambach, Lemercier thinks it would be forced to close: “It cannot operate without its software.” But given that, as one Autodesk employee explained, the one hundred top polluting firms are also the biggest customers of Autodesk, there will need to be a lot more external pressure before the company concedes to Lemercier’s demands.

There’s a prevailing sense that the environmental conversation has been exhausted, that the fate of our planet is already sealed. Still, Lemercier is adamant there is a solution—plenty of them, actually. Eco-conscious lifestyles merely expiate guilt, but corporations and governments can genuinely alter the trajectory of the biosphere; they just need to be forced. Art—reflective, inactive—can’t stop the climate crisis. But, channeling the horror of the technological sublime, it can incite and inform the political work required to do so.

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Beeple sold an NFT for $69.3 million in Bitcoin. It was sold through Christie’s auction house in March and was the first purely digital NFT sold by the auction house, for which it offered to accept payment in Ethereum.