Review of The Long Now: Public Studio
Art Gallery of York University. Toronto, Canada, 2018
176 pp., illus. 172 col. Paper, $30.00
This book is a comprehensive account of the rather unusual collaboration of a filmmaker and architect. Filmmaker Elle Flanders and architect Tamira Sawatzky formed a collective artistic practice in 2011 called Public Studio. Since that time, they have produced numerous “works” – large-scale public artworks, films, and immersive installations. The Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) was there at the inception of Public Studio and a long-term relationship has evolved with them especially through some of their smaller projects such as the CIA and What We Lose in Metrics (2016). These two projects are discussed and described in the book.
Public Studio’s work is multidisciplinary, engaging experts from various disciplines, as required, to work together with Elle and Tamira on their projects. These projects have themes of political dissent, war and militarization, environmental destruction, racism and the rights of animals and nature. The works are confronting, controversial, (and unashamedly) challenging. But are they effective? I discuss this further on.
Under the Direction of Philip Monk, the AGYU has remained at the forefront of cutting-edge contemporary art. As with all AGYU’s books and catalogues I have reviewed over the years, this book is beautifully produced, graphically rich with an excellent balance of images and scholarly texts. Monk has recently retired as Director, and as I understand Emelie Chhangur is filling this role until a permanent new Director is appointed.
The book starts with an Introduction by Chhangur and Monk. Followed by a description of the Centre for Incidental Activisms (CIA). Next we are treated to a long interview with Public Studio, Extension/Extraction/Exploitation again by Monk and Chhangur. This interview really helps us understand where Elle and Tamira “are coming from”, it is not without its tense moments! This is followed by a description of the Public Studio’s project What We Lose in Metrics (2016). Then there are four excellent essays as follows:
Gaming the Environment : On the Media Ecology of Public Studio by T.J. Demos Public Proxies by Susan Schuppli A Dark Meteorology by Jayne Wilkinson There There: Mapping Twelve Digs by John Greyson
These essays are followed by an extensive section, Portfolio of Work, which documents nine of Public Studio’s major works.
Wilkinson’s essay mainly discusses Public Studio’s projects concerned with climate change and environmental destruction. She sums up Public Studio’s raison d’être so well I will quote it extensively:
“These (self)-destructive conditions of contemporary life are the back-drop against which Public Studio’s charged and densely researched projects operate. Working within a world of excessive visual data, proliferating documents, oppressive government surveillance, and violent images of environmental destruction, their multi-faceted installations and exhibitions offer us different ways to think through the atmospheres of the present.... Through collaborations with poets, sound artists, technologists, and computer programmers, their work complexifies the politics of asymmetrical warfare, environmental violence, and animal-human relations by making the aesthetics of politics present.” (p. 108)
This essay, and presumably by extension Public Studio’s projects discussed therein, are rather depressing and excessively dooms-day-ish. To my mind, “better to light the smallest candle than curse the darkness”, that is, go ahead and rub the approaching disastrous environmental collapse and extinction of humans and animals in the publics’ face -– but perhaps offer some glimmer of hope and a way out of the mess. No easy job to be sure. As an example to illustrate my point, Google Search Engine generates income for Google only with each search done, Ecosia Search Engine generates income which is used to plant trees to help the environment, they have planted over 50 million trees! This is real-time activism for the “everyman”, with tangible results, not preaching to the converted in an insular art gallery scene.
In the interview mentioned earlier, by Monk and Chhangur, the pressure of making art to save the world is no easy task, if at all possible. To quote Tamira concerning these very issues, “I think there is a bit of a crisis, and we’re rethinking art making and whether this really is the thing we should be doing. I think we’re often unsure whether it’s still meaningful to us: feeling like a production studio” (p. 31). In the same interview Elle and Tamira discuss authorship, analysing when they have done enough in a project and should hand over the next phase to those they collaborate with. This adds to the above mentioned dilemma which I imagine most artists working in collaboration face from time to time.
The above criticisms aside, I think Elle and Tamira are very courageous individuals. They have tackled head-on the whole neoliberalist abomination, delved deeply into the most shocking racial tensions in the world (Visit Palestine), and exposed the anti-human, anti-life actions of many military regimes. I thoroughly recommend this book to all artists and activists who have an interest in employing art as a means for bringing about social, cultural, and environmental change for the better.