Escapists and Jet-Setters: Residencies and Sustainability
by Laura Kenins
Artist residencies have become so commonplace that we rarely think to question their origins or their future. Subscribe to any art mailing list and every week brings a new crop of application deadlines for residencies, festivals and various short term projects, in Japan, Brooklyn, Newfoundland, Berlin and Alberta—seemingly indicating a world of possibilities— in spaces that range from gleaming purpose-built artist colonies to one-off projects to punk enterprises in backyards and sheds. Some are urban, while others appeal to a desire to get away from it all and work in beautiful natural environments.
The underlying message in these calls for applications appears to be that we need to get out of our communities and countries to work, that being an artist means being constantly on the move. A recently established website called Rate My Artist Residency presents an illusion of criticality, while encouraging residencies to be thought of as a product by inviting readers to fill in multiple-choice questions with answers ranging from “I had the time of my life, everyone apply now!” to “Please, give me my money and time back.” And artists, many of whom worry about the environment, oil dependency and consumerism, often seem to have a blind spot for how these issues play out in their own practices.
“Sustainability” is a fashionable word these days. Many residencies already speak of their interest in sustainability, which often translates to energy-efficient windows and low-flush toilets being installed in studios and artist accommodations. But what if we think of sustainability in a wider sense? Not just residencies but numerous aspects of the art world require travel for temporary events: festivals, installations, symposia and other projects often act as, or incorporate, short-term residencies, with artists setting up for a period of time in a place some distance from home, working on, presenting, or installing a project. Are these events sustainable for the planet, local ecosystems, the local or wider community, or artists’ own careers?
We can trace artist residencies’ appeal back to the 19th-century Romantic idea of heading into nature—it’s no surprise that some of the world’s first artist colonies were founded in Caspar David Friedrich-era Germany, along with France and the Netherlands, in the 1820s.1 In Canada, a love of the landscape has had a hold on our collective imagination since the Group of Seven, and perhaps it is the same force that drives present-day artists to seek out residencies in places like the Banff Centre, Fogo Island and Dawson City’s Klondike Institute of Art and Culture.
The idea of the artist colony emerged in the early 19th century alongside Romanticism, and the idea of artists going into the wilderness or to a place free from societal restraints persists in today’s residencies, whether they be urban or rural. In those days, and up through the early 20th century, artists often “settled” for a period of years or decades.2 The notion of the colony suggests Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, a space set apart from formal control and structure. These early artist colonies were established as utopias of sorts, a place where experiencing natural beauty and creating work could be artists’ primary concerns. In these spaces, artists could be free from many of the usual restraints of everyday life and everyday behaviour. Much like these colonies, today’s residency centre is a sort of permanent temporary community where individual members may change, but one can always find a community of artists.
Many residencies and programs explicitly state their interest in the environment: the 2013 program of the Caetani Cultural Centre in Vernon, BC, sought artists working on themes of nature, conservation and social issues; the organization that runs Newfoundland’s Fogo Island residency states an interest in “geotourism”—a type of tourism meant to sustain a community, heritage and the environment. The Banff Centre follows national and international sustainability codes within its facilities and has run environmentally focused programs, including a 2011 program on technology and recycling.
While many residencies may incorporate concerns about environmental sustainability into their mandates and programs, there are other questions worth asking: where do artists come from to attend residencies, and how do they get there? Residencies like Fogo Island are situated in remote, environmentally sensitive areas and encourage artists to consider this fact in their work; residencies can also be found in many other isolated places around the world, like the half-dozen or so in rural Iceland. But rather than bringing in groups of artists to reflect on the landscape, wouldn’t the responsible choice be to limit access to as few people as possible?
Budapest-based curators and art historians Maja and Reuben Fowkes have been researching and speaking on ecology and contemporary art for a decade. The Fowkes turn a rare critical eye to the sustainability of the art world’s practices. In their text “The Ecological Footprint of Contemporary Art,” looking at festivals, conferences and biennales, they write: “The international gatherings of the art world are resource intensive, relying on an invisible hinterland that stretches across the globe.”3 These events are usually short term and require many people travelling by plane, both participants and audiences, as well as the transportation of artworks, and the production of new artworks. Residencies, although generally longer in duration, have many of the same transportation requirements.
The Fowkes’ writing asks questions that are easy to ignore, like whether we really need another biennale or residency on a remote windswept island somewhere, or whether an artwork about sustainability is itself sustainable. In a greater sense, the Fowkes are looking at how insidious the ideologies of our unsustainable economic system have become in the art world, where “more, more, more” seems to be a dominant philosophy and “greenwashing” has become more and more prevalent. Greenwashing in the art world can take the form of boasting of recycled-paper exhibition catalogues, water conservation practices in a residency centre, or the invitation of artists dealing with environmental issues to join a program, but greenwashing ignores the root questions of whether these things were necessary in the first place, or how they were initiated. For instance, was a large paper catalogue necessary? Should the residency centre have been built in an environmentally sensitive area? Does the artist need to travel for his or her work to convey a message to the wider public? In a 2010 article, the Fowkes mention a need to move away from what they call a “growth-programmed ideal” in the art world to “the appreciation of dematerialised art practices that have virtually no environmental impact.”4
The Fowkes are also interested in the material sense of sustainability in artworks themselves, researching land art, performance, art that uses minimal materials or natural materials, and work of an ephemeral nature. In a remote area, an artist working with toxic materials might damage the ecosystem, so some remote residencies explicitly state concerns over what materials artists use. Turning away from a focus on production can eliminate most of these concerns. And similarly, ephemeral projects, providing due consideration for the environment, provide another option for residency and travelling artists to minimize the impact of their practices.
Polish curator Sebastian Cichocki has created another alternative to the production-based residency, called The Site Residency, which he runs on the Swedish island of Gotland. He says that “the frightening thing about residency programs is that they are based on a wrong belief that the artist is some kind of elevated being… After spending some time in a space, the artist absorbs the space and can deliver an object.”5 Inspired by the site-specific works and institutional critiques of the 1960s and 1970s, The Site Residency forbids its artists from making anything. Instead, they “experience” the site and later “transmit” their experience to a ghostwriter, who produces a text about the residency. Cichocki’s “anti-production” residency works as a critique of biennale art, where curators “grab” a big-name international artist and have them “work for two weeks on a superficial project.” In contrast, at The Site Residency, the artist’s only job is experiencing.
Nova Scotia’s White Rabbit residency also aims to follow a model of minimal-impact production. Held each August since 2009 on a farm in Upper Economy, NS, White Rabbit brings together a group of artists who often return each summer. The residency’s organizers encourage artists to work with the natural materials on the property. According to Andrew Maize, one of the organizers, “the rule is, if you’re working with anything that is not natural, not going to break down naturally, you have to take it with you when you go.” Though White Rabbit is increasingly receiving national and international applications, the majority of its artists come from Halifax or have some ties to Nova Scotia.
While materials are one concern, the impact of travelling on the artists themselves is another consideration for the “sustainability” of residencies. In the Europe of budget airlines, a Budapest artist can conceivably fly in for a weekend in Warsaw, spend the next in Spain, the following in Finland, and never pay more than €60 for a ticket. European programs have given rise to a class of “residency artists”: people who may have no permanent address, but spend three months here or two months there at residencies across the continent or world. Sociologist and writer Paula Bialski calls these artists “privileged nomads”6 who highlight a sort of labour flexibility. Especially for young artists, it seems easier to receive travel grant funding than production grants, especially from the Canada Council for the Arts. While this can be exciting at first, it may not be sustainable in the long term. Given the choice to receive funding to work at home, in their own studios, many artists might eventually choose this option instead. The situation in Europe is similar to the one in Canada, where international projects sometimes seem to have boundless funding but often exclude applicants from the country where the program takes place.7
At the May 2013 edition of the annual Interformat Symposium of the Nida Art Colony in Nida, Lithuania, artists, curators and critics gathered to discuss the theme of “critical tourism.” Nida, a tourist town on the Curonian Spit, a narrow sandbar in the Baltic Sea, has been loved by artists and tourists for hundreds of years. One question that continually surfaced throughout the symposium was whether the artist is really more than a tourist during a residency. Ramunas Povilanskas, a professor from the nearby Klaipeda University, discussed the “bubble” of the colony’s community and suggested ways to integrate that bubble into the community of locals or tourists. While artists come to rural colonies for their “evocative backdrop,” they seldom consider themselves tourists, despite being attracted to venues for similar reasons that tourists are, and usually participating in some kind of tourist-like activities (visits to local monuments, museums, and so on) at some point in a residency.
Perhaps if artists were thought of as a sort of tourist, it would open new possibilities for considering the proliferation of artist residencies and travel-based projects. At the symposium, Bill Aitchison, a London-based artist, discussed how it is impossible to really experience the point of view of a “local” during a residency of a few weeks. Instead, Aitchison proposed becoming an expert at being a tourist, leading to his project The Tour of All Tours in which the artist first toured and researched tourists at a performance festival in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and then prepared a guided tour of guided tours in Stuttgart, Germany. Two other London-based artists, Sam Skinner and Markus Soukup, after being accepted to the symposium, decided to critique artist tourism by staying home and participating through Skype, presenting a “video postcard” that reflected on artist tourism. The most critical thing Skinner and Soukup could do, they thought, was to not travel. All travel has an impact, they noted, and not just an environmental one. In their video, they reflected on tourism, artist gentrification and the impact artists and cultural producers have on a place. Citing conflicts in Berlin between long-term residents and the foreign artists who have moved in, one of the artists recalled mixed feelings about his role as a temporary resident of Berlin in the past. Skinner and Soukup asked whether artists can resist taking on the role of tourist, and what possibilities there are for artists’ work to travel without requiring travel by the artists themselves.
In their research on art and ecology, Maja and Reuben Fowkes try to take into account that there are possible benefits in the art world’s resource-intensive activities, a view held by Alberta artist Peter von Tiesenhausen (also a past mentoring artist at the White Rabbit residency). Von Tiesenhausen’s work, primarily in sculpture, installation and land art, usually deals with environmental themes. Living in rural Demmitt, north of Grande Prairie, AB, von Tiesenhausen travels frequently for residencies, exhibitions and projects. Speaking from Toronto, he comments, “If I had to stay at home and live in the forest like I do, I would have no artistic practice.”8
A networked art world necessarily requires travel, especially for artists living outside major centres. The possibilities and connections outweigh the impact: even if an artist is working half-heartedly on a directionless series of oil paintings at a residency, perhaps that residency will result in professional relationships or creative revelations that surface years later. Von Tiesenhausen points out how artists can highlight environmental problems, noting the resources—travel, equipment and crew—that go into the production of one Edward Burtynsky image versus the impact Burtynsky’s work has on viewers’ awareness of environmental issues. “Yes, there is guilt that goes with [travel],” he says, “but there is also obligation.”
In our correspondence, Maja and Reuben Fowkes noted the importance of considering community in weighing the benefits against the negative effects of travel. “On each occasion you have to decide whether the flight, or the use of other carbon intensive resources, can be justified—on the other side of the equation is the benefit that face-to-face communication can bring, which might be seen as an important factor if we take into account the dimension of social sustainability, in addition to purely environmental considerations,” they write, commenting that fewer and longer residencies would be more viable than “residencyhopping.”
Finnish artist Jussi Kivi also deals with environmental themes in his practice, working with installation, mapping and photography as the Romantic Geographic Society. As an artist, Kivi avoids air travel and aims to primarily work regionally, completing recent projects in Estonia, Latvia and elsewhere in Finland. Kivi is especially concerned with the lack of thought that artists show in relation to the effects of travel while they take pride in their environmental consciousness. He writes: “People take planes like they take the bus… this is really symbolic of modern lifestyles,” reflecting the idea that we can, and should, be constantly on the move and be able to reach the other side of the world in a matter of hours whenever we feel the need.
Kivi also notes the irony of the same institutions that promote sustainability encouraging groups of visitors from around the world. In Finland, both art institutions and the government are beginning to grow conscious of the unsustainable—in various senses—aspects of the residency system. The Finnish minister of culture recently announced plans to limit support for Finnish artists at residencies abroad.9 Another remote residency Kivi is connected with, Mustarinda, towards the north of Finland—initially designed primarily for the benefit of artists in Finland’s major cities— concerns itself with environmental sustainability, and is beginning to consider where artists travel from and how they get there in their consideration for residencies.10
Doesn’t it sound much better to say you spent the last three months in a remote Icelandic village, or rural Turkey, than in Montreal or Winnipeg?11 This begs the question: if our main reasons for travel to festivals or residencies are to connect with other artists or to have time and space away from our other responsibilities so we can work, do we really need to go to the other side of the globe? Are there not other artists closer to home with whom we can connect?
Perhaps looking to the past can give us some ideas of how to create a more sustainable residency system, when the complications of long-distance travel forced people to stay for longer periods or travel shorter distances. We can learn from locally-focused, minimal–impact projects, such as White Rabbit, about how to live where we do. We can use materials at hand, like at Mildred’s Lane, in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where artists come to work together in the “living museum” of a home, and residents consider alternate ways of living in every part of their day, from their art practices to making dinner.
And, finally, we can look at why arts funding—and prevailing attitudes—suggest we must go elsewhere to create or show our work, wherever home is. If 19th–century artists held a romantic view of the white male artist going into the wild to paint and live the “simple life,” today’s evolution has the semi–nomadic jetsetting artist with a full passport or Air Miles card flying off to live a “simple life,” where someone else takes care of life’s boring details outside the studio—whether this simple life takes place in Berlin or rural Newfoundland— but just for a short time, before real life, or the next glamorous destination, calls. By looking deeper into how and why we travel for art and travel to make art, we can work towards building a more sustainable system of residencies and artist travel.