Outdoor School: Contemporary Environmental Art Ed. by Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell
by Greta Hamilton
As I write this in the haze of late summer, I realize it will be months before this review reaches the public. By then, we’ll be in the darkness of winter across so-called Canada. For now, though, the days are long and hot, the sun red against polluted skies as wildfires blaze across vast territories. It’s a crisis, a climate emergency that will be made more palatable by winter’s cold. In the veil of urgency that summer brings, I wonder what can be done to rectify this disaster.
Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell’s Outdoor School (2021) offers an encouraging vision of artistic and pedagogical responses to climate change. The book is a survey of contemporary Environmental Art that emphasizes learning through land-based practices. The projects in Outdoor School include Borsato and Morrell’s curatorial practice under the same name, performances and exhibitions by FASTWÜRMS, BUSH Gallery, Sameer Farooq, Ayumi Goto, and Jamie Ross, among others; a standout essay by Karen Houle on the ethics of education and farming; and a conversation between Jen Delos Reyes, Borsato, and Morrell that illuminates the editors’ pedagogical practice. The book is a counterpoint to the grief and uncertainty of climate change. It assembles a collection of artist projects and interventions that inspire reciprocity and commitment to our lived environments through multidirectional knowledge sharing. Each project emphasizes a mode of looking, learning, gathering, and sharing that honours the knowledge of both experts and amateurs.
Outdoor School brings together a multitude of epistemologies and knowledges across its pages. At times, certain performances and projects are truncated—Bill Burns’s The Goat Milking (2014) and D’Arcy Wilson’s #1 Fan (2018), for example, each appear on a single spread with a short write-up, more as an homage to the project than a careful reading. Elsewhere, however, the longer essays and conversations evoke a deep sense of embodiment that emphasizes the Outdoor School methodology.
Morrell opens the book with a land acknowledgement of both the many lands the artists in Outdoor School work on and his own upbringing in Unama’ki/ Cape Breton. He writes of standing in the kitchen of his childhood home, “I would look out the window at the mountain and the waterfall and think that this was where the water came from. […] I remember the dirt on my hands, the water that came from the mountain, the sawdust from the mill that we used to store the carrots, the sense that I was not just in that place, but that I was made from it.” Both Borsato and Morrell foreground that sense of interconnectivity in their work—a porous relationship between land and self that centres reciprocity. Each of the artist projects in Outdoor School is framed through that methodology, reminding the reader that to be an artist is to invoke connectivity to the histories, ecologies, cosmologies, and knowledges of the land on which we work and live.
Outdoor School generates a public intellectual culture contingent on environmental learning. Non-Western taxonomies, Indigenous ecological knowledges, witch epistemologies, and queer and trans knowledges come together in a messy ecological web, more akin to the making of a life than an art practice. In this way, Outdoor School inspires artistic practices that require a particular kind of embodiment and grounding—it is not the technical skill or mastery of materials that make the projects in Outdoor School art, but the modes and methods by which the artists live their lives.
In reading Outdoor School, I wondered how this methodology might also reverberate toward policy and governance shifts related to climate change. Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson’s performance with Public Studio, The Rights of Nature (2017), imagines a charter of rights for the Earth. The performance included a public reading of the charter by a chorus of performers who read clauses including “2a. the responsibility to recognize and respect that we are all one, that everything depends upon everything else, that we are all interconnected and interdependent and our fates are inextricably interlinked.” The performers call for the Canadian government to include this imagined charter in the country’s official Charters of Rights and Freedoms. The performance echoes the overarching theme of the book—that creative interventions can inspire a shift in our sense of responsibility toward our lived environments, which might in turn inspire the sense of interconnectivity and community that initiates institutional change.
In “Farm as Ethics,” Karen Houle describes her pedagogical practice through urban farming as institutional critique. At Guelph University, Houle teaches Western philosophy and uses the urban organic farm as an alternative site of learning. Alongside students, Houle farms as an antidote to the disembodied traditions of Western philosophical thought, resisting mind-body duality in exchange for holistic, resilience-building labour—hands in dirt and tasks dependent on whole systems. This labour, Houle describes, is the work of philosophy itself. She writes that, at the end of the day, “if we still have questions that still seem important […] we can ‘do some philosophy’ together: we can trace out the ways that the claims in the texts we read do or do not align with what we have just done together. […] We might suddenly find it all embarrassing and banal and stupefyingly pretentious, and if so, we’ll just divide up the leftover garlic and go home.”
I’m keeping the lessons of Outdoor School with me through the winter: that to be an artist is to live in reciprocal relation with the environment, to care deeply for and listen closely to our surroundings. Through artistic intervention, the projects in Outdoor School generate potential ways through our era of disaster. They imagine a decolonial, nurture-based culture that exists outside of, and in resistance to, galleries and institutions. While I’m not always sure that artistic interventions are the most effective mode of instigating political change, I’m inspired by Borsato and Morell’s pedagogy. I’m also inspired by the kids who are building blockades in defence of old-growth forests at Fairy Creek, by the Wet’suwet’en people who have been protecting their territory from Coastal Gaslink for years, and by the networks of mutual-aid organizers who have been finding ways to provide sustenance to their communities. The resounding notion throughout Outdoor School is that our life-sustaining practices reverberate into our art. So how do the lives of activists and organizers fit in to the visual and intellectual culture that Outdoor School imagines? As Borsato and Morrell’s project continues, I wonder how direct action, mutiny, and gestures more challenging to aestheticize will fit in to the landscape of contemporary Environmental Art. Can that shift in art practice forge a resonance beyond the arts sector, toward something impactful enough to mitigate this emergency?