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Sustainable Art Practices / Producing Art in the 21st Century

Preemptive Media (Beatriz da Costa, Jamie Schulte, Brooke Singer), AIR (Area's Immediate Reading), 2006. Prototypes of portable air quality measurement kits to monitor various air pollutants, accompanied by data visualizations of the findings. AIR is a process-oriented, socially based artwork that integrates the community into the creation and presentation of the work.

Preemptive Media (Beatriz da Costa, Jamie Schulte, Brooke Singer), AIR (Area's Immediate Reading), 2006. Prototypes of portable air quality measurement kits to monitor various air pollutants, accompanied by data visualizations of the findings. AIR is a process-oriented, socially based artwork that integrates the community into the creation and presentation of the work.

By Christiane Paul

Sustainability has become the new “social networking”-at least it seems to have superseded the latter as the catchword du jour. An increasing number of conferences, think tanks, art exhibitions and publications have been devoted to the subject over the past few years and have reached critical mass. Sustainability has moved from its original, mostly ecological context to a larger cultural one. One might argue that a focus on sustainability is the next logical step after the rise of social networking enabled by the user-generated content of Web 2.0 sites-such as blogs, Wikis, MySpace, YouTube, and Flickr: networking itself is intrinsic to digital technologies, which allow for multiple forms of connectivity, while sustaining networks (of culture, productivity etc.) presents more of a challenge.

Sustainability can be defined in various ways, but it is commonly understood as a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely or as relating to the length in which human (ecological) systems can be expected to be usefully productive. Whether it is desirable to continuously maintain a process at a certain level remains questionable, since it might imply stasis or lead to entropy. The Brundtland Commission (the World Commission on Environment and Development, named after the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland) put a more flexible, future-oriented spin on the concept by defining sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Report of the World Commission).

Addressing the subject of sustainability in the context of art invites a range of questions, among them:

  • How can we define and understand a sustainable art and culture?
  • How does art address the sustainability of culture?
  • How can art practice itself be sustained?

There are no quick and easy answers to these questions and the following will provide only a sketch of how the issue of sustainability in contemporary art could be approached. In terms of the art market, the art object can be understood as a commodity in a global information society. Contemporary artists have addressed this new economic status of the art object, as well as ecological aspects of sustainability in their projects. Art that uses digital technologies as a medium, in particular, has engaged with the forms of “immaterial labor” that produces the informational and cultural content of art objects, and will be the focus of this text.


Sustainability can only be understood as it relates to a specific cultural, economic and socio-political context; meaning, the term obviously has different meanings on different continents and in different societies. On a more general level, however, one could argue that concepts of sustainability are shaped by the globalized effects of the current information society, which emerged in the second half of the twentieth century as the economy moved from material goods to information goods. In the digitally networked information economy, information feeds into the production process of commodities, provides the basis for the control of the market, and is materialized and sold as a commodity. Terms such as outsourcing, off-shore banking and maquiladora have become catchwords of the new globalized information economy.

Information systems and communications networks produce “immaterial commodities” consisting of informational or cultural content. At the same time, these virtual assets connect to and feed into the physical world. Virtual worlds have created their own economics that intersect with those of the real world. Items from online games are traded for real currency. Sweatshops in China engage in the business of “gold farming,” wherein players of online games pay “farmers” (players who repeat mundane actions in a game in order to collect points) to gather in-game rewards for them that they then can use to play the game at a higher level. According to Wikipedia, around 400,000 people in China were employed as goldfarmers as of late 2008. Anshe Chung, the avatar that entrepreneur Ailin Graef created for herself in the virtual world Second Life1 (SL) made headlines for building an online business in SL-devoted to development, brokerage and arbitrage of virtual land, items and currencies-that made her a real world millionaire. It was the avatar Anshe Chung (rather than Graef, the person) who was featured on the cover of Businessweek2 signifying the definitive arrival of the simulacra as commodity.

The sustainability of art as a cultural force has to be considered in this context of a global information society, which both impacts the conditions for art production and practice and provides art with a subject and source for critical reflection.


Artists are addressing sustainability from a variety of angles, among them the ecological, activist and economic ones. The environment and ecology are the most common context for issues of sustainability today-with a focus on global warming and shrinking natural resources. While issues of environmental and sociological sustainability seem a step removed from those of cultural sustainability, they nevertheless shape the cultural climate to which art responds. Environmental art has a long history, but digital technologies have provided new forms of engagement in this field. Artists such as Natalie Jeremijenko, Preemptive Media (Beatriz da Costa, Heidi Kumao, Jamie Schulte and Brooke Singer), or Eric Paulos and his colleagues from the Urban Atmospheres group at the Intel Research Lab have created projects that nurture what is occasionally referred to as “citizen science.”3 Their various projects transform mobile devices from mere communication tools into networked mobile measurement instruments that monitor environmental factors such as air quality or contamination. By authoring, sharing, and remixing new or existing technologies, these works strive to raise awareness and give citizens more agency in contributing to decision-making about their environment.

etoy.CORPORATION History/Share Certificates. Screenshot.

etoy.CORPORATION History/Share Certificates. Screenshot.

The same mobile technologies that ideally provide new platforms for communication and networking also potentially allow for users to be monitored and tracked. Many artists and media practitioners are critically exploring the issues surrounding privacy and identity that emerge from tracking and surveillance capabilities. For art, to address the sustainability of culture also means to probe into the sustainability of resistance. Art activism frequently makes use of mobile technologies to critique their implications or enhance the public’s social and political agency. One strategy employed by activist projects is to turn technologies against themselves, for example, by making mobile technologies’ capacities for monitoring available to the public. The Antiterror Line by the Bureau of Inverse Technology (BIT), for example, collects live audio data on civil liberty infringements from phone-in participants and thereby transforms phones (mobiles and landlines) into networked microphones. Users may record incidents while they arc unfolding or leave spoken reports, and the recordings are directly uploaded into an online database. In an age of increased security measures designed to keep citizens safe from harm and terrorist attacks, the project suggests the public’s need for protecting itself at the point where official procedures begin to corrode the very liberties they are designed to preserve. Artists have also addressed the sustainability of culture by adopting and/or subverting the economic models of corporations and market capitalism in the information society. The artist group etoy, for example, has carried out acts designed to heighten its public profile and hence increase its value as a cultural entity; in other words, branding. The work of these artists reveals identity as a cultural construct that is dependent upon the maintenance of a profile in the public, which is widely accepted as an entity established through communication. The value or impact of a given profile is reliant upon its circulation via various media, from print to the Internet. As etoy themselves state, “The firm represents the core and code of the corporate sculpture, and controls, protects, promotes and exploits the cultural substance (intellectual property) and the etoy.ARTCOLLECTION. Etoy intends to reinvest all financial earnings in art-the final link in the value chain.”(etoy).


Art obviously will only be able to explore and speak to the sustainability of culture if it finds ways to sustain itself, and etoy’s model nicely reflects on both of these aspects, representing the state of corporate culture and using it for sustenance.

Before the recent world-wide financial crisis the art market had seen another boom. Artworks sold at record prices at auction and yielded returns that made them serious investment opportunities, attracting investors that do not fit the usual profile of the art collector and connoisseur. Art fairs, with their unapologetic trade show flair, have become a focal point of the art world and have supposedly replaced institutional exhibitions of contemporary art as the authority taking the pulse of the time (at least if one trusts the hype). This state of the art world raises questions regarding the most successful formats for art production and exhibition. Curator Sarah Cook has asked whether a one-day, tradeshow-like presentation, with artists in attendance, might create a deeper engagement and more rewarding experience of new media art, which requires time-based investment and ongoing maintenance. (Cook)

The festival SOS 4.8,4 which took place in Murcia, Spain, in 2008 and featured artworks that were produced on site in 24 hours and then exhibited for another day, was an interesting response to this question. The process-oriented format of creation and exhibition established by an event such as SOS 4.8 provides opportunities for immediacy, flexibility, and engagement with the audience and local community. At the same time, the ephemeral and performative nature of the works created within the framework of this type of event is not easily marketable. This particular tension characterizes a major portion of art that uses digital technologies and their inherent characteristics, often involving network processes and interactive, performative engagement. New media art does not necessarily result in a sellable object, and it does not come as a surprise that the art is not on the radar of the current market.

New media art created in and for the networked commons faces a particular set of challenges with regard to sustainability-challenges that have been outlined by Tiziana Terranova in her essay “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.”5 Terranova draws upon Maurizio Lazzarato’s concept of “immaterial labor,” which he defines as the labor that produces the informational and cultural content of a commodity.6 Terranova argues that free labor on the Net-which includes activities such as building websites, modifying software packages, reading and participating in mailing lists, and building virtual spaces-is simultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited. This applies to the practices of Web 2.0, a term coined by O’Reilly Media in 2004, in particular. As a corporate concept Web 2.0 provides contextual “warehouses” that allow for the filtering and networking of content provided by users, whether photos (Flickr), videos (YouTube) or personal profiles (MySpace). One of the most problematic aspects of these social networking sites is the fact that users effectively grant extensive rights to the content they contribute, which raises interesting questions about authorship. Terranova suggests that the new “NetSlaves” are not simply a typical form of labor on the Internet but also embody a complex relationship to labor that has become widespread in late capitalist societies.

She sees free labor, an important element of the digital economy, as based in an experimental compromise between the historically rooted cultural desire for creative production (and self-realization) and the current capitalist emphasis on knowledge as the main source of value-added. This is not meant to say that new media art and art in the networked commons are ultimately not sustainable, since their participatory aspects involve free labor that in turn sustains the latest capitalist model. Depending on its concept and intent, some networked art has to involve free labor contributions but will not gain any profits (except for the long-term ones generated by sharing). Other art projects, such as etoy’s corporate structure, intentionally play with the capitalist model of the digital economy. Yet others generate sellable art objects as by-products of their process. No matter which strategies will prove to be self-sustaining, art in the networked commons (and contemporary art in general) cannot avoid addressing the Iarger context of the sustainability of cultural production in information societies.


1 < http://secondlife.com >

2 Businessweek, May 1, 2006,< http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/conent/06_18/b3982002.htm >

3 Natalie Jeremijenko. Feral Robots, http://www.nyu.edu/projects/xdesign/feralrobots/; Preemptive Media, < http://www.preemptivemedia.net >; Urban Atmospheres, http://www.urbanáatmosphcres.net;  Bureau of Inverse Technologies http://bureauit.org

4 See, <http://www.sos48.com/en_2010/>

5 See, Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Electronic Book Review,<http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/technocapitalism/voluntary>

6 See, Maurizio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labour,” <http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcimmateriallabour3.htm>


United Nations General Assembly, “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,” A/RES/42/187, December 11 1987, <http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/42/ares42-187.htm>

etoy, <http://www.etoy.com/fundamentals/>

Sarah Cook, “Immateriality and its Discontents, An Overview of Main Models and Issues for Curating New Media” in New MedIa in the white Cube and Beyond, ed. Christiane Paul (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008)

Christiane Paul is the director of the Media Studies Graduate Programs and associate professor of Media Studies at The New School, NY, and adjunct curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her edited anthology New Media in the White Cube and Beyond - Curatorial Models for Digital Art was published by UC Press in December, 2008.

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