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a hopeful art practice

Rebecca Solnit, in her book “Hope in the Dark”, quotes Václav Havel, writing from his experience as a political prisoner:

“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

Václav Havel, quoted in Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark”

I am making a start here on a series of blog posts: trying to take seriously Havel’s assertion that hope is an orientation of the spirit and the heart, to draw it out, and to consider what it might mean for a contemporary art practice.

We live in turbulent times. Maybe all times are turbulent, but it feels like our times risk being “particularly hopeless” in a collective sense. At this moment, where the news is mostly of climate emergency, economic inflation, devastating war, and pandemic becoming endemic; our ordinary daily experiences can become those of being beset by insoluable problems, whilst imagining a dystopian future. A clearer understanding of hope, and of what a hopeful practice may be like, seems timely.

Reading Havel’s words, we sense a paradox: hope seems to be essential, but also difficult and improbable. In the midst of circumstances which appear unbearable, such as his own imprisonment, Havel offers us hope as an “orientation”. Which is to say, not something we think or reason or way into, nor an emotion that we feel. By framing hope as an “orientation”, Havel is prompting us to inhabit the difficult present through the act of pointing ourselves in a direction, a way forward into alternative futures.

Olafur Eliasson’s “Earth Speakr” app is one possible starting place for questions about futures, and about hope in contemporary art.

Eliasson is very much concerned, in his work as an artist, with future time, and with climate emergency and human-made environmental disaster and loss. He starts from the understanding that the basic scientific facts are widely understood and scientifically uncontroversial: the earth systems on which our human lives depend are being threatened and unravelled on an alarming and unprecedented scale. The broad consensus is that the conditions are being created for the near future, in generational time, to be unlivable for humans, either because bare survival will be impossible, or because the essentials of meaningful life will be lost.

In the light of this, our very ordinary relationships with other people and our surroundings start to look precious and extraordinary.

“Earth Speakr” provides a platform for “kids to speak up for the planet and adults to listen up to what they have to say”, including opportunities for adults to “broadcast” the voices which emerge. The website asks “are you ready to listen to the future?”

In focussing on listening to and amplifying the voices of children, Eliasson is challenging abstract thinking. He has identified as a difficulty our inability to imagine future time. And so he amplifies the children in the app, because they are real people, people who will be living in a future which will unfold from our actions (and failures to act) right now.

In a discussion with Katherine Richardson, Eliasson says that “as an artist” he is concerned with the question “what’s the distance between thinking about doing something and then doing something?” He connects this with his own personal sense of hope, saying that

“I normally would think that I work within the principle of being hopeful, positive, and so on. And as Desmond Tutu said, sometimes it feels like I am the prisoner of hope, because also its not easy. But still I am optimistic. “

(Eliasson and Richardson, 2019)

In other words, Eliasson is raising questions about the mechanisms of change, about what hope is and how we remain hopeful, and about how that intersects with our work as artists and change-makers.

I want to look, in this series of blog posts, at some of the ways in which contemporary artists seek to be change-makers and to address what are often considered to be political issues, and I want to discuss some ideas that support their attempts. I will look for my examples towards artists who are addressing questions about environmental crises and alienation and estrangement from land.

My aim is try to ease some threads out from the tangle, and to indicate some possible directions and suggestions for a hopeful art practice.

Sources, & resources for further research and reading:

Rebecca Solnit: Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books, 2016.

Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Earth Speakr’ Earth Speakr. Available at: https://earthspeakr.art/en

Systemic Change and Social Tipping Points : a conversation between Olafur Eliasson and Katherine Richardson, 6 December 2019

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