Susan Hauri-Downing ecoartist

A framework for reflecting on my work as an eco-artist

I have based this background to my work, on Anthony Gidden's (1991 p 53 & 54) concept of a set of constantly changing, interwoven biographical narratives that define our self identity i.e. who we are, and how we came to be who we are now.

This particular narrative reflects on my evolving self identity as I engaged in the process of exploring a range of environmental and social issues where I was and still am continually challenged by tension between the "down to earth" aims of what is possible to achieve in eco-art projects, and the "moral high ground" surrounding the value judgements that I want to communicate.

The core of my practice as an eco-artist is to raise awareness about issues surrounding the environment and our connection to it, through the process of "communicative action."

In Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, p135, Jurgen Habermas (1995) defined the concept of communicative action as "a circular process in which the actor is two things in one: an initiator, who masters situations through which he is accountable, and a product of the transitions surrounding him, of groups whose cohesion is based on solidarity to which he belongs, and of processes of socialisation in which he is reared."

Bringing together the ideas of Giddens and Habermas, and relating these to my own practice as an eco-artist, I became the actor involved in the responsibility of initiating situations which raise the awareness of the audience. At the same time the product (i.e. the dynamic narrative defining my self identity as an eco-artist), was affected by how I developed the values that I communicate; by the overall changes in "community" acceptance of the social and political issues that I deal with, and by the responses of the groups with whom I worked.

Personal background

Some feelings of "otherness" have always been a part of my self identity. This has led to a strong sense of justice and particular concern for the rights of people who are marginalised or unfairly treated. My family background has had considerable influence on the development of my values and the nature of my arts practice.

As a small child I migrated from South Africa to Australia..We moved all over Australia and my schooling took place in eight schools over twelve years. I was never in one place long enough to fit in properly. In the process of finding new peer groups I learned to take the initiative in establishing relationships and always supported other students who were marginalised in some way.At the same time my teachers and parents were confused by my strong artistic, reading and comprehension, empathetic listening and story telling skills, combined with an inability to hand write neatly or spell coherently. I compensated by being as helpful, responsible and co-operative as possible thus developing strong leadership and social skills.

My parents are both environmental scientists with strong emotional links to place and wilderness.There were always vast quantities of environmental information available, with discussion, television programs, and visitors' conversation centred on environmental issues. This developed my understanding that we are all intimately and intricately connected with the land and one another. .

Having been born in South Africa and migrated to Australia I have been aware for a long time of the privilege I have experienced as a result of the "white colonial invasion" of both these countriesThis awareness forms an important part of my practice, in that I continually need to acknowledge my history, when exploring environmental issues in Australia, where a great deal of injustice towards indigenous people and their land has occurred.

In Perth in 1997 I completed a diploma in Human Services. At this time economic rationalism was being filtered into welfare systems and many previously government funded bodies were for the first time experiencing privatisation. Strong socialist ideologies were passed on by some lecturers who promoted critical thought about the curriculum. Discussion about social issues, and participation in social activism contributed to my awareness of the power of critical discourse to change the attitudes and beliefs of groups of people, albeit sometimes preaching to the converted

Contextualising my work

In discussing my arts practice the first question is how can I contextualise my work within an eco-arts practice and how does it facilitate communicative action?

"Eco-art" has evolved from the "environmental art" of the 1960s and 1970s. For many years the terms have been used synonymously. Ann Rosenthal (2000) characterises both eco-art and environmental art as "having an ethic that
focuses on the interrelationships between the physical, biological, cultural, political and historical aspects of ecological systems." She divides the practice of environmental artists into:-

Reflecting Artists who use a range of art forms to heal and celebrate our bonds with the earth.
Restoring Artists who collaborate with inter-disciplinary teams to restore or improve degraded land.
Mediating Artists who use signs and imagery to inform their audience about environmental issues.
Integrating Artists who create installations that represent metaphors to reveal patterns and relationships.

Other writers recognise difficulty in defining specific sub-sets of environmental art.
Rosi Lister (2003) believes that the underlying intent of the artist and the perception of the audience are possible defining criteria. For example many artists are both reflective and integrative. They simply create works with environmental themes as part of their own spiritual creativity. These artists are not concerned with outside interpretation of their work and leave the audience free to interpret individual meaning. In contrast Lister regards as much more
significant, the work of integrative, confrontational artists who set out to change the ideas and perceptions of their audience.

Barber (2000), reflecting on the political activist art of the 1970s and 1980s distinguishes between protest and resistance. He believes that earlier confrontational protest art has little impact in changing the way people think, but that "socially engaged environmental art which combines the instrumental action of resistance with Habermas's (1995) idea of communicative action" is much more effective in changing the ideas of the public.

Eco-art has emerged from this perspective. Patricia Watts (2005) is a meditative, integrative artist. She states that "eco-artists seek to gain access to, and become advocates for communities, working as both co-learners and co-creators. Their work is collaborative and supports both natural and social ecosystems."

Using this definition some of my work is strictly environmental while other examples fit into the more collaborative type of eco-art.

In 2004, I proposed a collaborative project, Caretaker Stories (to be re-named by the story tellers/The Swan River Claimants), which involved groups of people who shared a common concern about lack of awareness regarding indigenous heritage in the Swan River area occupied by the City of Perth.
This project involved stories being created, told and recorded in traditional Nyoongar dialect. They were to be repeated in Aboriginal English by the same storytellers and would refer to the sites that one can see from the CAT buses in the City. The stories would be played through existing speakers on the buses.

The central concepts of this proposed project were the promotion of reconciliation through collaboration, and through awareness of shared land use and respect for our environment.

My role was primarily as a facilitator. Funding for this project was eventually not available, but I did complete a comprehensive funding submission, and developed continuing relationships with some of the parties and "communities" concerned.There were several problematic issues surrounding this project, one of which is the fluidity of the concept of "community" in this proposal and the relationships that this term has to arts funding on a Federal and State level'

The term "community" is problematic since it is used freely on the assumption that the audience understands the same concept as the writer. Usually this is not the case. "Community" has numerous covert and overt meanings and therefore so does "community art."
Kwon (2002)(Chap 4&5 ) explains that in the USA , the term "community" can overtly and blandly refer to a of group people with similar interests, e.g. "the business /medical/scientific community", but covertly it is a "politically correct" term that refers to socially marginalised groups. This has advantages when seeking public support, but at the same time the
value of any "community art project" is based on social rather than artistic criteria.

"Community" is similarly used by writers in the USA to describe "non-mainstream" groups of people. Thus the "eco-feminist community" is placed in the same covert exclusion zone as the "HIV –AIDS community" or the "black activist community". Patronage of community arts projects in this case depends on criteria such as political correctness, political beliefs, political activism, or altruism, but not on social or artistic merit. It is therefore very important to select the most appropriate sources of funding.

In Europe, "community" overtly implies a group who have similar beliefs or value systems, and who work collaboratively to achieve positive specific outcomes, for example religious, artistic, financial or agricultural communities.

In essence, marginalised communities tend to have outside sponsors and facilitators working with or for them in art or other projects that will "benefit" the marginalised group. The funding for these projects tends to come from government and corporate sponsorship, (i.e. the "system world" of Habermas (1994), although often, the covert purpose of these projects is to challenge the values of that "system world" through communicative action.It is important to recognise this when making funding applications and to use the jargon of the funding body in supporting its values.

In contrast to the European type, collaborative communities tend to work on "internally generated" projects, and to fund these projects from their own resources or private endowments. The artistic merit of work created by collaborative communities of artists
is seriously valued and more important than other criteria pertaining to the project.

Kwon also describes a third "temporary or invented artistic community" where a community group or organisation is specially constituted through the co-ordination of the work itself, and which ceases when the work is completed. Most my work fits most easily into this category.

The early focus of my arts practice

While living in Australia my projects tended to focus on problems related to environmental degradation, which has resulted from the effects of detrimental land management practices introduced by early colonists in the 19th century, and from the effects of the plant and animal species that they brought with them. This biological "colonial invasion" has been so successful
that many people are unaware of the original native species or the original nature of the landscape.

One of my individual projects, Invasion, displayed during the 2005 Sculpture Survey at the Gomboc Gallery Sculpture Park, highlighted the special care and irrigation which lawn requires, in contrast to the dry sparsely vegetated area where the piece was sited in the Park.

Bring them Home was a group project, which I designed and facilitated, to raise awareness about the importance of re-introducing local native plant species to the places where we live, and how this influences biodiversity in the Perth metropolitan area. It served as an interactive display that raised awareness about the legacy of one hundred and fifty years of European gardening culture and its effect on the health of the local environment.

The experience that I've gained by engaging in these group projects leads to the following question:-if as Habermas (1994) suggests, public opinion can be influenced by communicative action processes such as awareness raising, discourse, metaphor, symbolic expression, and performances, to such an extent that patterns of social interaction or social values are changed, then what are the critical elements of public participatory artwork that will encourage people to participate in its creation, while simultaneously raising their own and audience awareness of the social/environmental issues being considered ?

There are probably many answers to this question but elements that I believe are critical include:
  • enthusiasm about the issues being dealt with.
  • prior acceptance and trust from the community about the motives, expected outcomes and benefits of participating in the project.
  • strong leadership and clear vision from the initiator about the overall nature of the project so that the participants are free to discuss , change and own parts of the project without loss of its total integrity.
  • patience and flexibility on the part of the initiator, while at the same time being organised so that all participants feel confident that their input is worth while.

Within marginalised communities or temporary ones, made up mostly of volunteers,the issues of democracy and ownership are a problem. Although it would be ideal for the members of an eco-art project to engage in fully democratic internal direction, this is extremely difficult to achieve.Chapter 5 of Kwon's book, One Place after Another, provides is a comprehensive critique of these problems, including the capacity of the artists to "fool themselves" about the purposes of their projects.

It was important, then, for contemporary eco-artists such as me to have clear consistent,shared strategies for facilitating democratic consultation and decision making amongst the participants, and to develop strategies for anticipating and implementing the democratically suggested processes and changes.Some of the arts projects that I was involved in may be related to one particular locality and its related issues, for example, Caretaker Stories. Other projects, such as Bring them Home were more specifically concerned with broad social or environmental issues.

Some authors regard environmental art and eco-art as "site specific" by definition. My practice is not necessarily site specific, although it is eco-art.This issue is best articulated by Miwon Kwon (2002) in her book "One Place after Another: site specific art and locational identity. In Chapters 1-4 she discusses the issues surrounding site specificity in a range of artistic genres.

By its nature environmental art has, a tendency to be site-specific. Kwon points out, however, that eco-art in particular is emerging as a new genre of public art "which favours temporary rather than permanent projects that engage their audience, particularly groups considered marginalised, as active participants in the conceptualisation and production of process-orientated politically conscious community events or programs."In other words "site-specific environmental art" is clearly different to "issue-specific eco-art". Although many individual artists produce works typical of the site-specific genre, as well as issue-specific works, it is helpful to be aware of this distinction when considering the problems of sponsorship, ownership, authenticity and purpose.

It is much easier to communicate the same message when re-locating an issue- based work than a site-based work.

It is even possible for different groups of participants to own the same performance or installation in a different continent. For example my project Caretaker Stories is clearly both issue and site- specific, whereas Invasion could be re-located to a number of similar sites at different localities around Australia or Africa and still communicate the same message.

Usually eco-art works such as mine have little commercial value, but their worth can be valued by the extent to which the participants and/or audience become aware of the problem being dealt with, and possibly by the extent to which they are challenged to change their thinking about the issue. This does however raise problems of authenticity and permanence.

How does the ephemeral nature of many eco-art installations and performances affect their authenticity?

Which is more important, the work itself or the print/digital record of it?

Within the context of communicative action how important are the creative and communicative processes involved in the production of an eco-art work, compared to its final presentation?

Following the ideas of Habermas(1995), it can be argued the communicative action that occurs amongst the participants as they engage in an eco-art project, is more important in changing the way people think about a specific issue, than the effect on a disengaged audience viewing the final product.It therefore does not matter if the work is highly ephemeral and, to some extent whether it is recorded or not.

Ahern, however, (quoted in Kwon 2002, Chap.4 p.94) points out that although a record of community- based art work is rarely considered a "work of art" in the traditional sense, the increased self- confidence and change of attitude resulting from the positive acknowledgement of the participants' work (by deeming it worthy of recording) facilitates the desired outcome of attitude change.

Considerable research, consultation, net-working and technical problem solving are involved in designing and producing eco-art sculptures, presentations or performances. Even the planning and production of conceptual designs, maquettes, functional models and funding proposals are expensive in terms of time and resources. When it is possible, I try to use recycled, second-hand, donated or surplus materials for creating my projects. Similarly, I try to use and support the services and resources of volunteer organisations or of government-funded individuals/groups to reduce costs and to add dedicated voices to the issue being communicated. This practice models my "high moral" environmental beliefs that existing resources and materials should not be wasted. In reality it would be much easier (although more expensive) to source all the materials from commercial outlets and to pay for any professional expertise needed.

When applying for funding or support, it is important to question and to recognise what basic human needs or rewards would motivate the voluntary support and participation in eco-art works: could it be reduction of guilt, by being seen to be doing something; recognition of value as an individual; shared confidence building; action without responsibility; more fun than staying at home; or bribery, rather than a firmly held belief in the rightness of the cause being supported?

Moving on and reflecting on some down-to- earth issues

If communicative action is to be one of the hallmarks of my arts practice , how do I tap into the factors that motivate supporters and participants?

Does it matter what type of motivation is used, provided that the art work is created within budget and on schedule?

Does it matter if the artist's intended message is communicated to the audience?

Answers to these questions involve prior understanding of the intended supporters, participants and audience for each individual project. There is no guarantee that a project will work simply because it is a good idea or a good cause. Similarly, in meeting the needs of the audience, it is important to recognise the difference between "mass culture" and communicative action, and not to fool oneself about the expected outcomes of eco-art projects.

My feeling is that if there is no awareness -raising or intellectual response from participators and audience then the project fails to be eco-art. Instead it becomes possibly a self indulgent activity of the facilitator, or simply a "fun event".

When designing eco-art projects, there is always some doubt about whether the works of a small group or individual can actually make any difference to the values of the audience and participators. Anthony Giddens (1991), believes that the message communicated by individual artists/groups can be heard in spite of the uniformity of the urban and social environment that results from global mass-production of artefacts and mediated experiences.

Giddens explains that while the "Cultural Institutions" of society have the power to control the thinking and actions of individuals, these same institutions provide the framework of common understanding that enables individuals to effectively challenge established ideas.

One of the most contentious issues about environmental art and eco-art is whether they are art at all. While a great deal of environmental art is focused on integrating with the surroundings to improve the visual, acoustic or ecological aspects of the site, (for example Genesis) eco-art works are usually issue-specific interventions of short duration and in many cases may be participant/audience -specific as well.(eg Bring them Home).
While the processes of communicative action and resultant changes in attitude are most likely to occur in interventions of this nature, there are many critics who refuse to regard public art projects as real art.

There are no absolute definitions of real art, but there are many different definitions that suit different genres.Tim Collins (2003) usefully defines artworks within the public and socio-political context as "creations which are a dynamic mix of lyrical expression, critical engagement and transformative action."He discusses how a lot of value is placed on public art that is good for the community, but how difficult it is for contemporary public or community artists to work effectively under the heavy constraints of traditional values, public expectations, legal liabilities, financial adequacy and availability of resources.

Moving to switzerland- marriage and children

I moved to Switzerland in 2006 with my Swiss partner and we have settled into his home environs - a small town near Zurich. Our twin son and daughter were born in mid -2007.

Before I left Australia I wrote that I was conscious of Miwon Kwon‘s (2002) opinion (p. 66) that success and acceptance of community based work is greatly influenced by whether the artist has local origins and the length of time that the artist has resided in the area. On this basis, a Swiss or European audience would justifiably question my relationship to local environmental issues and "communities". Additional problems could centre on how I interpret local culture, and the socio-political forces that surround environmental issues. Similarly, researching, networking and speaking with people through the languages of German, Swiss German and French will be challenging, despite the fact that many people do speak English.

Ironically in 2010 I now have a much better appreciation of the factors that persuaded the early colonists of the 19th century to bring their familiar plants and animals to the unsuitable habitats of Africa and Australia. Last year on returning to Switzerland from a visit to Australia I irrationally filled my backpack with cuttings and seeds of some native plants that I was concerned about from Perth

Predictably it is too cold , and not sunny enough for their natural survival. They sit in their pots in my studio, artificially warmed and watered but providing a tangible signifier of home.

Currently I'm exploring issues concerned with endangered Swiss plants and strategies for building connections in the local community. My focus is also on the importance of plants as physical and emotional signifiers in modern society.

In my arts practice the Internet is an especially useful tool for documenting, displaying, discussing and analysing works that are both permanent and ephemeral. In this way the intellectual responses of the audience and resulting communicative action may only occur sometime after the eco-art performance/installation has taken place. My website is developing still and I am next looking to get it translated into German.


Barber B (2000) The Gift in Littoral Art Practice, Chimera Symposium, Christchurch NZ,
Conceptual Art Online, http://

Collins, Tim (2003) Lyrical Expression, Critical Engagement, Transformative Action: An Introduction to Art and the Environment

Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self Identity, Polity Press Cambridge

Habermas, Jurgen (1995) Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, Trans. Lenhardt & Nicholsen Cambridge M.A.M.I.T. Press (Series: Studies in Contemporary German Thought)

Habermas, Jurgen (1994) Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge M.A.M.I.T. press

Lister, Rosi (2003) What is environmental Art? COGEN Vol 1 July 2003

Kwon, Miwon (2002), One place after another: site-specific art and locational identity, Massachusetts Institute of Technology USA

Rosenthal, Ann (2000), Theory and practice in Environmental Thinking and Art, Carnegie Mellon University USA

Watts, Patricia (2005), Eco-artists: Engaging Communities in a New Metaphor