The Royal Academy of Arts Continues the Conversation on Environmental Protection

With the upcoming exhibit “Eco-Visionaries,” 21 creatives offer commentary on humanity's environmental impacts through art.

With the upcoming exhibit “Eco-Visionaries,” 21 creatives offer commentary on humanity's environmental impacts through art.

The vision of the future is bleak, nearly apocalyptic—a reality reflected in an upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. From November 2019 to February 2020, the fine art institution will house “Eco-Visionaries,” a showcase of 21 artists, architects, and designers who have created works that explore the harmful environmental effects that humankind has wrought.

“Their provocative responses are a wake-up call, urging us to acknowledge our impact on the environment,” says Gonzalo Herrero Delicado, the architecture curator at the Royal Academy of Arts. “The works in this exhibition alternate between critical inquiry and visionary optimism, offering alternative ways to overcome an almost lost sense of hope in the future. A future where humans will manage to reconnect with nature, and create a more empathic relationship with their fellow species on the planet, which are also striving to survive.”

With 70 million metric tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere daily, a 40-percent increase since the Industrial Revolution, and with global annual waste expected to jump to 3.4 billion tons in 30 years, the trajectory to complete depletion of the earth’s natural resources is well on its way. And 97 percent of scientists conclude that this a direct result of human action. “This is not an environmental catastrophe that might impact future generations, but one that will drastically affect our own,” adds Delicado. “We need to act, but we also need to understand the scale of this complex problem in order to define the changes that must be made.”

Indeed, the art world has taken a stand, creating a number of programs that bring attention to this crisis. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Tate Modern, Cube Design Museum, New-York Historical Society, University of Colorado Art Museum, and more have all recently presented exhibitions that center on the adverse effects of global warming, and man-made pollution. “Eco-Visionaries” continues this conversation, displaying monumental, thought-provoking pieces by both established and emerging creatives from all corners, including Virgil Abloh, Nerea Calvillo, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Olafur Eliasson, and Rimini Protokoll.

“One of the main aims of the exhibition is to bring a holistic approach, bringing the views of a diverse group of practitioners addressing different ecological issues through their work in art, architecture and design,” says Delicado. “From Egyptian artist Basim Magdy and Colombian artist Carolina Caycedo, to New York-based architecture practice Office for Political Innovation and Bangkok-based studio New-Territories, this exhibition aims to provide different geographical perspectives to this global issue.”

Along with promoting inclusivity, Delicado and co-curators Pedro Gadanho and Mariana Pestana intend for “Eco-Visionaries” to shock audiences, which is why the majority of the pieces will be making their U.K. debut, or were specially commissioned for the exhibition. There is nothing too familiar so as to heighten the messages found in each piece. Keeping with the sense of ecological urgency, the Royal Academy of Arts enlisted Delvendahl Martin Architects and the graphic design studio Daly & Lyon to design a space that follows sustainable practices. The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler galleries, where the showcase will be held, plans on utilizing recycled materials, eschewing single-use plastics so as to reduce the amount of waste generated.

As of now, the vision of the future may look grim, but with institutions following sustainable tactics and, more importantly, fostering a better understanding of the planet with presentations such as “Eco-Visionaries,” there may be light at the end of the tunnel. “Over the last few decades, many exhibitions have examined ecological issues and sustainability,” says Delicado. “The most significant difference between then and now relies on a sense of emergency. Contemporary creative practitioners are using their work to unravel the facts so we can understand the scale of this complex situation.”

Ahead of the unveiling of “Eco-Visionaries,” Surface asks five of the exhibiting creatives to give greater insight into how their work promotes a better tomorrow.

Madrid in the Air by Nerea Calvillo

Madrid in the Air is a collaborative project that makes visible—through different formats and platforms—the invisible components of the air. It aims to be a tool to allow non-experts to see the things that we don’t see floating around us—particles and gases—creating an experiential landscape that allows the viewer to feel inside the air. Based on real-time data of air quality, the project reveals when and where the air is polluted, demonstrating how urban air pollution is a direct consequence of our daily practices, and how it is distributed differently across the city, affecting the disadvantaged more so, and contributing to environmental injustices.
Nerea Calvillo

Madrid in the Air, 2019, video, by Nerea Calvillo. Photo courtesy of Nerea Calvillo.

The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

My work looks at human relationships with nature and technology. As we accelerate our decimation of our natural environment, we are developing ever more complex technologies, whose inventors promise that they can make the world better. The Substitute explores a paradox in this context: the human preoccupation of creating new lifeforms, while neglecting existing ones. The last male northern white rhino died last spring. In response, we created a life-size digital archival copy of a northern white rhino, rendered in detail by animators at the Mill that follows the path of AI developed by specialists at DeepMind. Its movement and sound is based on a trove of field recordings of the last eight rhinos, filmed at a zoo in the Czech Republic in the early 2000s. Scientists are trying to de-extinct the subspecies through IVF, using eggs extracted from the last two females. But why would humans look after technological copies better, having utterly failed to protect natural ones? In the work, the rhino becomes increasingly lifelike, stares us in the eye, and then disappears over and over again, presenting us with the discomforting reality of an intelligent being that we did nothing to protect.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

The Substitute, 2018-2019, (video still) by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Daisy Ginsburg.

The Breast Milk of the Volcano by Unknown Fields Division

Unknown Fields is a nomadic design studio that ventures out on expeditions into the shadows cast by the contemporary city, to uncover the alternative worlds, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness set in motion by the powerful push and pull of the city’s desires. These dislocated landscapes —the iconic and ignored, the excavated, irradiated and pristine—are connected to our everyday lives in surprising and complicated ways. They are embedded in global systems that form a vast network of elusive tendrils, twisting threadlike over everything around us, crisscrossing the planet, connecting the mundane to the extraordinary. Unknown Fields Division makes provocative objects and films from this expedition work, to reveal the invisible connections that lie behind the scenes of the modern world.
Unknown Fields Division

The Breast Milk of the Volcano, 2016-2018, video still, by Unknown Fields Division. Photo courtesy of Unknown Fields.

Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers by Dunne & Raby

Do we change the world to suit us? Or do we change ourselves to suit the world? What if we could extract nutritional value from non-human foods using a combination of synthetic biology and new digestive devices inspired by digestive systems of other mammals, birds, fish and insects? The project builds on existing cultures and grass-roots enthusiasts who may initially appear extreme and specialist: guerrilla gardeners, garage biologists, freegan gleamers, etc. Bottom-up, a group of people take their fate into their own hands, and build DIY devices to maximize the nutritional value of the urban environment, making up for any shortcomings in the commercially available—but increasingly limited—diet.
Dunne & Raby

Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers, 2009, lambda print mounted on aluminium, by Dunne & Raby. Photo courtesy of Dunne & Raby/Jason Evans.

Island House in Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas by Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation

The project addresses a fundamental issue for contemporary architecture: how a small-scale project can be related to processes and challenges in the bigger context of climate change. Island House is not designed as a piece of architecture for humans, but built, instead, as a device that empowers the environmental diversity of Laguna Grande. On one hand, the house acts as an environmental mediator. It collects rainwater throughout the year. A series of sensors situated in the ground monitor the concentration of salinity and toxicity in the soil. When these parameters get critical, the house sprays water from its rainfall reservoir into the ground, helping reduce the concentration of salinity and toxicity in the soil. The process of construction itself is situated in a context of deceleration of the polluting oil industry in Corpus Christi. The structure of the building is being developed in collaboration with offshore oil extraction facilities experiencing low activity. Overall, the project advocates and provides evidence of the potential of a transition to new collective environmental and interspecies alliances.
Andrés Jaque

Island House in Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas, 2015, print on a wooden panel, by Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation. Photo courtesy Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation.

“Eco-Visionaries” will be displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts from November 23, 2019 to February 23, 2020.

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