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“Nature” in American Art Since 1970 (Digital Terra Symposium)

19.05.2020 | 16:30 - 19:00
Symposium poster

Symposium poster

Can the art produced in the United States over the last fifty years help us model a new human-nonhuman relationship for the era of climate change?

Fifty years ago, U.S. culture was transformed by a new kind of environmentalism, one concerned less with the local effects of toxins and pollution than with the potentially calamitous effects of human activity on a global scale. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, the circulation of photographs of “the whole earth,” the first celebration of Earth Day, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, among other events, not only made American thinking about “nature” more urgent but also transformed the concept of nature itself into something more relational and global. At the same moment, modern art was also undergoing an analogous kind of change, enacting its famed “dematerialization” and entering into “the expanded field” of installation art, earthworks, and other open forms. In the half-century since these developments, human activity has continued to degrade the nonhuman realm, causing deforestation, massive species extinction, ocean acidification, and sea level rise, while global temperatures are already more than one degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels. Many artists have addressed these developments in their work, even seeking to throw into doubt the historic idea of “nature” itself. Meanwhile, scholars have engaged in ecocritical analysis, asking what values, in relationship to our environmental crisis, artworks have really supported.

Important fundamental questions, however, remain largely unanswered: Can the art produced in the United States over the last fifty years help us model a new human-nonhuman relationship for the era of climate change? Has recent American art, to be slightly more specific, imagined any viable alternative to the modern idea of nature as the passive “other” to human agency, an object or image to be exploited or protected by “man”? Finally, what role might art play in the cultural transformation that will be necessary for stopping climate change?

This symposium brings together a small group of leading scholars and invites them each, through close analysis of works of art, to propose answers to these questions.

The symposium is organized by Joshua Shannon, the 2019-2020 Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. 

The symposium will be delivered online using Webex Events. You can either download the Webex desktop app or join the event via the web app. To attend the symposium, click here: WEBEX  (event number: 234 317 076, event password: 1234)

Schedule (Central European Summer Time)

16:30  Welcome and Introduction
Joshua Shannon
Terra Visiting Professor of American Art, Freie Universität Berlin
Professor, Art History & Archaeology, University of Maryland

16:40  “The Agency of Other Beings”
Robin Kelsey
Dean of Arts and Humanities
Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography
Harvard University

17:05  “Activist Abstraction: Anita Krajnc, Save Photography, and the Nature of Industrial Meat”
Alan C. Braddock
Ralph H. Wark Associate Professor of Art History and American Studies
College of William & Mary

17:30  “COVID’s Climate and the Materiality of Dematerialization”
Shannon Jackson
Associate Vice Chancellor for the Arts and Design
Cyrus and Michelle Hadidi Chair in the Humanities
University of California, Berkeley

17:55  Responses

Eva Ehninger
Professor of Modern Art
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Eric de Bruyn
Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art
Freie Universität Berlin

Alexander Starre
Assistant Professor, John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies
Freie Universiät Berlin

18:10  Break

18:20  Discussion

19:00  Conclusion

Presentation Abstracts