Ki Culture had the pleasure to talk to the artist Andreas Greiner, whose practice includes reforestation projects, the technical and artistic application of carbon calculators, and experimentations on ecosystems. In this interview we will dive in his practice and learn about alternative ways of making art and engaging with environmental questions.
Ki Culture: A number of your works seems to have an environmentally conscious connotation. waldfuermorgen (2020-), for example. What is it and how does it fit into your practice? Can you explain the importance of involving the general public as active participants in the project?
Andreas Greiner: The waldfuermorgen project started around 2019 in Goslar, a city located in the middle of Germany close to the Harz region, once famous for its forest of spruce trees. Now the area has turned into a desert because of climate change and the spread of the bark beetle. It’s a shock for the local people, it’s been a very sudden change. What used to be a “Christmas tree” forest is now just naked hills with cut stems. And it all was all really sudden, it took only 5 to 10 years. At the time, I was tackling the theme of forests in a project called Jungle Memory and I was fascinated by the idea of planting trees myself. After meeting Gertrude Endejan-Gremse and having found a common intent, we funded wald für morgen e.V., an NGO that plants trees with children from the local community. My artistic contribution took the form of planting trees in a spiral pattern — which helps the development of the forest — and of enabling a follow-up relationship between the planted tree and the person who planted it through Google Maps. It’s a project that leans more towards the activist side of my practice than the exhibition-making side. It happens in society, outside the white cube. In 10 to 20 years we will be able to say if the project helped the growth of a new forest and inspired people to be more ecological. Sure, we are always organizing workshops for the schools, and last year we had an exhibition at the local Mönchehaus museum. But it’s still too soon to tell if it will build a more sustainable future.
K.C.: Another instance of your interest in forests and their survival is the project Jungle Memory (2017-) which uses a deep-learning algorithm to explore the human gaze on natural landscapes. How do you think such technologies can be utilized in a positive, holistic way when dealing with the environment?
A.G.: I have doubts that AI can be helpful. For instance,the artistic evaluation the artificial intelligence was making during this project consumes a lot of energy. When we embarked on this experiment we used a lot of supercomputing and I found out I was using much more energy than I would have ever imagined. So it was not a sustainable project if you look deeply into how it worked. Nevertheless, I realized that things are much more interwoven than you’d think: even though I was using a laptop and I was distant from the server centers used for the calculations, the computers there were still working. Things that look non-physical might have a very physical reality behind them. We are not aware of most correlations between our actions and the rest of the world. Jungle Memory seemed to me like a sustainable endeavor: I was going into forests, most of which were politically charged locations. One of them was the Hambach forest in Germany which is used for coal mining. At the time a lot of protests were led against the depletion of the forest, so I took pictures to train the AI. I thought that by raising awareness through such a project I was doing something ecological but you could also say that I was consuming energy produced by the very same coal mines I was protesting against.
K.C.: Your practice also encompasses practical sustainable solutions like carbon calculators that you applied for instance in the Zero Waste (2020) exhibition at the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig. The exhibition had the explicit goal of having the lowest possible carbon footprint, and the curators — Hannah Beck-Mannagetta and Lena Fließbach — made many efforts to make it ecologically sound. Can you describe the relationship between the sustainable techniques you use and your aesthetic choices? Which one comes first?
A.G.: At the time online tools that institutions could use to measure their carbon footprint already existed — one of them was the Gallery Climate Coalition carbon calculator. In this case, though, I wanted to learn how to do it myself. It was a quite complex challenge, especially since I am no mathematician and we had a very limited amount of time. We had to decide where to start to unravel this interwoven footprint. We decided to proceed with a very simple idea; start from the budget. We based the calculations on the average impact of a country’s currency in a year to get the average footprint of the exhibition budget. That allowed us to visualize a certain amount of carbon dioxide we should pay attention to. The other aspect we considered was compensation. The curators wanted to keep the waste to a minimum, so if there was any waste that couldn’t be avoided, it had to be offset. Keep in mind that there is a huge industry behind offsetting; it surely is an ecological practice but it also promotes the wrong ideas about compensating your footprint. When purchasing a plane ticket, for example, the company makes it seem like you can just click on an icon and fix your impact by paying a bit more. They usually are NGOs that plant trees on the other side of the world in the hope that one day the adult trees will compensate for your carbon emissions. Unfortunately, many conditions will have to be met for that to work out, which is too difficult to control, especially in such a long time span. We did end up compensating for our impact by planting trees in the local area so that they could create a direct, evident link to the exhibition. At the end of the project, we received the data related to the carbon footprint of the museum that was hosting the exhibition: the numbers multiplied by 50 times. The way the museum was built and the climate control conditions had a huge impact, much more than what a single exhibition could produce. Through my contribution, I tried to express the complexity of the issue. It was a heavily conceptual work.
K.C.: Indeed, climate control is an often underestimated problem. In projects like Experiments on symbiotic architectures (2018) with Ivy Lee Fiebig, you experimented with symbiotic living and architecture that encourages intra-action between humans and the rest of the ecosystem. What are the lessons you learned in that endeavor that can be applied to other scenarios, like museums, for example? Can museum architecture inspire new ways of relating to other human and more-than-human agents?
A.G.: Experiments on symbiotic architectures was a purely theoretical model used to promote ideas about the future. It was located in the Bärenzwinger, a sort of zoo in Berlin that was originally built to host two bears. The idea was to create an algae pond in the moat . We wanted to create a cycle: the physical action of the human body would accelerate the breathing process of the algae, which in turn would produce more oxygen that would sustain human activity. We would use a bicycle, for instance, that was connected to a pump to help the algae float. Unfortunately, none of it could be realistically applied to real-life museums. This kind of practice raises the question if contemporary art still needs the same stable conditions as ancient artworks. Do we need the same conditions to present a performance by Tino Sehgal as an old oil painting? I doubt it. We should be more reasonable and apply these measures only when needed. And we should also question the very notion of preserving artifacts, letting go of the past in some cases. One interesting model was proposed in the Down to Earth exhibition two years ago in the Martin Gropius Bau. They didn’t use artificial light and just relied on the natural light they had at the moment.
K.C.: You have challenged the space of the gallery in works like Das Numen transformation — Transferring a hydrological cycle into the white cube (2012). While such a transformation is quite radical, it shows a possible alternative to sterile white cubes. How can galleries and traditional institutions be physically and ethically changed into more ecological places? Do you think artists can help achieve this transition?
A.G.: I worked on it with my collective Das Numen, together with Markus Hoffmann, Felix Kiessling, and Julian Charrière. The basic idea was to create a peculiar environment centering the water cycle. We removed some dirt from the garden and the interior and found contaminated material as well as objects from WWII. Then we piled the dirt up in a little mountain and dug into the earth to drain out the water accumulated underneath. We also created a system that would pump the water to the ceiling of the exhibition. On the little mountain, we planted some greens that we hoped could re-fertilize the terrain. I think it was quite challenging for the audience to walk through such an environment. A lot of things were growing in the exhibition, symbolically too. We wanted to promote ideas of growth about the water cycle, the beauty of natural processes, and the self-healing force of nature. This project could represent an example of how the conditions that sustain an artwork can change over time and according to the type of work. Of course, I don’t think that every gallery would be more sustainable by using the same model. It certainly wouldn’t make sense to hang a Rembrandt in there. However, it illustrates how the white cube could be a thinking model to imagine alternative futures.
K.C.: Can you tell us about the NGO art4biodiversity? What is its mission and how do you hope to achieve your goals?
A.G.: Art4biodiversity is an NGO I founded with Bernard Vienat, a curator based in Switzerland and Berlin. The goals are similar to the one Ki Culture upholds: promoting new ways of thinking and acting, and creating a new culture that could lead to a more sustainable future. It’s a tool with the aim of introducing discussions and making exhibitions that ask what the future exhibition space will look like, for example. There is also an activist part of the endeavor which is connected to tree planting. There’s a two-fold application: one for planting and a more indirect one for the promotion of ecological thinking. Bernard Vienat has recently been involved in an exhibition series called (re)connecting.earth. He developed various posters with different artists that are actually manuals that teach how to think more ecologically, and can be found online and in non-traditional spaces like urban gardens. Another relevant project we developed is called the NON-FUNGIBLE-JUNGLE-TOKEN. It is a limited series of 1000 numbered coins people can buy. Each one is connected to a tree and part of the money goes into a fund used to finance exhibitions and other direct applications in society.
K.C.: How do you deal with the inevitable carbon footprint and ecological consequences of your work? Do you ever question the necessity of artwork and exhibitions when they potentially contribute to pollution? What solutions would you propose for fast-paced art world practices?
A.G.: The way art is sustained in the traditional model — mostly selling objects and shipping them around the world — is not sustainable. There is a necessity for it, cultural exchange is important to engage with each other and sustain peace, but in the last five to ten years of climate awareness, we have started to understand that shared values can be a very effective tool for change. We have also put more hope into technological advancements, which are part of the solution but not something we should count on. I often think about my grandmother in this regard. She wouldn’t identify her practices as ecological, and a lot of the things she would do (killing insects and pests, cutting plants in a certain way) would not be considered environmentally conscious today. Nevertheless, her lifestyle had a much smaller carbon footprint than mine. Part of her values, which I wouldn’t necessarily agree with, were leading to much more sustainable actions. Another example comes from a project I recently took part in. During the era of isolation Japan underwent during the Edo period, they employed sustainable measures because of the scarcity of resources. People were allowed to cut and use only as much wood as they were able to carry in their two hands and they could only make a fire on predetermined days. This is to say that for a couple of centuries Japan was a very sustainable country thanks to the objective limitations of the time. It goes to show that cultural tools and what we identify as a value to strive for could have a higher impact than inventing rockets and turning Mars into Earth could ever have.