Sustainable practices in art-making: An interview with Miguel Sbastida

by Valentina Bianchi

Bridging the gap between art and sustainability means not only using recycled materials and dimming the lights in an exhibition. It also means dealing with sustainable artistic procedures, overcoming the traditional means and processes of making a work of art. And for artists, it can mean creating pieces that challenge the art world, society’s vision of climate change, and our relationship with the environment.

Miguel Sbastida is an artist whose practice is concerned with environmental issues, the Anthropocene, and the consequences of human activities on the planet. While trying to subvert the false nature-human dichotomy, his works are also made in an ethical manner, without employing plastic-based materials nor toxic agents. The method thus matches and enhances the theory behind it, producing admirably consistent pieces.

Working on the upcoming Exhibition Ki Book as a contributor, I thought a conversation with an artist so focused on ecological matters could be beneficial to our case. Miguel was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about his environmentally conscious process, a sea-floor restoration project, jewelry that allows you to adopt corals, and his take on offsetting, among other things.

Ki Culture: Let’s start by talking about sustainability in your artistic practice, as a theme and as a guiding principle in the production. What is sustainability to you? You seem to be very interested in the Anthropocene, for example. Some of your works are even named after it, like Technofossils of the Anthropocene.

Miguel Sbastida: For me, sustainability is an ethical approach to existing in the world. It is about finding a way to work with materials that are non-toxic for others, and to develop a whole network of strategies to ensure that resources are not only being used to their full potential, but that also their renovation cycles are allowed. The opposite of sustainability would actually be what we are calling the Anthropocene; the global footprint of toxic waste and residues which bear witness (geologically speaking) to the irreversible changes we are causing to the Earth’s functioning cycle.

Technofossils of the Anthropocene — partial view of the installation. (2018-ongoing). “Between 1920 and 1970, the metallurgic industry Altos Hornos de Vizcaya dumped into the Cantabric Sea more than 30.000.000 tonnes of industrial waste. Technofossils of the Anthropocene traces the history of these industrial residues that slowly — and with the aid of the ocean — transform into post-natural and geological objects.” 140 x 60 cm

In my practice, I do many things to try to honor these principles. For example, I try to avoid plastic-based materials and any toxic substances, both in the outcome of the work or as intermediate procedures. Because I work a lot site-specifically and material-specifically, I also use a lot of ready-made materials. One good example of all this would be a couple of sculptures I did for my project Technofossils of the Anthropocene; an installation made from industrial residues that reference human imprints on the geologic record. Instead of using a mold to cast the residues into the actual sculptures I was making, I made a 3D scan of a prototype, and from that I built a skeleton of wood using CNC technology. This skeleton would later-on be covered with the industrial sediments. The entire procedure (which took many weeks) was all done just to avoid using silicone casting as a process. There are many other examples, such as the installation Archaeologies of Climate, that I made in glass instead of resin despite all the added technical difficulties and extreme monetary costs. It took me two years to put all the pieces together.

KC: What is your opinion on past movements and artists in relation to environmentalism (from Land Art onward, for instance)? What are the differences with your approach and what was the evolution of the phenomenon in your opinion? Does your art take any inspiration from any of them?

M.S.: That is a really good question and I have thought about it many times. In general terms, I enjoy most Earthworks but I have a problem with some that operate in the line of Asphalt Rundown by Robert Smithson. Some of those artists really didn’t have a problem in spilling an entire truck of liquid asphalt down a slope in the middle of nature. It was also a different moment in history and nature was thought to integrate these materials much faster.

I would say the main difference is that Land Artists were really operating in terms of scale and thinking about the idea of mark-making as something that could be done on the Earth and also seen from outer space. In my view, the subject-matter and principles of art-making then were not yet focused on ideas of environmentalism even if the actions in themselves evidenced the footprint. Rather, I believe that they were reacting to other aspects like questioning the white cube as an exhibition space, using non-precious raw materials as a response to blue-chip art objects or thinking about the specificity of a location. That last aspect is something I definitely share with some of the art that was developed during that period; the idea of site-specificity and how the meaning of objects is both shaped by the landscape history inherent to those materials, while at the same time, it is also modeled through the cultural constructions we impose on these objects and spaces. I try to make the first type of meaning emerge, while I try to question the second kind in all of my works.

Technofossils of the Anthropocene — partial view of the installation. (2018-ongoing). “All components of the project are entangled to each other and develop a systemic structure, in which some provide context for the rest, cross-pollinating, generating complexities and associations between its different materialities and their specific viewpoints.” 95 x 72 x 15 cm

KC: How do you think the principles of environmentalism should be tackled in art? Should artists try to teach something to the public? Your piece entitled Slow Violence for instance might serve as a lesson about climate change and the melting of glaciers. Should art become a vehicle to spread awareness and solutions?

M.S.: I believe that artists have a great responsibility in shaping the ways in which we observe and relate to the world. This statement might sound simple, even pretentious… but if you think about an aesthetic experience, you can get that from looking at the colors of mold growing on an orange sitting on your kitchen’s countertop, or even from an advertisement. Even within image-making, you could take a picture with your phone without calling it art. So, what is it that makes art different? I believe it is about its inherent potential to re-present something to us in ways that elate new meaning; the ability of art to challenge the avenues in which we think about the world and therefore, inevitably also change the ways in which we relate to the world around us. If you can change the viewer’s ideas, you can affect their behavior as well. Art is as much about learning as it is about un-learning.

Technofossils of the Anthropocene — partial view of the installation. (2018-ongoing). “Two sculptures made from site-specific sediments that reference the space left inside the hand’s palm when it closes.”

In this way, I believe environmental forms of activism within art-making can play a very important role in moving the conversation forward. Oftentimes, we drown in scientific data we hardly understand, and our bodies don’t know how to react. It is like when Tim Morton talks about climate change as this Hyperobject so massively distributed across time and space that it is hard to grasp or to know where it begins or ends. We often feel overwhelmed by the meaning and the expanse of the data, and this freezes the mind and the body. I believe Art is a much more direct experience; it is something that you feel, more than something that you “know”. In this sense, art can be a great ally of science because when the body experiences an emotional response, it puts you directly into action; it situates you rather than making you feel paralyzed. In this sense, of course Art can and should, to the best of its abilities, make use of its potential to teach and spread awareness; because what is important about art ultimately is not the object, but the conversations that it generates.

When it comes to my work, or to specific projects like Slow Violence, I am not only considering the importance of instigating critical conversation but also thinking about the artwork in itself as a record, or in this case, as immediate evidence of glacial extinction. This is more powerful than simply making a statement because it situates the viewer in the necessary perspective to recognize that problem, and take action.

Archaeologies of Climate (2017–2019) — partial view of the installation. “An installation made of solid glass columns that are inspired in glacial deposits and the drilling of ice cores as archaeological artifacts of climate change. In some ways, glacial ice-cores are the worst of our ruins: vestiges of a climatological past which doesn’t only look back in time, but which disappearance determines the future of our planet.”

KC: Then how do you see sustainable exhibitions? Where should we start? Should we just avoid exhibitions altogether when possible? I am curious about your thoughts on how to improve transportation and set-up, for example. Do you think what you do is applicable to other artists? How can artists try to change the art world, and do you think they have this kind of power? Some, for example, are already inserting special clauses in their contracts.

M.S.: I am not an expert in the field of sustainable exhibition planning at all, but I am currently working with a few curators and cultural producers that are trying to implement strategies along these lines in their working ethos.

There are some curators like Blanca de la Torre who are trying to get close to the idea of a carbon-neutral exhibition. For example, the shows do not ship actual artworks across the globe but rather build the works on-site using locally sourced materials and avoiding all kinds of toxic substances. She has an exhibition code that considers many aspects of recycling and repurposing, as much as printing or building from sustainable materials, among other strategies.

On the other hand, I think avoiding exhibitions is altogether not an option, because shows are where the artworks perform their value. The question I believe should be more linked to generating a different model of exhibition, perhaps following a different timeline, working with local artists, and considering existing works just as much as new ones. Further on, digital exhibitions are proving to not be a solution as the immediate contact with the artwork disappears.

There are, however, many approaches to a more sustainable model for art-making and exhibition planning that not only consider the impact of materials but positive side-effects of the artwork’s exhibition. For example, I am currently working with Anne-Marie Melster from Artport Making Waves, to implement a project directly connected to sea-floor restoration. Her ongoing cultural practice considers building an entire infrastructure of conferences, workshops, and socially engaged programs around the artworks that provide additional layers of value to the exhibitions; while avoiding altogether the use of toxic substances and involving local communities into the conversation.

Archaeologies of Climate (2017–2019) — partial view of the installation. A wall drawing featuring atmospheric carbon dioxide density fluctuations over the last 800.000 years.

Lastly, I am working with my gallerist Natacha Mottart from LMNO Gallery in Brussels to implement carbon-compensation strategies derived from artwork making and exhibition planning. Natacha is an empowered woman deeply involved in conversations around sustainability, eco farming, landscape restoration and socially-engaged programs with positive environmental impact. We are organizing residencies that allow me to manufacture the work locally in Belgium in order to avoid transportation, and we are developing strategies to balance any carbon footprint derived from the making of our work. These strategies form part of our artist-gallery contract, so they are not just values we share, but an actual working agreement we have.

KC: Is offsetting a reasonable practice to you? What other solutions would you suggest (that you have used or are planning on using) to reduce or compensate for the carbon footprint of an exhibition?

Slow Violence (2018) “A site-responsive intervention in which a glacier documents its own extinction.By strategically placing blue-tinted sheets of paper underneath melting areas of the glacier, the ice mapped its slow but steady disappearance. The unstopping, yet constant dripping of meltwater slowly washed away the blue pigment; creating images that are not only made by the agency of the glacier in itself, but which contain its own history.”

M.S.: I think that offsetting can be a good starting point because there is a will to acknowledge the impact caused by an activity and there is also a compensation strategy. However, offsetting does not solve the main problem which is caused by our lifestyle and more specifically by the rhythms of production and consumption. Oftentimes it also only compensates for a small portion of the emissions. In this way, it is very frequently used as a strategy to present a product as “sustainable”, while disregarding other more meaningful aspects. Compensating a footprint is fine, but the focus should be placed on other equally important factors, such as using non-toxic materials and production methodologies, buying and manufacturing locally, and ensuring it is being all done in an ethical way for humans and non-humans at economic and environmental levels.

I have started to implement many of these things years ago, and I continue to add new layers. For example, I started an artist’s jewelry project called 120MY, in collaboration with 15a Studio in 2019. It is a series of rings and bracelets casted in silver from original coral fossils that lived 120 million years ago in what is now the Pyrenees. The rings are slow, hand-made, and short-editioned. When a person buys one of these, they also adopt a coral and a portion of the benefits are donated to the Reef Renewal Foundation, who reinserts corals into environments damaged by climate change. Similarly, I am working on an installation that adopts coral reefs as it travels through institutions, and I of course try to avoid toxic materials and procedures in all my works.

KC: What are you expecting to see in the art world in the future? Art fairs and other carbon-heavy events could become less welcome, perhaps. What will you do to continue to reduce your carbon footprint? Do you think artists, in general, will adopt similar devices, starting from their practice?

Slow Violence (2018) —Resulting paintings. 55 x 38 cm each

M.S.: The future is our present. The problems of tomorrow find their solutions in what we do today. The future is uncertain, but the decisions we make today aren’t as much.

I am increasingly seeing how conversations around sustainability enter the art practice of my fellow practitioners; so surely and with growing examples leading the way, more and more people will follow. In this way, society might grow a bit more conscious and there might be new strategies on the horizon to reduce the ginormous level of residues derived from transportation and exhibition set-up design.

However, I think art fairs will continue to exist because many people love fast-food just as much as they enjoy fast-art. Art fairs are undoubtedly a hub in which to network and reach audiences that normally don’t visit the gallery space. Anyhow, perhaps we will at some point see the model transform, as more sustainable alternatives continue to appear. I am afraid that the monster behind art fairs is not art but capital, and that one doesn’t care much about environmental concerns.

This conversation with Miguel enriched my mindset with a new, unexpected perspective. As an aspiring curator, I found particularly illuminating the idea that it’s often more beneficial to focus on the potential positive side-effects of the artwork’s exhibition than to simply avoid harmful practices. Exhibitions and artworks have the power of influencing behaviors and inspiring people to change, and artists like Miguel give us hope in a more conscious, greener future for the art world.

All images have to be credited to the artist, with the courtesy of LMNO Gallery Brussels.

Valentina Bianchi is a social media officer for Ki Culture and a contributor for the Exhibition Ki Book. She holds a master’s degree in management of arts and works at a contemporary art gallery in Brussels.

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