Art, Education and Nature: Building New Forms For A Transformative Reality

María Jesús Olivos

The ability art has to encourage wonder, creativity, critical thinking, as well as promoting reflections and working hand in hand with various disciplines, puts it in a relevant role against the urgency of educating and generating innovative actions to seek solutions for the complex environmental and social problems that we are currently faced with.

It is difficult to raise awareness about the importance of our ecosystems and our relationship with them, when we barely coexist with nature. So, how are we to take care of what we don’t know?

To start, we need to change our ways of seeing, and begin to conceive humans as integral beings that are part of a whole. In this way, we will begin to be able to understand the landscape we inhabit as a teaching-learning space, where we can reflect on our ways of inhabiting our territory and thus, understand how we and each element of the Earth’s ecosystems are interconnected.

In the art world, since the 1960s, various artists sought to reconnect with nature and raise awareness on our relationship with it. In those times, the dematerialization of art and the surging of performance moved art outside museum and gallery spaces to become a tool for social transformation. From then on, art begins to cross other fields such as education and activism throughout multiple spheres, including the ecological and feminist movement.

A pioneer in this “ecological art movement” was the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986), who carried out collective art actions to raise social and environmental awareness, such as planting 7,000 oak trees in Kassel, Germany for Documenta 7 (1982 to 1987) or cleaning a river in Hamburg (1962). Coupled with this, Beuys was revolutionary in his approach to teaching as an art experience.

In parallel, during this same time period in Chile after the coup d’état in 1973, the Colectivo Acciones de Arte, C.A.D.A., (Collective Art Actions) founded by a group of artists and academics–art critic Nelly Richard, writer Diamela Eltit, the sociologist Fernando Balcells, poet Raúl Zurita and the visual artists Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan Castillo–who established the urgency of closing the gap that separates art from life, where the city becomes a museum and life the work of art. Through this collective this group of artists, thinkers and academics created art actions that sought to permeate the sociopolitical problems of that moment. One of their most emblematic art actions was Para no morir de hambre (To Avoid Dying of Starvation), 1979, in which 100 half-liter bags of milk were delivered to inhabitants of the La Granja commune and later used by a group of artists as a means to portray their social critique.

Today, thirty years later, a large part of the problems that mobilized many artistic and environmental education movements of those times worldwide still prevail. With the difference that now climate change truly is a reality. We need an urgent change and to achieve the ecological transition it is not just an energy change; it is insufficient if it is not accompanied by profound changes in the collective imagery, to unlearn practices and languages ​​that are based on a dominant value system that puts material goods, cultural goods and natural spaces on the same plane. It is necessary to stop to relearn the world and how we relate to it.

For this reason art, education and the environment together can be a transforming instrument of consciousness and socio-environmental values. The synergy of these three worlds can awaken ways of living, producing and consuming in accordance with equity and the limits of the planet.

Can art build reality and create other ways of relating to the environment?

In principle, education supposes a care for the other and a practice based on listening and exchange; it involves affection, reflection and the possibility of generating social changes. On the other hand, art is intertwined with education, contributing from divergent thinking, aesthetic experience, the re-meaning of error, the development of subjectivity and cultural production. And in borders–or rather in the cracks–collaborative artistic-educational projects emerge to erase geographical limits and generate alternatives to speak new languages ​​and imagine possible worlds.

If we take apply this to environmental education, artistic methodologies can help facilitate a holistic knowledge to become aware of our ecological dimension and sow the commitment for the care of all that is alive. Let everyone understand their role in the social and natural fabric and assume it from the spirit of collaborating for the common good.

Creative processes in art can mean a contribution to environmental education from individual to collective consciousness: the aesthetic experience and the transformative potential of collaborative art.

The aesthetic experience is based on the freshness of the experience, on being affected by the senses, to give way to new meanings and to become aware of our experience of being in this world. The subject learns from the world from his/her relationship with it, from positioning him/herself, from touching, perceiving. There are many educational proposals that incorporate aesthetic experience as a tool, such as Reggio Emilia (Italy) pedagogy based on experiential learning, curiosity and wonder. Or also the example of Bruno Munari (1907 – 1998) with his sensorial workshops, promoting autonomy in the exploration and construction of knowledge.

On the other hand, from the collective sphere, collaborative art is a strand of art that emerged in the 1960s in Europe and the Nordic countries, and then manifested itself in Latin America in the 1990s together with popular education proposed by Paulo Freire. It is an art focused on a context that seeks to create collaborative and negotiation processes between various local networks based on themes that arise from the community about their territory. Through artistic practices, one of its focuses is to create spaces for collective learning as well as narratives that visualize tensions and multiplicities present within a community, based on individual and collective meanings.

Under this framework, collaborative art can also be a way of raising awareness on the impact of the climate crisis on our closest reality; build a sense of belonging to a community and an ecosystem, and in this way identify what you want to protect and preserve.

Finally, the intersection of art, education and the environment is an invitation to bet on the invisible; care, listen, meet, creativity and play. It is about the logic of the living. If we risk to rethink ourselves collectively, with all that this implies, and open ourselves to relearning the world, how we relate to it, returning to the body and experience, all these aspects can be a good starting point for an ecological transition.

It is difficult to deal with uncertainty, for this reason art as an interdisciplinary platform, open to experimentation, collaboration and the pleasure of discovering and imagining possible worlds, together with environmental education by understanding ourselves as part of an ecosystem, together can be of great help to discover tools for resilience and adaptation to the climate crisis in search of a good life. We are nature, we are part of a great network of generous and creative life that invites us to listen, experience and observe it carefully.

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María Jesús Olivos. Territorial Projects Coordinator in Fundación Mar Adentro. Artist and visual arts educator, with a Masters in Art and Education from the University of Barcelona. She has a strong interest in developing collaborative art education projects to explore issues of identity and territory. Since 2008 her work has focused on performance and learning methodologies through the body, in search of interdisciplinary creative processes.