Shifting Terrain/ Parallels between Contemporary Feminist Art Strategies and Ecological Art


On April 5th 2012 Parsons The New School for Design in NYC sponsored a day-long feminist conference titled “Art Practice, Activism, and Pedagogy: Some Feminist Views.” It was organized by painter and writer, Mira Schor, Associate Teaching Professor in the MFA Fine Arts Program at Parsons.  The conference explored the ways in which women engage in multiple practices of art and activism and negotiate their joint roles as artists and political beings.  The expanded practices of feminist art include social and community engagement documented in video, film, performance, print media and blogs that move beyond the institutions and spaces usually associated with contemporary art.

As Mira Schor stated in her introduction the panelists consider feminist art as a zone of multi-disciplinary art production identified with a radical critique of gendered power relations in society, and feminist agency in regard to justice and community building. Likewise ecological art is often performative, process oriented, and discursive, defying traditional values of originality, authenticity and uniqueness.

While none of these artists spoke to ecological issues per se, the work discussed has strategic parallels with ecological art in that it is intended to inform, engage, and shift an audience’s awareness and sense of empowerment.  The nature of the work raises the interesting question of whether it’s possible to define audiences in more nuanced ways to effect behavior change.

Nine woman artists, of different generations with very diverse practices, spoke about their current work and their history in feminism.  All the panelists agreed that new activist strategies are needed in this time of extreme social, political and economic pressure to counter the erosion of constitutional rights that is happening today, including the assault on hard-won women’s rights.  The experience of transgender and transsexual individuals has brought a radical complexity to the reconceptualizing of gender and a critique of the construction of sexuality and desire.  This raises the rarely asked question of how libidinal desire relates to ecological issues and perhaps the more general question of how embodied pleasure can be invoked to create living connections with nature that might inspire caring and activism.

The event was organized so that groups of three artists presented their ideas individually and then came together to answer questions from the audience.

The first group included Andrea Geyer,  Maureen Connor and A.K. Burns.  Video and installation artist Andrea Geyer, uses both fiction and documentary strategies in her image and text-based works.   Maureen Connor’s installation, video and design practice encompasses human resources and social justice in the workplace.  Connor is also a founding member of the collective “The Institute for Wishful Thinking.”


A.K. Burns is a founding member and co-organizer of the activist group W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) and co-editor of RANDY, an annual trans-feminist arts magazine.

TOUCH PARADE (CRUSH), A.K. Burns, 2011.

On April 20, 2012 W.A.G.E. released the results of the artists’ survey they conducted with Artists Space, a Soho gallery.  The survey found that 58% of the nearly 1,000 artists interviewed (including visual and performing artists) received no compensation at all for exhibiting or presenting their work at nonprofits in New York.

The artists in the second group Susan Bee, Mira Schor, and Ulrike Müller work with painting, drawing, writing and publishing in individual and collaborative projects and in Ulrike Müller’s case also with performance.

THE SPACE, Mira Schor, 2011.

The third group of younger artists included Audrey Chan and Caitlin Rueter and Suzanne Stroebe.

A FEMINIST TEA PARTY, Suzanne Stroebe and Caitlin Rueter, 2011. (Photo: Jordan Galloway)

Chan’s practice addresses civic discourse, rhetoric, and what she has called feminist construct of “the personal is political.”

Rueter and Stroebe, recent graduates of the Parsons MFA Program work, collaboratively to recast the tea party as a playful, progressive, inquisitive and inclusive space, revisiting the feminist consciousness raising groups of the l970s.  They describe their multi-faceted collaborations as participatory events, performances, installations and educational outreach.  Each event invites a new group of guests and, with them, a new conversation.

At Parsons the panels began with Andrea Geyer who spoke of the need to be attentive to those bodies we are educated not to listen to.  She paraphrased Hannah Arendt’s questioning of our ability to judge right from wrong when our environment is polluted with ideology.  While ecological art broadens this question beyond the human we can learn from Geyer’s emphasis on the need to think ourselves through all positions to understand what makes denial compelling for people.   For example, recent studies show there are multiple positions between the extremes of acceptance and denial of climate change and that therefore multiple strategies are needed, and tailored to each of these groups.  The audience at the political middle is the most complicated group to define, but it is also the one where the possibility of influence is most likely.

Relevant for ecological art is Geyer’s exploration of where the spaces of agency and intervention are today and what is excluded.

CAMBIO DE LUGAR, Andrea Geyer and Sharon Hayes, 2000-2002.

Connor’s project, “Institute for Wishing Thinking” asks artists for proposals for embedding themselves within government agencies.  The artist proposals posted online are alternately humorous, provocative and very disturbing.  Can this be an effective model for a thought provoking utopian fantasy that elicits real critique and prompts the following questions:  “What would it mean to have ecological artists embedded within government agencies? And which agencies would be most effective to infiltrate? “

The subject of Schor’s recent paintings and drawings are schematic representations or stick figures of the artist herself.  From her head emerge thought balloons that read: Speech, Matter, Silence, Visual Pleasure and Voice.  The artist’s voice or language moves fluidly from the text (in the balloons) to image (or painted ground) and back again in these highly autobiographical paintings.  Schor tells the story of creative labor, the ways in which a unique voice can emerge.

Susan Bee gave a survey of her own artwork that spans 4 decades of feminist engagement.  Her paintings, drawings and artist’s books are inspired by 1940s noir films, by children’s literature and by decorative arts and crafts.  She draws from the history of feminism and her own autobiography to create works that combine childlike innocence with subversion and extreme danger.  She packs a subversive wallop using a cartoon-like painting style with decorative embellishments, that show how seemingly benign aesthetics can get a strong message across.

ARABESQUE (detail), Susan Bee, 2002.

Ulrich Mueller’s discussed her practice which encompasses both art making and community organizing.  An extension of feminist movements from the 1970s onward, it utilizes text, performance, publishing and painting to create spaces of excitement and humor.  Ulrich Mueller says about her work: “the social and the individual are inseparable.  Individual, even intimate experience, is entwined with culturally shared ideas.  In this sense, my paintings are grounded in the desire to participate in a larger conversation about alternatives to traditional gendered norms and lifestyles.”

HERSTORY INVENTORY, Ulrike Müller, 2009.

Reuter and Stroebe’s open conversations invite disagreement and provide a non-threatening ambience that allows tensions to arise.  This soft approach could be a useful technique to begin to erode unspoken denial about the validity and urgency of overpowering ecological realities like climate change.

The effectiveness of ecological art might be strengthened by exploring some of the important considerations these artists raised.  It’s especially urgent to find ways to speak to those who are in denial and ask who is excluded from the conversation.  Can imaginative experiments help ecological artists think ourselves through all positions to better communicate and influence those who are not already convinced of the urgency of ecological pressures today?