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Peak Art - Nick Stewart

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Off Lower Marsh, London SE1


It was the year when, as they say, it all kicked off. Whether in the Middle East, the US, UK or EU, be it finance, climate or revolution, hardly a week of 2011 seemed to pass when something big wasn’t happening somewhere. What was new for me was that I followed events not on TV or radio but, increasingly, online.

A brief flirtation with Twitter had mutated into more than a habit, if not quite an obsession. I was familiar with the online possibilities of networked information. I’d read all those hyperbolic media reports and academic papers. But what surprised me was the way in which it so easily facilitated meeting people as flesh and blood, not zeros and ones. Through Twitter and the many blogs and sites I learned of there, I have met more inspiring people in the past eight months than in the previous eight years. Meanwhile, the experience of following real-time tweets from the front lines of the developing Arab Spring and the anti-cuts movement’s demonstrations helped convince me that there was no good reason to go back to having a television.

This was the year the big news corporations hit a wall in relation to social media. They could barely keep up with the pace of change, and most of the time they were several hours behind the curve of events on the ground. We could call it the year of Peak News. Social media now perform the task of communicating the bare facts of what is happening, where it’s happening, better, faster and in greater detail than anything the mainstream channels can achieve. What’s left for TV and the broadsheets is analysis: the in-depth research and commentary by those who have earned the respect of their viewers or readership. News as we’ve grown used to it has bifurcated. From now on, events will be increasingly live online, the result of an unconsciously regulated social ecology. The old news corporations, following behind, will pick-up on ‘trends’, building contexts for understanding the background, history and politics of these events, but no longer able to maintain editorial control of what we see, hear and chose to believe.


Screen-grab from Aljazeera, April 2011. A news channel with a balanced perspective on the royal wedding.


Through Twitter, in early 2011, I found myself in the orbit of the Dark Mountain Project. At first, it sounded like some sort of post-collapse cult crossed with a literary society. Beyond this surface impression, I discovered a burgeoning network that, while fully aware of the hydra-headed crises we faced, achieved a view of the future at once determinedly positive and unflinchingly realistic. As their manifesto put it: ‘The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world.’ It was a relief to stumble across such a community of thinkers and doers: individuals determined to avoid the clichés and pitfalls of mainstream political thought, yet devoid of the fatalistic nihilism that I had become familiar with in Peak Oil circles over the previous four years.

It was late 2007 when I bought a copy of James Howard Kunstler’s insomnia inducing book, The Long Emergency.[1] Riffing on the Peak Oil narrative, Kunstler conclusively demolishes any lingering modernist fantasies about our hi-tech, cybernetic, globalised future. More a slap in the face than a wake-up call, this book sent me on a four-year binge of ‘doomer’ literature and website surfing. At times, this threatened to turn me into a caffeine-fuelled wreck, despite over 35 years of daily meditation practice. My partner grew alarmed as our bookshelf, usually crowded with art books, now groaned under a pile of new ones with titles like The Party’s Over, Powerdown, The Last Oil Shock, The End of Oil and Twilight in the Desert. I would not have been surprised if the first words our fast-growing young daughter uttered had been ‘Peak Oil!’ It was her presence in my life that gave this issue such urgency, and this dive into dark visions of the future was not something I took on lightly.

Anyone who has been down this ‘doomer’ path will understand the growing sense of isolation and panic such knowledge can produce in the reader. Participation in the Peak Oil forums and blogs does nothing to alleviate this. Quite the opposite. ‘The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world,’ but in Peak Oil circles there’s an evens chance it might be.


Social networking at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 2011.


This is why my encounter with Dark Mountain in early 2011 was such a surprise. Here was a network of people who, though fully cognisant of the most pressing problems of the day and the tough odds of our overcoming them, nevertheless insisted on the value of precisely those qualities of human relationship that are most threatened by such crises. Dark Mountain provided an open space in the ideological battlefield between Greens, Marxists, Free Marketeers and all the rest of those engaged in a war of attrition over whose view of the world is the best for everyone else. It offers a forum to explore things in a spirit of friendship and sociability, rather than the usual combative defending of positions that no amount of reasoned discussion can shift. The question that arises is: can it maintain this civil, post-ideological culture, given the human propensity for in-fighting and factionalism?

We are going to need many more such forums in the coming years. As the fiscal and energy crises bite hard on our ‘consumer lifestyle’ choices, we are going to need new forms of sociability and community relation to take the place of the mostly time-wasting media entertainment froth that so many are drowning in today. We can see the seeds of this today, where networks of individuals are getting together to begin the task of rethinking our way of life. A tiny minority, yes; but one that brims with energy and hope for the opportunities present within the collapse of the old order.


The manifesto that launched Dark Mountain is one of the best summations I’ve read of the cataclysmic changes bearing down on the industrialised world and the limits of current Green thinking.[2] My one quibble is with the shorthand reference its authors make to the inadequacies of art today. They ask: ‘In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there?’ The answer to this is more complex and detailed than there is room for here, but in a nutshell: there is a great deal. Far be it from me to defend contemporary art, since one of my current projects goes under the title of ART IS OVER, but there is no shortage of art oriented towards a better way of life and the questions of the day.

For the past 130 years or so, art has been the one context in western society where representation - how it comes about, what it signifies and its formal qualities - has been rigorously questioned and constantly reconfigured. Not just in theory but, crucially, in practice, through the making of art. Representation, here, refers not just to images and objects: it includes action, personal and social; the self, involved with the world, in time, space and place. Essentially, art is structured in consciousness: it’s an embodied process that lives in the moment. ‘It’s not what you do, it’s the state of consciousness you do it from,’ as Marina Abramovic says. Objects and images are but evidence, the things left in the wake of art’s passage. We substitute this evidence for a living process and so remove the potentiality of art from everyday life. Art as a quality of life would mean the end of art as a pure ‘thing’, something separate from the rest of life. This is no small matter and there has been a great deal of art-historical debate about it.

Since at least the 1950s, artists have been reimagining how we might live and work together in a world beyond the imperatives of capitalism or communism. Artists were, and still are, at the forefront of initiatives in education, community living, social organization and its attendant value systems. A provisional - and, of course, incomplete - list of experiments with art and life might include The Bauhaus, Germany, in the 1930s; Black Mountain College, USA, in the 1950s and 60s; The Free International University, also in Germany, in the 1970s; The Open City, Ritoque, Valparaiso, 1950s until the present day; and Dartington College, England, in the early 20th century. Many other more modestly scaled groups and associations have come together, down the years, around the issue of how art and life might be balanced to provide a model form for a new society. It is hardly surprising that artists should be drawn to such an ethos, given that, at a fundamental level, art derives from lived experience. The desire to give your life a form that is more attuned to the values of your art naturally flows from this, as does the need to communicate with like-minded artists across the world. Arguably, this already-networked quality of the art world presaged the social media innovations now being spun off new communications technology.

Works by historical and contemporary artists as diverse as Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovic[3], Lygia Clark, Carolee Schneeman, Robert Filliou, Hélio Oiticica, Robert Smithson, John Cage, Andrea Zittel[4], Rirkrit Tiravanija [5] and many others have struggled to represent new qualities of relationship between people, people and the world, and even the world and the cosmos. There is also a lineage of artists who, since the 1970s, simply gave up on the art world and, choosing anonymity, merged their work seamlessly with everyday life, playing with social forms/norms, bringing a new perspective to the everyday world of work. Tehching Hsieh is only the most extreme example of this practice.[6]

I should state, at this point, that I have been an artist for some 30 years.[7] I have made exhibitions of drawings, performances, installations, videos and publications in many countries and in a wide variety of contexts, from city streets to ancient monasteries and the white cubes of contemporary art galleries. But now I consider myself a ‘recovering artist’. What I am recovering from is the illusion of specialness, and the resulting marketisation of art, that attends the idea of the artist in this culture. For years, I believed that art was by definition at the leading edge of new thinking about life and the world we inhabit. With hindsight, I can see that this cultural myopia was a function of the self-regarding hierarchy that is the international art world, where conflicted ideologies and unshakeable confidence go ironically hand in hand.

Now, at the end of 2011, I am increasingly disbelieving in the art world’s capacity to remain relevant to everyday life, or to provide insight into the crises facing us. Art, defined as a primary process of consciousness that may or may not lead to the production of objects or images, has mostly lost its way. As something inspired by or inspiring social change, it has also been fatally weakened by the dominance of the art market and its perpetuation of the idea of art as an ‘investment vehicle’. Its modus operandi has reached what I call the Terminal Institution stage, perhaps best exemplified by Tate Modern: a sort of mausoleum where the Object of Art, though looking beautiful, comes to die. Here the Object of Art is suspended, often literally, in a space of transience, a non-place; its relation to people, frozen and fixed. The value of art in the Terminal Institution is wholly objectified, supported as it is by a globalised system of investment and exchange that constantly refines and burnishes the few objects and images deemed worthy of inclusion. Of course, we may still experience wonderful things in these spaces. We see paintings, videos, sculptures and more that we may genuinely love and admire, created by artists who are wholly dedicated to their work and whose vision we may well share. This is not in dispute; rather, it is the knowledge that art could be so much more, could transform the world we live in, could shape new value systems and new ways of living, working and being together in the world. It is the absence of this potentiality from the Terminal Institution that is the issue now.

Initiatives still bubble up in that world: in fact, there has been something of a trend for socially engaged practice and the role of art in education in recent years, both independent of and promoted by contemporary art institutions. Temporary organisations (or ‘Constitutes’, as Pat Kane defines them[8]), such as UnitedNationsPlaza[9], or events, such as Deschooling Society at the Southbank Centre, London in 2010[10], show that this is not a black and white situation. There are great people working within the art world to further the best possible ideas for an art-life beyond the comfort blanket that is the secure institution. But like so much else in our culture, the focus of this world is now on the preservation and further development of its own institutions and infrastructure. Radical art ideas or visions are rapidly subsumed into the historical narrative of modern and contemporary art, rendering them merely academic: suitable material for PhD thesis, but hardly a threat to the status quo. This has been the fate of the post-war avant garde who, at least for a time, presented the greatest threat to the current art-order.

Today's social innovation and thinking about how we might live anew are springing from more diverse sources, across a spectrum of social contexts, sharing knowledge and experience through increasingly fluid social media and largely unconcerned about the art world and its machinations. In 2011 there were a number of radical initiatives in the UK, mostly educational, that suggested new possibilities were in the offing here.

Early in the year, at various sites around central London, The Really Free School blazed briefly, as surrounding streets were full of students protesting against the new government’s proposed gutting of higher education in England.[11] The Social Science Centre in Lincoln: a ‘not-for-profit co-operative... managed on democratic, non-hierarchical principles with all students and staff having an equal involvement in how the Centre operates’, is developing with confidence.[12] Alan Boldon, who founded the pioneering Art and Ecology course at Dartington in the early 2000s, has embarked on an ambitious strategy to develop a ‘peripatetic art school’ in 2012. Meanwhile, the Occupy movement is diversifying its energies into socially engaged initiatives such as the Bank of Ideas.

The Universities: Past & Future weekend at Hub Westminster, in October, brought much of this into focus.


The University Project, a picnic in Richmond Park, Summer 2011.


An extraordinary cross-section of individuals and organisations came together to reflect on both historical and contemporary radical education ideas, in the UK and farther afield, gathered around the possibility of a new kind of university that might provide a meaningful alternative to the increasingly market-driven option of mainstream higher education. I found myself taking on the role of unofficial documentarist of the rich mix of discussions taking place across the cavernous spaces of Hub Westminster and, by the end of the event, I had posted some seven hours of video at The University Project page on Blip.TV.[13]

That weekend, I also facilitated a seminar that attempted to disentangle some of my thinking about these different contexts that I find myself straddling. I adapted John Lennon’s 1960s poster - WAR IS OVER, if you want it - changing WAR to ART. I wanted to provoke a discussion about art beyond the boundaries of objects, institutions and the market. For a couple of hours we discussed the possibility of art as a quality of lived experience. This included reflections on various spiritual practices, beyond the context of religious belief. We considered ways of living, of relationships founded on sharing and cooperation rather than competition and acquisition. We delineated the limitations of the current art world and its inability to move beyond the market, and concluded that a concept of art framed by that market had little to offer those seeking to shape their lives through different values. We began to form an idea of art beyond art, beyond the concept of ‘thingness’: a necessary quality of life, not reducible or separable from living, breathing everyday life. John Dewey’s 1930s book, Art as Experience, was an important point of reference in understanding this possibility.[14] Out of this came questions for the year ahead: how do I continue to develop these thoughts, in practice? What form should my art take? What new directions should I pursue? How should my life change?

My day-job is running a contemporary art course in a well-known art school. In 2011, it was business-as-usual: full-steam ahead globalisation, with new satellite campuses opening in China and Spain. At present, this policy is paying dividends for the institution: but for how much longer, I wonder? From almost every angle, its sustainability is threatened. China’s economy could implode in a bursting property bubble. The global financial system is still on life-support. Then there’s Peak Oil, lurking in the wings, threatening to get real in 2012; not to mention climate change which we are told, is increasingly imminent. From this perspective 2011 feels like it’s been a ‘warm-up’ act for the main event yet to come. Even mainstream commentators, like the BBC’s Paul Mason, have adopted the language of crisis and collapse. It’s increasingly common to read apocalyptic warnings about the state of the economy in the financial pages of the broadsheets.

What do we do, in the face of such overwhelming change? The idea of transitioning to a more sustainable way of life is much talked about, but the reality for most of us is that our lives are a messy compromise between all manner of personal and institutional needs and demands. This is unlikely to change. What is true at an individual level is true at the level of government, national and international. Business-as-usual, with all its contradictions and confusions, will continue up to the last moment possible. If 2011 felt like a tipping point had been reached, then the coming year will, I suspect, be more like the proverbial rollercoaster ride, for those of us privileged enough to have lived in the affluent industrialised world.


Somewhere on the Irish border, Autumn 2011.


  1. James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005).
  2. Dougald Hine & Paul Kingsnorth, Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto (Oxford: Dark Mountain Project, 2009)
  3. http://marinafilm.com/
  4. http://www.zittel.org/
  5. http://www.thelandfoundation.org/?About_the_land
  6. http://www.one-year-performance.com/
  7. www.nickstewart.org.uk
  8. http://www.slideshare.net/theplayethic/what-is-a-constitute-pat-kane-prez-to-hubwestminster
  9. www.unitednationsplaza.org
  10. http://haywardgallery.southbankcentre.co.uk/category/deschooling-society/
  11. http://reallyfreeschool.org/
  12. http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk/
  13. http://blip.tv/univproject
  14. John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1934)