Art has always been a portal to another world – an intriguing invitation for cultural seekers to immerse themselves in fertile new experiences and to transcend the moment. Now, as humanity collectively faces a new challenge with the climate crisis, contemporary art is becoming part of the solution.
Scorpios has a natural interest in exploring the transformative potential of art and in the wellbeing of our planetary community. As we strengthen our base across music, art, design, food, healing modalities and beyond, we seek inspiration in movements that advance this global conversation. Moving forward, we will increasingly use our stage to promote, celebrate and learn from such movements.
A Force for Change
A new, conscious strand of the art world is questioning the fast-paced treadmill of ever-changing exhibitions, gallery openings, global art fair pilgrimages and desire for instant access to new artworks.
“The world is moving in an ever more unsustainable way,” says Luise Faurschou, the founder of ART 2030, a Copenhagen-based organization that curates art projects globally to support the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “But I have a belief in the power of art. Art changes people and people change the world.”
Art 2030 has collaborated with high profile artists like Danish trio Superflex, Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto and German-Indian artist Tino Sehgal, to host discussion forums at the Venice Biennale, as well as put on art installations and create digital campaigns for Earth Day, COP26, and the UN General Assembly, provoking reflection on the climate crisis.
An ongoing public art action by Danish artist Jeppe Hein is a case in point. “Breathe With Me” launched at the UN Climate Summit 2019 with young climate leaders and has since reached 125 million people around the world. Hein asks participants to paint their individual breath as a vertical blue line, bringing awareness to our shared breath and climate. It’s a deceptively simple idea that transcends cultures, one that Hein can apply to local contexts with minimal infrastructure. “Art is a unique, universal language,” Faurschou points out.
During the pandemic, a group of art professionals in London from leading art fairs and blue chip galleries, came together to form the Gallery Climate Coalition. The GCC champions sustainability in the art world by guiding galleries, institutions, artists and collectors in lowering their carbon footprint and promoting zero-waste.
Heath Lowndes, co-founder and managing director at the GCC recalls early conversations with gallerist Thomas Dane during the Amazon rainforest wildfires in 2019. “Seeing these horrific images instigated a conversation about our individual impact on the planet and extended to the gallery’s impact on the planet.”
The co-founders united around a desire to provide resources to the arts community on how to lessen their impact on the planet. “We are in the midst of a climate catastrophe – this is relevant to all sectors of society,” Lowndes emphasizes. “Everyone has a responsibility to make urgent changes – that’s true of the arts sector, as of fashion, agriculture and construction.”The GCC has 900 members around the world, from art fairs like Art Basel and Frieze London, alongside galleries like Hauser Wirth, Sprüth Magers and Lisson Gallery. They can all use the GCC’s free carbon calculator to assess their carbon footprint, with the organization inviting members to publicly declare their results and targets.
The main carbon culprits in the art industry are shipping art, travel, and energy consumption to power storage and office spaces – and these have become the primary focus for the organization.
“The most inspiring thing that I’ve seen is collective action,” Lowndes says. “I see galleries who are competitors and might not have any positive interaction, put aside market rivalries and work together to make collective changes. That sense of transparency and collegiality is very positive. We all need to align on targets and strategies, and we can only do that through collaboration.”
Reduce Air Flights
Gustav Metzger, the late German artist and provocateur, launched his “Reduce Art Flights” campaign in 2007. He was visionary in his premonition of the severity of the climate crisis. Metzger urged the art world to question their annual jaunts to major art fairs around the world, asking artists, curators, critics, gallerists, collectors and museum directors to diminish their use of airplanes by considering forms of travel other than flying. The artist created leaflets, harkening back to the design of the wartime Royal Air Force during the bombardment of Germany. As an anti-capitalist, Metzger objected to the “massive commercial growth of the art industry,” and saw voluntary abstinence as a force for change.
Now 15 years later, it turns out that Metzger’s ideas were ahead of his time. The GCC is similarly encouraging a train-first policy, urging the arts community to redefine essential air travel, move meetings online, and rethink expectations to attend art openings and events.
Berlin-based artist Olafur Eliasson’s studio is aiming to eschew all air freight and individual air travel, and some artists like Gary Hume and Tino Sehgal are known for trying not to take any flights at all.
“Tino hasn’t been in a plane for years – now that’s walking the talk,” points out Faurschou. “We come from a culture of taking flights, but I see a lot of initiatives from artists, curators and collectors who are choosing trains instead of flights when possible.”
“We’re not trying to stop all air travel, there will always be some,” Lowndes says. “Unfortunately after Covid, there was a return to the bad old ways, with high volumes of international travel. But people are now aware and there’s a sense of guilt around air travel – in its own way, that is progress.”
With The New York Times reporting that 64 percent of collectors want to reduce their travel to art related events and 70 percent now consider sustainability when buying art – air travel and air freight are moving out of fashion. This is partly thanks to the efforts of groups like the GCC, who have a target of moving to a majority of non air freight by 2028 – switching to rail, road and sea freight.
Proof of the increasing global commitment to sustainability is a new collaboration between auction house Christie’s and Crozier, an art storage and logistics company. They have opened regular shipping corridors between New York and London, and London and Hong Kong – providing an 80% reduction in the environmental impact of air freight.
Digital Native: NFTs
Beyond the nuts and bolts of selling and transporting art, what power does contemporary art have to challenge climate emergency?
Embracing a deliberate, slower, place-centered art orientation might be one step. Another is an increasing focus on digital art. Narrowing the sensory gap between digital and physical experiences, digital art can engage directly with an audience rather than necessarily asking them to visit a gallery or museum.
There is one critical new tool which has changed the landscape for digital artists, opening up and democratizing a formally elitist space – non-fungible tokens, aka, NFTs. Thanks to NFTs, a booming new market has emerged for digital art.
“NFTs have empowered digital artists who have now found a way to really present and sell their art,” explains Anna Graf, a NFT expert. Graf is Innovation Lead Web3, covering NFTs, metaverse and blockchain, at Bertelsmann in Germany, one of the world's largest media conglomerates. She honed her art expertise as past director of NFT at misa.art, an online art marketplace founded by prominent art expert Johann König.
“NFTs are revolutionary because digital artists can actually sell their artworks and set their price,” she says. “For the buyer, art is a lot more accessible – you have a wide variety of digital art that you couldn't buy before available in just a few clicks. NFTs are expanding both the market and the audience of buyers.”
“NFTs started really taking off in 2017,” Graf points out, rhyming off the most expensive NFT artworks: Beeple’s “Everydays: the First 5,000 Days” at $69 million and Pak's Merge at $91.8 million. “But the pandemic was a huge factor in the rising popularity because everyone was sitting at home,” she points out, adding, “2021 was the year of the NFT hype, through the Beeple and the Bored Ape Yacht Club.” If you were left scratching your head at why many of the Bored Ape Yacht Club’s 10000 NFTs depicting cartoon monkeys sold for sometimes well over a million dollars each, you were likely not the only one.
What exactly is an NFT and how does it relate to digital art?
Non-fungible tokens are tiny unique tokens (unlike a non-unique fungible token like a $1 bill) which is verified or “minted” by numerous parties on a blockchain. A blockchain is a decentralized online system that is not governed by any particular group or person, and rather distributed via a digital network which cannot be tampered with.
An NFT of an artwork is the underlying technology – the medium of how to present a digital art piece – and it’s important because the NFT shows the work’s uniqueness. You could call it the “fingerprint” of a piece of digital art. The NFT of an artwork can be bought and resold, and every aspect of the sales process and ownership is transparent. NFTs give artists a way of selling their work that is secure – rather than, say, giving a collector the digital artwork on a USB stick with a paper certificate.
The Future of NFTs
The most contentious issue with NFTs is their extremely high energy usage with the use of popular public blockchains like Ethereum. Here, an NFT artwork releases 92 times more carbon emissions than a physical piece of art. Graf explains that the top choice for digital art has been the Ethereum because it has the best reputation for provenance. But for an increasing number of members of the arts community, the environmental downside has made NFTs less appealing.
“A lot of NFTs to date have been produced through energy intensive efforts and we haven’t seen enough of a shift towards environmentally conscious production,” Lowndes says, explaining his own reservations about NFTs.
“There’s a lot of potential in the blockchain technology, however it is essential that any NFT project is CO2 neutral,” Faurschou says, adding, “we can’t afford to add to the problem, we have to be part of the solution.”
And indeed, solutions are starting to emerge. A new movement in the arts community labeled CleanNFTs has pushed for NFT art platforms that use more energy efficient Proof-of-Stake (PoS) networks rather than traditional mining on public blockchains.Efforts like these, together with a growing sustainability consciousness, have resulted in Ethereum now moving to a PoS model, which is 99.95% more energy efficient than the current model. This move is huge, and it is being lauded as one of the biggest developments in cryptocurrency in history. The contentious energy requirements of traditional NFTs are being challenged, making them a viable sustainable option.
Some of the world’s most notable art institutions are showing that they are taking this seriously. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles has started an Environmental Council – now all the museum's actions will be informed by a sustainability lens. This is a landmark initiative in the US and their recent net-zero exhibition (with experimental Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist), is the first of its kind. The Tate in London has put environmental responsibility at the heart of everything from programming and commissioning, to building their collections. These are powerful institutions, with an immense ability to influence broader societal change. Where they lead, others will follow. “Art can overcome physical borders and mental beliefs because artists have the ability to take very complex issues and boil them down into something we can see, feel, and relate to,” Faurschou says poignantly. “Whether you’re delighted or provoked or challenged, art can help us reflect and take a stand.”