The Wire

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In Writing

Phil England: Facing Extinction with Gustav Metzger

July 2014

“We have, at the present time, a destruction taking place, in and of nature, unprecedented in history. Never has so much life been destroyed. Never has such volume and quality of life been put on the market, sold by the pound. And we are facing the collapse of life itself.” Gustav Metzger interviewed at the opening of the Facing Extinction exhibition, February 2014

Much has been written about denial in relation to climate change. The prospect it presents us with is so overwhelming that even those of us who spend much of our time concerned with these issues are not immune to degrees of denial or evasion. Indeed the process of facing up to the challenge of climate change has been likened to the process of grieving for a loved one.

I dropped out of helping realise cultural events as an employee of London Musicians Collective at the end of the 1990s. l was led by a yearning to re-engage as a journalist and as a citizen with a politics that had become broken. Among other things, it was, and still is, unable to respond adequately to the threat of climate change. Besides writing for The Wire as much as possible about artists and projects which embraced an ecological, social and/or political consciousness, I also produced radio programmes for Resonance FM (and other non-profit stations) under the umbrella Climate Radio. But after the failure of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 my response, like many others working in this area, was a delayed despondency. The high alert, emergency mindset of 2009 has been replaced by a more measured, strategic approach that’s in for the longterm, but on a day to day basis is often concerned more with self-preservation and personal well-being rather than our collective survival.

Nevertheless, as individuals and as a species, we need to rise to the reality of our current situation and fashion a response. This is precisely the challenge that legendary radical artist Gustav Metzger has recently been presenting to artists.

Metzger has always been a provocational in the most well intentioned way. His interventions such as auto-destructive art, the Art Strike and Destruction In Art Symposium, leave little physical trace and serve instead as evocative conversation starters and cultural points of reference. This year, with both an exhibition and a conference entitled Facing Extinction, he has been asking artists to think about the role they can play in “radically limiting the ongoing destruction of nature”.

Metzger conceived of auto-destructive art – which destroys itself instantaneously or over a period of up to 20 years – as a reaction to the violence and destruction inherent in modern societies. (Famously, Pete Townshend credits a lecture by Metzger as inspiration for his guitar-smashing routine, though I’d be surprised if this act was widely interpreted as a comment on violence in society.)

Growing up in Nuremberg Metzger witnessed Nazi rallies first hand. He escaped to England as a boy of 13 but lost his mother and father in the holocaust. Later, in the 1960s, he was instrumental in the Committee of 100, which staged mass acts of civil disobedience in protest against nuclear weapons.

In an interview a week before the Facing Extinction conference Metzger told me that he saw a strong link between his focus on the violence of totalitarian societies to his contemporary concern with our devastation of the natural world: “The Destruction In Art Symposium was very much concerned not just with recording the activities that artists were taking part in, but it was also a warning signal to society. Unfortunately that warning signal didn’t go very far because we are still destroying at an incredibly fast rate.”


“You have very powerfully begun to listen to these problems and create works of art where disintegration, collapse, the evanescent and this whole multiplicity of realities is presented in terms of modern art … This evanescent … as you have just shown, is a very fit subject for artistic research, for artistic creation.” Gustav Metzger, February 2014

The domain of art and culture presents us with a realm where we can explore issues we are hard-wired to avoid in a soft or mediated way or in a way that directly speaks to our unconscious. It was interesting then to see how a number of artists explored different ways of confronting extinction in an evening dedicated to performance programmed into the June Facing Extinction conference in a conscious nod to the Destruction In Art Symposium.

Broadcaster and biologist Simon Watt, in producing a stand-up comedy routine about species on The Red List, tried to bypass our inbuilt resistance to acknowledging the reality of species extinction. Inadvertently, though, his performance posed the question: is it ever possible to make extinction funny?

In the charmingly titled “The Extinction Of The Human Race: What Does It Mean For Me?”, Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau focused on the possible demise of our own species. By employing a mix of conceptual humour and storytelling he led us to an emotional climax which he then punctured with a punchline. In a miniature form, this was a carefully controlled catharsis that led us gently to a place we might not normally want to go.

Carl Gent chose a different approach again. He read a script for a play set nine million years before the existence of humankind where the protagonists are stones. “Gnats Inside The Wind Transposed For The Protozoic Eon” is a bleak, levelling piece with a droplet of wry humour and is very much in the spirit of Samuel Beckett. It takes us directly into a landscape devoid of life. Although the piece is devoid of emotive dramatic content, in order to enter the piece you are forced to drop your intellectual defences. Delivered in any other context, the piece may be understood differently. But here I was left with a deeply felt sense of the gravity and terminal nature of the issue at hand.

What worked for me may not have worked for others and vice versa, so perhaps we need a range of approaches.

Face then act

“We must act against the destroyers of life with all the power and ruthlessness at the command of life. We cannot evade what is happening. We have to hit back. We have to introduce laws. We have to have ongoing conferences... The whole world has to come together and minimise if not abandon the destruction.” Gustav Metzger, February 2014

Facing the reality of our ecological crisis is one thing. Acting to stop it is another. To be effective, I would argue, requires having a political analysis that addresses the question of why governments are failing to respond adequately to the signals coming from the scientific community. It also requires artists to think about where to intervene in a complex system. During the conference, art lover turned lawyer Polly Higgins (who travelled to Vienna when she was 21 to work with ecological artist Friedensreich Hudertwasser) outlined her campaign to introduce an international law of Ecocide, which would outlaw significant corporate acts of natural destruction – this is one of the highest levels you can intervene in a system.

Coming from a different but complementary angle, Ellie Harrison propagandised for a steady-state economy during the performance evening through the refreshingly buoyant medium of what she calls “Anti-Capitalist Aerobics”.

Anti-Capitalist Aerobics from Ellie Harrison on Vimeo.

The artist team Kennardphillips – comprising Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps – are known for their powerful anti-war imagery including the viral Tony Blair selfie image. They made the case for artists using their skills and talents to help further the work of existing campaigns.

The campaign by Liberate Tate and other groups under the Art Not Oil umbrella (not represented at this conference) to bring an end to oil company sponsorship of the arts is a good illustration of artists and art-activists with a tangible goal and an effective strategy. The campaign to end fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts has deployed a series of memorable interventions and has scored some recent notable successes. It also enjoys the support of a range of artists and arts organisations in addition to important figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who recently called for an anti-apartheid style boycott to help combat climate change.

When it comes to music, surely we can do better than this?

The Facing Extinction series continues on air and online on Resonance FM, 1–2pm on Wednesdays.


Great piece.

Great piece.


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