Author: Kotryna Zukauskaite
Degree: MA Arts and Cultural Enterprise
University: Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London
First published as Assessment Evidence for Unit 3 (unredacted): 2017
Toxic Art by John Sabraw
The purpose of this report is to analyze John Sabraw's project Toxic Art as an example of a successful attempt to engage with the global environmental challenge of industrial water pollution on a local scale through artistic practice, interdisciplinary research, and entrepreneurial strategy. Therefore, the paper investigates the initiative in a context of sustainable development as environmentalism and “its interconnection to the social and economic dimensions” (Anheier and Isar, 2010, p.206). Moreover, as Toxic Art falls within the category of a self-sustaining cycle that recycles something dangerous (toxic sludge) into something useful (artist's paints) to create something meaningful (art), this report argues its success as an Ecovention—“an artist-initiated project that employs an inventive strategy to physically transform a local ecology” (Spaid, 2012, p.1). To do so, the paper outlines the initiative, explores its success as a self-sustaining business model, explores the interdisciplinary collaboration between art and science, and, in this context, discusses the shifting position of the eco-conscious artist who oversteps the traditional boundaries of the art world. This analysis is important because it demonstrates how an inter-disciplinary approach can empower the cultural sector in its engagement with a global issue on a local scale.
Toxic Art is an Ecovention initiated by John Sabraw, environmentalist and Professor of Art at Ohio University, alongside Guy Riefle, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering. The initiative focuses on cleaning and reviving biologically dead rivers in the State of Ohio that have been polluted by abandoned coal mines: “operators of the mines simply picked up and left, since, prior to the act1, they had no legal obligation to restore the land to its previous condition” (Gambino, 2013, n.p.). After the mines' closing, a network of underground passages had been flooded, and as oxygen in the water reacted with minerals in the rock, picking up high iron and aluminum levels, the water's pH decreased and, when streamed to the local watershed, extinguished all aquatic life in the area (2013). The team of artists and scientists developed a method of extracting iron oxidants from the river and recycling them into rich pigments (fig.1), perfect for producing acrylic or oil-based paint (Sabraw, n.d.). Beyond the highly publicized Toxic Art exhibition2 of Sabraw's abstract art made with this paint (fig.2,3,4), the pigment production process showed some potential for commercial development3, which hinted at a possible source of income to keep the environmental effort going. To summarize, the project focuses on a defined area and aims to recycle pollutants into a commercially valuable product, and, in this way, to fund the environmental cause and create art in the process.
Approaching sustainability objectives from an entrepreneurial angle enabled the project to develop a financial strategy to effect lasting change. There are three streams of funding planned for the effort. The first is commercial profit from a collaboration with Gamblin Artists Colors, who are in the process of producing the first batch of pollutant-based paints and putting them on the market in 20184, according to Sabraw (2017). The second flow of income comes from sustainable art sales: “some of the paint would be given at no cost to artists who are creating sustainable artwork, and profits from the portion that's sold will go towards the cleanup” (Sabraw in Alaimo, 2017). The third is government funding: “we have just received funding for two years to build and operate a scaled pilot [water treatment] plant in Corning, Ohio. This will be the culmination of all our efforts. We will be able to prove the efficacy of our process on site <...> Once we have proved this - we can lobby government entities to build a full-scale plant and clean up these toxic seeps” (Sabraw, 2017). However, the team is being very realistic about their profit goals: “even if we just break even, that would be a success, because we would be cleaning up a devastated stream for free and creating a few local jobs” (Sabraw in Gambino, 2013). In summary, the entrepreneurial logic and financial planning behind the activism aim to see the reclamation pay for itself and fund the team's long-term commitment to sustainable production patterns5.
Moreover, the project is defined and enriched by interdisciplinary collaboration between art and science. First of all, integrating different competencies to achieve a common goal is critically important because, as formulated by Gablik, “Western culture has been pervasively shaped by this assumption of separateness as the absolute foundation on which we live our lives. Today with the future of the planet in doubt <...> we need integral awareness in every field” (1992, p.50). Secondly, scientific research provides technological tools and techniques that artists wouldn't be able to access otherwise (e.g. laboratory equipment, methodologies of monitoring the process and its results). Thirdly, art provides a social perspective on scientific research by communicating a complex technological concept on a human level, attracts media attention, and engages a broader audience: “when it comes to art, sponsors don't weigh practical priorities or expect to make a profit, the way funders of scientific research do. Art is viewed as a positive contribution that makes a long-term restoration project immediately attractive to a wider audience” (Spaid, 2012, p.1). By and large, an interdisciplinary approach to environmental art extends its scope, provides tools for measuring results, and raises public awareness of a complex scientific issue.
In conclusion, the success of Toxic Art as a self-funded cycle of sustainable production is based on a consolidation of artistic, scientific, and entrepreneurial approaches to environmentalism. The case study is defined by an eco-conscious artist overstepping traditional boundaries of the art world to become a part of something bigger than his self-expression. As Gablik (1992, p.49) describes, “the word ecological has replaced the word metaphysical, as the need for restoring awareness of our symbiotic relationship with nature becomes the most pressing spiritual and political need of our time.” Moreover, the project's interdisciplinary spirit directly proves H.S.Becker's classic notion, that “art worlds do not have boundaries around them so that we can say that these people belong to a particular art world while those people do not” (1984, p.35). This open attitude toward change also shifts the position of the artist in and beyond the art world, and opens new paths for further action: “I've gotten a tremendous response to my work from around the world <...> What is my responsibility now? How can I have a greater impact?” (Sabraw in Alaimo, 2017). Arguably, this global response to a local achievement is both evidence of success and a burden of responsibility to spread the local model on a global scale.
1Refers to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.
2As opposed to the nature of most Ecoventions that end as public works (e.g. sewage and waste-water treatment plants), contributing to their invisibility (Spaid 2012), the Toxic Art project was highly publicized by mainstream media (e.g. The Washington Post, BBC, Huffington Post) and more specialized publications (e.g. Smithsonian, New Scientist, Scientific American).
3“To make paints of these colors, international companies basically mimic this reaction, adding chemicals to water tanks containing scrap metals” (Gambino 2013)
4It is important to note that, by becoming an enterprise, the group of activists accepted their responsibilities by “being mindful to create something that is economically viable and that meets industry standards” (Gambino, 2013).
5Which also fits a definition of one of the Sustainable Development Goals outlined by United Nations as, “to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” (United Nations, 2017).
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