Ecological Aesthetics

artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics


Stories that think and change; stories that deconstruct and distill; stories that make and provoke new stories, new pasts, presents, and potentials – all felt and thought, both affectively, and upon reflection.

With this poetic and lucid, creative and scholarly, collection of stories about art, artists, and their materials, Nathaniel Stern argues that ecology, aesthetics, and ethics are inherently interconnected, and together act as the cornerstone for all contemporary arts practices.

Nathaniel Stern reminds us that stories are simple, but precious – and, perhaps, a bit too rare in current critical discourses. And they are the “artful tactic” with which he proposes we mostly orient ourselves towards concern with the world, with humans, nature, and politics, with how we move-think-feel and act. Beautifully written and elegantly designed, Stern gives us in-depth narratives around about 10 artists and their artworks, over ten sections, like a gentle manifesto, moving between strong statement and rich description, thoughtful definitions and punctuated rhythms.

An “ecological approach,” says Stern, takes account of agents, processes, thoughts, and relations. Humans and non-humans, matter and concepts, things and not-yet things, politics, economics, and industry, for example, are all actively shaped in, and as, their interrelation. And “aesthetics,” in the context of this book, is five things: what can be said, shown, experienced, or practiced; what is said, shown, experienced, or practiced; how it is said, shown, experienced, or practiced; why it is said, shown, experienced, or practiced; and, most importantly, the stakes therein. It is, overall, a style of, and orientation towards, thought, and thus action.

Stern discusses, for example, #class (2010), where Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida hold events in Edward Winkleman’s commercial art gallery and at Art Basel Miami, where artists, critics, academics, dealers, collectors, and other participants analyze the way art is produced and viewed, while identifying and proposing alternatives and/or reforms to the current market system. Theirs is an intervention into, and discussion around, Integrated World Capitalism (IWC, Guattari) and its affects surrounding arts discourse, where money and individuals, spaces, places, practices, and their configurations and values, together, are all given due. They present a microcosm of IWC, facilitate community dialog around utility and humanity across online and real-world spaces, problematizing what is, in order to open new possibilities for consumption and production.

Sean Slemon’s Goods for Me

Or in Sean Slemon’s Goods for Me (2011) and other tree-based works, the artist pulls, breaks, or cuts down each of a tree’s components – large and small leaves, various-sized branches, the trunk and roots – and compartmentalizes them into individual frames, like a cabinet of curiosities. These sculptural installations, which also house live bugs and ongoing decomposition, articulate nature and culture as continuously moving – and thus changing – together, and over varying timescales. Here we have an immediately felt experience – what Alfred North Whitehead calls “self-enjoyment”and Eduardo Kohn calls an “aesthetic of the immediate”  – which also has us concern ourselves with the before and after, with the outside that both made for this occasion of experience, and where, with our help, it might be heading afterwards. This work argues that style and aesthetics, wonder and beauty, can have us think-with, and thus aim towards, a better future.

Other artist stories include those with Yevgeniya Kaganovich, Malcolm Levy, Furtherfield, the Overpass Light Brigade, Kathy High, Jessica Findley, Doung Anwar Jahangeer, and Wyatt Tinder. Together with Stern they give an experience of, and teach us to practice, ecological aesthetics.

Ultimately, Ecological Aesthetics is not about art – at least not exclusively. It asks us to continuously think- and act-with the world and its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman; to orient ourselves in ways that we might find and express what our environments, and what they are made of, want; and then to decisively help and continue those thoughts, wants, and actions along their way.

Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics, by Nathaniel Stern, is under contract with Dartmouth College Press and scheduled for release mid-2018. (Cover image: Aeolian Ride, created by Jessica Findley)