Time to Rethink Business as Usual

Michele Guieu | December 29, 2020 | Leave a Comment

Michele Guieu Planetary Limits

Planetary Limits (detail)
Digital composition (not intended to be printed)

When the epidemic officially hit, and immense fires were still ravaging Australia, I was in Twentynine Palms for an art residency, enjoying a peaceful solitude, and working on a large-scale installation in the Mojave desert: “Exponential”.

michele guieu exponential installation 29 Palms
Photo courtesy Michele Guieu © 2020

Exponential Installation
Desert Dairy Residency, Twentynine Palms
Found objects, twine. 

I installed “Exponential” inside and outside a decaying, old structure on the property where I was working. On the inside of the structure, I created a fragile web using a thin thread (the only material I bought for this installation) to represent the complex and fragile system we live in.  A few weeks later, a disruption on a massive scale rapidly unfolded, and the confinement in the US and elsewhere in the world started. Today, more than nine months later, the pandemic’s rippling effects are still being felt in daily lives across the world.

This disruption is a chance to take a step back and have a broader conversation about the consequences of disruptions and the necessity to change our relationship with the natural world if we are to sustain ourselves as a society. Earth is more than a disposable ensemble of resources. This time is a chance for everyone to understand the relationship between the pandemic, extreme fires, biodiversity loss, deforestation, ocean acidification, the rise of inequalities, exponential use of natural resources, and extreme weather events. Recycling and buying less plastic is necessary, but we will have to do vastly more if we want to get a chance to live on a habitable planet in the very near future.

Photos courtesy Michele Guieu © 2020

As COVID19 was showing us how our system can be dangerously disrupted in a short time, and as the confinement started, I thought about ways to overcome the isolation we were in and to share everything I had learned before the pandemic. The fact that one event could jeopardize our very complex civilization’s fragile balance suddenly became more understandable to the people around me. And this provided an opportunity to engage others in the conversation about our system’s fragility and how we live on our planet.

What's Next for Earth

What’s Next for Earth Instagram page
From upper left to lower right, art by:Michelle Montjoy, Cristian Pietrapiana,
Mercedes Uribe (2 images), Laurence Malherbe, Addy Lyon,Lotte Van De Walle,
Nancy D Lane (MAHB article), Priyanka Rana.

My art project “What’s Next for Earth” was born from the desire to connect artists, seize the opportunity to reflect on this unique time, and address themes focused on the human predicament. At first, it was a gamble when I launched the first art call on Instagram about Earth Day 2020, with only two followers of the project’s new account. But little by little, the contributions started to trickle in, showing an interest from artists from around the world. I was encouraged to continue and launched more art calls. What’s Next for Earth has proposed nine themes to its submitters: Earth Day, Quarantine Discoveries, Inner Change, Convergence, Resilience, How Are You Doing, The Human Predicament, Planetary Limits, and Interconnected — our current call. 

Through What’s Next for Earth, I am striving to drive greater awareness of our predicament. Each call contains links to videos, podcasts, and publications that relate to the current theme to help submitters think about, and understand, the multi-crisis we face. Important information that states the facts as they are.  Many artists have sent messages of gratitude for creating this project, in great part because they learned new information about our predicament and are part of an important, worldwide conversation.

We have to rethink our society’s norms and the standard operating procedures as we move forward, which is evident within the art community over the last year. This period of challenge has obligated artists to rethink what it means to show art and where.  We have the virtual space, and, although far from ideal, it offers the possibility to share art on an accessible platform.  

To head to a more sustainable future, some things must cease to exist or radically change, and a new “normal” must emerge.  It is not easy to rethink everything. I recognize that.  Even for artists, it is important to think about alternatives to the old standard of galleries and museums as we see them — as the standard venue for showing art.  We have to find new ways to interact and share what we do. New ways to collaborate.

Photos courtesy Michele Guieu © 2020

As an artist, I have become highly conscious of the materials and products I use in making art. Many years ago, I began shifting from producing art pieces that use paint and wood frames to creating art using the materials I have or find around me. Recently, I stumbled upon photos of an ensemble of large sculptures addressing the topic of climate change.  The sculptures were made of fiberglass. The irony was immediately obvious to me.  And it reinforces the reality that we are all consciously aware of the problems we face but have yet to truly change how we operate, both personally and professionally.

I am not naive, but on some level, I am hopeful for, and looking forward to, a shift in perception from quantity to quality as a measure of success. Having bigger and bigger houses and filling them up is not a measure of success compared with spending time with loved ones. We need to change the paradigm. We need to make people want degrowth. Not make them afraid of it. 

“For the first time in my life, I am witnessing this reversal: the economy, the obsession with its growth, has jumped from its pedestal, it is no longer the measure of relationships nor the supreme authority. Suddenly, public health, the security of citizens, an equal right for all, is the only and imperative watchword.” 

Erri De Luca, Italian novelist and poet

There is a possible future that does not include meaningless consumption and an endless pursuit of hypothetical happiness through the accumulation of stuff. There are limits to what we can do on this planet, and technologies will not change that. It is wonderful to see signs in state or national parks that say “leave no trace.” But why do we have this mindset only when it comes to parks and not to the rest of the planet? What about the extraction pits we leave all over the world that deface the surface of the Earth? What about our plastic that fills the ocean, our pollution coming from oil consumption that fills the air, or the depletion of soils around the world due to the use of fertilizers? Why do we so heavily emphasize leaving no trace in one context, but then so readily abandon this mindset in every other context? 

Photos courtesy Michele Guieu © 2020

Shelter in Place Day 27
Cyanotype and digital composition (not intended to be printed)

If we want to shift to a generalized “leave no trace” mindset, we are going to need radical changes, not bandaids and greenwashing from our governments. It is upon all of us to help the world move forward, but if, as citizens , we do not have effective choices, then how can we make a difference? Is it OK that companies continue to inundate groceries stores with plastic packaging when we know that only 12% is recycled in the US? 

As an artist I feel compelled to put all my efforts in conveying this message. 

As we reach the closure of 2020, and as the vaccination against COVID19 has started in many countries, my hope for 2021 (and beyond) is that, as a result of this unfortunate (but not so surprising) disruption, people have a more durable sense of the potential for disruption and can intimately appreciate what will happen if we fail to act on climate change. It has been challenging to truly engage those around us, to speak to them about the urgency of climate action, the fragility of our system, and what a disruption would look like.  At least this last year is good segue for all of us to have a more inclusive and ongoing conversation on the effects of climate change, where we all have a shared understanding of our system and interdependence. Individualism cannot solve our problems. Only collective work, our combined intelligence, will, and solidarity, will allow us to go forward. 

Michele Guieu 2020

When the sky is blue again, 
Let’s not forget about this.
2020 is screaming at us
to rethink “business as usual”. 

Digital composition (not intended to be printed)
The photo was taken September 9, 2020, in Sunnyvale, Bay Area, 
during the fires raging through California, Oregon, and Washington.

Michele GuieuOriginally from France, Michele Guieu is an eco-artist and an art educator who lives and works in the Bay Area in California. Her practice focuses on resilience in a time of unprecedented climate crisis. Michele is the MAHB Arts Community coordinator. She serves on the Education Committee at Montalvo Arts Center and on the Arts Committee at Alliance for Youth Achievement in East San Jose. Her work have been shown nationally and internationally including: INSERM Marseille (France), La Timone Hospital (Marseille, France), MAC 2000 Paris (France), Tech Interactive (San Jose, US), Santa Cruz Museum of Art (Santa Cruz, US), De Saisset Museum of Art (San Jose, US), San Diego City College Gallery (San Diego, US), San Diego Art Institute (San Diego, US). 

Michele’s website 
Michele’s Instagram page.
What’s Next For Earth’s Instagram page
What’s Next for Earth on the MAHB Arts Community page.

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.