I am navigating through a digital map of the United States, blotted with colored dots representing individual responses to the U.S. Census questions on race and ethnicity. Zooming into the Chicago region, it is possible to see sites like manufacturing and energy plants, critical junctures that link faraway ecosystems through the flow of resources. Embedded in this demographic and economic cartography, triangular icons distributed around the Chicago area and along the Mississippi River link to artworks and research projects on topics ranging from prairie restoration to nuclear technology to mineral extraction. The layered map is an archive of activities led by members of Deep Time Chicago, a group of artists, researchers and curators grappling with the Anthropocene: the idea that humanity is a dominant force driving deep climatic and environmental change today. The juxtaposition of census data, industrial sites and locales of environmental investigation stresses an important lesson of political ecology: the need for an intersectional view that accounts for the social inequities inscribed into human landscapes, and consequently the uneven impacts of environmental crises. The thematic and geographic scope of the activities on the map suggests a vast and flexible network of collaborators, mirroring the ecological issues they address.
This map, suggestively titled “Mapmaker: There is No Map,” is part of “Collective Communities: Actions on Environmental Crises” on view until March 27 on the website and storefront of the Weinberg/Newton gallery. The exhibition gathers work from three artist collectives that are focused on social and environmental justice: Deep Time Chicago; Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, a decentralized graphic artists’ network with members throughout North America; and Karrabing Film Collective, an Aboriginal media group from Northern Australia. The storefront installation includes a projection of “Mapmaker” on a loop, along with a window vinyl, flags and other objects by Deep Time members and a selection of print works from Justseeds artists. Online, visitors can navigate the map and view further works by the participating collectives, each leading to a universe of political ecologies. By displaying work these groups have done over time, often with further partners and collaborators, the exhibition not only addresses ecological crises, but invites reflection on how their collaborative approach contributes to the environmental justice movement.
“Collective Communities” is organized in partnership with Earthjustice, a national pro bono environmental litigation firm, following Weinberg/Newtown’s practice of connecting social justice organizations with artists to realize exhibitions and public programs. As director Nabiha Khan-Giordano explained over the phone, the gallery’s goal is to operate primarily as a platform for these partnerships, providing multiple access points for engagement with contemporary social issues. Seeking to bring more attention to climate change and environmental justice, the gallery reached out to Earthjustice’s recently established Midwest office. The idea to work with collectives and cooperatives arose in part from observing Earthjustice and Weinberg/Newton’s own collaborative approach. The result is an exceptionally multivocal exhibition, with collaborations at every level. Even the programming series, led by Earthjustice and their community partners in the Midwest, is accompanied by new commissioned illustrations made by Justseeds members, responding to issues like territory, water, housing and coal.
Earthjustice’s advocacy in the Midwest often echoes Deep Time’s practice, as both engage with situations of ecological crisis in the region. Deep Time emerged from the Anthropocene Curriculum program organized by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, an ongoing project encompassing seminars, discussions and exhibitions cultivating a global and cross-disciplinary network of practitioners devoted to contending with planetary anthropogenic transformation. In keeping with this goal, Deep Time Chicago and its members have organized public walks, lectures, publications and exhibitions. Activities like “Walk About It,” a series of guided walks focused on environmental history, engender a situated understanding of the deep effects of human ecological transformation, training the senses to perceive them in our surroundings and connecting abstract knowledge to embodied experience—what the group calls “firsthand science.” As “Mapmaker” shows, Deep Time’s fluid network of collaborators has helped gather an emergent community of researchers, artists and interested individuals seeking to make sense of humanity’s role as a geological agent. In this way, they participate in Chicago’s multifarious web of politically and ecologically minded practitioners, including urban farmers, arborists, foragers and activists in the food, environmental and Indigenous rights movements.
In their own ways, the practices of Justseeds and Karrabing Film Collective demonstrate the potential of collectivity and collaboration in approaching environmental crises. “Collective Communities” features selected protest posters and photographs from artists in Justseeds artists’ coop, who share access to a Pittsburgh printmaking studio and constitute a supportive and non-hierarchical network of peers invested in social justice causes. Karrabing presents “Day in the Life” (2020), the latest of the collective’s films representing their lives and examining the insidious structures of settler colonial power that affect their territories and communities. As an autonomous group, they share the resources and collaboration necessary in filmmaking, while reclaiming ties to their land and forging new expressions of indigeneity. In a very concrete sense, each of these collectives also produces social and intellectual communities that can together reimagine their participation in planetary systems and ultimately promote direct action.
From close-knit to widely dispersed, the artists networks in “Collective Communities” suggest an approach to understanding, communicating and intervening in the reality of environmental collapse. Mobilizing resources and the support and collaboration of peers, these groups devote artists’ sensibilities and intellectual tools to address complex, intersectional issues that link local circumstances to a planetary system—topics that inherently call for a multiplicity of viewpoints and interdisciplinary collaboration, and that urge a public, collective response. At the heart of artistic ecological practices is the notion that to come to terms with global transformation, and to turn this understanding into action, we must transform our collective perception. Promoting this change is a critical role for artists engaged in public research practices, experiments in expression; ultimately, in synthesizing and sharing new ways of perceiving our relationship to the Earth. To do so, in the words of Deep Time’s founding member Brian Holmes, is the intellectual and aesthetic responsibility of our times. (Cecília Resende Santos)
“Collective Communities: Actions on Environmental Crises,” Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 688 North Milwaukee, through March 27.