Fotograf Magazine

Elemental – Folk Art, Folk Politics

The essay collection Elemental (2016) was released under the auspices of the Gaia project, an independent initiative currently based in Merseyside, England, which is predominantly focused on educating young and old alike about the ecological dire straits currently faced by the peoples of the world. This collection of essays brings together some of the more relevant artists and thinkers currently operating “in that poetic space where Art becomes Ecology and where Ecology becomes Art.” Taken at face value, the book offers some illuminative and inspirational writing and photography, but, when looked at more closely, it also serves to pinpoint some of the more latent characteristics of today’s discourse on the issues of climate change, ecology, and the role of art in the Age of Anthropocene. Reading the contributions, one is repeatedly reminded of the tumultuous relationship between artistic production and political agency. Do the numerous communal projects described in a number of the included essays really carry any substantial weight in the struggle against the exploitative and economically stratified system of contemporary capitalist production which the book attempts to critique?

As theorist Jodi Dean famously quipped, “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens,” and this statement is equally applicable to the staging of ritual-like affirmative events, such as those described in the contribution by Beverly Naidus, or in Basia Irland’s essay “Ice Receding / Books Reseeding”, in which she describes a “toast to the Oconee River” – a gathering of some one hundred people who, upon launching Irland’s truly very clever ice sculptures into the waters toasted, “May you always flow, and may you always flow clean.” Of course there is nothing wrong with staging such initiatives, which, in Irland’s words, “provide a basis for cooperation, dialogue, and sharing information and inspiration,” but these transitory events may equally be seen as examples of what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams term “folk politics” – meaning a politics of “localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism.” They are often not effective on a systemic level, nor do they necessarily constitute a mode of praxis which would be explicitly critical of unchecked over-consumption and overproduction – two of the main driving forces behind the world’s ecological peril. The question remains whether one’s political sensibility may remain “content with establishing small and temporary spaces of non-capitalist social relations, eschewing the real problems entailed in facing foes which are intrinsically non-local, abstract, and rooted deep in our everyday infrastructure.” (Srnicek and Williams, MAP)

The answer is a resounding “no”, and it was a pleasure to read some of the more politically involved pieces in the collection, such as T. J. Demos’s polemic on the need for a positive legal framework which would address the rights of nature, or the collage of essays offered by the World of Matter collective, who, among other things, are preoccupied with the plight of the world’s surplus populations and the staggering injustices that some ecological activists must face. These essays facilitate the reader’s attempt to cognitively map the disheartening state of the biosphere through such actions as contextualising the discussed art pieces in a manner directly engaged with a broader state of affairs and with the macro-forces which work to perpetuate it.

The collection is, in this sense, indicative of two strands of today’s ecological activism. On the one hand, there is the local, horizontal focus on affirmative action and the cultivation of a mutually interconnected polis. On the other, there are attempts at fostering change on a systemic, often institutional, level. It is at this pivotal point, buried deep in the history of the human species, that a means of change at the level of institutions and governments is needed and, unfortunately, only very few pieces in the Elemental reader engage in this type of critical discourse, often opting for purely subjective and local forms of political agency.


Vít Bohal



DEMOS, T. J., IRLAND, Basia, NAIDUS, Beverly, LITTLE, Ruth, HEIM, Wallace, HALEY, David, COLLINS, Tim, GOTO, Reiko, LYNES, Krista Genevieve. Elemental: An Arts and Ecology Reader. Gaia Project Press, 2016, 208 p. ISBN 978-0993219207.