Monday, January 30, 2012

Sustainability Issues in Artmaking

Earlier this month I attended the College Book Art Association Conference (mentioned here). One of the panels - featuring my friends Mary Tasillo and Lara Durback - focused on sustainability issues in printmaking and book arts. The majority of information was presented by John Risseeuw. I've been meaning to write on it for a bit, but it's been a hectic month and I'm finally getting to it.

A primary point that John focused on is that most people, artists included, are not informed enough about what sustainability means. Assumptions in making studio practices more sustainable have ranged from "recycling more" to "using water-based materials." John was quick to point out that these do not necessarily meet sustainability standards, and in reference to "water-based materials," may not even be non-toxic, let alone sustainable.

Before I get bogged down in negativity, I think an important introduction to this topic to state the Five Pillars of Sustainability. They are, in no particular order: Ecological, Social, Economic, Cultural, Political, five interconnected and interdependent issues. The arts, of course, fall largely into the cultural, and John mentioned that when he approached a sustainability scientist about how such principles apply to artists, the scientist felt that they didn't, due to the cultural contributions.

Which probably led to the question he asked the audience during his presentation, "Is it fair to consider art in issues of sustainability?"

If so, John brought up issues that would have to be considered, such as:
What is the volume of ink (for art and regular computer printers) consumed worldwide? What are the annual percentages of pigments used in all paints/inks/dyes? What is the carbon footprint of art paper? What volume of polymer plates are consumed, and what are they made of exactly? What is the true environmental burden of digital culture? Can it be sustained? How?

One point John made regarded printmaking paper. If we are to consider such questions as those above, we must concern machine-mold paper that printmakers generally prefer, such as Fabriano. There are no machine-mould paper companies in the United States - all machine mold paper is made in Europe. However, paper companies import their cotton fiber from the United States. So the fiber is shipped across the ocean, transformed into paper, and shipped back, leaving an estimated large carbon footprint. A related issue that John did not touch on was that of bt cotton and its prevalence in the US cotton industry.

Local-made handmade paper might be a solution, if printmakers can keep papermakers in business and if everyone has a papermaker within a locality. And ideally, access to organic, non-GMO cotton (or some other material...flax, anyone?)

Polymer plates, for those who might not know, are a light-sensitive form of plastic plate that can be exposed to light and then rinsed out with water, leaving a relief image for printing. For clients of Boxcar Press,one purveyor of said plates, they can be shipped back and recycled, to an extent. However, when considered sustainability, John pointed out, plastic cannot be recycled more than twice. It is not an infinite cycle. He also added that the carbon footprint of shipping them back and forth would need to be considered.

John went on to discuss what exactly polymer plates are made of. He explained that the long-chain polymers for plates are a form of nylon. Nylon, which sounds innocuous enough, is made with benzene and other hazardous chemicals, and is a petroleum product with a large carbon footprint. When these plates are washed out, the chemicals are washed down the drain and into the water supply.

John often pointed out during this talk that we as humans just do not know enough about sustainability and long-term affects of chemicals both on ourselves and the environment. He didn't neglect to discuss issues of inks in his talk. Most people assume that if something is cleaned up with water, it's nontoxic. Acrylic paints, for example. Yet such paints contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, as a preservative.

Soy-based inks, which are often proposed an alternatives to oil-based, are not as sustainable as usually thought, as the rainforests of Brazil are being decimated to provide farmland to meet the need for soy. A final point concerning inks that John made, when considered volatile-organic compounds (VOCs), released into the air from oil-based inks and paints, that no ink will give off as much as driving a car to the studio will.

After his talk concluded, Mary pointed out that one resource that all artists have in relation to sustainability is time. "Slow down and prioritize," she advised. If artists can make time, heck, if all people can make time, sustainable solutions are feasible. I'm not going to argue that making time is an easy process, I as much as others always struggle for it. But it is something to consider, and probably fight for.

Sustainability is defined as, "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to be meet their needs." This post is by no means comprehensive of their discussion. A presentation like this one can cause someone to get bogged down in how complicated their artmaking choices can become. Or, they can see this knowledge as empowering, a launching pad for new ideas. It was clear that the information presented in this panel needs to shared and spread. The panel certainly made me feel like I understood my own impact much more clearly, and I am considering how it will affect my practice.

If I were to answer John's question, I think it is more than fair to consider the arts in relation to sustainability. The arts are part of and depend on community, both local and global, for support, encouragement, participation, and as audience. As part of that community, our artmaking decisions need to consider sustainability issues. Solutions might be tricky, difficult, expensive, or not always feasible, but they need to be considered.

To download an earlier version of John's talk, visit here.

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