COMING TO TERMS
The arrival of the Anthropocene geological age represents a massive shift in our relationship to the planet. The science community has acknowledged that humans are now the largest geophysical force on the planet. As a species, as one species, our collective actions are radically shaping the environment around us – we’re leaving trace elements of modern society everywhere. Nature is not indifferent to us, and we are actively shaping the climate and the geological strata of Earth for millennia to come. The planet will still feel us long after we’re gone.
This fact is contradictory to many of the ways that the cultural, economic and political spheres function in societies around the world. Capitalist patterns of consumption are driven by ideas of infinite growth, infinite resources and a reliance on fossil fuels – which have far reaching effects in politics and governance. Culturally, a huge swathe of artistic output since at least the British Romanticists in the 19th century has positioned nature as separate and indifferent to humans. For those artists, nature was immense, sublime, a place of refuge from human concerns, a force that would act as it wanted – whatever humans happened to be doing in its presence. All of these ideas still underpin many of the ways we live and understand ourselves.
There is a logical gap between how we live and how we need to envision ourselves as a geophysical force. In order to respond to our climate crisis, we need a fundamental and structural change to our understanding of human activity on the planet.
The arts have an important role to play in all of this. When the conceptual tools, ideas and practices that are used to go about our daily lives contribute to the destruction of the most fundamental thing we need to survive as a species – a habitable planet – the arts and artistic practices provide us with the opportunity to disrupt and question the discourses we’re embedded in.
Obviously, art isn’t the whole answer to combat climate and geological change. Nor could any singular work solve all of our problems. Given the complexity of the issues though, we need the innovation and experimentation of the arts now more than ever.
Fashion and textiles is an especially interesting way of critiquing different ways that we contribute to climate change. What we wear and what we make are so closely tied to embodied experience and to everyday life, and can connect to broader questions around what we value, how we consume, and how we understand our relationship to nature. In an exhibition context, different garments, objects and artworks placed alongside each other allow for a fermentation of ideas and dialogue that aren’t always forthcoming or apparent in other sectors, or in the commercial fashion industry. It is also a space where we can imagine what our future may look like, or reframe the questions we’re asking about our exploitation of the planet's resources.
Arts, design and fashion practices, like those seen in ANTHROPOCENE, ought to be seen as one integral part in a much broader network of the things we need to do in the face of a looming climate crisis. We’ve bought on this new geological era, and now we’re the ones that need to deal with its fallout.
GUILT, ARROGANCE AND GEOMANTIC INTERFERENCE
When I think about the Anthropocene in terms of fashion and textiles, my first thought is its contribution. The excessive consumption, disposability and lack of quality are resource heavy, and we’re pretty much all aware of it. If most consumers are aware, finding a solution seems almost impossible, and while potential solutions never seem to stick, I had two recent encounters with rocks that triggered thoughts about artworks that lead me back to thinking about fashion and textiles in the Anthropocene.
The first was at Wilsons Prom. I found a rock and really wanted to take it home. I was in a national park, and you’re not supposed to remove anything, so I held onto it for the day rather than taking it home. Realising that I probably wouldn’t have appreciated the rock as much in over the years as I did in those six hours, I remembered Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, a book and research project by Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr.
Thompson and Orr spent time at the Petrified Forest in Arizona photographing petrified wood rocks from the park’s ‘conscience pile’—a pile of illegally removed rocks which had been returned by mail, along with apology letters detailing remorse, guilt and stories of misfortune. The park’s policies and the suggestion of direct consequences provided by the letters on display seem to have made an impression on the park goers, making them aware of the effects of their individual actions. The tired ‘if everybody took one…’ rhetoric doesn’t always resonate, and I wondered if this example of anti-testimonials could be translated into solutions to the consumption of fast fashion.
We all know fast fashion is unsustainable. There are no longer seasons—the amount of collections per year varies between brands, creating a further strain on resources. The fashion industry is the second largest polluter, behind the oil industry, and people around the world are working in appalling conditions for this to happen while clothing is donated after a few wears with allegedly 90% going to landfill. Documentaries that highlight these facts such as The True Cost receive plenty of media attention and tug on the heartstrings, but countless people return to these brands after a while, lured by a bargain. The data available can be overwhelming and make it hard for consumers to understand the role they play. If each fast fashion purchase is analogous to the removal of a rock from a national park, perhaps providing local data could create a direct association between cause and effect.
The second encounter happened in Rye. I was looking for a rock for a project, but the perfect rock was about five times bigger than I am, so I couldn’t really pick it up and carry it. I decided to climb up and look at it, studying the materiality of the rock. On my way up, I noticed chunks of broken glass and plastic detritus fused into the surrounding sandstone, feeling a pang of guilt on behalf of my species. Turning my attention back to the rock, I felt this overwhelming feeling of disdain, like it was mocking me for being so arrogant for thinking that the lifespan of the human species is remotely significant to a rock of that size. Considering geological time compared to human time, I remembered Yosenia Thibault-Picazo’s video, Craft in the Anthropocene.
Looking to the future of geology after excessive human consumption, the video work begins with a timescale, taking us from the Holocene to the point where geological forces are exerted on manufactured objects. New minerals are speculated, looking deep into the Anthropocene—human fossil, bone marble, aluminium nuggets, all due to our expansion and consumption, mined thousands of years from now. The video goes on to show hypothetical crafted objects with practitioners using new tools and processes to work with these new materials.
So if these anthropocentric materials are absorbed into the earth and allowed to transform over thousands of years, this implies a much smaller population and a lack of industry on the scale we know it. If the climate allows human life to continue for that long, the process of shaping nature could lead us to reconnect with it. Our short memories would probably lead us back to exploiting these new resources, perpetuating the cycle. Maybe the earth will continue to regenerate and form life, but while simultaneously bleak and hopeful, there is a certain conflict between overstating our importance and escaping blame for the current state of Earth. This way of thinking is a potential trap and disregards life on the planet currently. Rather than considering our inflated ego as a species, it’s time to take responsibility now, rather than avoiding it.
ARE CLOTHES MODERN?
In November 1944, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Benard Rudofsky curated and designed an exhibition, which asked the question Are Clothes Modern? The architect’s exhibition was not a style or fashion show. Its purpose was to ‘bring about an entirely new and fresh approach to the subject of clothes, … to take the blinders of tradition off modern eyes so they can see that certain conventions, accepted as inseparable from dress and therefore never questioned, are in fact useless, impractical, irrational, harmful and unbeautiful’ (MOMA, 1944). In 1947 Rudofsky went on to publish a book of the same title, within which he further contemplates the functionality of garments and the lacking modernist rationale of the fashion designer. It is arresting that at the dawn of the Anthropocene, Rudofsky has the perception to analyse the fashion industry for its consumption and waste within his writing; ‘Fashion’s most glaring aspect is waste. … As buying of goods is more and more becoming the favourite self-expression of the individual …’ (Rodofsky, 1947). Fast-forward 60 years and this is still a system we rarely notice, let alone critique. Garments are being consumed like never before and subsequently contributing to our overwhelming environmental footprint.
Since 1944 until just recently, MOMA has shown no interest in including a discussion of fashion in its exhibition program. When founder and former director of MOMA’s department of architecture, Philip Johnson was asked why, he responded that ‘Fashion is synonym with ephemerality; fashion is not something that is timeless, but is rather of the time, that expires after 6 months and modern means timeless’ (MOMA, 2016). Other major galleries such as the MET, V&A and, closer to home, the NGV and Bendigo Art Gallery have all enjoyed the popular success fashion exhibitions. These exhibitions have embraced fashion’s newfound status within the art world, a status that is based on the grounds that fashion is laden with cultural, social and aesthetic ideas. Sadly these blockbusters have a tendency to lose themselves in an infusion of luxury and desire, whilst shying away completely from the true cost of the fashion industry. It appears that galleries would rather position their fashion exhibitions closer to the category of art, rather than that of design—perhaps so that it is considered by the public as a mode of expression, rather than a result of industry? Advancing in parallel are contemporary artists who embrace the vocabulary of fashion and textiles to discuss concepts such as feminism, identity, gender, the body and identity.
Fashion’s persistent occupation of our public galleries provides a real opportunity to interrogate it via a design lens rather than a stylistic lens. The gallery should strive to spark challenging dialogues surrounding the fashion industry’s environmental, social and cultural responsibilities. In this context, fashion has the capacity to question whether there should be something more progressive than style and seasonal change, and can encourage creative thought and exhibit design solutions to the problems of modern apparel. When fashion combines social responsibility and design innovation, it becomes even more powerfully connected with the real world. Awareness of the Anthropocene is changing the priorities for research in design, as well as the role of the fashion and textile designer. They must be industrious in their use of resources, as well as design for and utilise new manufacturing techniques. If galleries are to exhibit fashion, they must take the blinders of complacency off contemporary eyes when engaging their audiences – to encourage fashion to become timeless, in an era when time for the environment is running out.
MOMA, (1944), Museum of Modern Art to open exhibition Are Clothes Modern? Retrieved from
MOMA, (2016), Items: Is Fashion Modern? | A Salon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SX1RUXCboM
Rudofsky, B. (1947). Are Clothes Modern? p. 227.