Network Ecologies: Documenting Depletion, Exhausting Exposure

By Soenke Zehle

Part of a flexible mode of accumulation, creative industries cannot be characterized simply in terms of a dematerialized network economy. Their growth certainly depends on a constant influx of resources, inscribing its development in the matrix of old North-South and new East-West conflicts over resource access and distribution. The sprawling recycling yards around Beijing are one of the nodes where such interdependencies become visible; the translocal depletion triggered by vast urban renewal projects are another. But the ecologies sustaining the creative industries also include anxious foreign policy exchanges debating the merits of a securitization of global resource flows, volatile financial markets thriving on resource futures, or the explosion of Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in raw materials extraction across the Global South. There is no creative industries without copper, of course, but a simple return to a politics of nature can neither identify the eco-social cost of development nor enable corresponding forms of political mobilization. Instead, ‘network ecologies’ intend to pose questions of ecopolitics in the broader context of an ethico-aesthetic framework.

The aim of network ecologies is not, therefore, a politics of nature that promises to ‘ground’ a creative industries discourse seemingly limited by its fascination with a new brand of post-industrialism. Nor are network ecologies needed to advance corporate accountability, resource efficiency, zero waste, or bans on the export of hazardous wastes. Above and beyond such measures (advocated not least by well-networked actors such as BAN, SACOM, or TEAN), network ecologies resituate the acts of (aesthetic, economic, environmental) mediation and translation involved – but frequently overlooked – in the development of a creative industries sector and corresponding discourses of policy and analysis.

One way to approach such an idiom is to think of network ecologies in terms of an engagement of the aesthetic dimensions of China’s development agenda. Arguably, the enormous scale of energy and urban renewal projects in China is underscored by political mobilizations of the sublime – a primary aesthetic device originating in Europe and seemingly migrating East. The romantic tradition of the sublime has been redefined or reworked in Europe, where the concept now tends to refer to a point of subjective fracture, at least in Euro-American idioms of cultural analysis. In China, the sublime seems curiously alive in the contemporary pursuit of a collective self-fashioning – a project in which the adoption of the creative industries framework and the commitment to a neo-industrial notion of ‘creativity’ merely seems to mark the most recent milestone.

To prepare for a discussion of the neo-industrialism of the creative industries (and possible points of convergence between creative industries research and ecopolitics), the formalist work of photographer Edward Burtynsky is notable because it takes the sublime as point of departure and reference, while presenting itself as an environmentally-aware contribution to a global conversation. The catalogue for Burtynsky’s exhibition on China opens with an artist statement where the photographer frames his work in both personal and political terms:

China is the most recent participant to be seduced by Western ideals – the hollow promise of fulfillment and happiness through material gain. The troubling downside of this is something that I am only too aware of from my own experience of life in a developed nation. The mass consumerism these ideals ignite and the resulting degradation of our environment intrinsic to the process of making things should be of deep concern to us all. I no longer see my world as delineated by countries, with borders, or language, but as 6.5 billion humans living off a precariously balanced, finite planet.

This artist statement is reassuring for viewers because they do not need to leave (or call into question) their western point of view: what we see in China’s rapid industrialization are the consequences of a mass consumerism we already know. The universalism of a global logic is echoed in the de-emphasis of the geographical specificity of the sites Burtynsky documents. And if the depletion zone is borderless, it does not matter where the most recent dispatches on the scale of environmental transformation are coming from. Everyone and everywhere is potentially affected by the production of contamination.

Consequently, Burtynsky does not frame his own task in terms of the difficulty of crossing borders, but writes as an artist whose growing environmentalist sensibility has turned him into a citizen of the world. And viewers are invited to share in this sensibility. So what does it mean to take this cosmopolitical gaze to China? Isn’t this what many environmentalists are doing anyway, transferring a generic critique of mass consumerism to China? And does not Burtynsky offer them an initially disconcerting, but ultimately comforting perspective ready for appropriation?

Burtynsky suggests that while we witness crisis (somehow the scale of the socio-ecological transformation he documents seems to make this designation inevitable), this act of witnessing relates to no obvious register of political articulation. This is frustrating, and while some say this strategy amounts to a quietist formalism that cannot engender a political response, one might also see a withdrawal that, in turn, makes visible a space of witnessing that is not coincident with a particular form of agency. Given the frequency with which his work is inscribed in a tradition of the sublime, yet at the same time criticized for its aesthetic one-size-fits all approach, one might nevertheless ask whether the sublime can be political, and if so, what kind of politics (or sense of the political) this might involve.

The development projects isolated for reflection in the photographer’s China series are not part of an industrialism as we know it. They are elements of a networked neo-industrialism that has already incorporated the arts, implicating them into a hybrid mode of production not easily mapped onto an industrial/post-industrial divide. Burtynsky does not only follow the reversal of a Euro-American tradition of landscape photography, or call attention to the historical association of the sublime with the Chinese landscape – a fascination that has contributed to the articulation of the sublime in the West. In its emphasis on the scale of environmental devastation, Burtynsky’s work also raises the question whether the vocabulary of the sublime can continue to give legitimacy to China’s model of industrialization.

From Wang Guowei to Li Zehou and Zhang Yuneng (I’m following Ban Wang’s reflections here), romantic concepts of the sublime as constructive (now translated as chonggao, ‘lofty and towering’) have played a central role in the aesthetic articulation of such a collective project. As a photographer who develops canonical images of the sublime (vastness, immensity) into an industrial sublime because he was ‘born a hundred years too late too late to be searching for the sublime in nature’, Burtynsky seems to at least offer an opportunity to engage this historical nexus: between the sublime and a neo-industrialism that stages itself (arguably with the help of a growing creative industries sector) as an aesthetic experience or, more accurately, articulates a sense of ‘aesthetic ganxing’ in a dialogue with contemporary philosophies of experience on the one hand and the grand narrative of historical materialism on the other.

Even if the photographer’s aesthetic does not, in the end, offer an idiom with which to engage the complexities of cultural difference, the suggestion that the sublime can no longer be invoked to legitimate the current course of development can perhaps initiate a political conversation. Crisis media often reduce the possible impact of images of social and environmental transformation to a mere invocation of the logic of accountability, itself the core concept of a politics of representation, and also – given the scope of the crisis – of a politics of emergency. But ecological crisis is not so much (or not only) the consequence of an objective assessment of ecological degradation (‘limits of growth’, ‘maximum footprints’, etc.) but of challenges to hegemonic conceptualizations of nature, to their administrative-technocratic institutionalization in specific regimes of accumulation and appropriation.

Whatever the ethico-aesthetic stakes of such an exchange may be, the strategies employed by Burtynsky do not signal a return to the messianism of an earlier generation of documentarists that coupled art and advocacy. Supported by a faith in the mechanics of enlightened public sphere interaction, such a coupling did not survive the exhaustion of exposure in a generalized state of environmental crisis. To document depletion is no longer to trigger corresponding forms of ecopolitical mobilization (it never was, perhaps, but what has also disappeared is the hope that it might – quite tellingly, Burtynsky expects no more than a conversation). Nor can media audiences rest assured that visual artists will jump into the breach as corporate and state actors limit the range of interventions historically associated with (and expected from) independent media. In some sense, these images are just there, circulating in commercial art markets, uncertain whether they can do more than celebrate their own aesthetic autonomy. This is the quietism of gallery-style eco-media, easily incorporated into an economy of culture that periodically rediscovers its taste for nature and creatively recycles historical modes of representing it.

But to the extent that visual art reengages non-fiction formats, it also opens itself to new practices of mapping, of counter-geographies that document new actors, new sites of intervention, new organizational forms. It is in such a context, perhaps, that the notion of 'network ecologies' can be most usefully mobilized, opening up the question of ecopolitics – and of the ecopolitical horizon of creative industries – beyond naturalist reflexes, but also beyond the economism in mainstream critiques of creative industries discourse and policy.

Soenke Zehle teaches transcultural literary and media studies at Saarland University and the Academy of Fine Arts Saar, Germany.