Environmentalism and the arts

A discussion with Hunter Vaughan

| Senior Scene Editor

Picasso is well known for his Blue Period, but can contemporary art sustain a Green Period? On Wednesday at 4 p.m., speakers from Washington University and the local community will meet to discuss the relationship between the arts and the environment. Those who attend will participate and guide the discussion. Student Life met with Hunter Vaughan, a lecturer in Film and Media Studies, to discuss the issue, particularly in its relation to film.

Student Life: What can an attendee expect from the colloquium?

Hunter Vaughan: The Environmentalism and the Arts Colloquium is an opportunity to gather scholars and artists from diverse areas of the arts and humanities in order to discuss the intersection between our fields and environmental studies.

It will be fairly informal and focused on promoting interaction [among] those who attend and wish to participate in the conversation. I will represent the Film and Media Studies program, and we are also fortunate enough to have Pannill Camp from Performing Arts, Hannah Roth from Architecture, Robin Verhage-Abrams from Textile Design, Natalie Yates from Landscape Architecture, and local artist Jenny Murphy, founder and executive director of a wonderful community arts program called Perennial. Each speaker balances a scholarly and educative interest with active participation in the arts, so we are all exploring how theory and practice might be arranged best to enable individuals—ourselves included—to develop environmentally conscious approaches to creative expression. We also hope to emphasize the fact that environmental study belongs in every discipline, not just in “environmental studies” courses.

SL: There’s a split between directors who heavily favor analog film and those who praise digital, though each has an environmental cost. What’s the proper attitude for a director to take when considering what sort of film to use? More generally, what’s the proper balance between sustainability and creative vision? Or is there another issue behind the scenes here?

HV: Tough question, with a catch-22 we can’t yet wrap our heads around. While analog film generates great waste and chemical pollution, digital media produces enormous amounts of hardware waste that, because it costs a lot to recycle responsibly, we ship instead to poorer or less developed countries, where entire villages sprout up over the scavenging and salvaging of metals, workable parts and even personal information (credit card details, secure government documentation, you name it) from our digital waste. This is achieved through the hazardous use of chemicals that physically destroy the people using them and eventually pollute the earth and water of these “digital dumping grounds,” already leading to terrible health conditions and deformities for the generation being born today. It’s a nightmare. So what should we do: stop making computers? Stop making movies? That is an option—we could just stop making stuff altogether, but that seems hardly likely since “production” and “growth” and “progress” are the benchmarks of our civilization. And whether there is a “proper” attitude for a director or artist to take is so hard to say and, ultimately, subjective—I have strong views on this, but this forum is not about where I personally draw the line between creative freedom and ethical responsibility. Sure, it would be nice if American cinema produced fewer pointless movies about blowing things up and more progressive films about social issues, but that is antithetical to consumer culture and the ideology of capitalism.

SL: On April 21, The New York Times published “As Consumers Cut Spending, ‘Green’ Products Lose Allure.” Is ‘green’ art similarly threatened? Will film production companies always insist on the cheapest production possible, regardless of the environmental impact?

HV: This is the central crux of the problem! No industry will do anything that hurts profits; however, profit margins have been driven by myopic, quick-gain models. Short-term plans haven’t cared much about long-term effects, but now an entire civilization is having to reconcile itself to the fact that, at some point, gas will run out; at some point, water will run out. And, while this may not scare companies in and of itself, what does scare them is this: As they run out, these resources become more expensive to use. We are on the cusp today of realizing that radical changes need to be made to our industrial and cultural modes of production; what we require is, 1) political activism and organizational efforts to convince the old guard that, when the old ways have been let go, they will still have a place, will still have jobs, will still have a livelihood; and, 2) innovations proving that sustainable practices can be as cost-efficient and profitable as wasteful practices. Hollywood studios are no different; while Hollywood is certainly concerned about its public image, it makes its decisions based on economics. But, as natural resources become more expensive and the economy slows, studios have started to push for more cost-efficient sustainable practices: reusing sets and props, solar-powered transportation on the lots, productions that generate a minimized carbon footprint. It’s important to demonstrate how these strategies can help a studio—like any other company—minimize cost and maximize profit.

The colloquium is free and open to the public. Edison Theatre will host the event.

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